Great Britain

After Wiley, I didn’t have a fight on my hands for once. Why did that feel so weird? | Hadley Freeman

I’ll say this for Wiley: at least he showed where the red line was. Because honestly, over the past five years, it hasn’t always been so clear to us Jews. But now we know: it takes a middle-aged grime artist tweeting that Jews should be shot for there to be general agreement that this seems pretty antisemitic. So thanks, Wiley!

I was away the weekend Wiley posted what the NME described as “Israel tweets”. But when I later caught up, I experienced a strange sensation: people seemed to be… taking this seriously. The NME aside, no one was insisting this was just about Israel. OK sure, a journalist in The Voice casually referred to “the hypothesis that you need to get a Jewish lawyer in order to progress in the music business… I’ve never seen anyone Jewish refute or confirm this” . But in the main, everyone agreed this was Not Good, and to show their displeasure they refrained from tweeting for 48 hours (if only someone had thought of that in 1939). It was bizarre: suddenly I had all this time on my hands I’d expected to fill with arguing that the antisemitism any fool could see was, yes, antisemitic. Perhaps I should take up knitting?

I’ve never felt more Jewish than over the past five years. Not even the summer of 1991, which was spent memorising phonetically – I mean, 100% understanding – my batmitzvah portion, filled me with the distinctly Jewish mix of pride and anxiety I’ve experienced in the past half decade. So it’s been quite a journey, as I watched friends and people I respect act as if antisemitism – and by extension Jewishness – is a self-indulgent irrelevancy if it conflicts with their preferred narrative.

During the 2016 US election, Donald Trump used antisemitic references and tropes in his tweets and political adverts, and – spoiler! – he was elected president of the country where I was born. But it was the Jeremy Corbyn era that really knocked the stuffing out of me, with people I consider political allies insisting that the 85% of British Jews who saw Corbyn as antisemitic were, at best wrong, at worst mendacious. When I wrote about this, I was sent so much antisemitic abuse – not criticism, abuse – I had to go to the police. And still, I was told to suck it up and vote for the man endorsed by David Duke.

I’ve been thinking about that strange period this summer, with so much focus currently on vulnerable minorities, the bigotries they suffer, both big and little. It’s been a long overdue reckoning. But it’s also a bit rum to hear people talk so seriously about microaggressions when they were prepared – desperate, even – to overlook that Corbyn wrote a supportive message to the artist of a blatantly antisemitic mural, or that he worked for Iranian state TV which hosts Holocaust deniers. Were these not micro enough? Or not aggressive enough?

As I write, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has yet to publish its report about antisemitism in the Labour party. When it launched its investigation, I was sure, at last, other people would see what I saw. When Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey after she praised an interview in which Maxine Peake regurgitated some anti-Israel conspiracy theory, it felt like a rock that should never have been overturned was being put back. But then the furious tweets began again and I finally accepted that, from a certain faction on the left, vindication will never come, only blame for blocking Saint Jeremy from being prime minister. Imagine – now, of all times – blaming a minority group for speaking out about bigotry, as opposed to the person accused of the bigotry, when you consider yourself to be a proud fighter against all forms of racism. (It’s fascinating when people add, tic-like, “and all forms of racism” when talking about their abhorrence of antisemitism, as if antisemitism is not important enough to discuss on its own.)

People don’t take antisemitism seriously because they think of Jews as wealthy, and therefore not vulnerable, which is like saying black people shouldn’t be scared of racists because they’re all so athletic. Within living memory, European Jews were nearly wiped out, because people thought, among other things, they were too successful, and still people snipe about Jewish lawyers. Jews are viewed as having white privilege with added oomph, be that money or power. Yet the stories about Jewishness I grew up with, at home and Hebrew school, were all about persecution, keeping your bag packed by the door, just in case.

Last week, the Community Securities Trust published its annual report into antisemitic incidents in Britain, with 789 recorded in the first six months of this year, the third highest total in 26 years, and it would have been higher were it not for the lockdown. Some have objected to Wiley being banned from Twitter for antisemitism when various white racists tweet with impunity. Another way of looking at it is why is there only general agreement about antisemitism when a 41-year-old rapper tweets actual death threats? Antisemitism is, still, seen as a “lesser” bigotry, which is why politicians and newspapers can dabble in it. The knitting, I guess, will have to wait.

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