Sniffing for Antisemitism

Should the stated feelings of Jews regarding antisemitism never be questioned?

Sniffing for Antisemitism

I’m just old enough for my first experience of antisemitism to have taken place online. Nine years old, or thereabouts; a strange time. Only a few years earlier, I’d discovered to my horror that the Royal Family weren’t even Jewish, that the Queen worshipped idols and ate pork. That was a blow. It takes a long time for a child to fully realize that everyone else is not the same as they are, and the world is not a mirror. Back then, I’d spend my strictly measured hour of daily screen time on AOL chatrooms, pretending to be someone a few years older and far less earnest than I really was, performing for people who were probably doing the exact same thing. And one day, my friend-substitutes started talking about beating up Jews.

This wasn’t antisemitism in any kind of fully articulated sense. These kids didn’t have any theories on banking or Zionism, what happened to the Khazars, or the lineage of Cain. It was far more basic than that. Jews were different, and kids learn to pick up on difference very quickly, before they just pick on it. They didn’t know that a Jew was hiding among them. In fact, they didn’t seem to fully understand the difference between Jews and Muslims, but the consensus was that they all smelled of curry, and they all needed to go.

What I remember far more clearly than the incident itself is the first time I told that story, several years later, at a Jewish summer camp. Forty or so fidgeting kids had been invited to sit in a circle after sunset, and share our most upsetting experiences of antisemitism. There weren’t many: we were almost exclusively from the greener and more professional swathes of north London, insulated from every horror except the most fundamental ones, the ones that really bite. But I had a story. The problem was that as soon as I started talking, it felt facile. This was antisemitism we were talking about, the same thing that produced the death marches and the gas chambers—and nothing had really happened to me.

So I started describing how alone I felt, as Jew-hate welled up through my computer screen; how isolated and scared it made me feel; how suddenly I realized that the vast unspeakable it could happen all over again. I don’t remember how I really did feel. Chances are I felt what you feel every time your primary narcissism gets squeezed: not even hurt, just confused.

But I do know that when I described my feelings that night, I was not telling the truth.

This is why, when I hear politicians say that the stated feelings of Jews regarding antisemitism should never be questioned or delegitimized, I know that they, too, are not telling the truth.

Antisemitism was not a major political issue when I was a child; it was something private and ugly that we had to deal with and squabble over alone. Things are very different today. Jews are murdered in synagogues and supermarkets by right-wing reactionaries, and a frantic media-political discourse buzzes in everyone’s ears, insisting that antisemitism is insurgent on the left, that our enemies are Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Keith Ellison, and Ilhan Omar. And this has to be true; these people have to be antisemites—because Jews are saying so.

Eighty-six percent of British Jews believe Corbyn is an antisemite; thousands of Jews were publicly outraged by Omar’s observation that a well-funded Israel lobby might be involved in lobbying. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, after being criticised for her failure to stand in solidarity with her colleague, “when the main defence is rooted in telling others how to feel—especially when you’re not from that community—it’s not solid ground.” Jewish people said they were hurt by Omar’s comments, therefore there must have been something wrong with them, otherwise they wouldn’t have been upset—and who are you to dispute this?

The idea is that Jewish people will always know something about antisemitism that non-Jewish people don’t; that we have a heightened sensitivity for the stuff, that we can sniff it out with our big noses, and therefore when a Jewish person describes something as antisemitic, they’re speaking from a special position of authority. This simply isn’t true.

You can’t outsource your faculties of judgement to a haphazardly constituted group of ethnic others—not least because such groups, being based on the fairly messy terrain of ascriptive identity, will never be homogenous, and never entirely agree. And despite the efforts of a few self-appointed Sanhedrins, Jews still tend to be more non-homogenous than anyone else. We’re not ontologically equipped with an understanding of what words and concepts are considered to be antisemitic. This has to be learned, in the same way that identity in general is not innate but learned. Members of many racialised groups will come to understand what racism is by direct experience: it’s the taunt that accompanies oppression. For Jews, it’s different. None of the monstrous antisemitic ‘tropes’ that leftists supposedly peddle have any relation to the general Jewish experience. I have never been accused of secretly controlling the media or influencing politicians, of blood libel, or of responsibility for the Crucifixion. (I have, bizarrely, been accused of being part of a shadowy banking dynasty, but that’s another story.)

Still, 86% of British Jews do believe that Corbyn is an antisemite. But it’s entirely arguable that this is because it’s what they have been taught. When I first encountered antisemitism, I didn’t know what it was or how to categorise it. Later, I learned what was expected of me: to see this as a threat, not just to my narcissism, but to my life. This structure is easy to exploit. The fears of a minority group have been instrumentalized for partisan political gain (see, for instance, Trump’s fairly spurious declaration of a Jewish exodus from the Democratic party); there’s a concerted political attempt to link the subjective trauma of finitude, the feeling of being different from other people and achingly mortal, to anti-Zionism, and then to the left in general. In the UK, at least, the operation has been fairly successful, but that doesn’t mean the paranoias it deploys are justified. If there is an antisemitic trope in mainstream discourse, it might be this: the absolute refusal to believe that Jews could ever be the victims of a media conspiracy.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that there’s any such thing as a unified and cohesive phenomenon that can be called ‘antisemitism,’ existing on both the left and the right, like a weed sprawling over both sides of a fence. The antisemitism that kills forms part of a specific fabric of political delusions: the reactionary conception of the world as a conflict between competing races comes first, along with all its associated fantasies and resentments. It’s hard to see what these ornate and Gothic conspiracy theories have to do with playground bullying based on arbitrary markers of difference, or leftist monomania on Israel, never mind the entirely innocuous politics of Corbyn or Omar. They’re simply not on the same spectrum—unless, that is, you’re willing to let racism become something entirely internal and subjective.

But this is what’s happening, and what supports all this is a profoundly impoverished view of subjectivity. The foundational assumption of psychoanalysis—a consummately Jewish science—is that there is something there, in the psyche, which is capable of being analyzed: taken apart and examined, probed and questioned until it gives up its meaning. (We’ve been at it for years; Kabbalah is just an attempt to find the unvoiced unconscious of a text.) What we’re in now is a post-psychoanalytic age. Now, as Ocasio-Cortez puts it, what we feel is primary, and the worst possible sin is to tell others how they ought to be feeling about things, or even to ask why they feel the way they do. Psychoanalysis understands that we’ve been told how to feel all our lives, and while the process never works perfectly, this education in how to be a subject is fed into all our affective experiences. It’s not that, as the right-wing taunt goes, “facts don’t care about your feelings”: feelings are the precipitate of (social) facts. And if our politics lead us to alter some of those existing conditions, then some of the feelings they give rise to will have to be questioned as well.

Sam Kriss is a writer and dilettante surviving in London.