Brown and Leos-Urbel on Anti-Semitism

Cherie R Brown & Amy Leos-Urbel, Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern? ( 2018)

I wasn’t intending blog about this little book. Its publisher is identified only as the US-based project Jews and Allies: United to End Anti-Semitism, and it has something of an in-house feel: that is, it reads as if it’s intended for readers who are already engaged with the project or are considering engaging with it, a kind of summary of its theoretical base.

Then I listened to ‘Why does anti-semitism cut across the political spectrum?‘, an episode of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’s thinkfest podcast The Minefield, and realised that the pamphlet talks with remarkable clarity about things that felt like unresolved paradoxes in the podcast.

The Minefield‘s guest was Deborah Lipstadt, the woman who took on Holocaust-denier David Irving in real life and was the main character in the Mick Jackson–David Hare movie Denial. Deborah laid out longstanding distinguishing features of anti-semitism – of the stereotyping of Jews: it has to do with money (the myth that all Jews are rich), power (the belief that somehow Jews wield enormous behind-the-scenes power), intelligence (as in wiliness). Unlike most other oppressed groups, Jews don’t escape being targeted by achieving social status and wealth: anti-semitism is generally imagined by the perpetrators as ‘punching up’.

This booklet offers an interesting insight into this phenomenon, by describing anti-semitism as cyclical in nature. Here’s the description of how the cycle has worked historically:

Living as a minority without a homeland for nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people had to rely on the good will of rulers in each country where they settled. In exchange for a promise of protection for the Jewish community, a few Jews would serve as money lenders, tax collectors or other pubic officials. The majority of Jews who settled in each country remained as impoverished as the general population. Jews were also prohibited from owning land and barred from joining craft guilds, which would have allowed them to integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours.

When the people of the area were ready to resist the oppressive conditions of their lives, they were encouraged to direct their hatred and resentment at the Jewish community – rather than at their actual oppressors, the ruling classes. […] After the violence subsided, the surviving remnants of the Jewish community would be ‘apologised to’ officially in the original country or welcomed in new places of exile as martyrs. They would be given some assistance to rebuild their communities, and once again a few Jews would be encouraged to assume the same roles in relation to the rulers. […] In exchange, the whole Jewish community would be given temporary protection, and the cycle of toleration followed by attack would begin again.

(pp 3–4)

In the part of the cycle when Jews look safe and some are in position of apparent power, explicit anti-semitism bubbles away in the margins, or is limited to dog-whistling. And so it’s often invisible or denied – and Jews get to be seen, sometimes even by themselves, as over-sensitive, paranoid, etc. And some are in fact set up to be the visible agents of oppression. (I’d just written that sentence when I turned on the television to see Josh Frydenberg uttering half-truths in his federal budget speech.)

This scapegoating mechanism is used by both right- and left-wingers. The booklet answers the question in its title by arguing, with evidence, that anti-semitism is regularly used to divide progressive movements.

There’s a lot more in the book. I got my copy through a chain of personal contacts. The imprint page gives an address for more information, and I assume copies for sale, as ircc@rc.org.

2 responses to “Brown and Leos-Urbel on Anti-Semitism

  1. As always – your choice of focus is of great interest – to me. In the current climate of Netanyahu and the treatment of Palestinians – where defence of Palestinians is being described as anti-Semitism – such a tract/essay/pamphlet – it appears – dispels the ugliness that the term has more recently been imbued with – by the fundamentalists – the US Protestant right and the more extreme of Zionists and their supporters. I am part of Jewish Voice for Peace and I am well acquainted with a range of Jewish writers who support most strongly the rights of Palestinians, arguing for a single state solution – reconciliation, and so forth – clear-eyed understanding of the injustices perpetrated by the undemocratic Israeli State against the former Arabs and others who have also lived in that space over the many previous centuries. Thank-you.

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