CST Blog

Jewish Jokes

10 June 2009

Sean Wallis has now acknowledged that he made a comment at a UCU fringe meeting, claiming that legal challenges to the academic boycott were backed, in part, by people with “bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down.” He has explained this comment as follows:

Your report suggests anti-semitic intent on my part in referring to the words “Lehmann Brothers”. I categorically deny this intent.

But this is simply not a plausible neutral interpretation of my remarks.

As you are aware, one of the biggest political events last year, and an issue that is occupying most of our minds as trade unionists was/is the “credit crunch”. In the case of the USA the collapse of the Lehmann Brothers loomed large in all reporting.

An unbiased observer would have clearly understood that my comments were made precisely in the context of the abilities of wealthy individuals having the means to pursue UCU for damages in the courts, and that any democrat worth the name should come to the aid of those who wished to see an unfettered debate in the union.

Wallis has also previously said that he was ignorant of the Lehman Brothers conspiracy theory at the time he made the remark. Let’s be clear: I do not accuse Wallis of antisemitic intent, nor do I have any grounds to doubt his explanation of his thinking behind the comment.  All fair enough. But that still begs the question: why Lehman Brothers?

The campaigns for and against an academic boycott by UCU are both primarily domestic British campaigns. The anti-boycott campaign is not based in or funded from America. So why did Wallis choose to crack a joke about "bank balances from Lehman Brothers", and not "bank balances from Northern Rock"? Why did he think a New York-based investment bank with a Jewish name was a more suitable prop for his joke than a UK-based high street bank?

Both banks have become symbols of the credit crunch on each side of the Atlantic, and given that this is a British story, you might have thought that Northern Rock would fit the joke better. Except everyone can see that it doesn't, because it has no resonance. The joke simply wouldn’t work. This is where the antisemitism in the comment becomes clear. The joke works because it is about big American Jewish money coming after the little UCU.

Contemporary antisemitism normally works through resonances with older, deep-rooted antisemitic topoi of which the person expressing the antisemitic idea is often unaware. I do not accuse Wallis of intending to express an antisemitic idea, or even of understanding how he did. It is clear from his reaction that he is horrified by the notion that this is what he did; but he transmitted an antisemitic idea nonetheless. That his anti-racist literacy stops short of recognising how this is the case, says everything about the blind spot that his part of the left has to contemporary antisemitism.

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