Every party needs to tackle the problem of antisemitism – not just Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour

Picture: Chatham House (CC BY 2.0)

Nathan Abrams

Mae modd darllen yr erthygl yn Gymraeg yma. This piece was originally published by O’r Pedwar Gwynt.

Do I think Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite? No. Does he present an existential threat to UK’s Jews? No. Is Labour’s manifesto anti-Jewish? No.

Do I think he has an Israel problem? Yes. But this is not antisemitic. Nor is it something that is confined to the Labour Party.

Antisemitism exists in the UK today. It would be both naïve to suggest otherwise and to think that, after 2,000 years of entrenched Judeophobia, anti-Judaism and antisemitism, in the wake of the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust, that it would suddenly disappear overnight.

Hatred of Jews has persisted and mutated into new forms. As the other political parties sit back and watch as the Labour Party implodes, they cannot smugly think that they are free of this scourge.

Research shows that not only does antisemitism exist in the UK today, but it does so across the political spectrum.

The most antisemitic group are those who identify as very right-wing. The presence of antisemitic attitudes in this group is 2 to 4 times higher compared to the general population.

Fortunately, the far- right remains marginal in British politics in general, as well as on the broader political right.

However, far more pernicious are the words and policies of UKIP, the Conservative Party, and their allies that have created a hostile environment which has allowed racism and prejudice, of which antisemitism is one form, to flourish.

They are aided and abetted by the right-wing media where anti-migrant talk has become the acceptable form of racism as manifested in blaming and scapegoating migrants for crises in the NHS, the shortage of housing and stagnant real incomes.

The way in which George Soros has been characterized in such media is just old-fashioned antisemitism.

Plight

While levels of antisemitism among those on the left and far-left are indistinguishable from those found in the general population, what appears to be a focus on Israel to the exclusion of other international humanitarian crises, certainly mirrors Corbyn’s Israel problem.

All parts of those on the left of the political spectrum – including the ‘slightly left-of-centre,’ the ‘fairly left-wing’ and the ‘very left-wing’ – exhibit higher levels of anti-Israel attitudes than average.

Indeed, it was not so long ago that the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party were accused of anti-Zionist behaviour that bordered on the antisemitic.

I have no doubt that this happens in other political parties such as Plaid Cymru and SNP where support and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians is evident.

But the media spotlight does not fall upon them because they are either too small to bother with, or not UK-wide bodies, and hence are no threat to the ruling party since they have no chance of forming a government.

Colonial

But what are the origins of these anti-Israel attitudes? Undoubtedly Israel’s actions since 1948, in particular the annexation of territory after the Six-Day War, are a cause.

And Israel is maybe the only liberal democracy actively carrying out colonial practices and suppression of democratic rights in those territories.

But these explanations are not enough. One could point to left-liberal guilt over the British role in creating the Israeli-Palestinian problem during the Mandate period, but does anyone outside of academia in the UK even remember this anymore?

Certainly, anti-Israelism fits an anti-colonial, anti-American worldview. But perhaps it is also because Israel is uncritically viewed as ‘white’ — even though more than half of its inhabitants come from Arab countries, Ethiopia and India – and hence are unconsciously held to a higher ‘white’ standard?

The difficulty of discussing the topic of Israel and antisemitism is fourfold. Firstly, no matter how ‘white’, privileged and successful we may look to you, we still consider ourselves a minority in a host country that has not tolerated us for most of its existence.

Jews first came to England in 1066. They were then expelled in 1290. They were readmitted in 1656. Since then, overtly anti-Jewish prejudice only subsided in the years following World War II.

On top of that, the Holocaust is still fresh in the memory — an extremely offensive remark I have heard and seen written is ‘to get over it’.

Furthermore, we hand down, tell each other and inherit stories of prejudice and hatred in which our ancestors ended up in the UK because they were persecuted in their homelands.

While it’s true that life for Jews has improved in the UK – my father and his generation had it much worse as they faced outright discrimination – that does not mean life in the UK is perfect.

After experiencing antisemitic abuse in the 1980s as I was growing up, today it is most likely to be experienced in an unkind remark, a tasteless joke, a reference to Shylock or to ’rich’ and ‘tight’ Jews, or a general ignorant refusal to engage in learning about Jews and Jewishness.

Worry

Secondly, Jews are sensitive on the topic of Israel. Whatever our political affiliations and level of religious observance, Israel holds a central place in Jewish theology and liturgy. We literally turn towards Israel when we pray.

We have lived there, visited there, have friends there or Israeli friends in the UK. We may buy Israeli products and have a taste for its food.

We are brought up to believe that not only is Israel our ancestral homeland but that it provides a haven should things turn bad like they did between 1933 and 1945.

Jews may be the majority in Israel but many of us still see Jews as a historically oppressed minority. Nevertheless, we do not have dual loyalties and we are not Israel-obsessed – two offensive and antisemitic accusations.

We, like every other UK citizen, worry about our children, their education, our mortgages, Brexit.

Thirdly, well-meaning individuals who wish to legitimately protest the actions of the Israeli government cross the line when they do so by deploying unacceptable terminology.

For instance, they use the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Jews’ or ‘Jewish state’ rather than say ‘Israel’ or ‘Israelis’. They may otherwise say ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ when they mean ‘Jews’.

This blurs the distinction between Jews as an ethnic and religious minority and Israel as a nation state, lumping us together into one, indistinguishable homogenous monolithic mass.

In so doing, they may (un)wittingly invoke classic antisemitic and anti-Jewish canards that date back centuries – Jews sacrificing non-Jewish children, or drinking their blood, or that Jews control the media are some of the most egregious – while voicing their criticism of Israel.

Criticism

What is more, in discussions of Israel, three of the most insulting and hence offensive suggestions are, firstly, that Jews, by virtue of their Jewishness, are not allowed an opinion on Israel because they are ‘biased’ — as if non-Jews are somehow objective in their viewpoint.

Secondly, that Jews, as victims of the Holocaust, must learn its lessons. Note here how the perpetrators and their collaborators, as well as the bystanders, do not need to learn its lessons, but their victims do.

Finally, the charge thrown at Israel that it has ceased to have a right to exist because of its actions towards the Palestinians seems to single it out for calumny when no one suggested that Germany, say, be entirely disbanded because of its crimes during World War II.

Finally, while not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, certainly some genuine antisemites use Israel and anti-Zionism to vent their hatred of Jews. As I said above, antisemitism mutates and takes on new guises.

Simply put, when discussing Israel, the use of language should be approached very carefully. There are many acceptable ways to criticise Israel without resorting to racist and antisemitic language and tropes.

But if you absolutely cannot contain yourself and insist on using them then you will sound like an antisemite so don’t be surprised when you are called out as one.

And this is not because we are trying to quash any criticism of Israel or attack the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn.

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