A couple of years ago, I wrote a novel set between England and Israel against the backdrop of 2014’s conflict with Hamas. Much of the story explored the feelings of Jews in the UK at that time – feelings of being ostracised, blamed, pointed at, attacked. A couple of decades ago, such sentiment would have been shocking. But I felt it for the first time, and acutely, back in 2006 during the war with Lebanon. And so it is more and more, each and every time that tensions are heightened in the region. For many British Jews, this has been an unhappy journey of discovery. Because what we have learned is that no matter how integrated and accepted we thought we were, anti-Semitic sentiment exists, widely. It is there, simmering beneath the surface, waiting only for the ‘justification’ to boil over.
And it is this that is the most frightening aspect of the current Corbyn-Labour-anti-Semitism furore. Not the man himself – though there is much to question. Not even the mistakes he has made – it is difficult but not impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into at least one or two flimsy explanations. It is not, in fact, Corbyn at all. It is only the trigger that he has become. It is the new domestic ‘justification’. The tap turning on. The unscrewing of the lid. The unleashing of what has been simmering below.
For years now we have witnessed anti-Israel protesters bearing signs declaring that ‘We are all Hamas now’ – Hamas whose constitution calls for the death not only of Israelis but all Jews everywhere. There have been posters shouting ‘Hamas, Jews to gas’. And we Jews have sat around dinner tables listening to the heart-felt explanations – the plight of displaced Palestinians, the evil of Israeli policies – trying to believe that it is only through carelessness that ‘Jew’ and ‘Israeli’ (or more accurately, Israeli policy-makers), are conflated. Trying not to wonder why there is no such outcry about the countless other nations engaging in far more evil schemes.
Many of us are ourselves fierce critics of current Israeli policy, and it is for this reason that I have not written on Corbyn until now. But let us take just one example from the many – the insistence that people be allowed to call Israel a racist endeavour as a reason to resist the IHRA. It was saddening to many of us when this summer Israel adopted into law the controversial declaration that it is the nation state of the Jewish people, raising many important questions about how this will affect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. Raising real questions about racism, worthy of debate. It is a perennial problem for Israel, suffering always from twin desires: to ingrain the notion of its being a Jewish homeland into its constitution; and to be a democracy. It is an issue not easily answered.
But seeing this statement – Israel is a racist endeavour – mockingly appearing on bus-stop billboards this week, tips the validity of such debate again into the realms of prejudice. Because where are the billboards declaring the long lists of Islamic states to be racist? (This spoken from the perspective of a person with relatives booted out of two of them, their property confiscated and never returned.) Where are the billboards about the many Christian states? It ordinarily feels perverse to engage in whataboutism, but when the only Jewish state in the world is the only state singled out for such condemnation, it is impossible not to ask the question why.
And thanks to Corbyn’s lifting of the lid, the why is abundantly clear. The old tropes are everywhere – Jews controlling the media, Jewish conspiracies trying to unseat Corbyn, on and on and on. Looking at Twitter threads makes unsettling bedtime reading. What was once subtle is becoming brazen. And it has happened fast.
Across the pond, we have seen similar. Ever since Trump’s inauguration, we have witnessed a surge in far-right attitudes, we have seen an increased boldness to them, a main-streaming of what was once kept on the fringe. Because even if Trump is not himself homophobic, or misogynistic, Islamophobic or racist (much of which is debatable), his failure to sufficiently condemn these things has validated them. So too with Corbyn.
It is possible that he genuinely views himself as a campaigner against racism. It is possible that in his not invalid commitment to the Palestinian cause, he simply cannot see where he himself has tripped into prejudice. But his refusal to listen to those advising him that he has, or to stamp out the clearer anti-Semitism of others supporting him, has triggered more racism than Britain’s Jews have felt in a very long time. And ironically, the attitudes he has unleashed only highlights to Jewish people the absolute necessity for a Jewish homeland, for a Jewish state, for Israel. So he might as well not bother to learn the distinction. We are all Zionists now.