In the age of cultural wars, how should the media best deal with ethnic backgrounds?
The current convention is not to mention it at all – whenever possible – and let names and photographs tell the story. That is, unless ethnicity is what the narrative is about, in the case of the unacceptably high BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] death count in Covid-19, or the first person of colour to climb Everest.
The Jewish community presents special problems. In general, we rejoice in our successes from the arts to business, but recoil when reference is made to Jewishness when something goes wrong. The Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein scandals make us want to disown their ethnicity.
The media has ways of getting round the problem. It finds pictures of the person in disgrace wearing a kippah at family barmitzvahs or refers to their work for Israeli or Jewish philanthropic causes. That may appear harmless, but it provides guidance to the reader or the listener as to their ethnic background without having to make direct reference to Judaism or over-stepping the line into antisemitism.
Throughout the row over antisemitism in the Labour Party, its current leader, Keir Starmer, was admirably restrained in not personalising matters by referring to the Jewish ethnicity of his wife, Victoria. Now that he has made ridding the party of the stigma of antisemitism a high priority, it has become acceptable for the mainstream media to draw attention to this. The formula is not to say directly that she is Jewish, but to mention a Jewish family background or attendance at synagogue services.
In business stories in particular, referring to Jewishness is particularly sensitive. The Rothschild name long has been abused by antisemites. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs famously was described as a ‘vampire squid’ by RollingStone magazine in New York.
It evoked an old antisemitic trope of the octopus-like tentacles of Rothschild bankers and the ancient blood libel. Goldman Sachs is among the most influential investment banks in the world. Former executives – such as US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin – have devoted themselves to public service and hold some of the most senior jobs in global finance. But it only requires a small ethical error at Goldman for
the ‘vampire squid’ epithet to be dusted off.
Superfluous references to ethnic background when they have absolutely no relevance to the narrative are particularly offensive. Amid all the turmoil on the high street in recent times JD Sports is regarded as one of the outstanding retailers. Even the best of businesses struggled under the weight of Covid-19 lockdown. Recently, JD’s board decided to place one of its offshoots, the retail chain Go Outdoors, into administration. Amid the many insolvencies in retail and the hospitality sector during lockdown, this was nothing exceptional.
JD Sports is the publicly quoted retailer built by Stephen Rubin’s Pentland group. It is best known for spotting the sneaker revolution and Reebok long before the world was converted to designer trainers. In a report on the Go Outdoors closures, The Sunday Times felt it necessary to point out that the Rubin family, Jewish philanthropists, were behind JD Sports. The reference, while not overtly hostile, was gratuitous. It was a nod and a wink to the idea that a remarkably generous Jewish family was somehow involved in something not entirely honourable.
British Jews can rightly be proud of the huge contribution they have made in entrepreneurship and the nation’s economic success. Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Shell, Next and Burberry are among great names with Jewish roots. Ocado, Britain’s biggest online success story, is the creation of City traders who once worked at Goldman Sachs.
There is much to take pride in, but we should also be warned that in hard times, when something goes wrong, someone, somewhere will find a way to highlight ethnicity. Much more care is taken by the mainstream media than in the past to avoid directly referring to Jewish backgrounds. The risk of glancing references exploding into abuse and antisemitism on social media is a real and present danger.