Is Galliano’s Antisemitism the Height of Fashion?

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published on 3 March 2011

The flamboyant, bandana-wearing haute couture dress designer John Galliano can be seen abusing two women with antisemitic insults in a Paris bar in October last year in a YouTube clip. The internationally acclaimed creative director at Christian Dior was videoed saying ‘I love Hitler and people like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be f****** gassed.’ This footage came to light after Galliano was arrested following an incident last week in the same bar, La Perle, in which he allegedly accosted a Jewish woman and her Asian boyfriend saying ‘Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead’ and ‘f****** Asian bastard’.

The fashion house suspended the designer (it says it has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards any antisemitic or racist behaviour) who spent more than five hours on Monday at a Paris police station being questioned over the latest incident. The biannual Paris fashion trade show is on and Galliano, the Guardian reports, was due to present his autumn-winter collection for Dior this Friday and his own collection on Sunday. Late on Tuesday afternoon, Dior announced that it had sacked him.

The Galliano incident prompted a journalist on the Independent newspaper to write a piece titled ‘Galliano arrest spotlights rise in antisemitism’. Roping together the actor Charlie Sheen’s apparent antisemitic reference to the creator of the hit comedy tv show in which he stars, Mel Gibson’s previous antisemitic rants and a Wiesenthal Centre list of the 10 most high-profile antisemitic outbursts of 2010 published last week, the writer claims that the Galliano affair has ‘reinforced reports of an alarming increase in antisemitism’.

Galliano’s antisemitic ‘rant’, as it’s being called, rapidly grew into an incident of international proportions—attention was soon focused on which usually Dior-wearing movie stars had ditched their Galliano creations on Oscar night, and which hadn’t—and the reaction to it, as well as the nature of the incident itself, raises questions about whether we can look at such events in a rational perspective.

These days, there is an inevitability about the manner in which such incidents unfold. At first there is acute media sensitivity to public displays of antisemitic abuse, but the coverage then provokes alarm that antisemitism is increasing. Then there’s swift condemnation and institutional action, but also the individual is defended by friends and admirers—‘It’s so unlike him’, ‘It’s his designs we love, we don’t have to love his politics’, ‘He’s under a lot of pressure’—and by a lawyer who usually tries to make light of the charges and cast aspersions on the accusers. At the same time, major Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the European Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre issue strong condemnatory statements especially if there is some Israel connection. Meanwhile, bloggers pile in and armies of pseudonymous respondents fill up threads with every kind of comment, from the sensible to the totally outrageous.

The true nature of these kinds of events, and the context in which they occur, is often rapidly obscured as the process unfolds. In the Galliano case, we are told that the two women subjected to abuse in October last year were not Jewish. Galliano, an international celebrity, is sitting alone at a small table, clearly drunk and looking pathetic. The words are foul, but the delivery is slurred and weak. In other circumstances, one would probably move tables or complain to the management and have the drunk thrown out. With the latest case last week, there also seems to be some doubt as to whether the woman involved is Jewish. The bizarre character of both incidents is compounded by the fact that Galliano is gay and therefore himself likely to have been a candidate for Nazi ‘extermination’. And to complicate matters even further, La Perle is one of many fashionable bars in the chic Marais district, the traditional Jewish area of Paris, now home to a large gay community.

Given Galliano’s celebrity status, last week’s incident, which was reported to the police, was always likely to come to public attention. But there’s no doubt that the publication of an image of it on the internet, and the subsequent coming forward of the women who experienced Galliano’s racist insults in October, together with mobile phone video of him in full flow, helped give the incident an additional, rapidly expanding popular dimension that is now so important to maintaining such things in the public eye.

Even a modicum of calm reflection raises doubts as to whether, when analysing this series of events, it’s wise to leap to conclusions of rising antisemitism. In an opinion piece yesterday, the well-known novelist and journalist, Linda Grant, as sharp as anyone in identifying and condemning antisemitism, tried to understand what motivated Galliano. Without in any way excusing him, Grant wrote: ‘[Galliano’s] collections have always been about transgression, busting taboos. . . . If you are a breaker of taboos, antisemitism is only another taboo . . . Is Galliano an actual antisemite who hates Jews? Who knows what passes through his mind, but by invoking the name of Hitler and gloating about the gas chambers, he is only doing what others have always paid him to do: shock.’ A thoughtful speculation that rings true, certainly, especially since it comes from someone who knows the fashion industry well and whose Jewish identity emerges strongly and positively in her work. And yet, from the vast majority of those who responded to her piece on-line, you’d think Grant herself was an apologist for Hitler.

There is no justification for turning the Galliano affair into just one more item that proves antisemitism is an unbroken, eternal condition and ever on the rise. And yet this is the prevailing mindset, notwithstanding the fears of some who exemplify it that no one cares and they are whistling in the dark. As Dr Adam Sutcliffe, who teaches European and Jewish history at Kings College University of London, writes in the latest issue of the Jewish Quarterly, ‘Antisemitism is of course real and important, but it is inadequate to interpret Jewish/non-Jewish relations only through the prism of an all-pervasive antisemitism.’ There’s no question that Galliano made hurtful antisemitic statements, but saying that is only the beginning of understanding, not the end.

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