In the controversy about ‘Jewface’ a crucial point about racism has been missed.

Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein (and specifically his prosthetic nose) has reignited the controversy around “Jewface”: should non-Jewish actors be playing Jewish roles? Sarah Silverman kicked this off a while back by criticising the casting of Kathryn Hahn as the Jewish comedian Joan Rivers. After that Maureen Lipman attacked the decision to cast Helen Mirren as Golda Meir; then David Baddiel pitched in, objecting to the casting of a non-Jew as the voice of a Jewish character in an animated movie. He felt that the sensitivities of every minority were being taken into account, except when it came to Jews.

Those who refer to non-Jews playing Jews as “Jewface” are clearly trying to draw a parallel with the old vaudeville “minstrel shows”, when white artists wore “blackface” makeup and performed song and dance routines as black people; the implication is that it is just as offensive. I don’t think this comparison holds up. First of all you have to realise just how racially derogatory those minstrel shows were: the makeup gave the actors comical fat red lips, and the routines portrayed black people as stupid, lazy and easily frightened. Minstrel shows were hugely popular during the heyday of industrialised slavery in the mid-19th century in the U.S., and they were part of the racist culture that normalised slavery. In itself non-Jews playing Jews doesn’t come anywhere close to that kind of offensiveness. Given Sarah Silverman’s and David Baddiel’s own history of playing in blackface (half-apologised for), it’s not clear to me that they really get this.

Moreover there’s a broader point here that’s being missed, which is about the content of anti-black racism. It’s certainly true that it’s no longer OK for white actors to play black people (Laurence Olivier playing Othello comes to mind), and the history of minstrel shows is part of why, but such casting also carried the implication that black people were too stupid or uncultured to portray themselves. Whatever prejudices there may be against Jews (or gay men, or Welshmen for that matter), they don’t include the belief that they are incapable of playing themselves.

There’s a wider debate about so-called “lived experience” casting, and whether you have to be a member of a minority to play minority roles, and I may blog about that in the future. There may indeed be a problem with Bradley Cooper’s nose: for me it feels on the edge of what’s acceptable. However to throw the accusation of “Jewface” around is to appropriate the suffering of another people. That’s ironic, when you think of how often Jewish suffering is appropriated by others.

Thinking about the Labour Party and antisemitism

You can’t make sense of the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party without delving into the deeper issues.

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about antisemitism and the Labour Party. Initially I bristled with suspicion about the motives of those who attacked the Corbyn leadership for being antisemitic: the antisemitism conflict has divided the party fairly clearly between right and left (unlike Brexit), and the issues of principle seemed to be getting lost in the factional struggle. Moreover, the issue has become (inextricably?) entangled with the question of Israel and the Palestinians, a subject that is highly emotionally charged, deeply polarised and very complex. What if I made a mistake? What if I lost my temper and wrote something that I would regret? Since then I’ve been reading and thinking, and I realise that the subject raises deep and important questions about a host of issues that are well worth the risk of exploring.

Even the definition of antisemitism is contested, so it seems best to begin with what I understand antisemitism to be at this point. I see it from a social-psychological point of view: as in all forms of racism I think that there’s a underlying antisemitic fantasy (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit). This fantasy sees the Jews as a single powerful global force, a massive conspiracy, that uses its money and hidden channels of influence to manipulate the world to its advantage. In this worldview the Jews are cunning and arrogant and enjoy special privileges. This fantasy is charged with a sense of inferiority and resentment as well as hate; this is what gives antisemitism its emotional power.

Antisemitic beliefs can find expression in the form of cliches or “tropes”. For example, when U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was due to spending by pro-Israel lobbyists (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby” – a line from a Puff Daddy song referring to the picture of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 note) I think she was evoking the antisemitic trope that Jews use their money to corrupt politicians (Omar did apologise subsequently, referring to her ongoing education in the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes”). Another less explicit example comes from Hungary. There the ruling Fidesz party have used posters showing George Soros, a Jewish financier, at the centre of the leaders of the opposition. The image isn’t explicitly antisemitic, but the history of antisemitism in Hungary is long enough for most Hungarians to get the hint: the Jew Soros is pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s like a “dog whistle” that’s only audible if your hearing is sensitive enough.

I’ve deliberately chosen examples from both the left and the right to make the point that antisemitic tropes are culturally pervasive: the left can’t assume because of its opposition to racism that it is immune to antisemitism. Because antisemitism (like other forms of racism) can be quite unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, people can be convinced that they’re not antisemitic even though their thinking betrays antisemitic tropes; reason alone to proceed with caution. The conflicts around Israel and Palestine add another whole layer of difficulty.

It doesn’t seem profitable to me to spend much time on the ding-dong of accusations and counter-accusations around antisemitism in the Labour Party at a local level, and at headquarters: there is a mass of detail that I can’t hope to form an independent judgement about, and the only thing that’s clear to me is that there has been a bitter internal conflict between the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his opponents. What I feel I can do is look at the bigger issues, touching on a few prominent cases for which (much of) the evidence is public, and drawing some conclusions. That’s what I intend to do in future posts.