Using the ‘antisemitism’ charge

Jasmine Donahaye considers the implications of using the ‘antisemitism’ charge.

‘It’s a low, churlish thing to slur a man by calling him a Jew,’ wrote Saunders Lewis in Y Ddraig Goch in 1926.[1] How you understand what that means – whether Lewis is recognising the slur or deploying the slur – depends on what you’re looking for: like each of the Jewish references in his work, it is subject to widely differing interpretations. That is in essence the nature of semitic discourse: it is contradictory, changeable and ambiguous. Interpretations of its meaning, its purpose and its effect are consequently almost always tenuous and contingent. Hostility to Jews is part of that discourse, but what constitutes ‘antisemitism’ is hotly contested. Anyone who’s read an online broadsheet story about Israel/Palestine will know that overreactive and unsupported charges of antisemitism – and their repudiation – are repeatedly used to silence criticism and dissent.


This week on Click on Wales

For decades Plaid Cymru have stood accused of sympathising with Fascism during the 1930s. The publication of Richard Wyn Jones’s book on ‘Welsh Nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism’ in English earlier this year challenged the charges against Plaid.

 Click on Wales ran a series of essays last month debating the issues, culminating in a debate on October 1st featuring former First Minister Rhodri Morgan. You can hear the debate here.

Over the next two days we’ll be featuring responses to the earlier essays. Today Jasmine Donahaye considers the implications of using the ‘antisemitism’ charge. Tomorrow, author of ‘The Fascist Party in Wales’ Richard Wyn Jones responds to this series of essays.

The problems of definition and of allegations of antisemitism that are put to political purpose pertain in Wales too, but here arguments about hostile Jewish imaging almost invariably rely on simple categorical terms that don’t take account of its ambiguity. Focusing an argument on whether someone like Saunders Lewis was or was not an antisemite is not only unhelpful but also damaging – damaging because it bypasses understanding of the purpose to which someone might put hostile or stereotyped imaging of Jews; damaging because a charge of antisemitism is used here as a tool to shut down debate (for alongside charges of antisemitism there are accompanying charges of apologising for that antisemitism); and damaging because it puts to political use a consideration of Jews without really considering Jews at all.

This simplistic approach has ramifications for how we deal with hostile imaging of all minority groups, but there is nevertheless a complexity that is particular to the discussion of antisemitism – not because of a hierarchy of hostility, but because of how the charges of hostility are used politically. The response to the staging of The Death of Klinghoffer by the New York Metropolitan Opera is only the latest of these – something that has been sharply analysed by Chemi Shalev in Israel’s leading leftwing newspaper, Ha’aretz.

Any consideration of stereotyped imaging of Jews runs certain unavoidable risks, because it is so burdened with sensitivities both past and present: the risk on the one hand of being seen to downplay such imaging, and being accused, as Tim Williams accuses Richard Wyn Jones, of being an apologist for it; and the risk on the other hand of overplaying its significance, and being accused, as I would accuse Tim Williams, of being dangerously overreactive.

In my original Click on Wales article responding to the Welsh edition of Wyn Jones’s The Fascist Party in Wales? Plaid Cymru, Welsh Nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism, I criticised the author’s analysis of the allegation of antisemitism against the party, arguing, among other objections, that it did not include a sufficiently broad or deep consideration of Jewish imaging in the work of Saunders Lewis. Without considering how such imaging works in comparative and historical context, it is not possible to see what the effect and intent was of Lewis’s particular deployment of it in the Welsh context. In the absence of such a consideration, to situate this imaging in the context of hostile Jewish tropes across the political spectrum in the 1930s is to run the risk of being accused of ‘whataboutery’. Unfortunately, if usefully, Tim Williams’s intemperate and poorly sourced response to the book illustrates the problem of this risk rather well when he asserts that Wyn Jones’s ‘attempts to exonerate [Lewis] amount to saying “lots of people were prejudiced against Jews in the 30s, even some on the left: they were all at it”.

There is no attempt in the book to exonerate Lewis. Williams’s explicit and indefensible assertion that Wyn Jones is an apologist for antisemitism is based in part on two serious misrepresentations of the author and of the book. Firstly, he claims that Wyn Jones ignores the Saunders Lewis poem ‘Y Dilyw’ (which contains hostile Jewish imagery). However, the author discusses that poem on page 42 in both the Welsh and the English edition – it even has a handy entry in the index. Secondly, Williams accuses the author of not discussing ‘antisemitic cartoons in the 1920s in Y Ddraig Goch’. There are no antisemitic cartoons in Y Ddraig Goch in the 1920s – indeed there are no cartoons in the paper in that period. In addition he berates the author for not including discussion of a Saunders Lewis play about the Wehrmacht which omits treatment of the Holocaust. This is more complicated for several reasons, but to argue, as Williams does, that the absence of semitic discourse in the play is evidence of antisemitic discourse requires at the least a working definition of terms. This is elided by Williams, which allows him to deploy some very dubious distinctions between ‘different varieties of anti-semitism’, as he puts it.

Williams’s criticism of  Wyn Jones for taking  ‘too wide a view of what constituted an anti-semite’ is not a criticism of method, but of perceived intent. In reacting to that perceived intent (of, variously, ‘apologising for’, ‘exonerating’, ‘defumigating’, ‘cleansing’ and ‘cleaning’ Lewis), Williams’s own presentation of what constitutes an ‘anti-semite’ veers so chaotically from one extreme to the other that he ends up contradicting himself, making a mockery of his own criticism, and finally implicating himself.

Take, for example, the absurdity introduced by his discussion of ‘salon’ anti-semitism. By this term he appears to mean a rather distasteful form of comment spoken behind closed doors – that is, not an antisemitism that is fundamental to the speaker’s worldview (though how one might know this he does not make clear). He describes W. J. Gruffydd’s diatribe against Jews, which Wyn Jones reproduces in the book, as ‘tacky anti-semitism’, and characterises it as ‘salon anti-semitism said out-loud’. How something published in a journal can be an apparently harmless behind-closed-doors hostility accidentally said in public requires such a contortion of the terms of reference as to be effectively meaningless.

This absurdity arises in part precisely because the framework is so limited and limiting. Determining someone’s ‘antisemitism’ by measuring his attitude to Jews along a spectrum of greater or lesser hostility does not in fact tell us anything useful: up to what cut-off point is the hostile depiction ‘acceptable’ or at least not worthy of comment, or not worthy of the inference that the speaker or writer is an antisemite? What degree or frequency of hostile comment invites the label ‘antisemitic’? Who gets to decide?

Williams does not delineate what, in his or anyone’s else’s view, constitutes antisemitism.[2] Nor does he seek to establish what constitutes an antisemite (these being distinct considerations). From his characterisation of W. J. Gruffydd’s hostile statement about Jews as ‘tacky antisemitism’ one could infer (though I won’t attribute the belief to Williams) that what’s said behind closed doors is somehow acceptable. The corollary is that Gruffydd merely shows poor taste – and poor judgement – for saying in public (but in fact producing in print) what should be kept to private throwaway comment between like-minded people. Unequivocally this constitutes an apology by Williams for Gruffydd’s deeply hostile characterisation of Jews. To accuse Wyn Jones of seeking to exonerate Lewis, when Williams himself exculpates Gruffydd for his published hostile rant, is bizarre and – to put it delicately – at the very least contradictory.

To infer that one set of expressions is ‘tacky’ because it’s singular (but full of invective) where another set of motifs makes the author ‘certainly a political and literary anti-semite’ illustrates just how unrigorous this approach is – and, ultimately, how unhelpful.

More bizarre than the apology for Gruffydd, and in fact suggestive of the consequences of failing to define what is meant in this context by ‘antisemitism’, is the peculiar matter of the elusive ‘anti-semitic cartoons’. The problem here lies with Williams’s memory of cartoons in Y Ddraig Goch in the 1920s. Apart from a drawing of a drunk Welshman on St David’s Day in 1927, there are in fact no cartoons in Y Ddraig Goch in the 1920s, and though there is visual material in the early 1930s, there are no antisemitic cartoons, nor cartoons featuring Jews. There are, however, three cartoons depicting capitalists. One of these, featuring ‘War’ and ‘Profiteer’, is reprinted from the Daily Herald, which, if it were deemed antisemitic, would hardly support Williams’s dismissal of the hostile imaging of Jews on the left in the period.[3] One features a capitalist addressing a young farmer. Another features ‘the Capitalist’ on his deathbed passing on a legacy to his son, ‘the Communist’.[4] Not one of these cartoons includes any identifiable Jewish feature, let alone a hostile stereotype or caricature of a Jew.

Of course we all make research mistakes, and mistakes of recall – I’m as guilty as the next person, and it’s distressing when it happens – but presenting this mistake as evidence of Wyn Jones’s apologist agenda, along with the other mistakes about what’s allegedly omitted from his discussion, goes far beyond lack of rigour, simple oversight, or sloppy research.

The problem of the cartoons illustrates how an overzealous interpretation of semitic discourse can be not only absurd but also damaging: to see hostile depictions of Jews where there aren’t any undermines the impact of pointing out where there are. The non-existent cartoons are useful also for what they suggest about how hostile stereotypes are perpetuated. In cartoons of capitalists, Williams remembers caricatures of Jews. In perhaps not dissimilar manner, in an unguarded moment, Joe Biden referred to loan sharks as ‘Shylocks’. That doesn’t make Biden an antisemite – and nor could one say that Williams is an antisemite for seeing capitalists as Jews. But it is a good example of how we can internalise those very stereotypes we might wish to repudiate – because they are so prevalent in the culture.[5]

Making exaggerated and inaccurate claims about hostile imaging of Jews in this way is just as dangerous as downplaying or discounting its significance. To make such claims in an attempt to delegitimise a critical enquiry whose findings one disagrees with is to misuse that discourse. Consequently I cannot agree with David Melding that ‘where Williams does hit the mark with righteous anger is on the question of Lewis’ anti-Semitism’. In this redeployment of allegations of antisemitism, Williams has the dubious honour of illustrating another of the problems that Wyn Jones’s book seeks to challenge: he reiterates the slur, and perpetuates in new form the deployment of Saunders Lewis’s purported hostility to Jews to make a political point.

Using the claim of antisemitism for political purposes is one of the more troubling aspects of the whole tangled issue, from the original source in Saunders Lewis’s finite uses of hostile Jewish imaging (and his less definable interest in Jews), to its use by Plaid Cymru’s detractors both in the past and the present.

This is not to say that I doubt Tim Williams’s feeling of ‘righteous anger’, as Melding puts it. Nevertheless, when discussing purported antisemitism it is important to show a little more awareness of the wider discourse and of the purposes to which that discourse is put. A greater sensitivity about the relevance of this discourse to the lived reality of those on the receiving end of such hostility would also be welcome.

Ultimately, the discussion about the book (and about the allegations more widely) appears to overlook the fact that there are Jews who are the target of regular suspicion and prejudice towards them qua Jews – not just back in the 1930s, or on the continent, but here, and now, in Wales: prejudice across the spectrum, from well-meaning but ignorant understandings of Jews as ‘other’, expressed in terms of essentialised ‘positive’ stereotypes, to deep hostility, including direct and indirect abuse.

Overwrought claims show how essential it is that shades of meaning in such imagery be given space in these discussions. How else might it be possible to understand how they are operating or why they are deployed? Such imaging – whether in political writing, poetry or other published forms – needs to be carefully assessed in the context in which it occurs and in the context of such semitic discourse more widely.

Looking at such imaging across the political spectrum is indeed one of the contextual approaches that is needed. That Wyn Jones contextualises Saunders Lewis’s use of hostile imaging of Jews in this way does not diminish his revulsion over it; nor does considering it in the comparative political context of the period make him an apologist. He does not exculpate Lewis, and nor does he try to. However, both the book, and the reasoned discussion of it, establishes that there are no historical grounds for the allegation of fascism and antisemitism against Plaid Cymru, and it makes clear that the problem of hostile Jewish commentary in particular relates materially to Lewis. Nevertheless, until Plaid Cymru itself formally addresses this latter finding it will continue to dog the party, and will make some people’s support, including my own, uneasy and somewhat tenuous.

Wrongfully accusing someone of being an apologist for an attitude that in a liberal context is held to be reprehensible is a very serious matter, but it is also damaging – not so much damaging to the individual, who in this case is so patently no such thing, but damaging to debate. Though this contentious question about Plaid Cymru primarily concerns a fight over the national narrative, it has wider ramifications that could usefully be kept in mind. Firstly, accuracy and a reasoned analysis are essential in the heated, contested but also subtle and complex reality of hostility to Jews, including living Jews. Secondly, and just as importantly, for those of us who seek to engage critically with Israel’s national narrative and the domestic and foreign policy that arises from it, the reiteration of overwrought understandings of antisemitism makes reasoned and accurate discussion increasingly difficult to broach, let alone sustain.


[1] Y Ddraig Goch, Rhagfyr 1926. The translation is my own.

[2] Tim Williams’s invocation of Howard Jacobson’s “antisemitic duck” is not very illuminating, and without a source, it’s not possible to read Jacobson’s observation in context. Of course the ‘if it walks like a duck, it is probably a duck’ argument is regularly used to shut down nuanced debate in a wide variety of contexts.

[3] Williams may not like the finding that there is hostile semitic discourse on the left, but to assert that it is untrue, and that citing the case of Orwell is an attempt to smear him, is simply to ignore the evidence (both the evidence presented in the book – including the footnotes – and in the sources cited). I’d also recommend Andrea Freud Loewenstein’s psycho-sexual reading of Orwell’s Jewish treatment, ‘The Protection of Masculinity: Jews as Projective Pawns in the Texts of William Gerhardi and George Orwell’ in Bryan Cheyette (ed.) Between ‘Race’ and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature (Stanford University Press, 1996).

[4] Y Ddraig Goch, Ebrill 1936; Awst 1936; Mai 1935.

[5] Even Llais Llafur, that solid organ of south Wales socialism, refers to ‘Conservatives and their nest of Jewish capitalists’, though in the very different context of the debates around the Immigrations Acts of 1904-5.

Jasmine Donahaye is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University, where she is a member of the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales. Her publications include two poetry collections, the monograph Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine (University of Wales Press), and two books forthcoming in 2015: a memoir, Losing Israel (Seren), and a biography of Lily Tobias, Finding her Place: a Welsh Jew in Palestine (Honno).

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