The chimera of British anti-Semitism (and how not to fight it if it were real)
Norman G Finkelstein on the accusations of anti-semitism against Corbyn's Labour Party.
The current hysteria engulfing the British Labour Party resolves itself into a pair of interrelated, if discrete, premises*: Anti-Semitism in British society at large and the Labour Party in particular have reached crisis proportions. If neither of these premises can be sustained, then the hysteria is a fabrication. In fact, no evidence has been adduced to substantiate either of them; on the contrary, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. The rational conclusion is that the brouhaha is a calculated hoax—dare it be said, plot?—to oust Jeremy Corbyn and the principled leftist politics he represents from British public life. But even if the allegations were true, the solution would still not be to curb freedom of thought in the Labour Party. At its worthiest, the Left-Liberal tradition has attached a unique, primordial value to Truth; but Truth cannot be attained if dissentients, however obnoxious, are silenced. Given the fraught history of anti-Semitism, on the one hand, and its crude manipulation by Jewish elites, on the other, an objective, dispassionate assessment could appear beyond reach. Still, it must be attempted. The prospect of a historic victory for the Left might otherwise be sabotaged as, thus far, Corbyn’s supporters, whether it be from fear, calculation, or political correctness, dare not speak the name of the evil that is afoot.
The degree of anti-Semitism infecting British society has been the subject of numerous polls over a sustained period of time. These surveys have uniformly, consistently, and unambiguously concluded that anti-Semitism (1) has long been a marginal phenomenon in British society, infecting under 10 percent of the population, (2) is far less salient than hostility to other British minorities, and (3) is less pronounced in the UK than almost anywhere else in Europe. One might suppose that settled matters. But in 2017 the British Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) published a study that purportedly refined conventional wisdom by measuring the “elasticity” of anti-Semitism: that is, not just the percentage of confirmed anti-Semites, but also the prevalence of stereotypes that stigmatize Jews. It found that, whereas a mere 2-5 percent of the British population can be reckoned anti-Semites, fully 30 percent harbor at least one anti-Semitic stereotype.
Before parsing the study’s data, a couple of truisms warrant recalling. First, a generalization is something that is held to be generally true; it evidently allows for exceptions. Although Engels the mill-owner generously subsidized his impecunious comrade, it didn’t prevent Marx from generalizing about capitalist “vampires.” Were it not for the heuristic value of broad generalizations, the discipline of sociology would have to close up shop. Its mandate is to map and predict the behavior, on the whole and in the main, of the multitudinous groups and subgroups crosscutting society. Second, every national/ethnic group is subject to generalizations: “The French are,” “The Italians are,” “The Germans are,” . . . These generalizations range from more to less flattering to downright vicious, from more to less valid to outright false. It also ought to be obvious that if most positive generalizations raise no hackles, then neither should most negative ones. The fact that stereotypes of Jews run the full gamut is scarcely cause for alarm; it would be surprising were it otherwise.
In fact, the JPR does not sound an alarm. Whereas some anti-Semitism-mongers have latched onto its findings, the researchers themselves sought to answer a different question: “Why [do] the levels of anxiety found within the UK Jewish population about the scale of contemporary antisemitism appear to be so far out of sync with the low levels of antisemitic sentiment observed among the general UK population?” The study posits that, if British Jews express deep anxiety even as anti-Semites are going the way of the dodo, then it springs from the wider “diffusion” in British society of anti-Semitic stereotypes: “This [diffusion] goes a considerable way towards explaining contemporary Jewish concerns about antisemitism.” But isn’t that a hasty inference? If residents of Salem, Massachusetts, experienced deep anxiety about witches; if Americans experienced deep anxiety about Communists; if White southerners experienced deep anxiety about Black rapists; if Germans experienced deep anxiety about a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy; and if, for that matter, Christians experienced deep anxiety about Jewish ritual child-murderers—if an anxiety is widespread, surely it doesn’t necessarily, or even probably, follow that it is a rational fear. It could just as plausibly have been induced by powerful social forces standing to benefit from a deliberately contrived paranoia. Or, in the case at hand, it could spring from Jewish hypersensitivity—in light of historical experience wholly understandable—to a phantom anti-Semitism (see Woody Allen’s Annie Hall).
The JPR study compiles a seven-item roster of stereotypes. If they are designated anti-Semitic, according to the researchers, that’s because Jews find them hurtful: “Some ideas are known to resonate with Jews as antisemitic, and this study adopts a Jewish perspective on what constitutes antisemitism as its starting point.” But a generalization can plainly be both hurtful and true, as in truth is often a bitter pill to swallow. If the hurtful generalization is true, then—inasmuch as the epithet anti-Semitic signals an irrational animus—it cannot be anti-Semitic. Some 20 years ago, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote a book purporting that the Nazi holocaust originated in an ingrained German predisposition to murder Jews. Were it true, his thesis could not fairly be labeled anti-Teutonic: “There are no prima facie grounds for dismissing Goldhagen’s thesis,” this writer observed at the time. “It is not intrinsically racist or otherwise illegitimate. There is no obvious reason why a culture can’t be fanatically consumed by hatred.” Even as Germans might recoil at this depiction of them, indeed, find it singularly offensive, if the facts vindicated it, then it couldn’t be said to be rooted in irrational malice. As it happened, the evidence adduced by Goldhagen didn’t support his thesis, but that’s a separate matter.
Consider now several of the stereotypes assembled in the JPR study to gauge the prevalence of British anti-Semitism:
Jews think they are better than other people. Between their secular success, on the one hand, and their theological “chosenness,” on the other, Jews themselves believe in their group superiority. Isn’t that why they kvell over the Jewish pedigree of the seminal figures of modernity—Marx, Einstein, and Freud—as well as 20 percent of Nobel laureates? What a Jewish child inherits is “no body of law, no body of learning, and no language, and finally, no Lord,” eminent Jewish novelist Philip Roth once observed, “but a kind of psychology: and the psychology can be translated in three words—‘Jews are better.’” A prominent Jewish-American scholar shamelessly gushed: “Jews would have been less than human had they eschewed any notion of superiority altogether,” and “it is extraordinarily difficult for American Jews to expunge the sense of superiority altogether, however much they may try to suppress it.” A popular American publication, in an article under the headline “Are Jews Smarter?,” pondered the genetic evidence. Lest this be pigeonholed as a peculiarly American-Jewish conceit, prominent Anglo-Jewish author Howard Jacobson speculates that at the heart of anti-Semitism lies Gentile ressentiment of Jewish smarts: “Freud argues that Jews . . . over-evolved their mental and intellectual side. . . . We all have our arrogances and that is a Jewish arrogance. But the idea of the Jew as over-evolved mentally is one of the reasons humanity is in a constant argument with us. We gave the world ethics, morals, the mental life, for which the physical world will never forgive us.” If it’s anti-Semitism to believe that “Jews think they are better than other people,” then most Jews would appear to be infected by this virus.
Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes. Voluble Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban is supposed to have quipped “There’s no business like Shoah business.” But when this writer published a little book in 2000 entitled The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, it evoked a torrent of ad hominem attacks. “It is perhaps too easy to write off a critic like Finkelstein as a self-hating Jew,” Jonathan Freedland opined in the Guardian, but that didn’t deter him from traversing this squalid path: “Finkelstein does the anti-Semites’ work for them,” indeed, is “closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it.” Unsurprisingly, Freedland is now among those leading the charge against Corbyn’s alleged anti-Semitism. Be that as it may, nearly two decades have elapsed since the book’s hostile reception, and by now its argument no longer even raises eyebrows as it has passed into a cliché. Whether it be to justify another war of aggression or another massacre of civilians, whether it be to market another schlock Holocaust film or another schlock Holocaust novel, Jews have not hesitated—on the contrary—to wrap themselves in the sacred mantle of Jewish martyrdom. A book by former speaker of the Israeli parliament Avraham Burg decrying Israel’s fixation on the Holocaust casually refers to “the Shoah industry.” It “converts piercing pain into hollowness and kitsch,” Burg observes, and extenuates Israeli crimes: “American Jews, like Israelis, are . . . raising the Shoah banner high to the sky and exploiting it politically . . . . All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah, and therefore all is allowed—be it fences, sieges . . . food and water deprivation. . . . All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.” Is Burg guilty of anti-Semitism?
Jews have too much power in Britain. The three richest Brits in 2016 were Jewish. Jews comprise only .5 percent of the population but fully 20 percent of the 100 richest Brits. Relative both to the general population and to other ethno-religious groups, British Jews are in the aggregate disproportionately wealthy, educated, and professionally successful. These data track closely with the picture elsewhere. Jews comprise only 2 percent of the US population but fully 30 percent of the 100 richest Americans, while Jews enjoy the highest household income among religious groups. Jews comprise less than .2 percent of the world’s population but, of the world’s 200 richest people, fully 20 percent are Jewish. Jews are incomparably organized as they have created a plethora of interlocking, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing communal and defense organizations that operate in both the domestic and international arenas. In many countries, not least the US and the UK, Jews occupy strategic positions in the entertainment industry, the arts, publishing, journals of opinion, the academy, the legal profession, and government. “Jews are represented in Britain in numbers that are many times their proportion of the population,” British-Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer notes, “in both Houses of Parliament, on the Sunday Times Rich List, in media, academia, professions, and just about every walk of public life.” The wonder would be if these raw data didn’t translate into outsized Jewish political power. The Israel-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute rhapsodizes that “The Jewish People today is at a historical zenith of wealth creation” and “has never been as powerful as now.” It is certainly legitimate to query the amplitude of this political power and whether it has been exaggerated, but it cannot be right to deny (or suppress) critical socioeconomic facts. When virtually every member of the US Congress acts like a broken Jack-in-the-Box, as they give an Israeli head of state, who has barged into the Capitol in brazen and obnoxious defiance of the sitting US president, one standing ovation after another, surely it is fair to ask: What the hell is going on here? Were it not for the outsized power of British Jews, it’s hard to conceive that British society would be interminably chasing after a hobgoblin. True, although fighting anti-Semitism is the rallying cry, a broad array of powerful entrenched social forces, acting on not-so-hidden agendas of their own, have coalesced around this putative cause. It cannot be gainsaid, however, that Jewish organizations form the poisoned tip of this spear.
It might still be asked, But is this “too much” power? Consider these facts. Jeremy Corbyn is the democratically elected head of the Labour Party. His ascendancy vastly expanded and galvanized the party’s ranks. Corbyn has devoted a lifetime to fighting racism; like eponymous labor organizer Joe Hill, where workers strike and organize, it’s there you’ll find Jeremy Corbyn. By British and even global leadership standards, he cuts a saintly figure. On the opposite side, mostly unelected Jewish bodies have dragged Corbyn’s name through the mud, slandering and defaming him. They have refused to meet with Corbyn, even as he has repeatedly extended olive branches and offered substantive compromises. Instead they issue take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums. As it happens, Jews overwhelmingly do not support Labour, even when the head of the party list is Jewish (Ed Miliband in 2015). Nonetheless, these pious-cum-pompous communal leaders do not find it unseemly or even amiss to dictate from afar and from above internal Labour policy. This writer’s late mother used to muse, “It’s no accident that Jews invented the word chutzpah.” The transparent motive behind this cynical campaign is to demonize Corbyn, not because he’s a “fucking anti-Semite,” but because he’s a principled champion of Palestinian rights. However, Corbyn’s candidacy is not just about Palestine or even the British laboring classes. It’s a beacon for the homeless, the hungry, and the hopeless, the despised, the downtrodden, and the destitute everywhere. If Corbyn’s traducers succeed the glimmer of possibility he has held out will be snuffed out by a gang of moral blackmailers and extortionists. Is it anti-Semitism to believe that “Jews have too much power in Britain”—or is it just plain common sense? (It is, to be sure, a question apart and not one amenable to simple solution how to rectify this power inequity while not impinging on anyone’s democratic rights.) Still, isn’t it anti-Semitic to generalize that “Jews” have abused their power? But even granting that a portion have been manipulated or duped, it certainly appears as if British Jews in general support the anti-Corbyn juggernaut. If this indeed is a misapprehension, whose fault is it? The tacit message of the unprecedented joint editorial on the front page of the major Jewish periodicals was: British Jews are united—Corbyn must go! Is it anti-Semitic to take these Jewish organizations at their word?
The upshot is, the JPR study does not prove the “elasticity” of anti-Semitism in British society. A couple of the incendiary propositions it tests do arguably indicate anti-Semitism—“The Holocaust is a myth,” “The Holocaust has been exaggerated”—but only an infinitesimal portion of Brits (2 and 4 percent, respectively) subscribe to them. Anti-Semitism of course exists in British society but the JPR has stretched the evidence beyond the snapping point. There’s no ground to doubt the conventional polling data that put its incidence at under 10 percent of British society.
Even if the JPR study withstood scrutiny, it still wouldn’t prove that anti-Semitism threatens British Jews. Amidst the nauseating nonstop spectacle of solipsistic, narcissistic, self-pitying navel-gazing, a reality check is in order. Were popular stereotypes plotted along a spectrum from benign to malignant, most anti-Semitic ones would fall near the benign end whereas those of truly oppressed minorities would cluster at the opposite end. Yes, Jews must endure the reputation of being stingy, pushy, and clannish—but Muslims are profiled as terrorists and misogynists, Blacks are despised as chronically lazy and genetically stupid, and Roma/Sinti are loathed as dirty beggars and thieves. Nor do Jews suffer the losses attending actual victimhood. How many Jews qua Jews have been refused a job or flat? How many Jews have been shot dead by police or railroaded into jail? Whereas being Black or Muslim closes doors, being Jewish opens them. If whites occupying seats of power discriminate in favor of other whites, and men occupying seats of power discriminate in favor of other men, it would be surprising if largely successful Jews didn’t discriminate in favor of other Jews. Not only is it no longer a social liability to be Jewish, it even carries social cachet. Whereas it once was a step up for a Jew to marry into a ruling elite family, it now appears to be a step up for the ruling elite to marry into a Jewish family. Isn’t it a straw in the wind that both President Bill Clinton’s pride and joy Chelsea and President Donald Trump’s pride and joy Ivanka married Jews? Making the rounds of the British talk show circuit, self-anointed authority Barnaby Raine grimaces that “there’s a very, very serious problem of antisemitism across British society.” (Except for the fact that he is a “proud British Jew” and was once called a “kike,” it’s hard to make out the basis for his confident pronunciamentos.) Bertrand Russell once wrote of Trotsky, “He is very good-looking, with admirable wavy hair; one feels he would be irresistible to women.” Something similar can be said, more or less, of Barnaby the Bolshevik—or, at any rate, of the ideal to which he aspires. The question then comes down to this: Would he prefer to be ugly and bald or to be Jewish in Britain today? It’s not a trivial or tongue-in-cheek query. The fact is, personally as well as professionally, these physical stigmata are ten thousand times heavier a cross to bear than to be born a Jew. If the nonproblem of anti-Semitism ranks a “very, very serious problem” in the UK, then the British people are most fortunate. In fact, the Corbyn candidacy would be redundant as they will already have reached the Promised Land.
“Those who cannot remember the past,” George Santayana famously warned, “are condemned to repeat it.” In light of the catastrophe that befell them during World War II, shouldn’t Jews assume and prepare for the worst and can they really be faulted for hypervigilance? Even if the indicators are for the moment faint, it can’t be denied that it might happen here. If the availability of resources, time, and energy were infinite, such an argument could carry conviction. But they aren’t. “Economy of time,” Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” Whatever time is expended in one direction means less time expended in other directions. Can it seriously be contended that, in the face of the multiple domestic and global crises wracking British society—from homelessness, healthcare, and unemployment to Brexit, nuclear proliferation and climate change—anti-Semitism looms large on the list of urgent matters demanding immediate attention; that the finite resources at Britain’s disposal to fight here-and-now matters of life and death should instead be rechanneled to combating nebulous apocalyptic future scenarios? But the truth is, Jewish elites do not for a moment believe that anti-Semitism is a burning issue. If they truly feared that it posed a clear and present danger now or in the foreseeable future, they wouldn’t be shouting from the rooftops that Corbyn was a “fucking anti-Semite.” For, if the UK was awash with closet anti-Semites, then, logically, broadcasting this accusation would hand Corbyn free publicity as it would be dulcet tones to the ears of potential voters. Far from damaging him, its diffusion could only facilitate Corbyn’s victory and pave the way for a second Holocaust. On the contrary, Jewish organizations know full well that vilifying Corbyn as an anti-Semite would drastically reduce his appeal, as anti-Semitism resonates only among assorted antediluvians, troglodytes, and fruitcakes. In other words, the irrefutable proof that Corbyn’s pursuers don’t believe a word they’re saying is that by labeling him an anti-Semite they hope and expect to isolate him. However, as the accusation is manifestly a red herring, it’s also possible that the current hysteria will pass most people by entirely, not because they are unconcerned by anti-Semitism but because it hardly occurs to them as an issue at all. If the controversy has an effect it will be restricted to exacerbating divisions in the Labour leadership and perhaps also adding to a more general perception that the stories promoted by mainstream media are fake news.
17 August 2018
To be continued
* The author is grateful to Noam Chomsky, Maren Hackmann-Mahajan, Deborah Maccoby, Colin Robinson, and Jamie Stern-Weiner for several references and critical input.
 L. Daniel Staetsky, Antisemitism in Contemporary Great Britain: A Study of Attitudes towards Jews and Israel (Institute for Jewish Policy Research: 2017).
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York: 1998), pp. 6-7.
 Charles Silberman, A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today (New York: 1985), pp. 78, 80, 81 (quoting Roth).
 New York magazine (24 October 2005).
 Liam Hoare, “Short-Listed for the Booker, Jacobson’s New Book is Judenrein,” Times of Israel (21 September 2014).
 Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (New York and London: 2000).
 Jonathan Freedland, “An Enemy of the People,” Guardian (13 July 2000).
 Avraham Burg, The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes (New York: 2008), pp. 5, 17, 41, 78.
 “Jewish Brothers Top Britain’s 2016 Rich List,” Times of Israel (24 April 2016).
 Sandy Rashty, “Wealthiest Jews in Britain Were Born Abroad, Super-Rich List Reveals,” Jewish Chronicle (15 May 2014).
 David Graham et al., “Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census,” JPR (2007), pp. 5-7, 75, 100. Cf. Simonetta Longhi and Lucinda Platt, “Pay Gaps across Equalities Areas: An Analysis of Pay Gaps and Pay Penalties by Sex, Ethnicity, Religion, Disability, Sexual Orientation and Age Using the Labour Force Survey,” ECHR Research Report 9 (Winter 2008); National Equality Panel, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK: Report of the National Equality Panel (2010), pp. 102, 132, 149, 227-29, 390; Karen Rowlingson, “Wealth Inequality: Key Facts,” University of Birmingham Policy Commission on the Distribution of Wealth (2012), p. 19.
 Hamilton Nolan, “The Forbes 400: A Demographic Breakdown,” Gawker (23 September 2010); David Masci, “How Income Varies among US Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center (2016).
 “Jews Make Up 19% of Forbes 200 World’s Richest List,” Jewish Business News (7 March 2018).
 Anshel Pfeffer, “UK Anti-Semitism Report Highlights Disturbing Trend—among British Jews,” Haaretz (14 January 2015).
 Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, 2030: Alternative Futures for the Jewish People (Jerusalem: 2010), pp. 18, 19.
 Norman G. Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (New York: 2012), pp. 45-84.
 “Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress Interrupted by Standing Ovations,” Telegraph (3 March 2015; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KMVhb57RqI).
 David Rosenberg, “A Plea to Jeremy Corbyn from a Jewish Socialist Who Shares the Same Desire for Social Justice,” Public Reading Rooms (August 2018; https://prruk.org/a-plea-to-jeremy-corbyn-from-a-jewish-socialist-who-shares-the-same-desire-for-social-justice-and-human-rights/).
 Len McCluskey, “Corbyn Has Answered Concerns on Anti-Semitism, But Jewish Community Leaders Are Refusing to Take ‘Yes’ For An Answer,” HuffPost (16 August 2018).