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A dull sort of ache

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Essay | 12 minute read
Keith Kahn-Harris on the modern anti-semitism game he doesn't want to join

Sometimes I feel like my life story is missing something. When I recount my experience of growing up as a Jew in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, there seems to be an absence at its heart. The best I can do is this:

I was out swimming in the deep end the local baths, aged 10 or thereabouts, when another kid swam up to me. He asked me “where’s your Jew cap?” and “is your Jew cap in the post?”. Then I swam away.

That was that. An unnerving experience, but not a violent one. Mildly abusive, but not the cause of life-long trauma.

I lack the stories that define the autobiographies of Jews across the centuries. My childhood innocence was not shattered by an SA brownshirt assaulting my father and making me watch as he was forced to scrub the streets. I was never asked on the playground whether I had horns or killed Christ. My family was not forced to flee the country in a hurry, taking only what we could carry. I’ve never felt the faux-polite sneer of the English upper-class gentleman that I was ‘too pushy’.

That isn’t to say that other British Jews of my age didn’t experience antisemitism much more viscerally than I did. For one thing I didn’t wear identifiably Jewish clothing (although the sharper-minded antisemite, like the boy in the pool, could have decoded the more subtle visual cues that marked me out). Nor was my life confined to an insular, embattled, orthodox enclave. Inevitably, those Jews who stick out are always in the frontline.

But neither were my family and I merely Jews by descent; we were not invisible, nor assimilated, and we were certainly far from ashamed. We lived a comfortable middle-class suburban life in a neighbourhood filled with others like us. I attended a private school where nearly 50% of the pupils were Jewish. We were heavily involved in our Reform synagogue and our lives pulsated with the rhythms of Jewish time.

What bugged me much more was class. I lived in a town just outside London split between its solidly middle class (and often Jewish) detached houses in the east and a west dominated by post-war overspill housing estates. Visiting the shops and amenities like the pool meant venturing amongst the more numerous working classes, where my accent, and that of my parents, marked me out as posh. There was rarely any direct menace, but the difference made me squirm. And as for our season ticket to watch the football in the next town over, the class divide was both a source of frisson and crippling embarrassment to me.

Despite my discomfort, I have no traumatic incidents to show for it. I have to accept the fact that most people, working class or otherwise, were not interested enough to choose me as a victim. I was, and am, left-wing, with a healthy dose of privileged self-hatred. If I felt, and still feel, shame at the advantages I have had in life, it’s not because anyone told me that I had to feel that way.

I doubt whether there has ever been a better time or place to be Jewish than in the post-war suburbs of an English-speaking city. And yet, I knew what hate was, I knew what antisemitism was. At synagogue and in Jewish youth groups I learned about the Holocaust. I learned about the Spanish expulsion of 1492, the blood libel, inquisitions, pogroms and all the rest. I learned what the National Front was and that today’s Nazis denied the Holocaust had ever happened. I learned that in the Soviet Union Jews were barely able to identify publicly as Jews, let alone practice their religion or emigrate. And I knew about Israel, and its enemies who apparently wanted to wipe our people off the map.

This was all luridly horrific and endlessly fascinating, but really antisemitism was something that happened to other Jews. It’s not that I didn’t care about it, it’s just that I wasn’t really threatened by it.

So profound was my lack of personal experience of antisemitism, that from my teens to well into adulthood I found it easy to be insouciant about it. At a Jewish summer camp in my early teens I cried and cried after a Holocaust memorial ceremony, but only to draw attention to myself and get a lingering hug from a youth leader I had a crush on. At university, a Jewish friend and I fantasised about starting a Jewish Nazi skinhead band that would ironically deny the Holocaust (I later found out that there is, in fact a Jewish band called Jewdriver, who perform covers of the neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver). On a trip to Egypt in my twenties, I asked in every bookshop I could find whether they had a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (no, they didn’t). In 1999 I thrilled to Anal Cunt’s album It Just Gets Worse, which included songs such as “I Sent Concentration Camp Footage to America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Hitler Was a Sensitive Man”. The latter contained the immortal line, “If Hitler was alive today, he’d listen to the Cure, the Smiths and Depeche Mode”.

circa 1935: The title pages of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a Nazi anti-Semitic text. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My generation of smugly secure British Jews had the luxury of flippancy. Yet for all my snotty insensitivity, there was a degree of justification to the way I refused to have my Jewish identity defined by antisemitism. I didn’t want antisemites to tell me what it meant to be Jewish and I didn’t want the magnificent, exasperating, bewildering history of the Jewish people to come down to the Holocaust. I didn’t want to be Jewish simply to fulfil Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” that “Thou shalt not hand Hitler a posthumous victory”. My generation would proudly build Jewish life, aware of the past but not bound to it.

I suppose I still feel this way. Nonetheless, something has changed. Now, in my late forties, antisemitism is worming its way towards the centre of my life. It certainly occupies more and more hours in the day. Somehow, I appear to have written a book about antisemitism.

This is the bit in the essay where I should drop in the anecdote that explains how everything has changed; the moment where the scales fell from my eyes and I suddenly awoke out of my dreamworld.

Sorry, I don’t have it. My narrative is not ‘then I was blind, now I can see’, so much as ‘then I could see, now I do not know what I see’. I’ve travelled not from ignorance to knowledge, but from knowledge to bewilderment. Writing a book about antisemitism is not a symptom of clarity, so much as a symptom of confusion.

Okay, not entirely, there has been one moment of searing awareness…

I always knew a lot about the details of the Holocaust. What I couldn’t do was to empathise with those who were caught up in the maelstrom of slaughter and suffering. Then, when my son was a few months old, I re-read Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, and the true horror at the heart of the story revealed itself to me: the forced abandonment and subsequent death of Spiegelman’s father’s first-born son Richieu in Poland after the Nazi invasion. It may be a cliché, but having children forced me to face the depths of the misery of losing a child. I knew this in theory of course, but I never really felt it. Indeed, on my many re-readings of Maus since my mid-teens, I had never until then noticed the most devastating moment of the whole book; when in the final frames Spiegelman’s father accidentally calls him by the name of his lost son.

Most of the time though, my experience of antisemitism lacks such moments of emotional connection. Even when I get messages like this one, which arrived on Facebook, it seems as if I am viewing them through a fog:

‘Hi Pig. How many shekels do you get for being a Fascist stooge? Do you think of your rat family when you support Fascism? Does it get your tiny dick hard? What a fucking douche. A true rep. of your race. Are you a trumptard too? How far right would you go, as a jew, in order to get a bit more money?? Do jews have any dignity left at all? Do you vermin dream of a Fascist racist state, like shitrael, for all us goyim?? When you’re raping democracy and truth under the orders of your ubersteppenfuhrers in shitrael, do you imagine you’re less of an ugly, stinking coward? Let’s hope you get it like your rat family. Cunt. Feel free to fuck off back to shitrael. Just don’t kill any more unarmed schoolgirls, you brave jew turd.’

Perhaps it’s a matter of scale. Despite writing extensively about antisemitism and racism, such missives are the exception rather than the rule. I’m not a woman after all. I don’t get rape threats. A man can rape another man, but it seems that men prefer to threaten women with rape and not the likes of me.

I’m lucky I guess. I haven’t been doxxed. I haven’t been sent anonymous photos of my house and my kids. On the rare occasions someone yearns for my death, it’s me alone and they don’t seem to have done enough background research to actually make it happen.

Or maybe it’s just because I’m a minor player in the antisemitism controversy. I’m not significant enough to hate, for all the articles and books I’ve published. The abuse I do get seems to be a distant echo of the real phenomenon. It may be that until someone actually threatens my physical safety or that of my loved ones, I am condemned to never quite experience the pain that antisemitism causes.

Yet, I do feel a different sort of angst; a nagging anxiety that has come to dominate my life, to tie my stomach in knots, and has led me to write and write and write.

That angst feels more like a kind of heartbreak than a fear for my security. It was heartbreaking to watch a feminist Jewish academic I’ve long admired sneering about a female Jewish Labour MP recounting the abuse she has suffered in the House of Commons. It was heartbreaking to watch a (non-Jewish) musicologist whose work has broken new ground in my discipline liking a fake news post about ‘the Rothschilds’. And my heart has also been broken by countless other politicians and activists who I once felt to be clear-sighted anti-racists, deciding that certain sorts of Jews are simply too untrustworthy to be listened to about antisemitism.

Labour MP Luciana Berger has been subjected to misogynistic threats and anti-semitism

Yet I could probably get past that heartbreak, were it not for a competing set of claims on my heart. I could retreat into the comforting arms of the Jewish community who, outside a small but significant anti-Zionist minority, have been traumatised by what they see as the existential threat that a Corbyn-led government would pose. And I have almost done so – I certainly feel closer to Jews like that than those Jews who tell the world that antisemitism on the left isn’t really much of a thing – but something still holds me back.

Perhaps it’s the unnerving coincidence of hyperbolic statements of fear and the undeniably privileged status of much of British Jewry; perhaps it’s my complicated relationship to Zionism (never quite affirming it, never quite rejecting it); perhaps it’s the fact that I do not share the normative political centrism that pervades the community… Either way, something prevents me from fully embracing the fear. I have yet to experience that moment of naked empathy that I had when re-reading Maus with my baby in my arms.

And there’s something else too: I can’t help feeling that most Jews (Corbynites and their detractors, Zionist and anti-Zionists) have become players in a game that I don’t want to join. We are offering ourselves up to the world to be the ‘good’ Jews to be listened to about antisemitism. It happens across the political spectrum. Just as the Jewish Labour Movement and Jewish Voice for Labour compete to be the Jews who really understand antisemitism, so the political right (particularly in America) love to choose those good Jews who will support their Islamophobia.

Somehow, antisemitism was easier when it was much worse. In the 1930s, different Jewish political factions – Zionists of various stripes, Bundist, communists, liberals, conservatives – may have had radically different ideas about what to do about the looming Nazi threat, but only a miniscule minority denied that it was a threat (to German Jews at least). Today, we have to constantly proclaim the catastrophic seriousness of antisemitism in order to convince ourselves that we know what antisemitism is. And yet the more we do so, the more we disagree about how to define it. We have to will the fundamentally confused and confusing nature of contemporary antisemitism out of existence.

What am I missing? What sort of danger am I in as a Jew? Don’t misunderstand me, I do think there is a major problem of rising antisemitism, including on the political left (and yes, it is a major institutional problem in the Labour Party). But I can only feel its threat as a dull sort of ache. What hurts much much more is the sense that everyone else knows much better than I do what antisemitism is. That sense of licence that leads leftist academics to blithely share Rothschild memes, that leads Jews to proclaim what antisemitism definitely is or isn’t, alienates me profoundly.

I have been on an ironic kind of journey. When antisemitism was a marginal issue in my life, I was absolutely clear what it was. I may have refused to be defined by it, I may have even chosen to make light of it, but I knew how to recognise it: antisemitism was deranged, violent hatred against Jews. Today, antisemitism is an issue with which I am constantly engaged, something that dominates my life. But even when I am sure what it is, it doesn’t always present itself as deranged, violent hatred. And the implications for my life are unclear.

These aren’t nuanced times. To assert the value of a nuanced analysis of antisemitism, or any other kind of racism, risks blunting the sword you need to raise against it. When I write about antisemitism, I am simultaneously resisting getting lost in the labyrinth of nuance and refusing the multiple guides who wish to lead me out. Perhaps that’s why my writing on the subject is so Janus-faced: sometimes I weave dense analytical webs, sometimes I lash out with sharp polemic and bitter irony.

Until that time when the antisemite directly assaults me, I will be condemned to doubt and anxiety. Maybe I am yearning for the day when I too will possess a chilling anecdote that my grandchildren can recount in awe. Until that day, there is an absence in my autobiography that no amount of writing can fill.

Keith Kahn-Harris’s book Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity will be published by Repeater Books in June

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