Some thoughts on racism and a recent controversy downplaying the Holocaust

In a new controversy in the UK MP Diane Abbot has apologized for a letter to the Observer that read:

They undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable. It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism. In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote.”

She has now said that she wishes to withdraw the remarks and that the error comes from an “initial draft” being sent. She now says racism takes many forms that that it is “completely undeniable” that Jewish people and others have suffered from it.

The assertion that racism is primarily “black and white” and that therefore genocides such as the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, Rwandan genocide or genocide of Yazidis are not part of the larger hate driven by racism is part of a recent trend in the West to try to re-focus “racism” purely around a type of racism that is or was common to the US, South Africa and some other countries.

The attempt to redefine the Holocaust as a kind of “white against white” genocide and ignore the Nazis actual racist views, is one of the new types of trends in the West. Whoopie Goldberg also walked into this controversy several times. In comments to the Sunday Times of London in 2022 she seemed to continue to articulate her views on the Holocaust. The had begun in early 2022 when she said that the Holocaust was “two white groups of people” and that this “isn’t about race.” She had apologized but then said in late 2022 that the Holocaust was not originally about race. “Remember who they were killing first. They were not killing racial; they were killing physical. They were killing people they considered to be mentally defective. And then they made this decision…They did that to black people too. But it doesn’t change the fact that you could not tell a Jew on a street. You could find me. You couldn’t find them.”

The targeting of Jewish people to portray them as part of the “white” group and link them to white supremacy has become a kind of trend in the US particularly. This rose out of the “intersectional” agenda and other aspects of the recent trend towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Critical Race Theories and other developments that ostensibly should be inclusive to Jews as a minority group. However, along the way Jews are often seen as an other, not part of the larger issue of anti-racism, and then they are defined as “white” and thus part of “white privilege” and “white Jews” and part of white supremacism. This is interesting, because they were some of the main victims of racial theories that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, ideas about “blood and soil” and social darwinism and eugenics, ideas about the whole concept of “semite” and creation of a racial hierarchy.

An example of this can be found in the 2016 controversy at the Women’s March where several activists were accused of claiming that “Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people.”

The attacks on Jewish people and attempt to shift the historical narrative to portray them as “white” is not a fringe belief or one that is just a mistake that appears as a “first draft.” The Forward in the US ran an oped article in 2018 claiming “it’s exhausting to exist in white Jewish spaces where Farrakhan is obsessed over as if he’s the main threat of modern anti-Semitism. Whenever he says anything anti-Semitic, white Jewish spaces erupt in a frenzy. Black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality, and slavery….White Jewish people have not caused these issues, but they are — like all white people — part of the racist system that keeps black people under the foot of this society. This is the pain from which black anti-Semitism arises and that has to be acknowledged, even as we condemn anti-Semitism in this form.” In this article Jews were portrayed as part of white supremacism, basically.

At the same time that antisemitism is downplayed and the racist aspects of the Holocaust are downplayed, there is another phenomenon. When the Holocaust is mentioned and commemorated, the tendency is to commemorate it not as a unique event targeting Jews, but as part of a broader form of discrimination against a list of groups. For instance when the White House commemorated the Holocaust in January 2023 they wrote about pausing to “mourn the six million Jews who were systematically and savagely murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust — and to grieve the Roma and Sinti, Slavs, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and political dissidents who were also killed.”

This is interesting because we are left with two narratives. One narrative portrays Jews as white and the Holocaust as primarily targeting white people. This is contrasted with racism that underpinned Apartheid South Africa and also the racist laws of the US South or slavery in the US. Then, at the same time, having made the persecution of Jewish not about race, when the persecution of Jews is discussed, it is said to be part of a long list of other people who were harmed during the Holocaust. So on the one hand, Jews are told they don’t suffer racism, and then when it comes to the Holocaust, which they did suffer, they are told they are one of many groups. It’s hard for the six million Jews murdered to have one unique term for what happened to them. And yet, when it comes to Apartheid, there is one group that is mentioned, it is unique. We don’t have a long list of groups that were harmed.

Except, when it comes to Apartheid, we now do. The term is now not only used for the racism that underpinned the regime that ran South Africa from 1948 to 1994, but also is now used for Israel. Israel is said to practice apartheid against Palestinians. Amnesty International says that “The term ‘apartheid’ was originally used to refer to a political system in South Africa which explicitly enforced racial segregation, and the domination and oppression of one racial group by another. It has since been adopted by the international community to condemn and criminalize such systems and practices wherever they occur in the world…The crime against humanity of apartheid under the Apartheid Convention, the Rome Statute and customary international law is committed when any inhuman or inhumane act (essentially a serious human rights violation) is perpetrated in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another, with the intention to maintain that system. Apartheid can best be understood as a system of prolonged and cruel discriminatory treatment by one racial group of members of another with the intention to control the second racial group.” The UN has said the same thing about Israel in 2022, according to its UN Special Rapporteur; “Israel, he said, conforms to the definition as a “political regime which so intentionally and clearly prioritizes fundamental political, legal and social rights to one group over another, within the same geographic unit on the basis of one’s racial-national-ethnic identity”.

What is being said here, if you look back to the beginning of this discussion, is that Jews are white and they are not a different racial group, except in Israel where they constitute a racial group oppressing a different group. It’s not clear if the UN and Amnesty and others have re-defined all Israeli Jews in this context as “white” and all Palestinians as some other group, but they have asserted that these are two racial-national-ethnic groups. Note, they don’t say religious groups.

The overall trend is to downplay the history of anti-Jewish discrimination, including the Holocaust and claim that Jews didn’t suffer racism, and then when the Holocaust is mentioned, to claim that Jews were merely one group among many, and then when discussing Israel to portray Jews as one specific group, but then only for the purposes of accusing them of apartheid over another group.

What is striking here is how ahistorical it all is. Considering the real history of racism in the West, it was an ever expanding series of definitions directed at a variety of other groups, that were variously viewed as sub-human or an other, whether they were called “rootless” or “Asiatic” or “Oriental” or whatever term was invented. The overall trend in the West eventually was to try to make racism “scientific.” Antisemitism emerged primarily as a reaction to the fact that many Jews had become secular and religious discrimination was no longer an easy way to exclude them. In a secular Europe, Jews could thrive. To stop them from thriving, they were defined as a racial category. Today the refrain when this is mentioned is to claim that by seeing Jews as. race we are accepting the Nazi definition. This is not logical. If people commit genocide based on their own parameters, we can’t deny those parameters in order to pretend that there was no difference between Jews and the people persecuting them. However, the western lens today that divides things so neatly into black and white categories continues to keep its lens similar to apartheid, meaning that they also perpetuate racial categories in order to understand racism today. However, if we look at the Rwandan genocide or Armenian genocide through one western lens we will see genocides of “black against black” or “two white groups” which is not the right way to view those two genocides. The problem with a very Anglo and American centric view of race is that it tends to downplay other genocides.

This presents a complex problem. How to discuss racism in a time when agendas seek to focus on one type of white supremacism and downplay many other types of discrimination, to the point of generalizing the Holocaust while also claiming it was not racist, but then trying to portray Israel as racist, while arguing the Jews are not a race. In the end the only real conclusion has to be that when it comes to Jews there is always an exception. When it was wrong to be a religious minority, they were hated for their religion. When they became secular they were hated for being “semites.” When “white privilege” became bad, Jews were re-defined as white and placed at the top of the white supremacy triangle, and Israel was accused of apartheid. When the West invents a new trend of what is considered good and bad, they will redefined Jews once again as the other and whatever is negative. It’s what always happens. And that’s why when people write a “first draft” to discuss racism, the first thing they do is argue that Jews don’t suffer racism, and never had to sit at the back of bus. Six million were put on trains and exterminated, but it wasn’t the back of the bus.

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