Tuesday, October 25, 2016

UK: Is It Just Me or Was That Anti-Semitic? A British Jew’s Constant Question

Alona Ferber @ The Forward:
A few months ago, here in London, I was at a party talking to a man who worked in artificial intelligence. We were discussing what a robot-filled future might look like, but when he found out I was Jewish we got onto the subject of Jews.

The AI researcher admired Judaism because it was the truest religion, he said, and Jews really know how to look after their own. “Do you think,” he asked me, “That Israel could become the most powerful country in the world?” With its eight million inhabitants, the Jewish state was too small and not important enough, I said. “I do,” he replied, smiling slightly as if he were in on some sort of secret. “Where there is a will and a plan…”

One of the charges leveled against British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in a recent parliamentary report on anti-Semitism is that he “does not fully appreciate the distinct nature” of contemporary prejudice against Jews. Anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era, the report explains, is a slippery thing: “Unlike other forms of racism, anti-Semitic abuse often paints the victim as a malign and controlling force rather than as an inferior object of derision, making it perfectly possible for an ‘anti-racist campaigner’ to express anti-Semitic views.”

I moved back to London in January, after 10 years living in Mexico and Israel. Before my return to the United Kingdom, I steeled myself for “those conversations” about Israel, for arguments and moral disapproval, or for meeting uncritical advocates for whom the Jewish state can do no wrong. But those first months were punctuated by something that had never before been my experience of the country I think of as home. I didn’t really want to be thinking it, and I certainly didn’t want to say it out loud. Perhaps I was as confused as Corbyn. Was it actually, really, anti-Semitism?


For me as a Jew, this has all seemed personal, and I have felt caught between the news agenda and a number of uncomfortable personal interactions. There was an occasion when a man behind the counter of a café found out that my husband and I are Israeli, and seemed to immediately jump to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” just like the AI researcher. “Do you know who else is a Jew? The guy who owns all the media, you know, what’s his name, the Australian.” He was referring, of course, to Rupert Murdoch, who happens not to be Jewish. I told him as much, but he insisted we stand there as he Googled the answer on his phone.

The reasons these encounters caused me discomfort were subtle. They weren’t like reports about Labour removing Hebrew from Corbyn’s Passover message lest it sound too “Zionist,” party members tweeting about Hitler and big-nosed Jews, or Jewish Labour MPs receiving vile abuse online. Like a woman sensing that a man’s eyes have lingered a little too long on her body, I wasn’t sure whether I was just being paranoid or difficult, or whether I had a point. Perhaps the AI researcher was just interested in Jews and I had mistaken curiosity for prejudice. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch happened to be the first name that popped into the mind of the man at the cafe.

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