Silence is not the answer

Wiley aka Richard Cowie Jnr. (Photo credit: Ian West/PA Wire via Jewish News)
Wiley aka Richard Cowie Jnr. (Photo credit: Ian West/PA Wire via Jewish News)

The tide of antisemitism has been rising, steady and unrelenting, for some time. Of course, this is not without precedent; Jewish communities across space and time have experienced antisemitism with a frequency that has made such encounters depressingly predictable. It seems, though, that a peak of sorts has been reached in recent weeks – and although the existence of antisemitism is unsurprising, the bold character of its expression by influential individuals certainly has been. There is a multi-industry crisis of anti-Jewish prejudice; in the past two weeks alone, openly antisemitic statements and content have come from DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, high-profile entertainer Nick Cannon and fashion platform Shein. And over Shabbat, it was UK grime rapper Wiley’s turn to expose himself as an antisemite of the highest order.

Over a 24-hour period, Wiley launched into a vicious attack on Jewish people; peddling anti-Jewish conspiracy theory and promoting dangerous and derogatory stereotypes to his 498,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. But despite having strong community guidelines defining and prohibiting hate speech, neither social media platform removed these posts or suspended his account for some time – a startling display of inaction that has become as controversial as the comments themselves. Twitter and Instagram’s failure to uphold their own community guidelines around hate speech and incitement have sparked #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate; a Chief Rabbi-endorsed 48-hour boycott of both platforms which aims to hold them to account.

This could not be a more misguided campaign.

Antisemitism is a prejudice that is often rooted in ignorance; a bias that feeds off negative stereotypes that have historically perpetuated themselves graphically, orally and literarily. For the vast majority of people – Wiley’s impressionable followers included – perceptions of Jewish people are anchored in the miserly, hook-nosed and unduly-powerful caricatures the media disseminates; there is, at present, no strong counter-narrative to this reductive and one-dimensional portrayal. We owe it to this moment – and to the future of our people – to take this opportunity to create that narrative; to humanise ourselves to those who have only seen us depicted through the lenses of parody and exaggeration. This is not a time to be silent, but a time to speak to the issue of antisemitism in a moment where so many people are listening. Rather than choosing silence, we should seize this opportunity to educate people about our historical past and vibrant, diverse present; to engage others in dialogue with the hope of bringing about real shifts in people’s understanding of what and who Jews are outside of the tired, derogatory tropes that continue to define us from without. Now is the time for us to create ourselves in our own image – an act of power and agency that urgently demands our voices and not our silence.

It is hard to imagine that this boycott was not somehow inspired by the “black square” campaign that accompanied the recent worldwide BLM protests; a campaign that saw Instagram users post black squares to their grids to signify their acknowledgement of the movement. The question that was raised then, however, surely applies here too: who did this silence really benefit? Many Black content creators pleaded with their white followers not to post these squares. In addition to the hashtags attached to them preventing genuinely informative and educational content being seen, many saw it as a baseless act of faux-activism; a meaningless exercise that not only failed to express any real solidarity, but an act that assuaged the guilty feelings of those posting the squares rather than really listening to Black individuals who continue to suffer racism. If a strategy of silence was ineffective there – during a moment that galvanised millions of people across the world – it will undoubtedly be futile here. Jews make up just 0.2% of the world’s population, with a tiny amount of that number active on social media: what, then, does Jewish silence achieve on social media platforms of such huge magnitude? I understand, of course, that taking a stand of any kind is a fortifying act in the face of threat. However, if we are serious about protesting antisemitism – an issue that can only be tackled through education, dialogue and outreach – then self-gratification is not enough; silence, in this case, is not enough.

The willing sacrifice of Jewish voices in this fragile moment is all the more appalling for the yielding it represents to what antisemites want most: our erasure. One of Wiley’s most awful tweets demanded that Jews ‘hold corn’ – street slang for ‘take bullets’. In addition to being an obvious incitement to violence, the meaning behind these words is clear: Jewish lives and voices are unwelcome in the world of hatred antisemites inhabit. I refuse to participate in a boycott that makes visions of Jew-free spaces a reality; to willingly erase my voice and presence in a moment where my visibility is most necessary. Throughout history, Jewish people have suffered in silence, living through – and dying in their millions within – devastating moments of powerlessness where the raising of voice was impossible. Choosing silence today seems like the most awful betrayal of those times and those lives. The phrase Never Again represents many things to many people, chiefly symbolising the commitment of the international community to preventing identity-based genocidal violence. But to me, Never Again also represents an obligation resist antisemitism and environments of prejudice with strength and purpose; a course of action that runs counter to muteness. The Holocaust can be viewed through a multitude of silences: the fatal silencing of the victims, the silence of bystanders, the reticence of the global community and the denial that has made itself known in its aftermath. Choosing silence in the face of the same hatred that catalysed the genocide of our people is to choose an unforgiveable passivity; a course of action that not only refuses the dialogue through which progress becomes possible, but that continues to allow external parties to define us from without.

Jewish silence is exactly what antisemites want. They won’t be getting it from me.

About the Author
Ayala Maurer-Prager holds a PhD from University College London (UCL) in Conflict Response, Crisis and Human Rights, and specialises in comparative genocide studies and the dynamics of race and gender in conflict and humanitarian contexts. She has worked in communications and advocacy, and is looking forward to developing her career in consulting when she returns from maternity leave in September. She lives in North West London with her husband and two sons.
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