What is a “real” antisemite?

Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of anti-semitism.
Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of anti-semitism.
Image: Reuters/ Simon Dawson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Antisemitism is a strange form of prejudice. Rather than denigrating Jews as inferior, it casts them as maliciously superior. It’s a bias that’s as popular on the left as it is on the right. And whereas leftist politics dictates that something is offensive if the persecuted group says it is, those who otherwise claim to be progressive have a disturbing tendency to insist that, actually, antisemitism isn’t really a problem at all.

This pattern has been recently exemplified by the UK Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Earlier this year, Spectator magazine collected a list of 50 recent antisemitic incidents associated with the party, and barely a month goes by without someone in Labour making yet another prejudiced comment. Many of the offenders are still party members. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone said that a Jewish journalist was “just like a concentration camp guard” and that Adolf Hitler supported Zionism. Jackie Walker, former vice-chair of Corbyn-supporting organization Momentum, questioned why Jewish schools need security and complained that Holocaust Memorial Day wasn’t inclusive enough. Under Corbyn’s leadership, both received suspensions, but were not expelled from the party. Meanwhile, according to Walker, concerns about antisemitism within Labour are driven by Israel, the Tory party, and the right-wing press as a means to attack Corbyn.

Following on from this cycle of offenses and denials, the Labour party saw it fitting last month to create a new definition of antisemitism. Their resulting guidelines were promptly condemned by 68 rabbis, making it the first time ultra orthodox rabbis and progressive female rabbis have co-signed the same letter. In response, secular Jewish MP Margaret Hodge called Corbyn a “racist and antisemite,” and the Labour Party in turn launched a disciplinary inquiry into Hodge. Clearly, Corbyn believes he’s been falsely maligned.

But at what point does an indulgent attitude towards antisemitism become itself a symptom of prejudice? In other words, when can Corbyn—or anyone—be considered a “real” antisemite?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the nature of anti-semitism.

“Usually, prejudices are discourses of inferiority: women are less capable than men, sexual minorities are deviant and sinful, racial minorities are less capable,” says Eric Heinze, a human rights law professor at Queen Mary University of London and consultant on antisemitism for the London-based Media Diversity Institute. “The most powerful forms of antisemitism, including those deployed by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, are just the opposite. It’s that Jews are too clever by half, too powerful. Historically, antisemitism is the very first conspiracy theory.”

Jewish people provide a convenient scapegoat for the world’s ills, and so antisemitism persecutes Jews by insisting that Jewish people are the persecutors. As existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-semite would invent him.”

The fact that Jewish people are often indistinguishable from a majority-white population further feeds conspiracy theories: Antisemitism is the fear of the outsider passing as insider, the suspicion and hatred of an invisible network pulling the strings. This dynamic is obvious in tropes about Jewish people controlling capitalism, the media, and Hollywood, and feeds into attempts to blame all Jews for the actions of the Israeli government. The narrative, which views Jews as oppressors to be overthrown, also makes it a better fit for left-wing politics than most other forms of discrimination. Hence antisemitism has been called the “fool’s socialism.”

Because antisemitism is founded on the idea that Jewish people are uniquely powerful, the prejudice is often apparent in claims that antisemitism isn’t a concern or doesn’t exist. The antisemite views Jewish people as powerful villains, and so cannot concede that it’s possible for Jews to be victimized.

How does this apply to Corbyn? In one striking example, the Labour leader recently faced outcry for defending an overtly antisemitic mural in 2012. It’s theoretically possible, though implausible, that Corbyn didn’t realize the mural was antisemitic at the time. But, earlier this year, he had a distinctly apathetic reaction to the upset and anger caused by his comments. Though the original offense was egregious enough, his lack of concern showed a clear disregard towards Jewish people.

Corbyn has said that he can’t be antisemitic because he abhors all prejudice. But the notion that people can be prejudiced even without conscious, malicious intent is a key left-wing belief. Progressive politics asserts that prejudice is systemic, and that everyone has a responsibility to examine how they contribute to discrimination.

“Who intentionally would say that they’re on the side of evil? No one will say they stand up for the destruction of people,” says Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University. “It’s ridiculous to think that intentionality can ever be the defining element.”

To insist that a minority group is wrong about the prejudice they say they’re facing is a telltale sign of bias. “They [left-wing progressives] set up all these criteria that apply to every other group. Then they abandon the criteria when it comes to antisemitism,” Heinze says. “All of a sudden they’re doing what they’re condemning everyone else for doing against other groups.”

This double standard is at the core of Corbyn’s antisemitism. “If you ask me ‘Is Corbyn antisemitic,’ I come up with a blank,” says Heinze. “‘Is he antisemitic according to the left’s own understanding of what constitutes racism and discrimination?’ Then I say, categorically, yes he is.”

Denials, in other words, mean little to Jewish people when they’re repeatedly faced with antisemitic statements and behavior. And even the most sincere, earnest claims to egalitarianism do not protect against the rotting influence of antisemitism.

“Antisemitism is a politics of aggression against the wrong things. It’s a politics of deflection and untruth,” says Wisse. “It will never be able to solve the real and actual crises and problems of society. That’s why it’s very dangerous. It will always destroy its users.”