Race, Culture, Nationality, Religion and Citizenship – Tiptoeing Across a Minefield

I’ve decided to tiptoe as tactfully and thoughtfully as I can across a very dangerous minefield, the minefield of racism and other forms of discrimination, and, in particular, the minefield of anti-Semitism and attitudes to Israel. But in doing so, I’m also seeking your advice. Sometimes I really don’t know what to think.


Over the last ten days anti-Semitism has become a hot topic in the United Kingdom, following the suspension from the UK’s Labour Party of two of its members on the grounds that they have expressed anti-Semitic views: Naz Shah was suspended for her, now disowned, view that Israel should be ‘relocated to the United States’, and Ken Livingstone for suggesting that Hitler once supported Zionism ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.’

In the panoply of appalling opinions, anti-Semitism has a special place, because its terrible consequences occurred in our lifetimes and our parents’, and were witnessed first-hand, and even experienced, by many who are still alive. As far as we know, the industrial scale and cold dispassionate inhumanity of these atrocities are unmatched in the whole of human history. It grew in our midst and it’s an ever present occurrence and danger that we must guard against continuously. But we must also do so fairly and intelligently.

I am not, here, concerned with the question of whether the views expressed by Naz Shah and by Ken Livingstone are objectionable, or whether they contain false factual claims. The question is, are they anti-Semitic in nature? If they are anti-Semitic then there’s no question that suspension is deserved, and, whether they’re anti-Semitic or not, they may yet be good cause for suspension on other grounds. But these are issues for the Labour Party and whether such views are consistent with their overall policy objectives. Here. in this post, I am simply concerned with how these remarks might be described.

On matters of fact, you can either be wrong in good faith, or you can be wilfully wrong, prejudicially wrong. The first position I’ll describe as at least a ‘respectable’ position, even if, in some cases, it may be hard to excuse ignorance of the facts. ‘Respectable’ means that a position is worthy of argument, amenable to argument, indeed, one where there are facts that might determine the case and persuade an opponent to change his mind. The second position is a ‘prejudiced’ position, and when there is prejudice there is little scope for constructive, ‘respectful’ argument or persuasion.

To take an example, David Irving, once a ‘distinguished’ amateur historian was shown, in a legal judgement that went against him in 2000, to be wilfully selective in his treatment of historical evidence. He lost a libel case against Penguin Books, and Deborah Lipstadt, an author who accused him of being a Holocaust Denier, a term applied to a man who adopts a wilful evidence-denying, ‘prejudiced’ position on the question of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. His view was shown to be a view that I call ‘unrespectable’, a view that cannot be defended by a man of good faith. (In my opinion most conspiracy theories also fail the test of ‘respectability’, though not so much because they don’t fit the facts, as because their accounting for the facts is unreasonable, improbable and implausible. But that is another issue.)

So, what is it to be anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism is usually understood to be a negative example of racism, though whether being Jewish is a matter of race may itself be a subject of dispute. Judaism may be culturally defined, or defined in terms of religion, or genetics. I doubt that everyone, including those who call themselves Jews, could agree on a single definition. Would the Nazis have murdered a blue-eyed Aryan German who had converted to Judaism? I simply don’t know.

There is also pro-Semitism, which is also a form of racism. Pro-Semitism (a term that might (controversially or not, correctly or incorrectly)) be applied to the policies of the State of Israel) is another, indisputably better, side of a similar coin. In general, racism can be described as ‘positive’ as well as ‘negative’, as for example, ‘positive racial discrimination’ is discrimination in favour of a disadvantaged group defined in racial terms (the Malaysian State’s discrimination in favour of the bumiputera (people of the soil) favours Malays at the expense of the Chinese and Indian minorities and might be so described).

And, of course, ‘positive’ racial discrimination can be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. It is sometimes necessary as a temporary measure to right historical wrongs. I have met many white South Africans who understand and even approve of the South African Government’s policy of enforcing quotas for black South Africans when it comes to employment. In all cases racism is an action or belief undertaken or held in virtue of, a person’s perceived racial identity. Anti-Semitism (conventionally applied only to one group of Semitic people) is an action or opinion formed ‘in virtue of’ a person’s perceived Jewish ‘identity.’

This definition doesn’t go far enough, though. Racism is a pejorative term, in that, when we say someone or an attitude is ‘racist’, we’re saying two more things. Racist remarks are, by implication, remarks we disapprove of, and they are remarks, I think, that we regard as unsupported, perhaps even unsupportable in principle. Perhaps there are people who are ‘out and proud’ racists but let’s leave that ‘unrespectable’ position aside for the moment. When we apply the term ‘racist’ we’re generally being critical and disapproving.

It’s not always easy to ascribe specifically anti-Semitism or racism to an individual. Was the composer Richard Wagner anti-Semitic? He believed that great art is founded on national identity, and that national identity is founded on race. Jewish composers, he believed, with no homeland (then), and therefore no sense of national identity, were incapable of writing profound music, even if they possessed a strong sense of cultural or religious identity. Did he believe that an ‘assimilated’ German Christian ‘Jew’ could be a good composer? I think not.

Wagner’s prejudice was founded on racial belonging and the absence of a Jewish ‘nation’ – a homeland. He would probably have believed that a post-1948 Israeli Jew with a strong sense of national identity and destiny could write great music, but that is a fanciful supposition. I think he was wrong about great art and nationhood, and I would regard his views on this issue as unsupported, insupportable and therefore ‘unrespectable’. Was he an anti-Semite or a Nationalist? I’m not sure. Did he believe that Jews couldn’t be great composers in virtue of their race or in virtue of their situation? Would he have approved of the expulsion or annihilation of the Jews? No, certainly not. Did he subscribe to and exploit ‘mocking’ racial stereotypes (Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, for example)? Probably. Yes, on balance, he was probably anti-Semitic as well as a Nationalist. And then there is the question of whether his music should be played in the State of Israel. But let’s leave that alone!

But what is race? We describe ourselves in many different ways. I am a culturally Christian atheist of the Protestant strain. I am white, male, gay, politically liberal, English, British, European, a resident of the Czech Republic, of remote French Huguenot descent, able-bodied, middle class, middle-aged, and so on. None of these can be exact descriptions. In respect of an infinite number of characteristics that human beings might possess, we exist somewhere on a continuum established by our shared use of linguistic terms and our purposes in making distinctions. Even so, one man or woman’s application of a term may differ subtly from another. Even gender isn’t black and white. So we describe ourselves, for different purposes, in a wide variety of ways that include, at least these:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Colour
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Political affiliation
  • Sexual orientation
  • Residency
  • Ancestry
  • Prosperity
  • Beliefs
  • Physical capability or incapacity
  • Mental capability or dysfunction
  • Etc.

Most of these terms aren’t susceptible of exact definition, by which I mean that it isn’t always possible to define a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their application. The whole issue has become even more complicated by the idea of ‘self-identification’. Rachel Dolezal ‘identified as black’ without being black by descent and found herself in very hot water as a consequence. But let’s not go down that path either.

To be ‘ageist’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘homophobic’, etc., is in general to adopt a ‘prejudiced’ view, to take action or to advance a negative and unsupportable view about an individual or group of individuals identified in respect of one or more characteristics or by membership of a group so identified, in virtue of that characteristic or that membership of a group.

But context is also important. When someone makes a statement or expresses a view it mustn’t be seen in isolation. We should put a statement or view into the context of what the speaker has said or how she or he has acted, on numerous occasions to build a complete picture, if we can. Words taken in isolation are slippery. What does he or she mean by ‘English’, or ‘British’, or ‘Israel’, or ‘Israeli’, or ‘supports’, or ‘mad’?

There’s also the issue of how much prejudice matters, of how pernicious it might be. An ‘unrespectable’ view about stamp-collectors is less likely to do harm than an ‘unrespectable’ view about race. Government policy is unaffected by issues of philately. What worries us most is prejudice expressed for the purposes of negative discrimination – the denial of equal rights to education, health care, justice, residency, freedom of action, and so on.

Let’s consider a few examples of typical generalisations that may or may not be ‘respectable’:

‘The Dutch are a tall nation.’

We know, more or less, whom we mean by ‘the Dutch’ (though we might perhaps include the Flemish population of Belgium under that description). We know what it means to be tall – we probably mean ‘taller than the average’. I’m not entirely sure what we mean by ‘nation’, and we might, reasonably ask for clarification, but once we’ve got that sorted out, It is a supportable view, and it may be right or wrong, supported by the evidence or not. This, to my mind, is not a statement of prejudice, in itself. But if you go on to express an unrespectable view of tall people (that, for example, they should all have their heads cut off) that would be a different matter.

‘Tall people are stupid and should have their heads cut off.’

This is a clear statement of prejudice. Though ‘stupid’ is subject to multiple definitions, I think it highly unlikely that there is research, or indeed, could be research, to support either the factual claim or the remedy.

‘The English are a cold people.’

‘English’, here, is probably being used, loosely, as a cultural definition. I’m inclined to think this isn’t necessarily a prejudiced statement. Of course, we would want anyone who makes such a claim to go on to adduce examples in its defence, to accept that there must be exceptions, and to clarify its scope, but we’re all inclined to make bold and sweeping generalisations about cultures that are based on our experiences, on what we’ve read or seen, or what others have said. And in most cases we plan no denial of rights in consequence of our views. There are, I am happy to say, differences between cultures. We’re also ready to revise such views if evidence accumulates to contradict them. It is an important characteristic of the kind of prejudice we’re considering here, that it is not susceptible to revision in the light of what is generally held to be evidence.

So, which of the following statements are ‘ageist’, or ‘racist’, or ‘sexist’, or ‘homophobic’. Which are ‘prejudiced’ in general, and therefore can’t be regarded as ‘respectable’ views that could, whether right or wrong, be held in good faith? And, in respect of what dimension of human description (nation, race, culture, religion, gender, political affiliation, etc.) is the claim being made?

Feel free to express your views and please forgive me if I use some ugly statements as examples. They do not reflect my views, but I’ve heard or seen many of these views expressed either first hand or in the media, and often all too recently.

  1. Asians take education more seriously than Europeans
  2. Christians are guiltily obsessed with sex
  3. Muslims should be treated with suspicion
  4. Arabs are lazy
  5. Germans have no sense of humour
  6. Americans are stupid, blinkered imperialists
  7. The French don’t wash
  8. Americans are arrogant
  9. Gays shouldn’t be allowed near children
  10. Women drive cars less well than men
  11. Italians make the best lovers
  12. The Kurds should not be given their own homeland
  13. Israel should never have been created where it is located today
  14. Gays should be flung to their deaths from tall buildings
  15. The Jews take education very seriously
  16. There’s a gay mafia in the film industry
  17. Gypsies (the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe, for example) should never be trusted
  18. Hitler for a time supported Zionism. It was an aspect of his anti-Semitism.
  19. Gays have no place in the military
  20. Asians are less inventive than Europeans and Americans
  21. Zionism is racist to the extent that it favours Jewish immigration to Israel.
  22. Women shouldn’t drive cars
  23. There is only one true faith and it is Roman Catholicism
  24. Israel’s policy of settlement in the West Bank is wrong and in breach of international law
  25. There aren’t enough actors and actresses of colour nominated for the Oscars
  26. Black people are less intelligent than white people
  27. Gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt
  28. Mexicans are rapists
  29. African Americans commit more crime than white Americans in proportion to their population
  30. African Americans are more criminally inclined than white Americans
  31. Immigrants are spongers
  32. European civilisation is in decline
  33. The Swiss have never invented anything more interesting than the cuckoo clock

I’m not interested in whether you agree or disagree with any of these views. The question is whether any of these could be a ‘respectable’ view, one that we might argue reasonably about, even if we believe it wrong, or whether, on the other hand, it is a statement of unsupported and insupportable prejudice, and, further, if it is, against what is it prejudice (gender, race, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.)?

It’s difficult, isn’t it? First it’s hard, when a single statement is ripped from its context or from the whole history of the person who might have said it or written it, to know what’s meant. What does ‘support’ mean? What does ‘intelligence’ mean? What does ‘Chinese’ mean? What groups are being singled out and what prejudices asserted?

I won’t, for now, give my own views on each of these examples, but I will say what I think about the statements made by Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone. I know little about Naz Shah’s wider views, and I cannot say if I like her or not. As for Ken Livingstone, I don’t like him (he is a ranting bully too often for my taste) but I have admired some of his positions and achievements.

Naz Shah

My own views are these: I disagree with the view that Israel should be ‘relocated’ to the USA. I disagree with the view that Israel should cease to exist. But I do hope that one day Israel might be a state that doesn’t need to be defined in terms of culture or religion or race.

As for Naz, I believe that when she expressed the view on relocation she knew very well that she was adopting an utterly impractical position. But I think it is far from certain that her views were anti-Semitic. You can oppose the policies of the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic. You can make a ‘respectable’ argument as to whether the state of Israel should even have been created by the UN in 1948 (many at the time thought it should not and voted against the resolution, without being anti-Semitic), just as you can make a ‘respectable’ argument for the creation of a Kurdish state, or a Roma state come to that. You may win or lose each argument, and you may make your case passionately or quietly, and find yourself in a tiny minority or a large majority. As for ‘relocation’, everyone knows that’s impossible, and she knew it too when she expressed the view. It was, I suppose, a kind of rhetorical flourish, akin to saying ‘I wish the Middle East had never existed!’ But, in my view, it’s a view about Israel, a geographical political entity, and its policies, rather than a view about race, or culture, or religion. But of course I would have to look at everything she’s written to come to a definitive conclusion.

Ken Livingstone

Neither do I believe that Ken Livingstone’s remarks were anti-Semitic. I don’t know whether he’s anti-Semitic in general, but I doubt it. Taking the view for the moment that to be Zionist is to believe that there should be a homeland for the Jews, I can believe that, in spite of, perhaps entirely because of his virulent anti-Semitism, Hitler might have supported the view that the Jewish community should be encouraged to emigrate, perhaps even be forcibly evicted, to a Jewish homeland far from Germany. Whilst he might have ‘supported’ Zionism, in this sense, it is still entirely possible that Hitler’s preference, at one and the same time, was for the complete annihilation of the Jews but that he was prevented, at that stage of the development of the totalitarian Nazi state, from getting started on it. It is a matter of historical debate as to whether Hitler had one view or another, and I understand that Ken Livingstone adduces the views of historians in his support. So, Ken may be right or wrong on the issue, and I don’t think it’s necessarily an anti-Semitic view. Far more damaging, I believe, and wrong, though, again, not anti-Semitic, is the view that ‘Hitler went mad’. To call someone ‘mad’ is, to some extent, to claim that they are not responsible for what they do. I don’t think Hitler was mad. He was bad.


I hope my position is also a ‘respectable’ one and that I don’t offend  anyone, least of all my Jewish friends. Disagreements are welcome, especially if they are put reasonably. I am willing to be corrected, of course, if my logic is faulty, my history inaccurate or if my moral principles are themselves at fault. And I am aware that I have placed myself bang in the middle of a minefield, but the entire issue has been much on my mind and I wanted to put my thoughts into words.

Explanation, Understanding and Excuse


I listened on Saturday morning to BBC Radio 4’s phone-in programme, Any Answers, which was dominated by the horrifying events in Paris on Friday evening. Amongst the dozen or so who called in to air their views there were the usual cranks, including a man advocating the incarceration of the families of terrorists, and suspected terrorists, in concentration camps, but the majority of the despair was liberal and thoughtful.


A British man called from Paris first to commiserate, and then to make the point that Paris is a much less contentedly multiracial city than London. Its North African Muslims, particularly, feel marginalised and excluded, and large numbers live separately in what amount to suburban ghettos. They have fewer opportunities, and are often subject to open discrimination. Many are angry, resentful, frustrated, and, as a consequence, they may be prey to religious radicalisation. He made these points reasonably, and was equally as angry about Friday’s atrocities and as sorrowful as any of the other callers. He mentioned that he is of mixed race himself, and was always more conscious of this in Paris than in the UK.

The caller who followed him was indignant, suggesting that his predecessor had been ‘excusing’ terrorism by attempting to explain it. This was before the identity of any of the killers was known (at least one, it now seems, was a radicalised French Muslim), and before IS claimed responsibility.

I remember many years ago the outrage that followed a remark made by Cherie Blair, wife of Britain’s former Prime Minister. She let slip that she ‘understood’ the frustration of the Palestinians who carried out attacks against Israel. She was forced to retract and apologise, though she never meant to excuse Palestinian terrorism.

But to attempt to understand and to explain is not to excuse. Understanding is essential if there is to be solution and prevention. Of course nothing can excuse the cold-blooded killing of non-combatant civilians going about their everyday lives in the streets, cafes, stadiums and concert halls of Paris, except perhaps insanity (and perhaps insanity doesn’t excuse, even if it negates legal responsibility). Whatever our background, unless we are certifiably insane, we choose what we do and are responsible for our actions. Just as we do not discount the merit of courage if a brave man or woman has been lucky in his or her family and education, so we do not discount evil if it’s perpetrated by the marginalised, the unlucky, the poor.

After all, if explanation were a form of excuse, then we could all blame our actions on the interactions of our cerebral synapses, which we don’t control at the cellular level. As conscious, sane, adequately intelligent, adult human beings we are responsible for what we do however we are formed.

But nevertheless it would be stupid to pretend that policy doesn’t affect the conditions in which wrong choices are made. Following the riots of Britain in 1981 when the disaffected and recession-hit communities of Brixton and other inner cities flung Molotov cocktails at the police, the Government commissioned a public inquiry which found evidence of racism in police behaviour towards the black community. Legislation and a massive programme of investment followed, despite Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to accept communal disadvantage as any kind of explanation.

It would be stupid, also, to suppose that ‘Western’ policy in the Middle East hasn’t had a causal influence on what’s happening now, though it isn’t at all obvious what anyone should do next. Poverty and contempt breed violence.

Explanation and understanding are essential, alongside emotion. Concentration camps, bombing, and walls, solve nothing in the long term. But, even so, nothing excuses individual acts of terror and murder. I am sorry for all those affected by Friday’s events in Paris. What must we do to prevent further tragedies?

Even if Paris doesn’t always live up to the high ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they are strikingly less prevalent in the Middle East, from where most of today’s terrorism comes. Whether that is because of, or despite, the West’s century or more or meddling, is a larger topic. One way or another there are precious few benign regimes in the region, and even fewer that are liberally democratic. Everyone seems to know that the solution lies there, but no one knows what it is.

On My Bike

I’m on holiday, bicycling from Miskolc in North-East Hungary to Timisoara in South-West Romania, largely in order to demonstrate (mainly to myself) that I am still young and vigorous. The first day couldn’t decide the issue, though. After a wrong turning on the outskirts of Miskolc, but stubbornly refusing to retrace my steps, I made a 70 km ride into a 95 km ride and arrived in Nyiregyhaza exhausted, as anyone, young or old, might have been.

The starting point of the trip, at least, is in no doubt, but time will tell if I manage the 362 kilometres (as the crow flies, not as the bicycle rolls) from start to finish. Boredom, weather, fatigue, mechanical failure, puncture, and (let’s hope not) accident may curtail the journey.

I’d planned, in fact, to bicycle through Sub Carpathian Ruthenia, but when I explained to anyone interested (and some who were not) that this is just the inner edge of South-Western Ukraine, and therefore a rather welcoming place, I was told not to, on the grounds that kidnapping, accusations of spying, and other mishaps were almost certain. Never mind that this is the Europhile part of Ukraine and was once Czechoslovakia and Hungary (before the Second World War), and Austro Hungary (before the First), and even, for one day, an independent Ruthenia (see Economist).

I thought it unlikely that I could pedal into a warzone from there (I would have to cross the Carpathians for a start and then go on at least another 1,000 km) but I am heeding their warnings and will stay on one or other side of the Hungarian-Romanian border.

bike route

What is there to see?

Large fields of wheat, and maize, large fields of spindly green things that could be fennel (is that unlikely?). Road workers resting by the road, farm workers resting by the fields. Low bungalows in small villages apparently empty of people. Birds. A hare. Above all the tarmac unrolling in front of me, which is all that really matters, getting me from A to B.

But I do notice that the region looks more prosperous than when I was last here, twelve years ago. Agricultural machinery is modern, even monstrous, no longer on the old slow human scale. Village houses look less shabby, and Debrecen, capital of Eastern Hungary, has undergone a radical makeover. The great Calvinist Church has been painted, the streets are tidy and lined with elegant cafes, and an impressively modern and quiet tram slithers through the central square. Sleepiness persists, of course, though more tidily. This part of Hungary hasn’t been in a hurry since the revolution of 1848.

One thing hasn’t changed. Stopping for water about 20 km from Debrecen I engaged a kindly middle-aged lady in conversation (to the extent that my declining Hungarian allows). When I told her what I was doing she said ‘Watch out for the cigany’, and in case I didn’t understand this she said it another way, ‘You know, the brown people. They will rob you if you give them a chance.’ Casual racism persists here, as all over Central  and Eastern Europe.

At Keleti Station in Budapest – in the film noir style.

adam bicycle