A Jewish anthropologist travels to the far, mountainous regions of China seeking exotic cultures. 10 days walking through landscapes with not a sign of humanity brings him to a lush valley with a settlement nestled below. He walks excitedly down to it. The first building he comes across has a Star of David above the door. Perplexed, he walks in – at which a Chinese man welcomes him. “Is this a synagogue?!” asks the anthropologist in astonishment. “Yes, of course – why?” asks the Chinese. “I’m Jewish!!” declares the anthropologist in triumph. “Funny,” says the Chinese person, “you don’t look Jewish.”
Well, first – what is ‘Semitism’?
The Semites are a language group dating back around 5,000 years. It is an Afro-Asian group with some familiar names – Assyrians, Canaanites, Babylonians, Jews…and what we would now call Palestinians. The language group is widely dispersed, now mostly Arabic. It has no relationship to a genetic group – Semites are not a race. Indeed, DNA research shows without question that neither Palestinians nor Jews are genetically distinct (a fascinating read is Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the Stories in our Genes). A Jew is Jewish by being born to a Jewish mother – this says nothing about grandparents and beyond. If your great-great-great-great grandmother on the distaff side said she was Jewish but was not, then the whole chain is adrift. Besides, as Shlomo Sand shows in his book The Invention of the Jewish People, there was so much mutual conversion between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East as to completely confuse the gene pool – quite apart from genes brought in from Central Asian rape and pillage, and mixed marriages in Medieval Spain and Europe through the empire of the Moors.
But we like to think of Semites as more than a language group. We think of them as a culture, if not as a race. Anti-Semitic has collapsed to the narrow and completely irrational definition as ‘anti-Jew’. More precisely, we tend to think of anti-Semitism as opprobrium aimed at people who would be vulnerable to the kind of racial profiling used by the German Nazis. Those Labour Party members who are allegedly ‘anti-Semitic’ – together with Tories and Lib Dems who share the same values – are assumed to hate Jews, but not Palestinians and Arabs. Doesn’t make sense, other than as a simplistic racist trope.
If we want, we could think of a generalised example of anti-Semitism being the persecution of a Semitic minority by a white, European group. But that just as easily defines Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The Israeli state is, in a strict sense, anti-Semitic where it oppresses Palestinians. But, again, this involves the error of imagining that Palestinians are a distinct genetic or cultural group, which they decidedly are not. Semites were a language group – and language has little to do with race, other than through geographical – and geopolitical – accident.
Now, we know this is true because when we look at Jews and Palestinians we see a highly varied phenotype (how a person looks as a result of their genetic make-up). There are light-skinned, olive-skinned, dark and black Jews; there are Arabic and Caucasian looking Palestinians. In my family I have a brother with a long, large-nosed Caucasian face with straight, medium-brown hair. I also have a sister with a round (Asian) shaped face with black curly hair. I have travelled to Israel a few times and I am always struck by the fact that I look more like many Palestinians I see than many Jewish Israelis. Indeed, there are constant complaints in Israel of the racism shown towards Sephardi and African dark-skinned Jews, many of whom (not least the Falashas – Ethiopian Jews) live as second-class citizens.
But to focus on the Jews, the basis of anti-Semitism is even more confused. What do we make of an atheist Jew who does not attend synagogue, eats non-kosher food, believes there is no historical legitimacy to the Israeli state and marries someone who claims no Jewish heritage. Is it possible to be anti-Semitic towards them? And can they, themselves, reasonably be an accuser of anti-Semitism in others? And what do we make of people who are critical of Israel but admiring of Jewish culture?
This last question is the final, possibly the most fundamental of confusions as to Semitism and anti-Semitism. Israel is not a ‘Jewish state’ – though it often claims to be so – and has tried (unsuccessfully) to pass legislation making it so. Theoretically, the Israeli electorate could elect a Knesset (Israeli parliament) entirely made up of Christians and Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs and black Africans. Unlikely, but constitutionally possible. Indeed, there is a group of high-orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta) living in Jerusalem that is aggressively opposed to the State of Israel – believing that a ‘Jewish state’ (sic) cannot and should not exist until the coming of the Messiah (Jews, of course, believe that Jesus was a false Messiah). Are they anti-Semitic?
So to Labour MP John Woodcock who insists that Jeremy Corbyn make alliance with “mainstream” Jews (an economic mainstream? linguistic? genetic? life-style? religious?culinary? geopolitical?). He condemns Corbyn for celebrating the Passover with a radical Jewish group (Jewdas) who are critical of Israel. Now then, given that defining a Jew is an act as delicate as dancing on the head of a pin, John Woodcock risks spinning off the pin with these filigree definitions of what makes for a ‘legitimate’ (non-anti-Semitic) Jew. Is John Woodcock Jewish? We don’t know from his web profiles – but how would he know, and what does the question really mean? He might have Jewish ancestry and not know – or he might claim to be Jewish but have more genes from Neanderthal man and Muslims than from Jewish antecedents. He was Chair of the Labour Friends of Israel Committee, but defence of Israel has little, if anything, to do with anti-Semitism.
If we could ever pin down just who, in the end, is a Semite. So, to close, here is a statement from Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister (in 2008) which nicely echoes at least some of the confusions above – as we see her haplessly twisting in the political winds trying to pin down this particular lump of jelly:
“So, what does that mean, a Jewish state? It is not only a matter of the number of Jews who live in Israel. It is not just a matter of numbers but a matter of values. The Jewish state is a matter of values, but it is not just a matter of religion, it is also a matter of nationality. And a Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It is not. It is about the nature of the State of Israel. It is about Jewish tradition. It is about Jewish history, regardless of the question of what each and every Israeli citizen does in his own home on Saturdays and what he does on the Jewish holidays. We need to maintain the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel, because this is the raison d’être of the State of Israel.”
And if this helps untangle your knots you might want to start following John Woodcock on Twitter – he makes just as much sense.