Fundamental Misunderstandings in the Fight Against Antisemitism I: When do we Take People who Believe in Father Christmas Seriously?

Paul Klee, Christmas Tree, Baby Jesus and Toy Railway, 1884, pencil, chalk and crayon on paper, 12.7 x 8 cm

Imagine you are in a conversation with an adult of whom you have no reason to assume that they suffer from some form of learning disability or that they have only recently come out of the total isolation in which they spent their entire previous life, and they set out to convince you that Father Christmas exists. Most people, I suspect, would initially assume that the whole thing is a joke. Should it become clear that it most certainly is not a joke, any number of considerations and responses spring to mind. Few people, however, would likely now embark on a serious discussion trying to prove that Father Christmas really does not exist.

And yet, at any given time, there are hundreds of millions of people on the planet who sincerely believe in the existence of Father Christmas. Not only do most people, at least in a manner of speaking, take them seriously or (perhaps more accurately) seriously play along with this illusion. All those cultures in which Father Christmas features have also developed tried and tested techniques to wean their young off the belief in the existence of Father Christmas. The peaceful coexistence of these seemingly contradictory treatments of one and the same problem is guaranteed by the fact that few people have any difficulties in distinguishing between them.

When it comes to antisemitism, we are dealing with a similar scenario. On the one hand, not only is it well established that antisemites cannot be converted with rational arguments. We also know that entering into any sort of discussion with antisemites only enhances their status by treating their delusions as though they were arguments worthy of serious discussion. On the other hand, given how deeply ingrained antisemitism is in Western and Muslim society, there will always be a significant number of people on the planet at any given moment in time who have not yet been offered the opportunity to betray this legacy.

One of the fundamental problems with a significant proportion of the work currently being undertaken to combat antisemitism lies in the insufficient awareness of this distinction, the frequency with which the two dimensions are confused, and the fact that many try to kill both birds with one stone. But what may be a very effective (or at least harmless) statement in the classroom when involved in a productive face-to-face discussion with students you know fairly well can turn out to be profoundly harmful when aired in public in an attempt to score points against some antisemite. Just because something works when offering somebody their first opportunity to reject society’s antisemitic legacy does not mean it will work on somebody who has already turned down that opportunity innumerable times.

What may be a very effective (or at least harmless) statement in the classroom when involved in a productive face-to-face discussion with students you know fairly well can turn out to be profoundly harmful when aired in public in an attempt to score points against some antisemite.

People who have constantly turned down the opportunity to reject the antisemitic legacy (and whose vehemence in propagating antisemitic delusions tends to be much greater than that of society at large) are a particular problem. I have repeatedly referred to this problem as that of feigned ignorance. There is something truly perverse about the fact that we live in a world in which everyone is expected to be sensitive to any number of microaggressions when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation and a range of other issues, yet when it comes to antisemitism one can supposedly make the most outrageous statements and then claim that one could not possibly have known that those statements were antisemitic. Given how frequently Labour antisemites have claimed that “we are all on a journey” to excuse their blatant antisemitism, I can no longer imagine how anyone might ever use this phrase again with a straight face.

To avoid unnecessary misunderstandings: for all the silliness that the woke crowd likes to inject into the issue of microaggressions, I absolutely do think they are worth looking out for and ought to be addressed. I grew up as a gay youngster in a time when drawing attention to microaggressions would have seemed absurd, given all the blatant macroaggressions we faced. I have no idea how many gay men there are in my generation who have no experience of serious anti-gay violence (and, in many cases, of not being offered appropriate support by the police when assaulted) and/or crass forms of familial and social rejection, but I suspect it can’t be that many. I sincerely hope that gay youngsters, at least in the big cities in the West, now face these issues to a far lesser degree and really can worry about confronting relevant microaggressions instead.  

I nearly always scoff at explanations of social processes that take serious recourse to technological change but in this case, I really do think that technological change has indeed aggravated the problem. With so many of us in the constant grip of various social media and billions of people able to record, film and post pretty much any occurrence whenever the fancy catches them, distinctions between the private or semi-private (such as classroom discussions) and the public spheres have been massively eroded. Indeed, the eminently sensible and meaningful contention that the private is political has long since transmorphed into the bizarre compulsion that the private must be public. Moreover, no self-respecting institution can hope to survive for long without a substantive social media presence, hence those engaged (metaphorically speaking) in weaning the young off their belief in Father Christmas are constantly compelled to present their wares on a market place in which they ultimately end up feeding the antisemites’ incessant hunger for recognition.

I myself frequently get very angry on facebook and twitter and generally base my rants on the assumption that the people I am writing about are antisemites whom one would only promote by entering into some form of serious discussion with them. There is only one appropriate form of communication with or about them: to denounce them unambiguously as what they are and refuse any form of “discussion”. Others seem to be operating predominantly on the assumption that the same people I would not give the time of day might yet be amenable to reasoned argument, treating facebook and twitter as one big classroom. On balance, I am fairly certain that the risk of my alienating people who simply have not previously been given an opportunity to reject society’s antisemitic legacy is inordinately smaller than the risk of enhancing the antisemites’ status by treating them like children who still believe in Father Christmas.

Clearly, then, antisemites will know exactly what I mean when I equate them to adults who have had every opportunity to convince themselves of the opposite yet still insist on the existence of Father Christmas.

Little did I know when I first started referring to this issue as the Father Christmas problem or the Father Christmas clause (i.e., the exception to the rule that one does not enter into discussions with antisemites), that the antisemites got there first. The CST illustrated the cover of its Antisemitic Incidents Report 2015 with an antisemitic Christmas card sent to an MP that year (this illustration was also included in the report on Antisemitism in the UK published by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in October 2016). It shows an adult asking a child, “Do you still believe in Father Christmas?” The child responds by asking, “Do you still believe in Holocaust?” Clearly, then, antisemites will know exactly what I mean when I equate them to adults who have had every opportunity to convince themselves of the opposite yet still insist on the existence of Father Christmas.

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