Fighting philo-semitism

Liz Truss wants to claim 'Jewish values'. We should stop her.

Fighting philo-semitism
Liz Truss with Yair Lapid in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. Credit: Number 10 via Flickr

“So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example, seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business”

This is what the frontrunner in the Conservative party leadership contest, Liz Truss, told the Jewish Chronicle last month. The issue is obvious – while intended to be complimentary, claiming that “setting up your own business” is a Jewish value is an anti-semitic notion, insofar as belief in Jews’ natural propensity and aptitude for commerce underscores the hideous anti-semitic notion that Jews love money.

Truss’s statement provides a clear example of philo-semitism, ostensibly pro-Jew sentiment that constructs Jews as a special, and therefore inherently different, group. In doing so, philo-semitism can reinforce the ideological foundation of anti-semitism – that Jews are inherently and substantially different from non-Jews. It’s often just a matter of tone that separates anti-semitism from philo-semitism – liking Jews because they are inherently good with money is ultimately not so different as hating them for the same imagined trait.

Many Jews and non-Jews alike were quick to point out the dodgy content of Truss’s compliment. The numerous Jews who have no interest in setting up a business were naturally irked by the notion that they were failing to live up to a “Jewish value”. However, a more ambitious response was pursued by Na’amod – rather than merely pointing out what is clearly not a Jewish value, activists instead attempted to articulate “what Jewish values really are”.

Na’amod, a Jewish anti-occupation campaign group consisting of progressive British Jews, asked its supporters to counter Truss with statements claiming progressive ideas constituted “Jewish values”, such as welcoming refugees, trans rights, and Palestinian solidarity.

While it is heartening to see Jews publicly affirming these sentiments, to claim them as “Jewish values” seems an unconvincing response to reactionary politics, particularly when contrasted with Na’amod’s usual clarity and concrete focus on the Zionist occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The value of “Jewish values”

There are many reasons why campaign groups encourage their supporters to post online, often more to do with fostering a collective identity than furthering an ideological struggle, and nowadays this rhetoric of “values” has become widespread in the vernacular of progressive Jewish activism. In order to better understand the ideological assumptions of groups like Na’amod, it is worth taking the question of “Jewish values” seriously.

First, we should ask, are these claims about “Jewish values” even correct? It is not obvious that the majority of British Jews would agree with Na’amod, given that much of the community is solidly reactionary on a whole host of political and social questions – particularly regarding Palestine. After all, it was in a fawning article of a Jewish newspaper that Truss’s comments were debuted. The community’s overwhelming political support for a deeply reactionary Tory party strongly cuts against progressive claims concerning what constitutes “Jewish values”.

This raises the question: What does it mean to invoke “Jewish values” at a time when much of the community is institutionally wedded to reaction and imperialism, or, at the very least, the reactionary British State and the settler colony occupying Palestine? How can one invoke “Jewish values” against the community consensus?

One might be tempted to understand Na’amod’s assertions as religious claims. While many posts were accompanied by passages gleaned from Jewish texts, the claims themselves lacked the form and content that an argument within Judaism as a religious tradition would require. For instance, while we can find many verses in our corpus extolling the importance of justice, articulating what Judaism’s concept of justice would entail for these live political disagreements is a task of religious thought based squarely within a huge legal tradition. It is the baroque structure of didactic religious thought that gives positions within Judaism their content, which is lacking in these posts about “Jewish values”. Na’amod, after all, is a campaign group that includes, and speaks to, both religious and secular Jews.

Instead, what Na’amod posits is an underlying conception of “Jewish values”, from which the British Jewish community is currently straying. The problem for this project is that “Jewish values” do not exist. There is no transhistorical, universal set of “Jewish values”.

“These are our values. If you don't like them, we have others.”

This is not to say that particular Jewish communities have not held particular values at particular times, but rather that these are always historically and materially constituted, and not the consequence of some underlying system of ideals. Judeity, to borrow Jewish French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi’s term for “the way in which a Jew is a Jew”, is too fractured and multifarious to be subsumed into a neat set of values.

Given this historical record, we can pick and choose which communities we read our values onto – for example, the Jews fleeing European violence opposed Britain’s anti-refugee attitudes and legislation that tried to keep them out. When Jews in medieval Europe were locked out of feudalism, and survived as artisans and merchants, were they not demonstrating “the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business”? Are leftwing Jews any more justified in upholding the Jewish Labour Bund as a prime example of Jewishness than Liz Truss when fondly remembering her Jewish boss at Shell?

Elevating our chosen values to a normative standard raises the spectre of a leftwing version of Truss-style philo-semitism. We catch glimpses of this in the depiction of Jews as being inherently politically subversive, or Jewish radical movements being a natural consequence of Jewishness rather than the material conditions in which Jews have found themselves at moments through history. While meant as a celebration of Jewry’s contribution to socialism, it reinforces Jewish difference. For example, the claim that Jews as a diasporic people are inherently opposed to the nation state is made approvingly by anarchists and venomously by the far right. Even if one were to try to ground “Jewish values” in a particular interpretation of Judaism, this would denominationally limit the impetus of the political corollaries.

The worthlessness of “values”

If “Jewish values” don’t exist, why does everyone talk about them as if they do?

Part of it is the ambiguity of “Jewish” to refer to both Judaism the religion and Jews the collection of people. As such, “Jewish values” pertains to the legitimacy of claims from the former as well as the political expediency of claims about the latter.

But there is a deeper conceptual structure to the pivot to talk of values – their amorphous and abstract nature allows for the definite content of an organisation or movement to be eroded. The paradigmatic example is New Labour’s pivot away from class politics in favour of values. In his 1993 pamphlet Socialism, Tony Blair explicitly argues for “socialism as defined by certain key values and beliefs” as opposed to being a concrete political programme – ultimately building consent for the institutionalisation of neoliberalism in the party.

British values – lest we forget “Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too” – is another clear example of hollow talk. Their canonisation by two decades of education and counter-terrorism policies was an attempt to reformulate patriotism at a time when the British state had been replaced by three management consultancies in a trench coat.

A similar drift in language can be seen in some (but not all) articulations of progressive Judaism, where uncontentious “Jewish values” have supplanted definite beliefs as the core of the religious exercise.

Doing what’s right, not what’s “Jewish”

While the notion of “Jewish values” does not have content of its own, claims about Jewish values clearly do. Truss’s statement does state something about Jews and business, and Na’amodniks are trying to say something in response – but what exactly?

Rather than reflecting nonexistent transhistorical values, Na’amod’s campaign is better understood as a series of statements about activists’ own beliefs. The real content of the statement “Trans rights is a Jewish value” is “This Jew values trans rights” or the appeal that “Jews should value trans rights”. How would such a statement counter the equally plausible “Cis-heteronormativity is a Jewish value”? Both are unfalsifiable normative judgements.

A further problem with this ubiquitous talk of “Jewish values” is that it makes it harder to think strategically about when to organise as Jews. An amorphous notion of “Jewish values” can justify progressive Jews organising as Jews on virtually every issue, regardless of whether there is a strategic reason to do so. Where there is a strategic reason for Jews to intervene as Jews – for example, to disrupt Zionism – basing such interventions on self-justifying “values” risks succumbing to a liberal politics where political activism is primarily about self-expression rather than ideological and material struggle.

Where it is expedient to organise as Jews, whether inside or out of Jewish communities, doing so requires going beyond merely stating our values to making the argument for our political positions on the basis they are correct, which, for religious progressives, will include arguments within Judaism. We also need to understand and oppose the material basis for reactionary politics. By and large, reactionary Jews are reactionary for the same reasons that many non-Jews are. Just as defining racism as “un-British” achieves less than nothing, so does declaring it “un-Jewish”.

We must fight racism, reaction and imperialism because doing so is the correct thing to do – rather than because we assert that it is the “Jewish” thing to do.

Ultimately, Liz Truss is wrong because she is a reactionary imperialist, not because she misrenders “Jewish values”. Successfully challenging someone like Truss requires political activism focused on the concrete reasons why everyone, Jewish or otherwise, should oppose her and her party. This is a far harder task than extolling our own values, but, then again, “we are not free to desist from it.” [Pirkei Avot 2:16]▼

Yirmeyahu Wedgewood is a religious Jew and Communist.