Writing in Jewish News, the former vice-president of the Zionist Federation, Jonathan Hoffman asks, ‘Is Kevin Myers really an anti-Semite? His conclusion is… no.
To argue this, Hoffman first assigns a very specific meaning to Kevin Myers’ words; namely that Myers was (merely?) characterising BBC presenters Vanessa Feltz and Claudia Winkleman as “good negotiators”, on account of their being Jewish.
Further, Hoffman argues that there is evidence that Jews are good negotiators (“so how can it be anti-semitic to say so?”), and that, in fact, “Myers was paying the two presenters a compliment! (‘Good for them’)”.
Leaving aside the treatment of Jews as a monolithic group, the above reading does not accurately reflect Myers’ article. The claim that Myers simply complimented Feltz and Winkleman (and Jews in general) for being “good negotiators” is unconvincing.
Although the negotiations involved in securing highly paid contracts are frequently mentioned in Myers’ article, not once does he refer to the negotiating skills of Feltz or Winkleman; but always to those of their agents (and the agents representing the other women). The ethnicity of any person taking part in negotiations is never mentioned.
The article was written following news of the BBC’s gender pay gap. Myers posed the possibility that the pay gap could be due to the presenters’ agents, who might be underperforming in terms of the salaries they were able to secure.
To explore this feeble idea, Myers instinctively reached for some sort of benchmark. His chosen reference point relied on an assumption that, as Jews, Feltz and Winkleman would naturally have sought out and employed agents who were capable of negotiating the very highest remuneration packages for their clients. Note that Myers admits to being unfamiliar with either presenter. Despite this, Myers was confident in making unevidenced claims, based on their ethnicity alone.
Myers suggested that the BBC presenters’ salaries could only be fairly compared if all contracts were agreed by the same supposedly hard-nosed negotiators that he imagined to be employed by Feltz and Winkleman.
The particular trait implied by Myers’ article is not some kind of ‘knack’ for negotiating; it is dedication to the pursuit of money. It appears that Myers does genuinely admire this trait. However, it does not follow that it should be taken as a compliment. And of course, it wasn’t!
Myers seems to view the non-Jewish BBC presenters as individuals, who may or may not secure the best possible salaries. By contrast, he writes “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price”. Granted, this is more subtle than: ‘Jews are generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the highest possible price’- but the stereotype is the same; that Jews are somehow more concerned with money than others.
To be “good at negotiating” is a much broader, less problematic concept, with no associated financial motivation. But this doesn’t fit with Myers’ article, which is clearly framed around money.
By way of providing ‘evidence’ that Jews are “good negotiators”, Hoffman names Henry Kissinger, Anthony Julius, and Fiona Shackelton, “plus many [Jews] in law and accountancy firms whose bread and butter is negotiation.”
Those named above may well be excellent negotiators, and Jewish- but in all these examples, negotiation clearly forms a significant part of their work- their “bread and butter”. To use these examples as being relevant to Vanessa Feltz and Claudia Winkleman- television and radio presenters, with completely different skills- and merely because they also happen to be Jewish, is in itself an essentialist view. But by suggesting that a slightly less problematic stereotype is implied, Hoffman seeks to minimise the criticism of Myers.
A Wider Trend
So why would Hoffman seek to apologise for Myers?
Dr. Mark Humphrys describes himself as an Irish academic who is ‘pro-Israel’, ‘anti-jihad’, ‘anti-sharia’, ‘pro-interventionist’, and ‘neo-con’. In defence of Myers, he writes approvingly: “For decades, Kevin Myers has been one of the main defenders of Israel in Ireland”. The previous articles by Myers on Israel/Palestine seem to substantiate this view.
Myers is opposed to The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that seeks to use boycotts and other measures to pressure Israel into complying with international law. An article by Myers in the Irish Independent (8 May 2012) carried the headline: “Only a deranged pathogen could boycott Israel while murder gangs roam every other state in the region“. Myers writes that “the handful of stupid Jews who are backing the Boycott Israel campaign need to examine their consciences.” It can be assumed that Myers’ pro-Israel position is already widely known.
It is this support for Israel (including opposition to non-violent strategies for attaining justice for Palestinians) that explains Hoffman’s and Murphys’ defence of Myers. This should be seen within the context of a wider trend, in which political Zionists are willing to excuse antisemitism, provided that the offender has the necessary pro-Israel credentials. This has generally applied to right wing individuals or groups, who are more likely to support Israel’s current policies.
In 2009, Antony Lerman wrote in The Guardian about Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard’s defence of Michal Kaminski- a right wing, antisemitic Polish MEP. Lerman highlights “the dangerous naivety of taking support for Israel at face value.” A quote from Pollard illustrates a view that is central to this issue: “Far from being an anti-Semite, Mr Kaminski is about as pro-Israeli an MEP as exists.” There is a denial that both pro-Israel and antisemitic views can be held simultaneously. In the case of various right wingers, holding a pro-Israel position has served to negate any antisemitism.
Similarly the Israeli government, by forging relations with various right wing EU politicians, has had to drop its opposition to any inconvenient right wing sentiment.
Hoffman’s article, the latest unedifying contribution to this wider trend, is a sad, contrived mess of apologism. Regarding Kevin Myers, there seemed to be some consensus regarding the offence caused by his article; with thankfully very few prepared to defend it. It is incredibly cynical that some seek to make excuses for Myers and others on account of their pro-Israel positions.
Hoffman ends with this:
“Those of us who call out genuine anti-semitism have a responsibility to similarly call out wrongful accusations of it.”
Ultimately, Hoffman considers that distinguishing between genuine antisemitism and wrongful accusations of it is his call, not ours.