A ‘euphemism’ is a word that is used as a substitute for an expression that can cause offence or embarrassment. Authors Kate Burridge and Keith Allan define euphemisms as a shield and at the same time a weapon: They are a way of confronting the problem of how to talk about things that can be uncomfortable – like body parts and bodily functions, sex and lust, death and disease, hate and dishonesty. They are a way of venturing into taboo territory without getting caught, like when we say ‘poo’ or ‘wee’ when we’re talking to children.
So if you were looking for a way to say that ‘Jews are disloyal’, then you might try substituting the word ‘Jew’ by the word ‘Zionist’. Why would that work? For a start, you would be avoiding the taboo of singling out an ethnic group for wholesale abuse. You would also create a smokescreen of ambiguity: Zionism is defined broadly as a political idea, and Zionists are those who support that idea. So singling out Zionists would be seen as a legitimate form of political criticism.
But there are pitfalls: For a start, those with a nuanced understanding of history know that there is an array of different opinions that all fall under the rather vague umbrella term ‘Zionist’. This is why Labour’s Emily Thornberrry was inclined to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn himself was, in fact, a Zionist. And next, when you use a collective term like ‘The Zionists’ to refer to a group of specific people who are not individually named, then you are purposefully obscuring the political meaning of the term and strengthening instead its function as a euphemistic label. For that reason, the smokescreen effect becomes apparent, just like we all know what we mean when we say ‘poo’ or ‘wee’.
That is why the Chakrabarti report on anti-Semitism in the Labour party, otherwise widely criticised as a whitewash, concluded, albeit rather reservedly, that ‘Zionist’ should be used ‘advisedly, carefully, and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse.’ So when a video emerged that showed Jeremy Corbyn remarking that ‘Zionists’ lack qualities of Englishness such as irony even though they have ‘lived here all their lives’, it infuriated those who over the past weeks and months have already been on edge through a series of transgressions in the Labour party that might be described as wholesale euphemism: playing around with criticism of Israeli policy as a way of testing the boundaries and challenging the taboo.
To be clear, I am not a fan of Israeli policy, and I’ve done my bit over the decades to actively oppose it and to actively cultivate links of trust and collaboration with Palestinians, though I’m not going to spell it all out here as I don’t feel that I need to establish my anti-Zionist credentials in order to legitimise my fear of even the most subtle forms of anti-Semitism. But what we’ve been seeing in sections of the Labour party is a drive to challenge the taboo: Suggestions that Hitler was a Zionist, that Israelis are Nazis, that Jews control the media (well exemplified by the Morning Star’s recent reference to the ‘wealthy and powerful’), or that Jewish Labour party members are Israeli agents, contain no element of political analysis or strategy. Nor do they help further the cause of the Palestinians. All they do is toss around offence and insult, under the seemingly protective euphemistic wrap of political criticism of Israel.
We need to look at this in full context. ‘Othering’ of Jews is more common in UK institutional settings than many might wish to admit or recognise, and that includes the UK higher education sector: I was once teased by a senior colleague about whether I spent a supervision meeting with a Jewish student chatting about ‘how to kill Arabs’. I witnessed another Israeli colleague being asked to remove himself from a PhD panel because ‘it would not be appropriate for an Israeli to supervise a Jordanian student’. In 2005, after the university lecturers’ union AUT declared a boycott of Israeli academia, a line manager who learned that I had talked to a senior Israeli academic about the possibility of giving a seminar threatened me with disciplinary action for ‘committing the University to a political position’, though the university had never adopted the union’s policy of singling out any country or individual scholar for boycott.
It’s hard to see how such expressions of suspicion and exclusion would unequivocally fall under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism that has become the focus of Labour’s most recent debates. But when the full range of institution-based practices is taken into consideration, one can understand what led three Jewish newspapers to write in late July 2018 that a Corbyn-led government would pose an existential threat to Jewish life in this country: If a trade union resolution to boycott Israel could trigger the kind of reaction that I describe above, what would happen if it became government policy to treat Jews as ‘Zionist agents’ who cannot be trusted, whose conversations should come under scrutiny, and whose international links need to be put under surveillance?
In early September, Labour will return to debating the IHRA definition. But even if the Labour leadership were to back track from its initial reservations, the issue won’t go away. Corbyn has so far been talking in reverse, saying that he deplores anti-Semitism but will not be deterred from criticising Israel. In that way he is only strengthening the perception that he sees the whole debate as an attempt to prevent him from supporting the Palestinians. Instead, a simple and straightforward statement is called for: Labour should declare explicitly that it opposes Israel’s policies, but that this position gives no legitimacy to the use of hostile imagery against Jews as Jews. It should declare an end not just to the use of individual expressions as euphemisms, but to a pattern of behaviour by which the debate around Israel is seen by some as a tempting arena through which to challenge the taboo, and get away with it without sanctions.
Professor of Linguistics, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, University of Manchester
Affiliated Researcher, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge