What is the distinction between doing something anti-Semitic and being an anti-Semite?

The world would be a better place if we admitted: you can do something bigoted without being a bigot

A confession: when people accused of bigotry convict themselves out of their own mouths with the whining observation that some of their best friends are of a certain variety, and everyone falls about laughing, I often feel an awkward sliver of sympathy. The general response is: the statement probably isn’t true, but if it is, this racist/sexist/homophobe is simply covering their prejudice, and the alleged friend is nothing but a patsy. But there’s a reason the phrase still comes up so often, even though it’s so self-defeating, and the truth is I can imagine feeling something similar.

I can imagine saying something without thinking about it, and then watching aghast as the world that didn’t know me interpreted that statement as a summary of my whole self. I can imagine thinking of all the bits of my life that contradicted it, and thinking of that time just last week that me and my best friends sat and had a laugh over a few drinks, and I can imagine all of that adding up to a stronger conviction than ever that I am not a bigot, that my words have been twisted, eliminating all doubt that the thing I said was definitely fine, and leading me inexorably to the conclusion that anyone who interprets it otherwise is oversensitive. Some of my best friends are Jewish, and those relationships are a better encapsulation of my life than a few poorly-chosen words. And so it is impossible that the thing I said revealed anti-Semitism. 

All this came to mind this morning as I looked at some of the responses to a piece I wrote yesterday about the Tricycle theatre’s decision to bar the UK Jewish Film Festival over its Israeli government funding. The short version of the piece is: the intent wasn’t anti-Semitic, but the decision was a really bad one, which has a horrible effect on British Jews to no discernible benefit of anyone in Gaza.

One thing that came up a few times was that my careful defence of the intentions of the Tricycle and its artistic director Indhu Rubasingham was irrelevant. As Matthew Hoffman put it: “Why is it only anti-Semitism if the perpetrators of the decision are anti-Semites? The effect is what matters.” In this account, even if my remark did not reveal anti-Semitism, it might have been anti-Semitism in itself.

I go back and forth on what I think about this, but the vacillation is productive. It’s a semantic matter, but an important one. Accept for a second (even if you think I’m totally wrong) that the result was indiscriminately bad for Jews, but that Rubasingham’s intentions were entirely honourable. Is such an action anti-Semitic?

I don’t think so. But I can’t rule out the possibility that a large part of what impels me to that conclusion is the knowledge of how ugly a label it is, and how bad the consequences can be for someone who’s slapped with it. Our conversation on the subject is not all that subtle, and the distinction between doing something anti-Semitic and being an anti-Semite is liable to be lost. If the former, we tend to assume, then inevitably the latter. I think Rubasingham runs a brilliant and socially important theatre, and I have no wish to contribute to her or its permanent marginalisation. And so I shy away from the term.

It’s not surprising we find these distinctions difficult to maintain. Our understanding of all of it is bound up in a problem that has preoccupied great artists and philosophers forever: are we defined by our actions, or do we have some innate self that resists such worldly attempts to narrow it? And since no-one has ever really come up with a permanently satisfactory answer, it is not surprising that we tend to just do the simplest thing, and lump our natures and our actions in together. Unfortunately, shrugging like this produces the worst possible result. We end up too quick to condemn acts that do real harm, and too slow to defend people against a permanent shunning out of all proportion to their sin.

So, perhaps, if I think about it really hard, I do think that what the Tricycle did is anti-Semitic. But I am unwilling to say so, in the current climate, without a waffling 650 words of preamble that tries to explain exactly what I do and don’t mean. And the only honest context in which to place it is to say that I, too, have done racist things. I have done sexist things. I have done homophobic things.  I’ve confused two black people for no reason other than their skin colour; I’ve talked over women too readily, and sat back while they do the chores; I’ve associated being gay with being somehow soft. This feels terribly exposing to say, but I can’t believe that I am the only person to have caught myself thus; I hope that none of these things make me a bigot. The thing is, part of being serious about this stuff is keeping an eye on yourself, recognising that there are bits of you that need practice. Part of it is about not assuming that your good intentions are the whole answer, but thinking about how your acts will affect others.

Imagine if we could manage all that; to resist shrieking at anyone deemed to have erred, and, likewise, to resist the automatic defensive crouch whenever such an allegation is made. It is so at odds with the current discourse as to seem impossible; indeed, it seems to be getting further away every day. This is a terrible shame. Such a scrupulous approach would be bound to make errors like the Tricycle’s less common. And, when they did occur, it would save us from the branding of bigotry that can permanently poison our view of a person who is not, in all likelihood, irredeemable. We don’t even have to take their word for it. We can ask their best friends.