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Does the World Really Need More Experts on Racism and anti-Semitism?

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Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia, on April 21, 2018.
Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia, on April 21, 2018.Credit: SPENCER PLATT/AFP
James Renton
James Renton

In our current age of populism, the expert is much maligned. The UK government minister and Brexit champion Michael Gove famously declared in 2016 that "People in this country have had enough" of them. In the United States and on the world stage, Donald Trump’s presidency is the embodiment of anti-intellectualism. Shooting (quite literally) from the hip is the order of the day. 

The side-lining, or absence, of experts in public debate has been particularly marked in the furor over anti-Semitism and other racisms in the last few years. This is no coincidence; populism is a result and vehicle of multiple crises of racism around the world. 

We (the experts) must respond. As a big step in this direction, the European University Institute in Florence, Italy has launched an online magazine to bring academic expertise on racism to global public debate, collaborating with NGOs, policymakers, and public institutions such as museums. 

Kalen Ockerman's (Mear One) mural, 'Freedom for Humanity,' depicting caricatures of Jewish financiers, near Brick Lane in London’s East EndCredit: Kalen Ockerman

A pertinent example of what is at stake is the controversy over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. The UK local elections this month marked a high-water mark in the story. 

Angry Jewish voters in the London Borough of Barnet, the local council with the largest Jewish population in the UK, turned en masse against Labour, despite the party having flagged the council as a key winnable target. Indeed, party leader Jeremy Corbyn had planned a post-election victory rally in Barnet.  

The local Labour group leader explicitly ascribed the loss to "so many of our neighbours believ[ing] we tolerate anti-Semitism," and that "shaming" fact indicated how Labour has "lost trust with our Jewish brothers and sisters."

It is difficult to know if he is right. Nonetheless, the prominence of the debate in the weeks before the election is without question: protests by Jewish representative groups outside Parliament, emotional speeches by Labour MPs in the House of Commons, a war of words in the media - all of which took place in the national and international spotlight. 

Wherever I go these days for work - Berlin, Florence, or London - I am asked by colleagues about anti-Semitism and Labour. But you would have been hard pressed to find academics who specialize on anti-Semitism weighing into the international public debate. 

Does this absence matter? There are, after all, plenty of professional organizations dedicated to monitoring and campaigning against anti-Semitism. 

The Berlin 'Kippa March', a demonstration of solidarity after an anti-Semitic attack on a young man wearing a kippa in the capital earlier this month. April 25, 2018Credit: \ FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

The Anti-Defamation League, based in the U.S., is perhaps the best known example. The UK’s Community Security Trust does impressive work. Other Jewish organizations such as the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council have also made their voices heard on the national stage. This community organization against anti-Semitism is replicated on a smaller scale in Europe as well. 

And it hasn't all been left to Jewish groups to defend themselves. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Western governments have increasingly engaged in an international campaign against anti-Semitism – though its progress hasn't been consistent. 

In 2004, for instance, the U.S. Congress passed the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act that established a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Reports that President Trump considered nixing the position last year triggered protests by former envoys and the Jewish community; but the position remains notably unfilled.

In Europe, many states have their own national programs. And the European Union has a plethora of initiatives, along with a legal framework for fighting hate crime and speech. In 2015, the EU Commission appointed both a coordinator for combating anti-Semitism and for combating anti-Muslim hatred. 

The situation with regard to forms of racism other than anti-Semitism is much more diffuse. Despite the existence of the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March), there is not a global campaign on racism analogous to the one being fought against anti-Semitism. Even so, grassroots organisations such as Black Lives Matter are flourishing, and NGOs are engaged in public debate around the world. 

A masked demonstrator in a Donald Trump MAGA hat at a "Freedom of Speech" rally of self-proclaimed white nationalists, white supremacists and alt-right activists. Lincoln Memorial D.C., June 25, 2017Credit: JIM BOURG/REUTERS

What is still missing, however, is a focal point to bring this mass of activism together with the voice of the academic expert - for the interested citizen. 

Though they often work together, the academic expert offers a very different and important perspective to activists. The focus of NGO and government responses to racism is on calling out prejudice, educating the public,and taking legal and political action against racial discrimination; in short, campaigning. 

But racism is not a simple, static thing. Complex questions need to be asked constantly: What causes racial prejudice in different times and places? Why does it escalate? How and why has it changed? Without sophisticated answers to these questions, we cannot respond to the ultimate challenge: what is the solution for society? Only the expert can provide this intelligence. 

Many question what ‘real-world’ insights academics offer. But let us remember that scholars of anti-Semitism were decades ahead of civil society and the international community in making the case for the importance of the subject for the wider world.

When the academic experts Hannah Arendt, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and George Mosse, among others, argued that, after 1945, anti-Semitism was not a peripheral issue, but central to understanding European and Western society, the world took a long time to listen.

The international memorialization of the Shoah that we take for granted now is actually very recent, and only gained momentum from the beginning of the 21st century. 

But today, thanks to the internet and social media, we have much wider opportunities to bring our collective voice to the public. Globally, policymakers and civil society groups are now, unlike even 20 years ago, engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism and other racisms, and are eager to work with us, if we come forward. But we need to do it an organized and smart way. 

Flowers and placards outside the apartment of Mireille Knoll, an 85 year-old Holocaust survivor stabbed and burnt to death for being Jewish. Paris, France, March 28, 2018Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

Earlier this year, our magazine co-organized with the All-Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism an event at Westminster on anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim prejudice. The research briefing emphasised the complexities of how these two racisms have been connected (but also distinctive) over the last millennium.

This research shows that focusing on only one racism in one political party in one country means missing a crucial context: a much bigger, inter-connected European and global picture of multiple racisms across political divisions. This is the sort of expertise that could change completely public debate, and it needs to be known. 

The new politics, and the increasing complexities of public policy, require a nexus of academia and activism. That can create a politics with the means to push back against the populist tide. 

The expert is a target of the anti-intellectual, populist global movement precisely because their knowledge challenges and unmasks their political agenda.

In this moment of crisis, the scholar is one of society’s greatest assets and a crucial defense for liberal democracy. Their voices must be amplified to be heard above the misinformation din.

James Renton is Academic Advisor at MONITOR Global Intelligence on Racism, and co-editor, with Ben Gidley, of Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story? (Palgrave, 2017). He is reader in history at Edge Hill University and a visiting fellow at the European University Institute. Twitter: @RentonJE and @monitoracism

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