Book review: 'Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism'

4 Nov 2014 by CST

CST's Dave Rich has  reviewed Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism, by Ben Cohen, for the journal Fathom. The book is a collection of essays and articles by Cohen, written between 2004 and 2013, on an array of subjects related to contemporary antisemitism and anti-Zionism. As Rich explains:

In truth, the range of subjects covered in this book is an accurate reflection of the confusing, and at times chaotic, debate that surrounds antisemitism. It is apt that the section of the book on ‘Antisemitism and Anti-Judaism’ begins with an article titled ‘What antisemitism is (and isn’t)’. The academic and political arguments over precisely this question have at times left damaging scars, such as during the misguided and largely unnecessary battles over the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) Working Definition of Antisemitism, or the short life and sudden demise of the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). The central article of this section and of the entire book (‘The Big Lie Returns’) contains Cohen’s original formulation of ‘bierkeller and bistro antisemitism.’ Bierkeller antisemitism, he explains, ‘employs such means as violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and advocacy of anti-Jewish legal measures.’ Its name associates it with the antisemitic thuggery of 1920s and 1930s Nazism, and therefore with an ‘old’ antisemitism that, in theory at least, has been discredited by history. Bistro antisemitism, on the other hand, ‘sits in a higher and outwardly more civilised realm, providing what left-wing activists would call a “safe space” to critically assess the global impact of Jewish cabals from Washington D.C., to Jerusalem.’ The themes of this intellectual, left-wing antisemitism ‘include the depiction of Palestinians as the victims of a second Holocaust, the breaking of the silence supposedly imposed upon honest discussions of Jewish political and economic power, and the contention … that American Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of a potential second loyalty to Israel.’

The difference between bierkeller and bistro antisemitism is illustrated by the striking juxtaposition, early in the book, of tributes to Vidal Sassoon and Ronnie Fraser (29-35). Sassoon, best known as a celebrity hairdresser, spent his youth fighting fascist gangs in the East End of London in the immediate post-war years. He and his friends in the 43 Group would set out ‘armed with knives, coshes and knuckledusters’, and often return home with bruises. This was antisemitism red in tooth and claw, and Jewish self-defence was both direct and brutal. Immediately following Cohen’s obituary for Sassoon are two articles about Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish further education lecturer who unsuccessfully sued the University and College Union (UCU) in 2012, on the grounds that UCU’s activities in support of the boycott of Israeli academics constituted discrimination against its Jewish members. The contrast between these two episodes is stark, and not only because the 43 Group achieved its goals while Fraser lost his case. Rather, it is the idea that both belong in a book about antisemitism, and that Sassoon and Fraser are both heroes in the defence of Jews against the prejudice they face, that draws attention.

Since Cohen’s ‘The Big Lie Returns’ was first published in Commentary magazine in January 2012, jihadists have murdered French Jews in Toulouse and Belgian Jews in Brussels; rioting mobs, made up primarily of French Muslims, have burned synagogues and Jewish shops in Paris and Sarcelles. Even in Britain, where the antisemitism is less violent than elsewhere, the summer of 2014 saw a record rise in antisemitic incidents fuelled largely by antisemitism from sections of British Muslim communities, while supermarkets were invaded by mobs determined to prevent them from selling Israeli-sourced goods. Meanwhile, Jewish religious rituals are under threat as much from human rights advocates of the left as they are from the xenophobic right. It is true that European fascism has made a recent return via Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, but insofar as Jews in Western Europe currently face ‘violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and advocacy of anti-Jewish legal measures,’ these assaults on Jewish life do not come from the bierkeller. In these countries, Cohen’s dichotomy of bierkeller and bistro antisemitism requires a third category: banlieue antisemitism, perhaps, named after the deprived suburbs of French cities from which much Muslim and jihadist antisemitism now emanates.

You can read the rest of the review on the Fathom website here, and you can order the book here.

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