Antisemitism at Work in the UK: Ignorance and Denial

Stephen Ashe & James Renton

June 2019

“What are you talking about ‘othering Jews’? I was engaged in a discussion that wasn’t even *about* Jews. Stop looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.”

These are the words of Paul Embery, a prominent pro-Brexit campaigner and Regional Secretary of the British Fire Brigades Union. Tweeting in April 2019, Embery was responding to criticism over an earlier comment that many had regarded as antisemitic: “the divide in our society”, he had written, was “between a rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle-class … and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working-class.”

Embery had not mentioned Jews, as he was at pains to point out. But this does not exonerate what he said. In early 20th century Europe, the notion of the “rootless cosmopolitan” was a referent for Jews as the enemy of the nation.

Embery’s initial comment and his subsequent denial of antisemitism are symptomatic of a much bigger problem among the nationalist left in Europe and the United States: their nationalist rhetoric is inherently attached to a set of racist notions, which are not easily recognised without knowledge of their history. This opaque, almost hidden, relationship coagulates with the already powerful desire to deny racism at all costs, a marked trend in recent years, even among the far-right.

The reality, however, is that antisemitism exists within British unions and the workplace in general, as is clear from new survey data. .

The West’s antisemitic sediment

Prejudice against Jews has never been something that happens on the fringes of society, tucked away in a separate box that we can label ‘antisemitism’. Ideas about Jews are always attached to wider currents of thinking, and, critically, vice versa.

In the 19th century, race was at the centre of society, and it defined how people thought about nationhood. The racial nation was understood in the mainstream as the epitome of a healthy, rooted population. Faced with the flux of modernity, rootedness was not a metaphor, but an idealised social condition. And it was conceived in response to a very specific malaise: a sense of loss, of an unmooring of morality, values, and inner health, as a result of the new life of cities, industry, and mass culture.

Following the long tradition of Christian Europe, Jews were seen as the embodiment of the problem. They were modernity’s shorthand for rootlessness and cosmopolitanism—just as in medieval times Jews were viewed as the corrupters of Christian morality and blood; in the wars of religion, the fanatics who want to “lay their hands on… the government of the whole world”, to quote Martin Luther;[1] or in the Enlightenment, the inventors of theocracy.

The Jewish Peril, book cover, 1920 
Source: uploaded by Ludvikus at English Wikipedia, transferred to Commons

In the early 20th century, discussions of rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, and the corruption of the national fabric were discussions about Jews. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler recalled his dismay in Vienna when he first encountered (in his mind) “the boundless hatred they [the Jews] heaped upon their own nationality, despising its greatness, besmirching its history, and dragging its great men into the gutter.” According to Hitler, the “Jewish doctrine of Marxism”, two sides of the same coin for the Nazis, posed in its cosmopolitanism a dire threat to humanity—“its existence and its culture”.[2]

It is no irony that the dictatorship of Josef Stalin later accused Jews of being rootless cosmopolitans. We need to recognise that this characterisation of Jews as the pernicious enemy of society was an inherent part of European culture, whether on the right or the left; it did not begin or end with the Nazis.

Racist ideas about Jews live on in the sediment of Western culture, and are intimately bound up with a series of existential fears, whether they are expressed consciously or not: cosmopolitanism, hidden power, exploitative wealth, cultural corruption. One reason that these ideas do not disappear is that they are required as the negative flipside through which Western culture articulates its positive self-image in times of crisis, especially, but not exclusively, in relation to the idea of a besieged nation.

Anti-Jewish concepts are such a deep-seated part of Western society that they live on as codes and icons that do not require explanation. The Jewish financier and philanthropist , George Soros, or the nameless cosmopolitan, can be invoked without comment, or even self-awareness; the meanings are already there.

Jewish Workers in Contemporary Britain

We should not be surprised, therefore, that Jewish workers in the UK face antisemitic ideas in their daily lives, as revealed in the findings of two of the largest surveys ever conducted in relation to workplace racism in Britain: the 2015 Business in the Community (BiTC) Race at Work and the 2016/17 Trade Union Congress (TUC) Racism at Work.

Both the BITC and TUC surveys provided a series of open-ended questions for participants to share the experiences of workplace racism. Among the thousands of personal statements provided, participants revealed that they had either directly experienced or witnessed antisemitic remarks and ‘jokes’, such as:

  • “Jews are rich and spoiled and always get what they want and are a damage to Islam.”
  • ‘Jewish people should not be trusted.”
  • Being called a ‘New York Jew’; and
  • Referred to as someone who “looks like a clerk.”

What is more, survey participants also reported that they had endured:

  • Antisemitic social media posts from colleagues.
  • “[M]any negative questions and odd [conspiracy] theories.”
  • Different treatment by managers because they were Jewish; and
  • Exclusion from workplace social events, including colleagues deliberately ordering only ‘pork-based’ foods.

These were the everyday forms of anti-Jewish racism that medics, civil servants, sales reps, transport and distribution workers, library assistants, academics, pension officers, nursing assistants, midwives, and laboratory assistants had experienced either while at work or from colleagues outside the workplace.

A number of things stand out when reading the tens of thousands of words of personal testimony captured by these surveys. First, the forms of anti-Jewish racism reported above do not exist in isolation. In fact, they are typically experienced as part of broader workplace cultures that are institutionally racist, alongside other types of racism, as highlighted in the recent report on these surveys.[3]

Second, while some of the examples above give us some sense of what antisemitism looks and sounds like, it was far more common for participants to provide brief statements that did not detail descriptions of what they had been through. It is not a stretch to suggest that this may in part be down to the pain and trauma of reliving personal experiences of racism. As one survey participant put it: “Frankly it’s just too painful. It’s ruining lives.”

And it is this second point which brings us back to Embery’s tweets. Not only do we need to have a clear and detailed knowledge of antisemitism, we must also pay attention to the manner in which this racism is denied. The TUC survey suggests that workers in the UK do not feel that they can seek help from their unions concerning racism because of the extent of the prejudice that they face, and that they do not feel that the issue is taken seriously.

82.4% of the 5,191 people who took the TUC survey were trade union members. And it is striking that less than one-third of ethnic minority workers had sought help from their trade union. Like many of the people who took the 2015 BiTC survey, a significant number of those who took the TUC’s 2016/2017 survey used its open-ended questions to voice their concerns about how trade unionists responded to members reporting racism at work (it must be noted, however, that some participants were effusive in their praise for how their trade union had handled their reports). Detailed analysis of these complaints found that participants were reluctant to seek help from their trade union for the following reasons:

  • Racism from fellow union members and representatives.
  • Threatening and intimidating behaviour.
  • Reports of racism are not taken seriously.
  • Little or no support given in the past.
  • The union being ineffective in instances where the perpetrator is a union member.
  • A lack of attention and/or commitment to equality and diversity.
  • Claims that unions focus only on the concerns of white British workers.
  • The union had demonstrated little understanding of racism.
  • A lack of experience in responding to workplace racism in the union.
  • Participants felt pressurised into using formal grievance procedures rather than responding in other ways.
  • A lack of trade union equality and diversity representatives, especially ethnic minority women.
  • Employer hostility to trade union representatives, including members being threatened with dismissal; and collusion between employers and union representatives in an attempt to conceal racism or exacerbate racist practices.

This situation is not sustainable; the labour movement in the UK needs urgent change. Organised education programmes about the history and present of all racisms, antisemitism included, have to start now. They are long overdue. Rather than deny racism, trade unionists need to listen to their members. At least then, victims will be more likely to turn to their trade unions for support. In the meantime, racism and its denial will continue to flourish within the labour movement, as is the case elsewhere in society.

Stephen Ashe leads the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity’s Racism at Work Project, The University of Manchester, UK.

James Renton is Professor of History, and Director of the International Centre on Racism at Edge Hill University, and Academic Advisor at Monitor Global Intelligence on Racism.

[1] Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), translated by Martin H. Bertram in Franklin Sherman (ed.), Luther’s Works, Vol. 47: The Christian in Society, IV (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), p. 264.

[2] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf- Translated by Ralph Meinheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943 [1925]), pp. 60, 65.

[3] Stephen D. Ashe, Magda Borkowska & James Nazroo, Racism Ruins Lives: An analysis of the 2016-2017 Trade Union Congress Racism at Work Survey(Trades Union Congress, 2019).