By Rachel Shabi
wake of the tragedy of Pittsburgh, the murder of 11 Jewish people at a
synagogue in America’s most deadly act of antisemitism, we have heard a
repeated cautionary refrain: that words have consequences. Donald Trump’s White
House denies that the president’s rhetoric has any impact on reality. But
others have noted that the “apparent spark” for the Pittsburgh murders was a
“racist hoax” inflamed by the US president, who in the run-up to the US midterm
elections has been scaremongering over a Honduran caravan of refugees fleeing
violence and travelling to the US border to seek asylum, feeding antisemitic
conspiracy theories that it has been funded by Jews.
words have consequences is known viscerally to anyone whose identity is felt to
be contested. Minorities, migrants and LGBT communities know all too well the
terrible power of words to animate unconscious biases and rouse animosities; to
poke at prejudices, stir hatreds and seed divisions. Words aren’t the only
factor, but they create a context. Language is core to the architecture of
antisemitism: words have, in recent memory, created the conditions for
appalling violence and, ultimately, genocide.
those terrible Pittsburgh murders, we saw the heinous power of words
compounded, as we learned that the killer’s hatred of Jews merged with hate for
migrants. This is a confluence pushed by the far right, in one of many hateful
conspiracies directed at the philanthropist George Soros and beyond: that Jews
seek to destabilise western nations by flooding them with migrants, some of
whom are Muslims. These are the layered weapons of the far right: vile
demonisation directed at Muslims, migrants and Jews interchangeably, depending
on which is more socially acceptable, and which results in the most political
is why an attack on one minority group is so keenly understood as an attack on
all. But such understanding must also underpin the words we use. If
progressives are to face down the far right, there has to be a reckoning with
our own prejudices, which set us against each other and dilute our opposition
to destructive nativism.
this that partly explains the frustration felt by British Jews over the left
and antisemitism. When the left that is standing in solidarity against racism
also struggles to see the antisemitism within its own ranks, its voice rings
painfully hollow. Now more than ever, with the far right a politically
resurgent menace, we need the left to weed out its own bigotries. And yet right
now, on social media, some of the response to Jewish people discussing the
horrors of Pittsburgh is: what about Palestine? Even when Jews are killed for
being Jews, they are, for some leftists, taking up too much attention, and
deflecting from a greater cause for which they are collectively responsible.
those supportive of Jewish people in this row over antisemitism may elsewhere
talk of “cultural concerns” over immigration, or worry about the “pace of
change” – feeding a nativist narrative of immigration as a perceived threat, as
opposed to just a historical and necessary fact of life. Across the political
spectrum, we have pandered to a hostile view of migrants, with terrible
consequences for those at the receiving end of racial hatred and for our
political culture, now infused with dangerous bigotry.
frighteningly casual hostility to Muslims has also become mainstream – a
prejudice that the former Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi pointed out some
years ago had passed the dinner-table test. Small wonder, in this grim context,
that the number of religious hate crimes in the UK has hit a record high, with
half of those attacks directed at Muslims.
the tendency is to rail against the prejudice we find most obvious while
ignoring or downplaying others. You might insist that a particular bigotry
exists only, or to a greater degree, on your political opponents’ side of the
spectrum. Or you might view race hatred in a hierarchy, arguing that some
minorities get more attention for their cause, or are less seriously attacked.
Or perhaps you find it easier to see the operational mechanisms of one
prejudice over another, or understand the coding of one group as a racialised
minority more readily than another – which is how we end up with assertions
that “Islam isn’t a race!” or that Jews are politically “white”.
have our blind spots. And they are the chinks in our defence, the weaknesses
that far-right nativists are able to push through. Resilient communities
construct inclusive narratives that are constantly on the lookout for such
vulnerabilities. Kneejerk declarations that one particular side is
prejudice-free are, in this context, a clear warning sign. If solidarity with
one minority group under attack is to be effective, it has to be solidarity
with all. And it has to go beyond mere words.
Rachel Shabi is a writer and broadcaster