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Why aren’t we calling out antisemitism? Reflections of a Jewish social worker

As a profession committed to challenging discrimination, social work can be deafeningly silence when it comes to racism experienced by Jewish people says Victoria Hart

Antisemitism is a facet of racism that is growing in the UK. The Community Security Trust reports 1,668 UK incidents in 2020. compared to 1,275 in 2016. There were 351 incidents between just 8 and 31 May this year, the highest for any month since records began in 1986.

However, antisemitism can be pushed to the bottom of concerns, even in social work. One reason is that it isn’t always instinctively easy to understand antisemitism or define what it is to be Jewish.

Examples of antisemitism in social work

Social work is a profession committed to the principles of challenging discrimination and racism. Yet, early in my social work career I decided not to draw attention to my Jewishness and saw no reason to discuss my background and ethnicity in the workplace.

Hiding can be part of our culture. I grew up in a modern orthodox Jewish home, where I learnt from my grandparents to keep a low profile hoping that the wider population wouldn’t notice us too much.

"Don’t draw too much attention to yourselves’, they would say. "Remember, it was the German Jews who were the most integrated within their societies – if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. Eventually, eventually, the ‘host’ countries will turn on us."

I would laugh it off because times had changed. I was British, and I was Jewish. My great grandparents changed their surname to sound more English and my parents gave me the most English of first names to prove that we belonged here.

My perspective changed when I was confronted with explicit antisemitism in a social work setting. I worked in an open plan office in inner London and a colleague came back from a visit to a Jewish woman.

She started ranting about all Jews being rich and mocked and doubted this woman’s need for social care support. She assumed that “they look after their own” and “must be hiding their money somewhere”.  

I was stunned into silence. What stunned me more, though, was the lack of any challenge from within the team. This was an office full of social workers, and not a single person challenged their colleague on the explicit racism that she was displaying.

It became clear we often do not get the same allyship that extends to other minority and marginalised groups, not even in progressive circles such as social work. I would highly recommend David Baddiel’s new book Jews Don’t Count as a starting point to understanding this.

I have faced numerous examples of explicit antisemitism in conversations, but now I don’t hide my Jewishness from my colleagues. I know it means that some of the things that people might be thinking go unsaid.

However, I would rather not expose myself to it. Sometimes I feel I should hide, and other times it’s better that I don’t.

What is it to be Jewish?

Sometimes, as Jewish people, we have found that those who want to avoid accusations of antisemitism, define what antisemitism is, for us rather than allowing us to define it by our own experiences.

Sometimes, people understand antisemitism as prejudice against religion rather than how it has been used to discriminate based on perceived ‘race’. From my perspective, we are not a ‘race’ because ‘race’ is a constructed concept that is external to us. Some are born Jewish, but people can also convert to Judaism.

There are some Jews of faith and some atheist Jews, even in the same family. There are also different sub-groups of Jewish people. It can depend on whether our heritage is predominantly eastern European (Ashkenazi), Southern European/North African (Sephardi), Middle Eastern (Mizrachi), Ethiopian (Beta Israel) or other groups.

The Western conceptions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ do not adequately describe what we are and how we identify. Jewish people can look, sound and behave very differently from each other.

I may appear to be ‘white British’ but my experiences now, and the experiences I had, growing up, are not the same as the ‘white British’ experience. My experiences of presenting as ‘white’ while being a member of a minority ethnic group which experiences racism can be confusing.

But it is those who are racist, who define what ‘racism’ is, as they use these differences to divide and sow hate, distrust and disdain. We saw in the Holocaust that it was the perception of Jewishness as a ‘race’ which led to the destruction of Jewish communities across Europe. Telling us, a generation or two later, that we cannot experience racism, disrespects the memory of all who died because they were perceived to be an ‘inferior’ race.  

I grew up in a community with a culture that is othered and has drawn hate, anger, rage and discrimination for millennia.

Different types of antisemitism

There are many ways that antisemitism can manifest in ways that other kinds of racism don’t, and it is crucial to be aware of these to challenge them. The following is from Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People (Freeman, 2021):

Blood libels

  • Centred around Jews causing physical harm stemming from accusations of ritual killings, poisoning wells, spreading plagues to more modern interpretations of being responsible for 9/11 or spreading coronavirus

Economic libels

  • Jews as powerful, controlling or being obsessed by money for nefarious purposes.

Racial libels

  • Jewish people as ‘other’ by birth and can ‘pass’ among ‘us’ while infecting the general population with impure blood.

Conspiracy theories

  • Jewish people only ‘look after their own’

  • Jewish people push their own agendas, which run counter to the common good.
  • Jewish people have dual loyalties to Israel

How to challenge antisemitism in social work

In practice, we can challenge antisemitism by having a better awareness of the history of it and what common cultural assumptions are being made when talking about Jewish people.

It is also vital to understand the range of people that might come under the Jewish umbrella. This can range from the strictly orthodox to the secular atheist. However, the latter’s Judaism and Jewish identity is no less important than the former’s. We should never gatekeep people’s Jewishness.

Also, understand that Jewish inter-generational trauma and fears are burnt deep into our cultural psyche. Such worries are not outside the scope of reality.

I grew up knowing that, within living memory, two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was eliminated as the world watched, simply because they were Jewish and for no other reason.

My grandparents taught me to be ready to flee because there is a limit to how tolerant ‘host’ countries will be. For millennia before, Jews have been hounded out of different countries and targeted by hatred and misunderstanding.

Overall, it is crucial to understand that there can be an intrinsic sense of ‘otherness’ that has been long experienced. Also, our identity is perpetually used to play political games.

We need some explicit allyship as with all those who experience racism. Very often, we also are pushed away by other marginalised communities and anti-racist forums.

Listen to our concerns, call out antisemitism and include us in conversations about racism. It is not that we want to take over valuable spaces about black experiences.

But we must get better at opening up a debate with other marginalised communities about where we fit in and how we can learn from our different experiences to challenge the cultural hegemony than marginalises the ‘other’.

Victoria Hart is a social worker working in forensic mental health services in London