Seeing anti-Semitism

When context is everything: Jews for Jesus, in Berlin. Mitte, July 2016.

Discussions of the Mear One mural, Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction, and anti-Semitism within the UK Labour party bring to mind a long-ago discussion.  The reason lies with majoritarian difficulty or inability to see what is perfectly visible to a minority. 

I stood in a corridor with my advisor discussing my preparatory readings for my doctoral oral examination. We ran through a couple American naturalist novelists and he mentioned Frank Norris’ The Octopus (1901), the first novel of his incomplete Wheat Trilogy.  I replied that I had read the novel and noted its anti-Semitism.  He looked a bit startled and said suspiciously “Where do you see that?” I pointed out a scene late in the novel and a small passing reference, one that identified Norris’s opinion.  My advisor, a man with a profound knowledge of American literature, remembered the scene and said he would re-read it.   

To re-visit that scene, Presley, the novel’s poet-observer of the struggle between San Joaquin Valley farmers and the all-conquering railroad corporation, loosely modelled on the Southern Pacific, visits the office of Shelgrim, the railroad’s president.  Presley describes Shelgrim’s imposing presence:

“Never had he seen a broader man; the neck, however, seemed in a manner to have settled into the shoulders, and furthermore they were humped and rounded as if to bear great responsibilities, and great abuse. At the moment he was wearing a silk skull-cap, pushed to one side and a little awry, a frock coat of broadcloth, with long sleeves, and a waistcoat from the lower buttons of which the cloth was worn and, upon the edges, rubbed away, showing the metal underneath.”

That was all: “a silk skull-cap”.  Nowhere in the novel does the word ‘Jew’ appear nor is there any other reference that might hint at Jews.  The skull-cap image slips past so quickly that it remains barely noticeable.   

 For his part, Presley finds this Jewish business executive impressive: “He began to see that here was the man not only great, but large; many-sided, of vast sympathies, who understood with equal intelligence, the human nature in an habitual drunkard, the ethics of a masterpiece of painting, and the financiering and operation of ten thousand miles of railroad.”  Shelgrim serves as a philosophical exponent of capitalism as a force of nature.  Capitalism is an impersonal force that guides itself, he argues:

“What do I count for? Do I build the Railroad? You are dealing with forces, young man, when you speak of Wheat and the Railroads, not with men. There is the Wheat, the supply. It must be carried to feed the People. There is the demand. The Wheat is one force, the Railroad, another, and there is the law that governs them—supply and demand. Men have only little to do in the whole business.”

Yet there is another force behind the supposed impersonal market forces.  The railroad, ‘the octopus’ that pushes small farmers off their land and creates human misery, is a creature managed by Jewish genius. 

A more substantial character in the novel, S. Behrman, is a railroad agent who is responsible for on-the-ground operations to advance railroad interests.  As critic Donald Pizer has pointed out, there is no explicit ethnic reference but Behrman fits a stereotype of a fat, greasy, greedy Jew.  Given that Norris based his novel on close research into conditions in Tulare County during the 1870s, Norris appears to have based the implied Jewish character of Behrman on Daniel Zumwalt, a Southern Pacific attorney, land agent, and Methodist. Pizer has been nearly – but not entirely — alone in making these observations.  Over a century’s worth of critical discussion of Norris has omitted this aspect.

So in The Octopus capitalism is not a truly impersonal force: there is, hiding just beneath the narrative surface, an ethnic group to blame.  The consociation of capitalism with Jewish market manipulation is easy to see once pointed out.  Norris was not alone in his antisemitic views, which were relatively common among naturalist and realist writers in the United States.  Jack London, Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and especially Theodore Dreiser were pronounced antisemites (Pizer’s 2008 book, American Naturalism and the Jews, is an excellent treatment of this topic). 

If The Octopus, which never mentions the word ‘Jew’ and provides only a minute fleeting image of alleged ethnic identification with capital, can be identified as anti-Semitic, how much more evidence appears in Mear One / Kalen Ockerman’s mural.  The artist states that in this mural “The banker group is made up of Jewish and white Anglos,” as if representation of the latter group negates depiction of Jewish bankers beneath conspiracy-suggestive Eye of Providence symbolism.

The iconography of a hook-nosed gentleman on the left counting money on a table supported by abased bodies of colour provides a visual parallel to the ideology of the Nation of Islam’s 1991 book The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews.  Part of the problem appears to be that for all his no doubt sincere protestations of anti-capitalism, Mear One appears to have limited knowledge of his charged symbolism and a taste for provocation.  Too, someone wishing to refute charges of anti-Semitism might display better sense than to defend himself in an exclusive essay for David Ickes’ wildly anti-Semitic, conspiracy-mongering website.     

One of the most difficult tasks that minorities face lies in explaining, re-explaining, and opposing prejudice in the face of social majorities that dismiss claims as baseless or illegitimate self-interest.  African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, and many more have had to undertake this political work. 

In engaging with this work against racism and discrimination, one of the central principles of progressive politics – or good politics in general — lies in remaining silent, respectful, and listening.  Communities can describe their own histories and possess a right to define what constitutes prejudicial treatment.  Men who define sexism for women, or whites who explain anti-black racism to African Americans, engage in well-recognised trespass by attempting to dominate through definition. 

Yet in the case of too many on the British left, we encounter the disagreeable sight of Gentiles assuming an authority to define for Jews what is and is not anti-Semitism. 

Not only are Jews perfectly capable of arriving at this decision for themselves, but we have every right to resent and reject – as would blacks or Asians in British society – being told how to perceive the world.  Or worse, we hear that raising the topic of anti-Semitism is no more than a tactical ploy used to oppose progressive ideas and politics.  Such discussions are, rather, precisely a demand for fair and equal treatment. 

Left self-exemption from anti-Semitism perpetuates a bipolar colonial relationship towards Jewish communities, one that treats them as either political possession or fat-cat opposition.                    

Jeremy Corbyn’s letter responding to the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council is a positive step towards addressing anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.  He addressed his own lack of perception towards the One Mear mural, acknowledging its problem.  Despite scepticism about practical action or intentions, Corbyn appears to have begun some necessary political house-cleaning

One early test will come in the long-delayed decision on Ken Livingstone and his statements inspired by Lenni Brenner’s crank history.  Has Corbyn learned to see what so many others see, within Labour and outside that party?  Can he educate the party membership as a whole to see, as his public letter indicates?  One hopes.

Early indications, based on a new letter from Corbyn supporters complaining that in the Parliament Square demonstration “We witnessed the full onslaught of a very powerful interest group mobilising its apparent, immense strength against you” and that Jews are manipulating the BBC, suggest that large numbers of Labour party members remain in denial.  Little separates this class of political delusion from the ultra-nationalist followers of Viktor Orban decrying George Soros for supposed subversion of popular will or Alex Jones ranting about “a Jewish mafia.”   

Self-inflicted blindness towards prejudicial imagery of Jews as representative of capital is not new to the left.  If we do not read The Octopus as an anti-Semitic text it is because we superimpose other political concerns to which we give primacy.  If we do not understand how a minority sees threats in images such as Mear One’s mural, then we forego a politics that values all minorities and rises to their defence.       

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.