“The reality is, there is probably more prejudice in the UK against fat people than there is prejudice against Jews,” Norman G. Finkelstein told interviewer Jamie Stern-Weiner, in an interview published yesterday on an English website. “Ask yourself a simple, but serious, question. You go for a job interview. Which trait is most likely to work against you: if you’re ugly, if you’re fat, if you’re short, or if you’re Jewish? It’s perhaps a sad commentary on our society’s values, but the trait most likely to elicit a rejection letter is if you’re ugly. Then fat; then short. The factor least likely to work against you is, if you’re Jewish.”
Finkelstein, the controversial leftist scholar and critic of Israel, was discussing the concerns that there is rising anti-Semitism in England, particularly on the left and in the Labour Party. The whole interview is worth reading, but this part, about job prejudice, is interesting for what it reveals about an increasingly common figure, the anti-anti-anti-Semite, the person for whom concerns about anti-Semitism are more a problem than anti-Semitism. Finkelstein draws a comparison that, on its face, is correct, but in fact tells us nothing at all.
My sense—as somebody relatively short, one hundred percent Jewish, not fat, not (I hope) too ugly, and lacking any experience on the British job market—is that Finkelstein is right about job applications. Prejudice against fat people, and others found aesthetically displeasing, is well documented, and I am very prepared to believe that an obese or quite short candidate for a job is more likely to be assessed as an incompetent, as somehow more unfit, than a Jewish candidate. Even rabid anti-Semites will overlook applicants’ Jewishness in the search for a better fry cook, an accountant, or a car salesperson.
But anti-Semitism isn’t like ageism or fatism or other irrational prejudices. Those other prejudices rely almost entirely on theories of inferiority: fat people are undisciplined, short people lack authority, black people are stupid and criminal, Muslims are seditious and violent, LGBTQ people are perverts, etc. Jews, by contrast, are loathed without being considered repulsive. While some still find us smelly, anti-Semitism today is often based on theories of superiority: Jews are uniquely smart, good with money, ambitious. And we are thought to be clannish and cunning, two traits admired within one’s group but loathed in outsiders.
Many stereotypes of Jews—that we are good with money, for example—may redound to a job applicant’s advantage. So long as our mysterious powers can be properly harnessed, one might very well want a Jew in one’s employ. I knew somebody who would only hire Jewish lawyers because she thought they were aggressive; I knew somebody else who would only go to Jewish doctors, because she thought they were smart.
Nevertheless, being singled out for superiority is not always a compliment (just ask the Asian “model minorities”). It’s a way of marking a group of people as an out-group, as other. And, when a rabble decides that they or their economies, or their media, are being manipulated by some mysterious forces—perhaps put in motion by cunning people, with supernatural powers—those cunning people, those in the out-group, are primed for the gallows. Fat or ugly people can be ignored; the Jew must be rooted out.
The writer Amy Fine Collins tells the story of her friend Andrew Solomon’s asking a Russian peasant in Zagorsk “why, in his estimation, there was such antipathy everywhere against Jews. Without a moment’s hesitation, the peasant answered, in Russian: ‘It is because the Jews have a secret vegetable they eat so they don’t become alcoholics like the rest of us. And they refuse to share that vegetable with anyone else.’”
I think we’d all hire the man who holds that vegetable. But we’d also kill him for it.
Of course, that kind of deep stupidity doesn’t characterize the anti-Semitism of the English upper classes and university students, who seem to be the chief constituency today. But it’s similar in its focus on Jews’ special, secret powers. Finkelstein is right that that kind of prejudice is unlikely to harm a Jew in the contemporary job market. But it’s potentially lethal nonetheless. When the mob comes—and as Donald Trump reminds us, the mob can always come again—it comes for the Jews. Not because we’re physically repulsive or smelly (you know, like fat people), but because, as the anti-Semites believe, we’re shifty, cunning, and powerful. That’s the kind of prejudice that’s easy to ignore, right up until the moment that it’s not.