Let’s start with the mural. I assume you’ve all seen it by now. Not just because it has provoked the present, perhaps climactic row about anti-semitism in the Labour Party, but also because it’s “street art”. It’s by Mear One, a graffiti artist who defines himself as underground and anti-war. (His real name is Kalen Ockerman.) I probably didn’t need to tell any reader with progressive politics these qualifiers — to paraphrase Jerry Maguire, I had you at street art. Clearly, this is a man fighting the good fight.
And yet his mural is racist. Or, at least, Jews seem to think so. How can this be? To put it stupidly, how can someone so apparently left-wing be accused of something so apparently right-wing?
Let’s look at Mear One’s own justifications. In 2015, after the Muslim mayor of Tower Hamlets, in east London, had the mural removed, Mear said that “some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had a problem with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg”.
Ignore the patronising, Goebbels-like, insinuating tone — one that would never be used by anyone with progressive politics towards any other ethnic minority that felt under attack. Instead, consider why Mear (I’m going to call him that, as One sounds a bit odd) decided to add hashtags to those names. It was posted on his Facebook page and thus these names can be clicked on. This means Mear is not saying: “I have painted Rothschild, the Jewish banking dynasty”, but: “I have painted Rothschild, the Jewish banking dynasty whose name you can now follow into the darkest corners of the internet, which will help you understand how this Jewish banking dynasty controls the world”.
I think more important, however, is Mear’s deliberate use of the loaded word “white”. As we know, almost any attack on the status quo these days comes with the assumption that the enemy is white — and straight and a man, but white is the high point of the trilogy. I agree with that. I agree that being white does bring with it enormous privilege, a lot of which the white person isn’t even aware of.
But Jews are not white. Or not quite. At least, they don’t always feel it. I don’t mean just that Jews are of Middle Eastern descent and their melanin can follow suit. (Although they are: one of my first jokes on starting stand-up was, “I’ve been beaten up twice in my life, once for being Jewish, once for being a Pakistani”.)
What I mean is that being white is not, at heart, about skin colour, but security. It means you are protected because you are a member of the majority culture. Protected, that is, from prejudice, discrimination, second-class citizenship, dispossession and genocide. Which Jews — as perhaps you’ve guessed I was about to say — have not always been.
So what Mear was doing by ignoring that historical truth about Jews — by calling them “white” — is reinforcing his credentials as Fighter for the Oppressed. He’s saying, “Yes, I’m caricaturing Jews, but that’s OK because they are privilege and power and control and all the other things contained in the word ‘white’. Jews are The Man, and my job as a street artist is Sticking It to The Man.”
That’s where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. Here’s Jeremy, in 2012, with not even a sniff of his oncoming destiny yet, seeing the street artist’s work being taken down. So Jeremy’s rebel radar is up: he spots, of course, the old Marxist historical parallels with the names Lenin and Rockefeller and Diego Rivera, and he weighs in behind Mear on Facebook.
What he doesn’t spot is the anti- semitism. He doesn’t even spot other historical parallels you might have thought he would: between the mural and the depictions of hook-nosed Jewish bankers holding the world to ransom that were published weekly in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. He doesn’t spot that the mural could be a cover of a reprint of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-semitic text from 1903 that purports to show a Jewish plot for world domination.
That’s not because Jeremy is an anti-semite. Jeremy, like Mear, is a rebel, a champion of the oppressed. Which is why there is a video of him speaking emotionally at a demonstration to remember the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, which saw Oswald Mosley’s fascists driven back from their march in the East End. The Jews whose houses Mosley’s Blackshirts painted “yid” on are clearly oppressed. Jeremy can speak passionately for them, his voice breaking. Ordinary middle- income Jews upset about the depiction of Jewish bankers on those same streets — not so much.
I don’t think, however, that Corbyn even knew the mural was meant to depict the Rothschild and Warburg dynasties. All he will have seen is a rebel gesture against power. But there is, on both left and right, an awfully long history of capitalist power being represented as Jewish power, something that developed out of an aesthetic far older than capitalism, in which Jews were routinely painted and sculpted as gargoyles and devils throughout western culture.
This is where the invisibility to people such as Corbyn of these anti-semitic tropes becomes complicated. Jeremy has many bedfellows for whom these remain the primary way to portray the scheming, evil, capitalist enemy. And if you just think, “Well, that’s how our enemy looks”, you are accepting it. It’s a default.
That history is getting even longer as the present becomes overtaken by conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory, I have said before, is how idiots get to feel like intellectuals. One idiot idea advanced by conspiracy theory is that the world, rather than being a complex place where good and bad things happen multifariously, randomly and for many reasons, is actually controlled by a shadowy elite for its own benefit. (Twenty-eight per cent of Labour members who voted for Corbyn in his first election as leader believe this to be true.) And whether you’re David Icke, Mear One or Piers Corbyn (Jeremy’s brother), it is not even a small jump from this shadowy elite being “lizards” and “Illuminati” to being Jews.
Anti-semitism — what I prefer to call anti-Jewish racism — is the only racism that casts the object of its hate with a dual status, both low and high. Although they can be considered stinking, cheating vermin, and all the other unlovely epithets racists use to describe minorities, only Jews possess this extra, subtle spin of being secretly in control, pulling the strings and forever conspiring to promote their own global agenda. This makes them a perfect fit for those — and they are legion — whose ego and sense of identity are served by the idea that they have spotted some cracks in the “matrix” that no one else has (except all their conspiracy-theory mates).
In the end, it’s all about money. A few years ago, I made a short film, The Y-Word, trying to raise awareness about the word “yid” being chanted at football matches. One of its points was that the y-word might be considered as unacceptable as the n-word. A progressive friend of mine said: “It’s not.” I asked why. He said: “Because Jews are rich.”
It was an amazing thing for a person who was avowedly anti-racist to say (not least because of its implicit assumption that black people can never be rich). Yet that’s the basic issue here: because Jews are thought of as comfortable, privileged and moneyed, they don’t need the protections of anti-racism — the ones most promoted by the left. This is wrong, even if you think — which you should not, because it’s not true — that all Jews are rich. My grandparents were: they were industrialists in East Prussia. They owned a brick factory. They had servants. By the time they were fleeing to England with my mother as a baby in 1939, however, that had all been robbed from them. And by the end of the war, most of their family — and therefore a large section of mine — had been murdered. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, because racists will smash in the door of your big house that they know you don’t deserve anyway.
This is why Jews don’t always feel “white”, if by white you mean, to put it bluntly, safe. I didn’t feel white as a 12-year-old at a new school when one teacher was overheard to say of me, venomously, “Jew”, and another replied: “Of course.” I didn’t feel white when, loving TS Eliot as a teenager, I turned a page to discover that his poem Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar includes the lines: “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.” I didn’t feel white when I was actually being beaten up in London in the 1970s, however much I might later convert it to comedy. I didn’t feel white when — and this is what led to the Y-Word campaign — a man behind me at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea stadium, started shouting repeatedly, “F*** the f****** yids! F*** the f****** Jews”, while stewards told to operate a zero-tolerance culture for racism ignored it. And I don’t feel white now when a Corbynista — one of hundreds — tweets me to say that the Mear One mural isn’t anti-semitic, it’s justifiably showing up “Zionist greed”.
But, unlike a person of colour might, nor do I feel at present as if the political party I might look to in order to feel safe — the party of the left and social justice — would defend me, either.