Religion is nobody’s business, Len

Len McCluskey (Credit: Jewish News)
Len McCluskey (Credit: Jewish News)
Is someone’s religion relevant? Should I report that the Catholic Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite Union, said on BBC Newsnight that Peter Mandelson should “just go into a room and count his gold”. This was rightly denounced as an “antisemitic trope”, but what about all those occasions when it is almost automatic that a public figure is identified in the press as Jewish. It is reported that theCatholic Mr. McC.uskey then twittered. “Language is important and I apologise to Peter Mandelson and anyone else if mine has caused hurt.” but I expect more people watch Newsnight than look at Catholic Mr. McCluskey’s twitter. The damage is done.
Now can we stop right there. What on earth is added to your knowledge of Mr. McCluskey by my identifying him as a Catholic? Any more than you could make a better judgement of the opinions of Steve Turner, the Assistant General Secretary, if I describe him as a former bus driver? Religion is the ultimate private concern of the individual and it isn’t where you start, it’s where you finish.
Yet, time and again newsworthy individuals are identified as Jewish if that is their faith. The same is happening now with Muslims and it happened for centuries in this country with Catholics.
You can find any number of reasons for this. People who come from Liverpool, like Mr. McCluskey, were living in a Christian war zone between Protestants and Catholics in the bad old days. Antagonism to other faiths could be part of the family history. It was with plenty. Certainly, my Dad would talk of going to school in the East End of London in 1900 with a brick in his hat, to be able to fight off Catholic schoolboys. For. heaven’s sake, though, that was 1900.
Or perhaps there is a belief among some people that anti-semitism wins you popularity. You attract the minute number of people in this country who feel the same way. Well, I would hope that the results of the recent general election would disabuse anybody of that idea; it proved beyond doubt that anti-semitism is no vote winner. When are we getting that report on Labour’s racism?
It could also be because the policy of the Unite union is to support the Palestinians, and undermine a Labour leadership who have thus far always been pro-Israel. Could I remind the union then of what General Secretary, George Isaac, of NATSOPA, and a future Labour Minister of Labour, said at the TUC conference in 1936:
“Much of the trouble in Palestine is caused…by the greed of Arab landowners. These rich Arab landlords sold their land to Jewish organisations at values at least five times their nominal worth, and having sold their land and got the money, they then raised the cry that they are landless men….In Palestine you can see today an experiment in Socialism on the highest possible scale, a complete cooperation between trade unions, the Labour political movement, and the co-operative movement….I saw the remarkable development in trade unionism that was taking place. I wish we could see it here….We must see to it that the door is kept open, and give these people the opportunity of developing Socialism as it is being developed there.”
Or the words of Ernie Bevin, another great General Secretary, who told the TUC in  1937:
“One of the great tragedies of the world has been the persecution of the Jews. With the granting of the Palestine Mandate we look forward with hope to the ending of this persecution. Later, when we saw the remarkable response of the Jews in the building of new homes and their cooperative effort, a development which has won the admiration of the world, our expectations ran high….British Labour in recent years has preserved close contact with the Trade Unions in Palestine. Congress, I am sure, would endorse any consultation….which would assist in the solution of their problems. ”
Well the Nazis ensured the persecution didn’t end, as we all know, but it has never been a real issue in this country since we came back in 1661. At some point, too, we could have welcomed Mr. McCluskey to Britain, because the first Jewish mayor of Liverpool was Charles Mozley (1863/4) and there have been four since. Of course the Liverpool Jews almost all started as impoverished working men, of which Mr. McCluskey would have approved, but it’s the Harold Cohen Library at Liverpool University and not the McCluskey. After he’d counted his gold, Harold Cohen gave a great deal of it to his fellow-citizens.
About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book