The weaponisation of anti-Semitism and the denial of its existence are both real problems although the former is more widely recognised than the latter. They might appear to be opposites but they are really two sides of the same coin.
Since these terms are not widely understood I should define them first. By weaponisation I mean the cynical use of the charge of anti-Semitism to discredit political opponents. In Britain the term is most often used by leftist activists who allege right wing Labour leaders and Israel’s supporters weaponise anti-Semitism against them.
However, there are many other examples of the charge. For instance, leftist media figures recently used the allegation in an attempt to smear a National Conservatism conference in London in May. In many cases though the use of the anti-Semitism charge is implicit rather than explicit. For example, when anti-vaxxers, Brexiteers, Donald Trump and many others are accused of being Nazi or fascist the implication is often that they are anti-Semitic. In any event weaponisation is extremely dangerous as it risks discrediting the fight against anti-Semitism.
I should emphasise that both left and right are guilty of relativising anti-Semitism at times. So, in that respect at least, I am not making a political point.
By denial I mean the refusal to recognise the existence of anti-Semitism even in cases when it should be clear that it exists. Blindness is perhaps a better term as denial implies a conscious rejection. More often those who fail to acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism have such a narrow conception of what it means that they fail to recognise it.
The clearest contemporary example of blindness to anti-Semitism is the unhinged form that anti-Israel activism generally takes. Such activists often see Israel not just as a state with problems but as nation playing a central role in a global system of oppression. Sometimes this manifests itself in the ostentatious use of Palestinian symbols. For example, they often display the Palestinian flag on their social media profiles even though they generally detest national symbols.
Such activists can reasonably be accused of anti-Semitism blindness. They cannot see that, even though Israel has flaws, presenting it as the epitome of evil is itself a form of anti-Semitism. For them opposing Israel is not just a stance on in important foreign policy question but a central part of their political identity. It is what I have called the anti-imperialism of fools in previous posts.
Such activists also tend to have a narrow conception of what constitutes anti-Semitism. In their mind the typical anti-Semite is a white, male, extreme right winger. They fail to see that anti-Semitism can take radically different and often apparently progressive forms.
From the perspective outlined above it should be clear that weaponisation and blindness to anti-Semitism are not mutually exclusive. For example, in the case of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership both weaponisation and denial were happening simultaneously. The old established leadership faction was happy to use any means available to smear its opponents in the sordid internecine battle over Labour. At the same time leftist Corbynites were blind to the anti-Semitism in their midst.
So far I have focused on the present and recent past but the blindness to anti-Semitism goes much further back into history. That affects both the way history is understood and the discussion that take place in the past too.
For example, there is little consideration of anti-Semitism’s central role in the emergence of Nazism in Munich after the first world war. It is not covered, for instance, in Volker Weidermann’s prize-winning Dreamers. The honourable exception, completely departing from the crowd, is In Hitler’s Munich by Michael Brenner.
It also seems clear from what I have read so far that Nazism’s opponents did not generally take anti-Semitism seriously in the inter-war period. Tackling it was never one of their priorities. It was only after the war, with the benefit of hindsight, that radicals emphasised how much they opposed anti-Semitism.
Winding back to the present, even Holocaust education can involve a degree of blindness to anti-Semitism. Of course it cannot be ignored completely but it is often downplayed. For example, a key lesson many draw from Holocaust lessons in schools is that many other groups were also killed by the Nazis. While this is factually true it downplays the centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazi ideology and the systematic nature of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Both the weaponisation of anti-Semitism and the blindness to it should be resisted. Weaponisation only makes it harder to tackle anti-Semitism when it does exist. Blindness means that its existence can be denied even when it is clearly in evidence.
Developing a better understanding of anti-Semitism is key to resisting both of these retrograde trends.
Photo: "Official portrait of Jeremy Corbyn 2020 (cropped) (cropped)" by Richard Townsend is licensed under CC BY 3.0.