Why “Jewish fears”, even if genuine, are misplaced

A man standing on grass holding a sign bearing the words "For the many, not the Jew" in white on a red background.Last week I saw two blog articles published by self-described left-wing Zionists, one of whom I know through disability activist circles, about why they are concerned about the “rising tide” of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party which they accuse Jeremy Corbyn of encouraging or condoning. Both of them spoke of their past; the father of one of the authors came to the UK in one of the pre-war Kindertransports from Nazi Germany, the other grew up in the Anglo-Jewish community which she fell away from in adulthood, but the state of the Labour Party since Corbyn’s rise has reminded her of her Jewishness and of the fear Jews traditionally felt, i.e. that however integrated they felt they were, they would always be reminded of being outsiders after a generation or two and had always lived in fear of having to pack their bags (or grab the one they had kept packed just in case) and run. One of the pieces is by Andrew Gilbert and titled The Stolen Pen: the resonance of anti-Semitism; the other is by ‘Ermintrude’, a social worker I know on Twitter, titled On Zionism, Anti-semitism and Racism — A personal response.

In other news, Frank Field yesterday (Thursday) resigned the Labour whip in the Commons citing the issue as the major reason, though there is also a campaign to deselect him in his constituency party; the New Statesman carried an interview with former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and an editorial demanding that the Labour Party adopt the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism including the disputed examples. I have made clear my objection to this demand and what it would mean, namely that there would effectively be no place for Muslims in the party.

Ermintrude explains Zionism thus:

Zionism for me, and many like me is not an ideology based on destruction and expansion, it is based on a complex history of a persecuted race who desire a homeland to exist. This does not mean this land has to exclude others who live there although the current government is oppressive, without doubt. To me, the inability to humanise ‘Zionists’ and to understand this definition is a blind spot for Corbyn and his ilk. I can desperately strive for peace in the Middle East while still fundamentally supporting the existence of an Israeli state, albeit a very, very different one to the one that exists now.

I don’t disagree that the idea of a homeland or state for the Jews is not in itself racist; however, the demand for a state in a place where another people lives, a people who were not significantly responsible for the Jews’ persecutions, where they would be forced to “budge up” or leave to make way for Jewish incomers, makes way for racism very readily. Zionists used such slogans as “land without people for people without land”. This can be interpreted in one of two ways: either that the land was actually empty, which it was not (and is thus either extremely ignorant or mendacious), or that Arabs are less than people, which is racist. Zionists do not like hearing their beliefs likened to imperialism or colonialism; however, it exploited the fact that, at the time, Palestine was under the control of a sympathetic white colonial power which allowed large numbers of them to settle and build militias. Furthermore, European Jews were further up the European racial hierarchy than native Arabs were: they were Europeans, whites, not colonial subjects.

And as for wanting “a very different [Israeli state] to the one that exists now”, that one exists now because of the people who live there: the people who elected a war criminal as prime minister, who elect leaders that expand settlements and expand a segregation infrastructure to support them, who maintain military service to support an army that, now that two of their four former enemies have signed peace treaties, a third is in the throes of civil war and the fourth is currently more engaged in propping up the regime in that country, serves only to harass ordinary Palestinians going about their business. It’s this sort of behaviour, not the perpetrators’ religion or ethnic background, that is the cause of Palestinian resistance and movements like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) abroad, including here.

Regarding the Jews’ sense of endangerment and persecution, Ermintrude explains:

It was a lesson that was taught every hour of every day as we saw the tattooed numbers on the arms of our neighbours and family members. I don’t remember ‘learning’ about the Holocaust or the centuries of having to run because it just ‘was’. These were the stories discussed on Friday nights and Saturday lunches, the ones that just lived with us.

I remember my grandparents telling me that all ‘host’ countries turn against the Jews eventually. We are a race that can’t ever ‘settle’ beyond a couple of generations and nowhere will be safe, because eventually, eventually they will turn on the Jews.

But Jews have been living in the UK now for many more than two generations — more like four or five, at least — without any official persecution or any movement that makes anti-Semitism part of its platform having gained any significant traction. Even when the National Front made a certain amount of headway in the 1970s, its main targets were Commonwealth immigrants; even then, despite the demonstrably Nazi beliefs of the people at its centre, they knew they could not win votes by targeting Jews. This is not to say that no prejudice exists or that nobody is aware of Jewish stereotypes; there were Jewish boys at my boarding school and all of them were the target of racialised insults and, in some cases, violence (by contrast, I never heard of ‘Jew’ or Jewish stereotypes used as insults in three south London schools up until then). But the idea that Jews have no place living here, should “go home”, are not British or should not have the same rights as everyone else has no currency and has not had for a very long time, which is more than can be said for attitudes towards the more visible minorities that arrived after the War; it allows no-stun kosher slaughter which is banned in many countries in Europe and does not interfere in mainstream orthodox Jewish schooling, both of which benefit Muslims as well. To put it simply, Britain has been good to the Jews and the fact that Jews “feel threatened” does not mean they actually are.

And the substance of the claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party does not equate to any real threat, in my opinion. Many of them bear no resemblance to anything that would be classed as racism if the ‘target’ was any other minority; few of them relate to British Jews in any case, but to Israel or Israelis and often in response to actual violence from Israel itself (e.g. bombing civilian targets in Gaza or Lebanon). The majority of the reports are not about new incidents (“Corbyn said X about Jews today”) but old incidents from before he became leader, all of which were known of in 2015 and could have been brought up then (or when Owen Smith challenged him a year later), but his opponents have chosen to draw attention to them one by one. And absolutely none of them involve the use of racial slurs, threats of violence or other threats to British Jews or to their rights or citizenship, things other minorities face on a routine basis and do not always result in a media-led outcry — in fact, as with Boris Johnson earlier in August, there are open suggestions that it may increase their popularity.

Lastly, both articles plead that Jews be allowed to “define their own oppression”, which echoes the demands that have been made both on Twitter and in the mainstream media by other so-called community leaders (none of them, incidentally, elected by the whole Jewish-origin community and some of them not at all), as other minorities are supposedly allowed to. I’ve covered this in the past, but to reiterate: other minorities define their ‘oppression’ in terms of violence, threats, discrimination, policies supporting these things and racial slurs, not someone’s stance on a conflict in a foreign country that they take a different side in. I have yet to hear Hindu leaders in the UK, for example, condemn anyone as racist for their stance on the situation in Kashmir, Gujarat or anything else in the Indian Subcontinent that Hindus or Hindu nationalists are implicated in. I have sometimes heard Black people allude to racism in media coverage of, say, Robert Mugabe’s farm seizures (often with some justice: I have indeed heard White people say “Black people can’t farm!”), but never to the extent of demanding the resignation of a politician for that reason. The things which trigger accusations of anti-Semitism are often much more obscure than in other alleged incidents of racism and often do not target the Jewish community here at all. In some cases there seems to have been no basis to the claims at all.

The Labour NEC meets next week to debate whether to adopt in full the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism or the modified version favoured by Corbyn and his supporters. Much as I oppose Corbyn’s stance on Brexit (and would gladly see him removed as there needs to be a major party in opposition to this disastrous policy), adopting this would silence any but the most polite criticism of Israel or Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories (and filter down to places like student unions which are often dominated by Labour party organisations) and must not pass, regardless of the threats of right-wing MPs to resign or defect. However genuine some Jews’ fears are about Corbyn’s leadership, this is a campaign manufactured in bad faith by his opponents — a mixture of Tories, who have largely been silent about more obvious racism in their own party, and Labour centrists — who have dredged up old news and presented it as new time and again.

It isn’t racist to support the Palestinians’ right to their country, and to a vote in the affairs of the country that rules them, or to arrange boycotts of their oppressors, and it isn’t racist to be angry when innocent people are killed in bombings or otherwise suffer. What would be racist — at least discriminatory — would be to adopt a policy that would mean an entire religious community in this country were shut out of the party or subjected to an inquisition about their views on Jews or Israel if they joined or tried to run for office. We are already under-represented enough as a community and it would be unjust of Labour to adopt a policy to make this worse, just to assuage some people’s baseless fears. The legality of it should also be under question.

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