The Guardian and Howard Jacobson’s blindness to racism

The Guardian has commissioned an article, Let’s be clear – antisemitism is a hate apart, from Howard Jacobson. In his attempt to show that anti-Zionism is really a modern form of an ancient plaint, anti-Semitism, Jacobson’s literary talents seem to desert him. His arguments are wooden and stilted as his hackneyed phrases betray a poverty of imagination. 

How can one write about Israel without once mentioning the Palestinians? Israel is a state that receives the largest amount of aid of any country, despite its small population, from the United States. It is a state armed to the teeth, with nuclear weaponry, whose military has ruled over 4.5 million people for 50 years. Palestinians live in the same territory as 600,000 settlers, yet unlike them they are subject to a different legal system of Military Law. By any definition this is Apartheid. At the hundreds of checkpoints that cover the West Bank there are separate entrances for Jewish settlers and Palestinians, yet Jacobson has convinced himself that our reasons for opposing Israeli Apartheid is because of anti-Semitism!

Jacobson may be a distinguished novelist but there is nothing original in what he writes about anti-Semitism and Zionism. Jacobson offers us no special insights that cannot be gained from Israeli hasbara (propaganda). For Jacobson, criticism of the Israeli state can be explained by the fact that ‘in the matter of the existence of the State of Israel… all the ancient superstitions about Jews find a point of confluence. Apparently criticism of Israel and Zionism has nothing to do with land discrimination and theft, the underfunding of the Arab education sector, the Judaisation of areas of Israel where there are not enough Jews, extra-judicial executions, torture of children or house demolitions. It’s all because we are anti-Semitic!

Jacobson though is but the latest Guardian sock puppet. In the past year it has run a series of articles about ‘anti-Semitism’ with the aim of portraying Labour under Jeremy Corbyn as a party in the grip of a tsunami of anti-Semitism. Articles it has printed include The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and AntiSemitism and Why I’m becoming a Jew and why you should, too which is a rewrite of an earlier article in the Jewish Chronicle Hatred is turning me into a Jew by Nick Cohen; Why Jews in Labour place little trust in Jeremy Corbyn by Joshua Simons; Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem; and My plea to the left: treat Jews the same way you’d treat any other minority by Jonathan Freedland; Antisemitism is a poison – the left must take leadership against it by Owen Jones, which he rewrites annually. The Guardian has refused to print articles rejecting the idea in the above articles that anti-Zionism is a modern form of anti-Semitism.

Howard Jacobson made his name as a comic novelist. It is a genre that he should have stuck to because there is little that is amusing or revealing in his discursions into anti-Semitism. Jacobson pronounces that the Chakrabarti Report into racism and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was ‘a soft inquiry’ and ‘was stillborn’. Instead of explaining what it is he disagreed with in the Report he insinuates that the elevation of Shami Chakrabarti to the House of Lords was the payment of a bribe. The Chakrabarti Report was a serious attempt to investigate the spurious anti-Semitism allegations of the Labour Right, the Tory press, and the Zionist movement. Chakrabarti found that the Labour Party was not overrun by anti-Semitism. 

Indeed it is one of the curious aspects of the anti-Semitism allegations that no hard evidence has ever been produced. The one serious attempt to investigate these allegations by Asa Winstanley How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis showed that the evidence for the allegations was spurious, fabricated and in the specific case of Oxford University Labour Club, set in motion by a former intern, Alex Chalmers, for BICOM, Britain’s main Israeli propaganda organisation.

Howard Jacobson’s theme is anything but novel. It is that anti-Semitism is ‘unlike other racisms’. It ‘exists outside time and place and doesn’t even require the presence of Jews.’ In response to the Russian pogroms of 1881, Leo Pinsker, the founder of the Lovers of Zion, likewise wrote that ‘Judaephobia is then a mental disease, and as a mental disease it is hereditary, and having been inherited for 2,000 years, it is incurable. [Pinsker, Autoemancipation, Berlin 1882 p.5.]

The logical conclusion is that if anti-Semitism cannot be explained then it cannot be fought. It doesn’t even require Jews. It exists in the realm of the metaphysical like all those other racial myths. After all ‘when Marlowe and Shakespeare responded to an appetite for anti-Jewish feeling in Elizabethan England, there had been no Jews in the country for 300 years.’ Jacobson is wrong, there were Jews in England but the memory of the Jews and the roles they performed in society had not disappeared. It is all too easy to characterise Marlowe and Shakespeare’s productions as anti-Semitic when they simply reflected not only popular perceptions but the actual role that Jews played in medieval society.

As Abram Leon, the Trotskyist leader who died in Auschwitz observed:

‘Zionism transposes modern anti-Semitism to all of history and saves itself the trouble of studying the various forms of anti-Semitism and their evolution.’.. [Abram Leon, The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation, p. 245. Pathfinder, New York, 1970]

Anti-Semitism was seen by Zionism as a permanent feature of Jewish relations with non-Jews, an immutable fact beyond history and time itself. In June 1895, barely six months after the framing of the French Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfuss for treason, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism wrote that ‘In Paris …I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all I recognise the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism. Since anti-Semitism was a natural phenomenon, it could not be fought. You might as well fight the tides.

Jacobson’s claim that anti-Semitism is a unique form of racism is a truism. All forms of racism have unique characteristics but anti-Semitism is not a unique form of racism. There has always been racism against groups who were seen as better off and prosperous, be it the Huguenots, the Biafrans, the East African Asians or Koreans in the United States. The Chinese of South-East Asia were known as the ‘Jews of the East’. Racism against the Roma is just as persistent and deadly as anti-Semitism if not more so. 

Jacobson tells us apropos of anti-Zionism that ‘The presence of a Jew in any movement no more guarantees it to be innocent of antisemitism than guilty. The same can be said, with somewhat more justification of Zionism. Anti-Zionism was a product of Jews not non-Jews. It is noticeable that far-Right and fascist groups are some of the most ardent supporters of Zionism. As Ruth Smeed, a spokeswoman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews admitted ‘‘The BNP website is now one of the most Zionist on the web – it goes further than any of the mainstream parties in its support of Israel. Members of the English Defence League combine the Hitler salute with flying the Israeli flag at its demonstrations. 

Far-Right European parties such as Geert Wilder’s Dutch Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party and Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale all combine virulent Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with support for Zionism, without a murmur of concern from Jacobson and the witch finder generals of Zionism. Was it not Pastor John Hagee, President of Christians United for Israel who informed us that Hitler was a hunter sent by God to drive the Jews to Israel? Although John McCain was forced to disavow Hagee when he ran against Barak Obama in the 2008 Presidential election this did not stop Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League praising Hagee. ‘We are grateful’ Foxman said, ‘that you have devoted your life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel,” 

Nor was Foxman alone. One of the leaders of the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign is the neo-con editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard.  Pollard sees no contradiction between attacking Corbyn for ‘anti-Semitism’ and defending Michal Kaminski, former MEP for Poland’s far-Right Law and Justice Party. Kaminski opposed, in 2001, a national Polish apology for the burning alive of up to 900 Jews by fellow Poles in the village of Jedwabne in 1941. Kaminski suggested it was the Jews who owed the Poles an apology. Pollard however insisted that Kaminski was ‘one of the greatest friends to the JewsbecauseFar from being an antisemite, Mr Kaminski is about as pro-Israel an MEP as exists.’

Far from anti-Zionism being a disguise for anti-Semitism, it is Zionism which has most in common with anti-Semites. From Edouard Drumont, the leader of the anti-Dreyfussards to Alfred Rosenburg to the BNP’s Nick Griffin, anti-Semites saw no contradiction in supporting Zionism.

Jacobson and the Guardian have great difficulty in accepting that criticism of the State of Israel is not on account of some ancient hatred of Jews but because it is a state that has racism woven into its DNA. A ‘Jewish’ state in the context of settler colonialism means a Jewish supremacist state. Whereas Britain being a Christian state is a constitutional adornment, in Israel Jews have real privileges over non-Jews. Israel is a state where the ‘demographic question’ is the engine of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. [see When will Israel stop seeing Palestinians as a ‘demographic threat?‘]

Jacobson is not above deploying his literary skills in order to misrepresent his adversaries. He says that according to anti-Zionists ‘Jews have only one motive in labelling anti-Zionism antisemitic and that is to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. This assertion defames Jews’. Well it would if it were true but it ignores that foremost amongst these defamers are Jews themselves!  It is the Zionist movement, Jewish and non-Jewish, who use ‘anti-Semitism’ as a weapon to deflect criticism of Israel. Just as anti-Semites use the term ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’ interchangeably so too do Zionists.

Jacobson says that ‘Zionism originated as a liberation movement’. Perhaps he could enlighten us as to when Zionists first described themselves so? When Herzl founded the Zionist movement he wrote to Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist after whom Rhodesia was named asking ‘‘how then do I happen to turn to you since this is an out of the way matter for you.  How indeed.  Because it is something colonial.’ [Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p.1,194].  In ‘Rebirth and Destiny’ [New York 1954] David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, refers throughout to colonization and colonies. This was because, in the first half of the last century, colonialism was seen as a good thing. Today’s zeitgeist demands that colonialism is transformed into national liberation. 

Jacobson says we need to talk of Zion. I disagree. We need to talk about Zionism and what it has done to the Palestinians. The Holocaust is no excuse for the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Tony Greenstein

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2 thoughts on “The Guardian and Howard Jacobson’s blindness to racism”

  1. Thank you for this very thorough examination of the Guardian’s embrace of anti semitism as a tool to attack Corbyn. Also the dissection of Jacobson’s nonsense is well timed. However there is one area you did not touch on and that is the women columnists who also use their zionism as a weapon and are given carte blanche to attack anti Zionists. They are an important element in the Guardian’s stable and should have equal exposure with the Freedlands, the Cohens and the Joneses

  2. When you say ‘Britain being a Christian state is a constitutional adornment’, this is correct today but it was not always so. People were publicly burned alive if they held the wrong religious beliefs.
    Britain has evolved into a largely secular state but the basic structures are still in place if ever there were sufficient public support to reimpose the old wicked ways of the past.
    It may not be what Churchill had in mind when he said it but his truism that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is as true now as it was when he uttered those words.
    Vigilance has to come in many forms and has to be applied to many areas, including religious and racist supremacist ways of thinking – which definitely includes zionism.
    The victims off zionism include not only Muslim Palestinians but also Christian, Druze and secular Palestinians, as well as non-zionist, orthodox and secular Jews.
    Surely, this is the point that many British and Israeli Jews are overlooking.

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