Aged eight, I watched Fiddler on the Roof and was horrified when the cossacks stormed through Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding. I cried as the Jews of Anatevka fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia. My family had fled the east a century earlier owing to antisemitism, but that was the old days, when my great-grandfather’s father had worn a large yarmulke and spoke Yiddish. We spoke English, went to English schools, supported England at sport and were loyal to the Queen.
When I was five, a Roman Catholic school teacher intervened in a squabble between me and her son, calling out, “It’s a shame Hitler didn’t finish you all off.” Only 27 years had passed since the end of the Second World War.
There were odd episodes of antisemitism – a swastika painted on my garage door by the far-right National Front, verbal abuse by Pakistani teens who yelled “death to Yahud [Arabic for ‘Jews’]” as I entered synagogue and the odd barbed comment from teachers and pupils – but we were British Jews and beat off such occurrences. There were many more episodes of grassroots antisemitism; In this politically incorrect era, antisemitism was accepted.
As teens, we campaigned for the release of Soviet Jewry so refuseniks could flee to Israel. “Anatoly” Sharansky needed Israel, while I merely needed it to be there, just in case – but Britain hadn’t killed Jews for 800 years.
I can’t put my finger on when leftist antisemitism emerged as a force of Jew-hatred on par with far-right and Islamic antisemitism. Initially, Labour was good for the Jews. It stood up for the underdog. But the perception of Jews as the underdog changed as that of Israel as the underdog changed. Its successful rescue mission in Entebbe and the election of the first Likud prime minister conveyed to many the image of a tougher Jewish state. British Jews were now seen as the capitalist oppressors, with dual loyalties.
A change in the Labour Party’s electoral system led to Jeremy Corbyn’s election, and the explosion of social media brought on the widespread dissemination of Nazi-era antisemitic propaganda reminiscent of Goebbels. Attempts to challenge Jew-hatred were dismissed as smears . The relatively few complaints that were upheld led to a revolving door of suspensions so those expelled were soon brought back on board.
Worse, this brand of antisemitism was mainstream in the Labour Party membership and reflected Corbyn’s leadership. Daily, there’d be another revelation about Corbyn. Photos of him laying a wreath on the graves of terrorists who murdered Olympic athletes were dismissed. He defended a mural showing hooked-nose bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of workers, only later acknowledging its antisemitic theme, but saying he hadn’t noticed its bigotry.
Corbyn will tell you “there is not an antisemitic bone in [his] body,” and that he is “against all racism”. Yet there are still daily revelations of antisemitism and the abusers torment those who speak out, including TV presenter Rachel Riley and comedian Stephen Fry.
And support for Labour grows when the opposite should be expected. Nearly 40 percent of voters continue to support the party that admits to its antisemitism problem. Many in the British Jewish community say they will leave if Corbyn becomes prime minister. It is too late. He has moved the rock and the antisemites have crawled out. They are not going back.
I’m sure there are those who think my pessimism premature, but why wait? There may not be pogroms, but life will be uncomfortable for Jews. No shechita (animal welfare grounds), no brit milah until 18 (let the child decide), no dual nationality, no visits from Israelis (belligerent). So Britain is the new Anatevka. It’s time to wander. Only this time there is somewhere to go.
- Mark Lewis will speak on 10 February in Tel Aviv at British Antisemitism – It’s Personal: In Politics, On Campus, In Media.
- Tickets: ukantisemitism.eventbrite.com