The Politics of Terminology

It would, in the last resort, be dangerous to be rigid in reserving the terminology of 'anti-semitism' exclusively for a definition of the ideology of the Jewish conspiracy, and to use the language of 'chauvinism' to describe assimilationism by the host community. This is not just because the two may be conceptually linked, as has been seen. Rather they are also, as far as Jewish people are concerned, linked in daily life. To put it at its most basic, Jewish people feel trapped within their oppression. There often seems no way out. It is the totality of this oppression that is felt to be anti-semitic, irrespective of the theoretical origins of its components.

The historical periods detailed in this book are a good example of the mechanism of anti-semitism. Jewish people who, at the turn of the century, came to this country fleeing from pogroms, were met with conspiracy views on the Left. Such views have re-emerged today in the guise of anti-zionism, at a time when more and more Jews are beginning to find this racist country intolerable. Linking these two historical periods has been the constant propaganda of Left ideologues saying that Jewish culture is dead and urging Jews to assimilate on the grounds that this is the only way to resist oppression. This succession of traps have in themselves gradually helped deter the Jewish masses from socialism as an answer to their problems. The most vivid illustration of this is that whereas zionism is attacked in part as avoiding the struggle against anti-semitism, Jewish self-organisation, such as the Bund, is attacked as being separatist and a concession to zionism!

These traps are just a faithful reflection of everyday reality as felt by Jewish people, where social life in gentile society is seen as one big double bind. There are many good Yiddish jokes about how we regard the slightest criticism as a form of anti-semitism, but these must be seen as a response to the way anti-semitism often seems to be a closed circle, with no exit. It is not for the oppressor to deny the reality of the oppressed. It is not for Christian society to deny the potency of anti-semitism as an ideology, to deny the power of the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. The historic effects of this theory have been dramatic. Not least it is the mechanism which starts and closes the circle of oppression around Jewish people: its inherent irrationality provides it with infinite elasticity.

Nothing can be understood about the Jewish predicament without understanding that what defines it as a unique category of racism is the existence of anti-semitism as ideology. It is this ideology that needs to be destroyed in order to give hope for Jewish liberation. This requires a serious political struggle-and one which is able to distinguish friend from foe. Assimilation is not the answer. It is part of the problem.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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