During the years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, it was possible to think that all the anti-Israel, antisemitic kooks were of the left. The most frightening aspect was that Labour, one of Britain’s major parties, allowed anti-Jewish rhetoric and attitudes to penetrate its very sinews. Worryingly, it came close to beating Theresa May in 2017.
Viewers of the prime time BBC1 production of Ridley Road are reminded that antisemitism historically is associated with the right in Britain. Those of us of a certain age cannot but remember the angst that Colin Jordan and neo-Nazi paramilitary thugs engendered in the 1960s. The main target may have been immigrants from the Caribbean, but Jews were very much the enemy.
A telling scene from the show was the opening of the first Tesco supermarket in the East End seen by Jordan’s followers as an affront to good old-fashioned British stallholders and enterprises. Going back to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, there have been a succession of nutty right-wing fanatics, some of whom have drawn succour from the upper ranks of British society.
Since Jordan, there has been Nick Griffin of the British National Party who, armed with his Cambridge education, managed to win a seat in the European Parliament and inveigle his way onto Question Time. More recently, Tommy Robinson, of the anti-Islamic British Freedom Party, has featured. The latest such neo-fascist voice is Mark Collett of Patriotic Alternative, who was exposed by The Times after Amazon agreed to print and presumably distribute his hate-filled book, The Fall of Western Man.
The late historian, professor David Cesarani, found that in Britain – in contrast to much of the continent – the ultra-right has never posed an electoral threat. The odd by-election may have been won or well- challenged, but at a national level it has been toast. Contrast this with the EU. In Hungary, the Jobbik party, with some openly antisemitic members, has shown enough political clout to drive Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz ever further to the right.
In spite of efforts to confront its Nazi past, anti-immigrant sentiment has driven the rise of the Alternative for Germany, while in Austria the right-wing Freedom Party holds 30 seats in government. And in France, Marie Le Pen’s National Rally, previously the National Front, is being challenged from the right by former talk show host Eric Zemmour. Even Michel Barnier has embraced some nationalist rhetoric.
The lesson to be drawn is that the UK is genuinely different. The tendency of UK politics is triangulation, with politicians moving to the centre. As a Brexit supporter from within the Tory Party, Boris Johnson was considered right-wing. In government, he has moved into Labour’s space with the growth of bigger government in the pandemic and his advocacy of a ‘high wage’ and ‘high skilled’ economy.
In spite of Keir Starmer’s achievement in squeezing the antisemitic and anti-Zionist tendency to the Labour Party fringes and the (thankfully) miserable record of right-wing movements in the the UK, the Jewish community remains obsessed by antisemitism.
It is impossible to control hate speech on social media. This column recently included data showing how subliminal messages on TikTok were poisoning attitudes towards Israel and across the world. It is very important that the community contests the ugly views of Bristol University’s David Miller and his ilk and puts safety in our synagogues, schools and social gatherings first. Small terror cells can cause frightening damage. Yet the UK’s Jewish minority has reason not to see antisemitism under every rock as we sometimes do.
We have well-organised and well-placed Jewish leadership groups spanning the generations. Right-wing fanatics and extremists in the Labour Party come and go but as an electoral force they, so far, always have been vanquished.