The controversy surrounding what constitutes anti-Semitism is a long running one. It has the ability to derail political careers while also divide broad movements. Clearly, this is a deeply divisive issue, especially if one does not consider a particular statement to be anti-Semitic.
Based in north London, sociologist, author (and metal fan) Keith Kahn-Harris has been writing for many years about Jewish culture, identity and history as well as appearing on Sam Dunn's acclaimed Metal Evolution documentary. With books like Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, he is in a position to wrestle with the differing perceptions of anti-Semitism and explain to a bemused audience how this situation has come about.
By beginning the preface with the claim that this "...is an infuriating book, about an infuriating phenomenon produced by the most infuriating beings there are - human beings", the reader is assured that this will be an intricate book with detailed perspectives and a light hearted touch. Just what is required for a layperson like me.
An expansive book, which looks at some recent controversies in Britain and America, while also examining the history of Jews since 1945 and how, in Kahn-Harris' words, they have been a disappointment to the left, right and themselves respectively by failing to fulfill the criteria that all three sides places on them.
For example, the left find their support of Israel frustrating, while the right find their liberal tendencies frustrating, while Jews themselves find the myriad of opinions on everything frustrating.
In many ways, it's not too dissimilar from the "pet fenian" charge that has been levelled at the likes of Malachi O'Doherty, Sean O'Callaghan, Ruth Dudley Edwards and even our own Anthony McIntyre. Because they dare break out of their supposed "tribal position" and are often used by unionists as a kind of benchmark of what a nationalist should be like, due to their opposition to the Provos (although some of those commentators are guiltier of playing up to this trope than others). And this is also true with the way some republican commentators view the likes of Dawn Purvis and Sophie Long.
The end result of this, as Kahn-Harris points out, is that it becomes very easy to believe that you are in touch with the thinking of a particular community and so find it angering when someone from that community accuses you of (at best) condescension or (at worst) anti-Semitism/sectarianism.
Hence why, in Kahn-Harris' views, Jeremy Corbyn could be classed as "...like others on the left and within the pro-Palestinian movement..." having "...strayed into the zone of selective anti/semitism...I don't see his wanderings...as particularly remarkable or extraordinary..." but is keen to insist that selective anti-Semitism is not something to be easily dismissed, nor is conscious anti-Semitism something much more serious.
Very easy to consume, with a casual touch to the narration that bring warmth to such a complicated subject, Kahn-Harris achieves something special with Strange Hate: he is able to demonstrate how easy it is to fall into negative stereotyping without ever once thinking that you subscribe to hatred. Although not named here, one person I immediately thought of was American commentator Ben Shapiro, who is all too quick and happy to label others anti-Semitic, yet plays into anti-Semitic tropes like labelling the likes of Max Blumenthal a "...self-hating Jew...", referring to the "...convenient Judaism..." of Bernie Sanders and even describing the Arab-Israeli conflict as "...a war between darkness and light."
Unfortunately, the book is not without flaws. Kahn-Harris' spirited defence of multiculturalism as a natural process is very much in line with the likes of Kenan Malik. However, unlike Malik, Kahn-Harris does not seem to acknowledge that multiculturalism, as a political entity, has been a failure and has led directly to some of the deep rooted divisions that we are seeing play out in modern politics today.
As I wrote in my review of From Fatwa to Jihad:
With the Scarman Report concluding that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest" (while avoiding to blame the police), Margaret Thatcher began to off-load money into various ethnic and community projects ... Malik correctly points out that this effectively became a bribe to keep people off the streets from protesting, and led to the creation of a professional middle class among ethnic groups ... Coupled with the Labour controlled councils ... offering cultural self-development courses and what you ended up with was separation. Suddenly people, who had never thought of themselves being anything other than British, became 'ethnic' overnight ... It's a perfect example of how good intentions can link up with amoral methods to divide and conquer.
... of containing conflict would be to reconceptualise anti-racist politics as the struggle for the right of minorities to be hateful. This would not be an anti-racism founded on any illusions about the lovability of the other - although it certainly would not exclude this possibility - but deliberately extend its practice to even the most loathsome. In some ways, this would be a paradoxical act of love: The fight for the freedom of the other to live without racist abuse should be a gesture that requires no reciprocity.
Now, it's important to acknowledge that this is part of a wider piece which ties together various observations and strands of thought throughout the book. However, I think most people will read that paragraph and come to the same conclusion as me: that Kahn-Harris is advocating for freedom of speech. Yet, curiously, that particular phrase does not appear at all in this chapter. While I am aware that it has, shamefully, been allowed to be appropriated by the far right, I do find it strange that Kahn-Harris, in pointing out the diverse opinions, still leaves out this particular phrase.
Regardless, this is a fascinating, provocative and quotable read that asks questions of all of us and helps the reader understand how anti-Semitism can be easily weaponised by anyone, even unintentionally so.
Keith Kahn-Harris, 2019, Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity. Repeater Books ISBN-13: 978-1912248438.