Of redheads and Jews: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on U.K. Labour’s latest kerfuffle concerning antisemitism

Natasha Lyonne: at the intersection of redheaded and Jewish. (Credit: Netflix)

British Labour MP Diane Abbott had her party whip suspended, which I think is British for, she is in hot water. Why? It’s one of those remarks about the Jews incidents, although in fairness, Abbott stuck her foot in it about more than one group, all in the span of one measly letter-to-the-editor.

Responding to Tomiwa Owolade’s article, “Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It’s far more complicated,” explaining statistics about hate-motivated attacks, Abbott retorted that actually, it is black and white:

“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.”

It’s a weird gaffe because she’s partly right. I can’t speak to the precise nature of bigotry against Irish Travellers, beyond what was depicted (but not endorsed) in the Midsomer Murders episode I rewatched the other night. But antisemitism, this one I do know about and… I also don’t find it helpful to say that antisemitism is a form of racism. Antisemitism is… antisemitism, a form of bigotry with racial, religious, cultural, and other components. This doesn’t make it more or less serious than racism, just different.

If you try to understand antisemitism solely in terms of racism, you wind up misunderstanding what it’s about, and—and this gets at where Abbott went wrong—assuming it can’t possibly be that big of a deal. That it is mere “prejudice” and as such, not a genuinely concern. After all, Jews are plainly less racially identifiable (as Jews, that is) than the groups that tend to get referred to as racialised. And yet people have on one or two or wait millions of occasions literally been killed for being Jewish. (But you, if you’re reading this, are well aware of that fact.)

The problem is of course Abbott’s notion that Jewishness is a trait akin to having red hair. Seriously? I suppose this would add a level of gravitas to Prince Harry’s quest for victimhood status, but last I checked, no one ever did a genocide on redheads. And I’d venture to guess that the discrimination Irish Travellers experience also exceeds that of the people sometimes marginalized by… being called “gingers.”

All of which gets at why this might just be a teachable moment. No, antisemitism isn’t racism. Also no, that doesn’t mean it’s a lesser form of bigotry. (Homophobia, transphobia, ableism, whichever others: also not racism.) But it probably won’t. It will probably lead to an apology cycle involving everyone insisting (without believing) that antisemitism is in fact interchangeable with racism.

That said, I remain your local pessimist and am not convinced that much is gained by properly understanding antisemitism, in all its contours. If people are confused and imagine Jews are no more hated than redheads, maybe this is a form of ignorance to embrace. I mean, if only.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz