Diane Abbott misspoke. It’s not a hanging offence

So, she misspoke herself. Made a mistake, one she acknowledged. 

Not enough, though. Diane Abbott has also to be excoriated, accused of making antisemitic remarks in her letter to the Guardian responding to Tomiwa Owolade’s Observer article, ‘Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue’.

Thus, Abbott acknowledged that Irish, Jewish and Travellers ‘undoubtedly experience prejudice’ and this is ‘similar to racism and the two words are often used as if interchangeable’.

It’s the ‘…similar to…’ and the ‘…as if…’ that discomfort some, since it suggests a distinction, that white people with ‘points of difference such as redheads’ can experience prejudice but ‘they are not all their lives subject to racism’. By way of example, she points to the fact that Jewish people and Travellers ‘were not required to sit at the back of the bus’ in pre-civil rights America, nor were there ‘white-seeming people manacled on slave ships’. Those latter facts are, in themselves, true.

We can agree that the comparison with redheads was crass and trivialising, and the implication contained in her remarks that there is a hierarchy of racism is, at the very least, contentious and offers a gift to those who wish her ill and, by extension, the causes she supports, not least that of Palestinians.

Predictably, her letter was hijacked by those who are ever-ready to spray-can accusations of antisemitism whenever the opportunity arises, not least the Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, who, no doubt, allows himself the thought that, played right, he might – at last – rid himself of this troublesome warrior to join Jeremy Corbyn in a state of less-than-blessed suspension.

To be clear: it takes a good deal of intellectual contortion to read into Abbott’s remarks that she made antisemitic statements, or that she herself is antisemitic. But the veracity of the accusations is not the point. Rather, the aim of her accusers is to reinforce the contention that to be Israel-critical is to be antisemitic, thereby throwing a protective ring around a viscous, apartheid state.    

Required: light, not heat

I take it that what Abbott was seeking to illuminate, is that, in the current historical context, how discrimination is experienced, the forms it takes, is likely to be different for different groups, say, Black Afro-Caribbeans contrasted with white members of the Traveller community.  Or the racism black people face, is distinct from the antisemitism white Jews may encounter.  Nothing said here in itself suggests a hierarchy of prejudice.

What is highlighted, however, is that prejudice, its extent, its virulence, varies, affects and is experienced by different groups in different ways. To mark this, to address the issues, to tease out the complexity, to see the differences, but also to starkly reveal the base-line similarities, we need to be attentive to the language we use, and the manner in which we use it.  This in sharp contrast to the modes of thought and action the spray-can antisemitism accusers deploy.  

This marking of difference – and similarity – this desire and need to deploy the richness of the English language on what is such a vexed issue, is well articulated in an article by Marcus Ryder, which I commend to you. He says:

We do the people facing these varied and difficult issues [i.e. how to talk about diversity, inclusion, equality, racism, antisemitism] a disservice if we describe it all as racism. We also do a disservice to the English language. And herein lies an important lesson. We need to be precise in our language. We should not create false equivalence or hierarchies of victimhood, or we end up offending everyone….

…Antisemitism is terrible and needs to be addressed. Islamophobia is terrible and needs to be addressed. Racism is terrible and needs to be addressed. But we cannot properly fight them if we think they are all one and the same thing….

…The English language gives us the tools to properly describe, understand and analyse the world around us in all its beauty and ugliness. We should use them.

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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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