The Tories are exploiting Jewish fears over antisemitism

In calmer times, I like to think, a senior, mainstream politician’s ostensible expression of concern for the security of the UK’s Jewish population which at its core contained the antisemitic assumption that all Jews are rich, would have been exposed for its hypocrisy.

But such times are a receding memory. General alarm and media concurrence, rather than reasoned scepticism, met Tory Party chairman James Cleverly’s comment in a Sunday Telegraph interview that Jewish ‘individuals and groups, including entrepreneurs and other business figures’ – people he had known ‘much of my life’ – were planning to leave the country if Labour won the forthcoming General Election. The paper’s front page editors didn’t hesitate before turning the people Cleverly knows into an unlimited number in their banner headline: ‘Jews will leave if Corbyn wins’ – a statement that, given the paper’s leading role in fanning the flames of a nasty English nationalism, could easily be read as assuming that those clever rootless cosmopolitans, interested only in turning a profit for themselves, can shift their assets and homes around the globe at will.

Michael Gove then took to social media to urge Jeremy Corbyn and some of his high-profile supporters to condemn a tweet from a user claiming to be a member of Labour and Momentum, saying ‘we can't trust Jews’. Both organisations confirmed that the account ‘Joe Woods #JC4PM’ did not belong to any of their members. Mr Gove was attempting to ‘smear us through association’, Momentum said. It seems that cabinet ministers are licensed to say anything outrageously untrue to smear Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as anti-Semitic, and that Jews are just fodder for the Tory propaganda machine.

Were Cleverly and Gove more concerned, they might have stepped up when Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Commons Brexit debate on 3 September, castigated Sir Oliver Letwin and Speaker John Bercow for blocking Brexit. Here was a man who prides himself on his unparalleled and comprehensive knowledge of the meaning of words, referring to two fellow Tories of Jewish background, as ‘Illuminati who are taking powers into their own hands’. The historian of antisemitism, UCL’s Michael Berkowitz, pointed out that this was a stereotype of ‘Jewish criminality’ – an antisemitic trope – used by the Nazis and their accomplices. Yet Rees-Mogg made no apology for this smear and when Boris Johnson and other senior Tories were asked to condemn him, they were silent.

To get away with dog-whistle antisemitism and at the same time in the chase for votes shamelessly exploit Jewish fears is quite something.

But even I am tempted to say – Who can blame them? – when the weaponisation of anti-semitism has become commonplace, for reasons that have very little to do with serious concern for the welfare of all Jews. And when Jewish leaders have been conniving in the stoking of Jewish fears. As it happens, the Cleverley intervention hit the headlines immediately after the Jewish Chronicle gave front page coverage to a letter senior Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote to his entire Maidenhead congregation, warning them that a ‘Corbyn-led government would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it . . . whether it be utterances that cause Jews to feel victimised, less secure and no longer at ease . . . or maybe even legislation that restricts Jewish life or relations with Israel in some way, then you may wish to vote to ensure that Labour does not gain your local seat.’

JC’s editor, Stephen Pollard, whose hawkish exaggeration of the threat of antisemitism pre-dates Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader by many years, was given a platform by the Sunday Telegraph to double down on the fearmongering. Labour’s ‘so-called moderates [have chosen to] throw Britain’s Jews under a bus. . . . The simple truth is that every Labour member who campaigns for their party to win is sticking two fingers up to Britain’s Jews.’ The piece is a sad reprise of Pollard’s ‘Greatest Hits’ album. In it, he cites the 47 per cent of Jews in a Survation poll who said they would ‘seriously consider’ emigrating if Labour won, the 87 per cent of Jews who say Corbyn is antisemitic, the 88 per cent of potential Labour voters who say ‘Labour’s antisemitism is not a problem’ and a list of unsubstantiated examples of Corbyn’s own alleged expressions and legitimization of antisemitism.

Pollard simply does not understand why his Jeremiads about Labour have not resulted in the Party’s demise or the demise of Corbyn, even though the truth is staring him in the face. This has been a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy. He is responsible, together with Jewish establishment leaders and deeply misguided politicians for leading the charge in generating, justifying and encouraging such reported sentiment among Jews. If you keep banging on about the threat to Jewish life from a mass-membership party, especially at a time when there is widespread confusion about what constitutes antisemitism, it’s absurd to be shocked when some people seem to want to leave the country. The shock comes tinged with a kind of self-congratulatory triumphalism.

From Pollard, one expects such irresponsible ravings. But Rabbi Romain, in my experience, is different: he has been a liberal, progressive and balanced voice, never taking part in moral panics. How is it then that he doesn’t give a moment’s thought to the many thousands of non-Jewish constituents in his parish who during ten long years of austerity have suffered at Tory hands, from poverty, deprivation, discrimination, a struggling NHS and watching billions of pounds that could have been invested in social care, poured down the Brexit plughole? These are the people who might understandably and finally look in hope for the brighter future promised in the policies of a reforming and transformative Labour government. People who simply haven’t got the luxury of dreaming about some better bolthole to which they can escape. Since when has it been kosher for Jews to abandon social responsibility in favour of selfishness grounded in baseless fears? (Thankfully, at least one of his fellow rabbis, Howard Cooper of the Finchley Reform synagogue, has called Romain out.)

The growing numbers of far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremists in the UK must be delighted at this state of affairs: Jews, the Tory leadership, much of the mainstream media are combining to do their work for them. With friends like Cleverly, Gove and the deeply confused former Labour MP John Mann who sees no irony in being appointed ‘Antisemitism Tsar’ by Boris Johnson, we Jews don’t need enemies.

Given powerful living memory of the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the decades and centuries of persecution that preceded it, it’s not surprising that invoking current existential danger might turn our thoughts instinctively towards a safer haven. But is it mature, considered, wise leadership to both generate and promote the notion that Jews in the UK are on the brink of being subjected to a Yellow Star regime? To do this uncritically? Yet this is what Romain, Pollard and many other senior communal figures, on Twitter and elsewhere, are either doing or implying they agree with. When the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl told us in August 2018, that ‘Corbyn has declared war on the Jews’, what else are we expected to think?

Reasons for feeling secure

The recently published co-authored book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, to which I contributed a chapter, has revealed the stark contrast between public perceptions of the scale of the problem of antisemitism in Labour and the evidence-based reality. A national Survation poll showed that on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism, when the actual figure was far less than 1 per cent. The book clearly states that ‘the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party should not be minimised’, but that there was no ‘army of antisemites’ (Sunday Times headline 7 April 2019) and that the party is not ‘riddled’ with antisemitism.

Mistakes have been made in tackling the problem, but these are largely to do with institutional dysfunction. They are not evidence of institutional racism. Rabbis and sensible leaders do not have to be supporters of the Labour Party to understand that in the worsening climate of racism both here and abroad, it’s vital that a party that has been in the forefront of fighting racism for decades should be given positive encouragement to renew its role. As the book’s academic authors conclude: ‘the constant attacks for other purposes on its leader and the traducing of the membership as a whole is in the end counterproductive. It weakens the forces on which all minorities including Jewish people will depend for their security in the conflicts that lie ahead’ (188). It may be a tough struggle stemming the tide of moral panic and collective hysteria among many Jews in the UK, but in standing one’s ground, rather than feeding feelings of insecurity, working together across communities and not being seduced by the notion of Jews as ‘a people that dwells alone’, it can be done.

When you look soberly across the world, is the idea of flight to safety realistic? In the United States, 11 Jews were murdered by a neo-Nazi in their synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, the President promotes white supremacism, defends antisemites, stokes enmity against minorities and attacks liberal Jewish critics of Israel as false Jews. In Israel, 7 Israeli citizens were killed in the West Bank in 2018, your children could be put in harm’s way if eligible to serve in the Israel Defence Forces and you would be choosing a society seeking to maintain a Jewish majority in perpetuity in the entire Israel-Palestine area by restricting and denying the rights of the Palestinians. In France, Jews have been murdered in recent years just for being Jews and, although no one knows exact figures, a flow of Jews to other countries, particularly Israel, has been under way for some time. But many are returning to France in greater numbers thanks to the pull of their French identity, which allows for their Jewish faith to be treated as a private matter, in contrast to that of a society where religion plays a central public-political role and values are very different from those in France. The rise of far-right populism, nativist nationalism and a backlash against immigrants is common to so many countries, it is morally indefensible to give credence to flight. Moreover, it only validates the antisemitic charge: Jews don’t belong.

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How is it that the manifest virtues of life in the UK for British Jews are so lightly discarded by the likes of Rabbi Romain in the face of a confected threat? This isn’t a question of degree, as if there were a certain percentage chance of Labour in government singling out Jews for discriminatory treatment, official abuse, the denial of rights, the suppression of Jewish religious practice, the imposition of a pernicious tax regime targeting Jews ­– whatever Pollard’s febrile imagination envisages. This kind of speculation is bizarre and completely without foundation. Were a Labour government to pursue a foreign policy more critical of Israeli human rights abuses and more focused on securing equal rights for the Palestinians, surely British Jews who object to such a move know full well that engaging in discussion and reasoned argument through the political process is the sensible way of making their views known, rather than levelling accusations of antisemitism at the policy-makers.

Moreover they are simply ignoring the strong countervailing forces against antisemitism in the UK – financial support for security at Jewish institutions; very close ties between the Community Security Trust, the private Jewish charity monitoring and combating antisemitism on behalf of the organised community, and the government and police; an official willingness to adopt and propagate the so-called ‘new’ IHRA definition of antisemitism (a deeply flawed document in my view) notwithstanding little inclination to do the same for Islamophobia; the funding and construction of a new Holocaust memorial and education centre right next to parliament in Westminster; the media’s widespread and continued sensitivity to the issue of antisemitism; and the freedom Jews enjoy to express their religious and cultural Jewishness. To ignore this is to fail to recognize that there is probably no place more secure for Jews anywhere else in the world.

There is really no excuse for the lachrymose exceptionalism James Cleverly would have us embrace for the grubby purpose of giving the Tories electoral advantage. Now more than ever, at this decisive moment in the country’s history, we should be looking beyond the selfish obsessions of so many religious and secular Jewish leaders and focusing on the needs of others, recognising the continued reality of anti-Black racism, the pervasiveness of Islamophobia – the truth, as Fope Olaleye reminded us in the Guardian on 28 October – that racism is about power, not a perception of negative sentiment that only the group affected is supposedly allowed to define.

Our fellow citizens

Not that Pollard shows any signs of ceasing to serve the Tories’ interests. As if it were not more than enough that he preaches to Jews about how they should be voting, he has devoted the front page of the 8 November JC to addressing a similar message to ‘all our fellow British citizens’. He essentially asks them to believe the calumny that Jeremy Corbyn is a racist and that putting him in No. 10 would send a stark message to Jews that their ‘dismay’ and ‘fears of where that will lead, are irrelevant’, that they ‘count for nothing’. So it’s not enough to insult the intelligence of the Jews he purports to defend: he’s now repeating the affront in his appeal to the wider population.

These are divisive, bitter and angry times, but we must be vigilant against the unconscious use of antisemitic stereotyping to demonstrate concern for Jews. It’s been happening a lot recently. Other minorities experience a similar racist framing, for example: ‘concern’ for the state of fatherless black families, as the ‘cause’ of the disproportionate involvement of black youth in knife crime; ‘concern’ for Muslim women subjected to conservative dress codes cited as a reason for Islamic terrorism; ‘concern’ for immigrants and asylum seekers who fail to learn English because they are harming their opportunities to integrate. However, whilst the framing is similar, the unconscious bias in these unfounded and therefore racist assertions is far more damaging for the groups in these examples than the unconscious Cleverly stereotyping is for Jews.

The current prioritising of antisemitism as a special case of racism, something sought by so many Jewish leaders, opinion-formers, public intellectuals and their non-Jewish supporters, legitimises and reinforces a privileged exceptionalism; the unconscious bias against other victims of racism leads to the reinforcement of their exclusion. The former is dangerous because it’s a kind of self-inflicted othering: it may feel good in the short term, but it’s not a recipe for a good Jewish future in an open and liberal society.

Tory politicians may think riding these two horses – the ‘good Jews’ and the ‘bad others’– works for them politically. But we shouldn’t allow them to get away with this divisive politics of belonging – another reason why Jews must work with other minorities to fight real racist abuse, discrimination and demonization which, so obviously today, comes from its traditional source: the right and beyond.  

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