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By Jason Michael
DAILY RECORD READERS were left under no illusions last week that the independence movement had a real problem with antisemitism. No doubt intended to whip up what was a growing controversy around Gareth Wardell’s article on the Grouse Beater blog into a frenzy, the Scottish unionist-aligned tabloid published a heavily edited piece of Press Association stock copy by Lewis McKenzie in which it claimed Mr Wardell had called GMB union official Rhea Wolfson “the Jew.” Quite unsurprisingly, Wardell had said no such thing and the Daily Record was quick to remove all references to this article from its website. But there were serious questions to answer. The article in question, responding to the role of the GMB in the Glasgow women’s equal pay strike, did use the term “the Jew,” in fact it went the whole nine yards; discussing in a lengthy excursus Hitler’s paranoid attitude towards trade unions.
On becoming aware of the article, which describes her as a “budding demagogue,” Ms Wolfson took to social media to comment:
Twitter has been a bad place this past week with trolls trying to deprive 8000 women of taking strike action of agency and we need to address such horrendous sexism in the Scottish ‘left’ but this morning I’ve woken up to an ‘article’ [about] the women’s strike that cites Hitler.
As the blog did the rounds on social media it was shared on a number of SNP social media pages, including the Facebook pages of Edinburgh East, Livingston East, and on the personal page of SNP West Lothian councillor Frank Anderson. Labour MSP Neil Findley promptly wrote to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister and leader of the SNP, demanding an “investigation into [the] nationalist blog which cites Mein Kampf and claims a Jewish trade union official in Scotland is ‘making the most’ of antisemitism.” At this point not only did the name Rhea Wolfson become a household name within the independence movement, so too did the fact she is Jewish. Ouch.
Anderson defended his decision to share the article, telling The National that he did not accept that it was an anti-Semitic article and that he was unaware of Wolfson’s Jewish heritage. But the idea – at least – that this was an example of antisemitism had burst onto the stage. The SNP announced in response that the blog “should not have been shared by any SNP member” and cancelled Gareth Wardell’s party membership, giving further weight to the belief that his comments were indeed anti-Semitic. This was certainly how the SNP was treating the whole incident.
Further weight was added to this when the Scottish government’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, tweeted a link to Tom Gordon’s article in The Herald with the remark: “We all have a responsibility to stamp out antisemitism wherever we see it – within or outwith.” The reaction of the independence movement’s alternative media community was all but unanimous, that this was a “knee-jerk reaction” and an example of panicked SNP heavy-handedness. The chorus across the pro-independence twittersphere and blogosphere was that this was not a case of antisemitism. Peter Bell in his article, “Crying Wolfson,” wrote that he had,
…read Grouse Beater’s blog earlier, but had not found anything particularly memorable about the way in which the author uses the example of the Nazis to illustrate the point that trade unions are a target for unscrupulous politicians.
Adding that he was,
…totally unaware that Wolfson is Jewish. It seems likely that Grouse Beater was also unacquainted with this detail. I’m fairly sure neither of us affords a person’s religion the overriding significance that Wolfson does. That she is Jewish isn’t even relevant, far less of central significance.
Given that it had now been made known Gareth Wardell – the “Grouse Beater” – was himself from a Jewish background (the thick keeps on plottening), much of the independence movement was simply not buying the antisemitic narrative being imposed on the row by the GMB and its supporters, Labour, and now the SNP. The Scottish National Party’s Women’s and Equalities convener, Fiona Robertson was brought into play. In a blog article titled “Holding Ourselves to Our Own Standards” she wrote:
Most people who have been telling me that the blog post was not anti-Semitic are not people who have enough background experience of anti-Semitism to make that judgement.
She recognises, however, that these are “the same people who could recognise the Islamophobia in Cllr Scott Arthur’s poll on why Humza Yousaf joined politics.” So, according to the SNP’s own Equalities expert we are smart enough and equipped enough to spot anti-Muslim racism but somehow not smart enough and equipped enough to recognise anti-Jewish racism. There is a hint of a rat to be whiffed in this glaring contradiction, and it is this we ought to tease out a little further before we attempt to answer the question in this piece.
The irony here is that Robertson herself is not a competent authority on antisemitism. She is of course more than well equipped to discuss matters of social inclusion, the rights of disabled people, and questions of gender equality. This is her field of expertise and to some extent these disciplines overlap questions of bigotry and racism, for sure, but they remain some way from enabling her to navigate the complex and deeply sad and troubling realities of historical Christian anti-Judaism and European antisemitism (related and similar, but very distinct sociological phenomena).
Please allow me, then, to take up some of the slack. As an undergraduate at both the Pontifical University of Salamanca and the University of Dublin, Trinity College, I studied Hebrew and Biblical Studies – albeit from a Christian theological perspective, producing a final dissertation examining Talmudic and other Jewish Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah. My postgraduate studies were in Race, Ethnicity, and Conflict in the School of Sociology at Trinity College, where my thesis research focused on Zionism – both US Evangelical Christian Zionism and Jewish nationalism and Jewish-state ideology. Over the course of my academic career I have taught and published peer review articles on Jewish-Christian Dialogue and on the Holocaust – specifically the destruction of the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have represented Ireland as a delegate to the International Council for Christians and Jews and served as a board member on the Youth Leadership Council of the ICCJ.
During this time I coördinated the EU-funded Youth Connections for Peace programme, bringing young people from the Irish and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts together to explore ideas of peace building. Throughout, I have remained a member of the Dublin University Jewish Society and have maintained close personal friendships with members of both the Reform and the Orthodox synagogues in Dublin. It is fair to say I am in a greater position to speak on the question of antisemitism than Ms Robertson.
Where few in this discussion have seen fit to offer a definition of antisemitism, I will, and unlike many others I will return to what Mr Wardell actually wrote. Following some discussion on a definition and what Wardell wrote we will briefly explore the recent history of the political weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism, after which we should be in a better place to determine whether or not what Wardell said was indeed anti-Semitic and racist.
There has been much fuss of late over the definition of antisemitism. That Fiona Robertson, the only contributor thus far in the discussion to allude to one, speaks of “people whose knowledge of anti-Semitism only extends to the dictionary definition,” suggests she has another definition in mind. However, she fails to state what this is. Rather than define what it is, she makes the case that Jewish people are more able to identify antisemitism than “random non-Jewish people.” Ultimately then she is depending on a subjective definition; that the victims of bigotry and racism are uniquely qualified to explain the essence of the prejudices they experience.
Such a position is problematic for two reasons; it weakens the objective argument, that prejudice, bigotry, and racism are real things that can be witnessed and verified by outsiders to the victim community, and in asserting that only Jews can identify antisemitism it guarantees its continuation – if non-Jews cannot see their antisemitism, they cannot stop being anti-Semitic or passing on anti-Semitic attitudes and opinions. Hate is not subjective.
Antisemitism – the hatred of Jews – is real. It is a real form of racism. As, arguably, Europe’s oldest racism, antisemitism is pervasive throughout western society. As it affects all of society it is unarguably true that there are anti-Semites and people who, for whatever reason, pass on anti-Semitic ideas, conspiracies, and opinions within the SNP and the wider independence movement – as these entities reflect broader society. But Fiona Robertson is right, we need a better definition than is to be found in the dictionary. How then do we define this particular racism?
Rather frustratingly the search for a definition draws us unavoidably into the murky politics of Zionism and the State of Israel – which has recently passed a nation-state law, effectively making Israel the Jewish ethno-state. This in turn makes at least some of the state-ideological schools of Zionism racist ethno-nationalist ideologies. We cannot escape the fact, then, that the State of Israel and many Zionist projects in Israel and around the world have a vested interest in defining antisemitism. British Labour’s left wing under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been made all too aware of this in the bitter dispute over the party’s reluctance to accept the IHRA definition.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition is a voluntary and non-legally binding agreement on the accepted definition of antisemitism. It reads:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
As a stand-alone statement few would be unhappy with this definition. It meets Ms Robertson’s criteria of being better than what the dictionary offers and it’s concise and to the point – except it’s not. The IHRA working definition comes with 11 “contemporary examples” which are included as integral elements of the definition. The first example, for example, is: “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews.” We can all agree, one hopes, that calling for the killing of Jews is most definitely anti-Semitic. But there are other examples:
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
Not one of these three supposed examples concern people and their human rights. They are quite unapologetically concerned with the rights of a state – Israel. The first on this list, the “racist endeavour” example, makes it an anti-Semitic hate crime to criticise the overtly racist treatment of Christian and Muslim Arab Israelis within the undefined borders of the state, the racialised injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people in Gaza and the occupied territories on the West Bank, and to condemn the ongoing process of Israeli settlement expansion. It demands that the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in a land seized from others trumps the rights of the dispossessed – the Palestinians, a people the State of Israel actively stops from defining their own victimhood.
The second example listed in this set demands we accept the State of Israel as a democracy and that it is anti-Semitic to apply double standards to this democracy. What double standards might those be? That everyone under the control of the state is entitled to citizenship and a democratic franchise? This is the norm in true democratic nation states. It is not in Israel. So what double standard? Palestinians, ethnically cleansed from their homeland, under the control of an illegal Israeli military occupation and subject to routine and hyper-aggressive colonial land theft, are not legally permitted to become citizens of Israel because they are not ethnic Jews. This is not a double standard. This is a war crime and a serious breach of international law. But according to this definition to say as much as is being said here would be an anti-Semitic and racist hate crime.
“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis?” Well the Nazis were not simply in the business of mass murder and genocide. In fact, the Nazis were not the first to maltreat racialised minorities. Britain, Belgium, and Turkey beat them to it. They were not the first to ghettoise and victimise othered populations and they were not the last. Many countries’ state policies can rightly be compared to the behaviour of the Nazis. Israel is no exception.
In the interest of fairness for all people, thinking especially here of the Palestinians, we cannot accept the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. This is not only my opinion. The Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG), which – as a Jewish political organisation – is completely opposed to all manifestations of antisemitism, had this to say in July last year:
The IHRA definition draws very heavily on an earlier definition adopted by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005. This was dropped by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in 2013 precisely because of the way it stretched and twisted that definition to include various legitimate forms of criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism.
Instead, the JSG offers another definition:
The Jewish Socialists’ Group defines antisemitism as: prejudice, hostility and discrimination against Jews, as Jews, and the use of negative stereotypes of Jews.
Like the initial statement of the IHRA definition, it is concise and to the point. It covers all the bases of defending Jews “as Jews” and leaves out all mention of Zionism and the State of Israel. It is apolitical and names the prejudice as a racialised animus. Until something better is proposed, we can safely run with this. We shall use this definition, then, to gauge and assess what Gareth Wardell wrote.
In a section of his article headed “Hitler’s View” – in an article broadly attacking the behaviour of the GMB union – he wrote:
Fascist ideology hates unions. Fascists know unions are the very bedrock of democracy. Right-wing governments employ fascist language to undermine union representation, or quash it altogether.
A labour union is the chief mechanism by which a democracy guides the distribution of wealth at a local level. Its function is to organise collective bargaining. Elected governments are meant to do the same job at a national level, but for wider social benefits such as sustaining infrastructure and institutions.
Trade unions are a source of cooperation and community. They exist to achieve wage equality. Their function is to protect workers against economic vicissitude. According to fascist policy – which we see arising everywhere in the UK and abroad – unions must be smashed to render workers isolated, prepared to accept whatever is offered.
In Part 1 of Mein Kampf Hitler attacks unions over and over again. Unions are fascism’s Public Enemy Number 1. He went further. He accused ‘The Jew’ of gradually assuming leadership of the trade union movement. Hitler wanted a blindly obedient fighting force loyal only to the national leader of government.
Whether or not Wolfson is intellectually aware of Hitler’s outlook is unknown but she is certainly commendably assiduous in condemning anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, however, Labour’s travails over its alleged anti-Semitism isn’t for this essay.
There are a number of preliminary comments required here. Firstly, personally, I fail to see why this section was included in the first place. It is completely tangential to the argument he was making. Hitler didn’t like unions and he acted against them. This is true. But Adolf Hitler wasn’t, even by the standards of the time, the ideal fascist. He was a vicious totalitarian despot hiding behind the façade of European fascism. Perhaps, if fascism and its treatment of trade unions simply had to be included, Mussolini or Franco would have been better exemplars. Yet, even this, in my opinion, would have remained on a tangent.
Another thing to mention here is that the final paragraph was edited in the hours after its publication. Mhairi Hunter, an SNP Glasgow Councillor, who commented that “Whether it is technically anti-Semitic depends on how you read it,” shared the original version on Twitter:
Whether or not Wolfson is intellectually aware of Hitler’s outlook is unknown but she certainly knows how to make the most of it.
She said earlier in her online discussion that she thought it “terrible and damaging before it was picked up by the media.” She is the sensible sort is Mhairi Hunter and I agree with her in this opinion. It was an unnecessary and indeed damaging inclusion, but whether or not it is anti-Semitic is quite another matter. The crux of this section of the article is “Hitler’s outlook” vis-à-vis trade unions. The author makes this perfectly clear. As he explains it, Hitler’s view of the union was dim; that its democracy and power to bargain for workers threatened the authority of the Nazi regime, and that behind this threat were to be found the machinations of a “sinister” group. Here is a particularly useful example of Hitler’s paranoid fear of this group from the second chapter of Mein Kampf:
I recalled to mind the names of the public leaders of Marxism, and then I realized that most of them belonged to the Chosen Race – the Social Democratic representatives in the Imperial Cabinet as well as the secretaries of the Trades Unions and the street agitators. Everywhere the same sinister picture presented itself. I shall never forget the row of names – Austerlitz, David, Adler, Ellenbogen, and others. One fact became quite evident to me. It was that this alien race held in its hands the leadership of that Social Democratic Party with whose minor representatives I had been disputing for months past. I was happy at last to know for certain that the Jew is not a German.
From the beginning it is evident Wardell is not sympathetic to the fascist ideology. The trade union, as he spells out in a litany of praise, is supposed to be a good thing. He sees it as the “bedrock of democracy.” All things being equal then, he is behind Rhea Wolfson. She is organising, as Wardell sees it, what is for the good of the worker. On the surface he is rejecting the paranoid vision of the union espoused by Hitler. What is happening in the text is, rather than casting Wolfson as “the Jew” of Hitler’s ranting, he is identifying her with the paranoid tyrant. He’s calling her a type of Hitler, not as part of some “alien race” which holds in its hands the leadership of the union. He says this in plain English long before he raises the ugly spectre of Hitler: “She’s a budding demagogue.”
The “budding demagogue” – the little Hitler – is a dictatorial and not an antisemitic trope. The demagogue; the up-front populist and would-be tyrant, is not the “sinister” outsider to the nation that the Nazis painted “the Jew.” In fact, there is no evidence in the piece he is even aware of her Jewishness, a point made by Peter Bell. Her religion and ethnicity are not the focus of his criticism of Wolfson, giving the lie to Fiona Robertson’s accusation that the article “included a number of anti-Semitic dog whistles.” There are none. Bringing Hitler and the Nazis into this was grotesque and wholly unnecessary, but calling someone perceived to be acting in a dictatorial and undemocratic way Hitler-like – Jew or otherwise – is not anti-Semitic by any definition, save that of the IHRA which is more concerned with the reputation of the State of Israel than it is with the professional image of individual non-Israeli Jews. It’s just puerile.
Robertson’s conclusion is not based on a definition. She grounds her conclusion in the subjective opinion of unnamed Jewish friends to whom she sent the article. In the world of research that class of methodology is chaotic. Who are these people? Where are these people? Do they have an agenda or an academic background in racism in general or antisemitism in particular? Do they come with any expert opinion on this other than being Jewish?
In response to this hokum I offer my own Jewish friends: Ya’akov Sloman, a US-based independentista and an adjunct professor at Notre Dame University, David Landy, professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Dublin and a Palestinian Solidarity activist, and Ronit Lentin, a retired professor of Racial Studies. Sloman, responding to the article and the furore it caused, took to Twitter in a lengthy thread and concluded:
I regret the lack of sensitivity in how Grouse Beater chose to express his idea. It was inevitable that it led to both sincere and cyclical accusations of antisemitism. But I don’t believe he is an anti-Semite, nor that it was an expression of antisemitism – rather, ignorance.
Landy and Lentin did not comment on this particular incident, but their joint article in the Irish Times in relation to the antisemitism smear campaign against British Labour’s left-wing is worth considering. “The calls for his expulsion came after Livingstone said in a BBC interview that Hitler had supported Zionism ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,’” they wrote…
The claim itself was clumsy but based on historical fact – Hitler originally sought to expel rather than exterminate European Jews. As part of this, he negotiated the Ha’avara Agreement with Zionist organisations which allowed some Jews to escape to Palestine with some of their property in return for Zionist opposition to the global boycott of German goods.
What Wardell wrote was similarly clumsy, but it was a historical fact. In distancing himself from Hitler’s attitudes, he articulated that Wolfson was behaving in a similar tyrannical fashion. That’s not – by any stretch – antisemitism. Yet the use of this clumsy and thoughtless – unkind even – reference to Europe’s darkest moment as a cynical political weapon has been much the same in both cases. No one, not Corbyn and not the SNP, want to be seen to be arguing against the accusation. In both cases the instrument worked; the target of the smear recoiled and moderated its behaviour. Corbyn capitulated and, against the better judgement of many on the left – including leftist Jewish groups, signed up to the politically skewed IHRA working definition. The SNP leapt behind the barricades and left a pro-independence alternative media writer, in the context of a hostile media environment, very much twisting in the wind. In each case the ploy worked, it showed that the spurious charge of antisemitism works and that the target will not fight back.
The warning given by Landy and Lentin is chilling:
Such cynical political acts cheapen the grave charge of anti-Semitism. In this atmosphere where such allegations are used to silence political opponents, it is tempting to reject any and all accusations of anti-Semitism.
This was categorically not a case of antisemitism. It was not even, as Fiona Robertson suggests, a case of someone – an otherwise good person – unknowingly and memetically transmitting anti-Semitic tropes or opinions. He merely used the example of Hitler in a piece criticising someone who happened, unbeknownst to him, to be Jewish. What this is, is a case of one political group learning the dirty tricks of another political group in order to inflict political damage. In the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, when the real forces of right-wing racism are on the rise across the globe, when minorities everywhere need strong, consistently anti-racist allies, playing these idiotic games is not at all clever. The more these kinds of accusations are deployed as political weapons the less seriously the population at large will take genuine accusations, making us weaker – not stronger – in the face of forces which pose a considerable threat to democracy and human rights.