8 November 2021

Today’s so-called ‘anti-racists’ remain blind to anti-Semitism

By Nicole Lampert

Earlier this year the Royal Court theatre was feeling even more pleased with itself than usual. You could almost sense the glint of the polished halo as it announced that in the light of the conversations brought up by the Black Lives Matter campaign it was going to lead the way in fighting racism in the theatre world, by signing up with an anti-racism organisation called Sour Lemons. 

In a press release it announced how the group had already been helping the theatre for nearly a year to: ‘build awareness of how systemic racism manifested within the organisation’. Vicky Featherstone, the theatre’s Artistic Director added: ‘This timely, critical and deep work will help us listen, reflect, learn, grow, be challenged, be visibly changed and held accountable.’

Perhaps at some early stage there should have been a pause for thought when it became clear that Sour Lemons’ work involved workshops which segregated groups into people who have white skin and people who do not (who did not have to attend its workshops). Because racism, especially institutional racism, is never simply skin-deep, as the latest controversy to hit the theatre shows.

The self-polished halo rather clattered to the floor this weekend when it emerged that the theatre’s latest production, Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle, featured a rapacious billionaire baddie by the exceedingly Jewish name of Hershel Fink, ostensibly based on the (non-Jewish) founder of Tesla, Elon Musk. Worse still, a YouTube trailer about the play emerged showing that it was a look at a man obsessed with money and power, appropriation and land, all tropes used against Jews for thousands of years, and given prominence by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 

Among those to raise the alarm was the Jewish theatre director Adam Lenson, who asked the Royal Court what work had been done to avoid this character perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes, and if any Jewish creatives had been involved in preventing that from happening. 

The first statement from the Royal Court ‘clarified’ what had happened. ‘The character is not Jewish and there is no reference to being Jewish in the play,’ it said. ‘We acknowledge that this is an example of unconscious bias and we will reflect deeply on how this has happened in the coming days.’

It was, at least, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – a first from a theatre whose previous plays include Perdition, which claimed Jews collaborated with the Nazis, and Seven Jewish Children, whose depiction of Jews as bloodthirsty killers echoed the most vicious medieval anti-Semitism.

The Royal Court’s claim that a distinctively Jewish name had been plucked ‘unconsciously’ was especially worrying. There is nothing ‘unconscious’ about the way a writer chooses to name their principal characters. It is worrying not only that a billionaire baddie had an overtly Jewish name, but also that no one – not the sensitivity readers or the anti-racist organisation who should have been particularly alert to this, nor the producers, cast, crew who would have all seen it, noticed that this might be a problem. Not one. Or is the truth that, as academic Keith Kahn-Harris writes, ‘So ingrained has the denial of anti-Semitism become that even the most straightforwardly anti-Semitic tropes become invisible’?

If you want to talk about systemic racism, here is an entire organisation – an entire woke and preachy as hell organisation – which thought there was nothing wrong with using an overtly Jewish name for its grasping villain.

Nor should we pretend that the wilful blindness towards anti-Semitism demonstrated by the Royal Court is an isolated incident. Following the Hershel Fink story, I asked Jewish people to share their experiences in the theatre world and here are just a few examples:

‘At drama school students would make Nazi salutes to each other when Jewish students entered a room and one Jewish student was told she was rich and privileged because of her ethnicity during an anti-racism session.’

‘I was told when I auditioned for drama school that I would never have a career in this country because I’m Jewish and not pretty – I would be better off working behind the scenes.’

‘The BAME/ Global Majority Officer at our drama school union denied the existence of antisemitism. She also started a petition to get Wiley’s Twitter reinstated after his anti-Semitic rant and the Student Union President did nothing about it.’

‘My friends who consider themselves progressive, who think they are challenging hate, are blind to anti-Semitism. They are completely wrapped up in a cloak of surety that they are right and can’t comprehend the fact that they can’t see it. It led to me leaving the arts world because of it.’

As David Baddiel writes in his book Jews Don’t Count, Jews are not only excluded from the mission of those fighting against racism, but often actively thrust out of what anti-Semitism expert Dr David Hirsh calls ‘the community of the good’.

For these ‘anti-racists’, with several millennia of anti-Semitism ingrained in their thinking, Jews are too rich and powerful to be a proper ethnic minority. We are too white even if, for centuries, we have never been white enough. In their eyes the one Jewish state is uniquely malign, a smorgasbord of the things progressives hate most; apartheid, white supremacists, colonialists, racists, murders, Nazis. Only Jews who denounce Israel and their communities are allowed in their circles and, even then, they are not to be fully trusted. 

The progressive attitude towards anti-Semitism is just one aspect of the Jew-hate that is becoming an ever bigger problem in contemporary Britain. In the last few days alone, we have seen West Ham fans chanting ‘We’ve got a foreskin, haven’t you?’ at a Jewish man on a plane to Belgium, swastikas sprayed on a synagogue and across a Jewish area of north London, a Jewish man in Stamford Hill attacked with a glass bottle, and left-wing activists saying people should boycott the Big Issue because it had interviewed Rachel Riley.

It would be nice to think that what has happened at the Royal Court this weekend would make a difference, lead to a smidgen of self-reflection on the part of ‘progressives’ and ‘anti-racists’. In truth though, after the abject failure of so many on the left to call out the anti-Semitism of Corbyn and his fellow travellers, the cynic in me fears they will just get a bit better at hiding it.

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Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.