Given the depressing state of politics today where voters are given a choice of leaders based on which minority groups are more victimised, the temptation to vote none of the above is overwhelming. Yet some of the ideals of Judaism may provide a clue to a better kind of politics. The Torah’s commitment to both the universal and the particular, stipulates laws for everyone and those specific to Jews. It acknowledges what we have in common and also what makes us distinct. An adherence to both principles is crucial to a fair society. A particular commitment to mitzvot at the expense of broader moral values, leads to its own self-evident problems; while an obsession with universal human rights which disregards Jewish practice and beliefs, can result in anti-Semitism. Corbyn is the all-loving universalist, Trump the unashamed particularist.
A baby boomer, coming of age during the Sixties, Corbyn embraces the ideals of anti-racism and equality. But if you treat everyone equally, should you regard them as the same or different? If you’re an anti-racist, as Corbyn claims to be, do you refuse the particular definition of anti-Semitism because racism is equally bad no matter whom it applies to and doesn’t need a different name for another group? And if it does, could this group be considered privileged and warrant resentment (as we see in the Labour party) because of their different status?
This strain of anti-Semitism, born out of the ideals of equality, is not new. It is ironic that the Enlightenment, which promised people freedom from religion, set the Jews on a deadly journey towards genocide. If Martin Luther hated the Jews for not conforming to his brand of Christianity, Voltaire loathed them just as much for refusing to abandon ancient traditions in the name of emancipation. Prejudice had simply found a more fashionable way to express itself.
Equal societies become oppressive when specific needs of groups are not acknowledged. As recently as this year, a coroner in North West London ruled that Jews and Muslims could not jump the burial queue and had to be dealt with on a first-come first-served basis. Her ruling stated that no death would be prioritised based on the religion of the deceased or their family. The High Court ordered her to change the ruling, but it was astonishing that the coroner Mary Hassell, a senior public official, should have abandoned fundamental principles of diversity and inclusion which acknowledges that different people – be they men, women, Christian or Jewish – sometimes require specific treatment based on their needs.
Zionism is an even greater sticking point for the universalist worldview, because it aims to provide a specific solution to a particular threat. Many on the far left don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish connection to Israel because they have a problem with nationalism. Nationalism warrants status to one group over another. This is certainly the case for Zionism but such a view ignores the historical context that necessitated this ideology in the first place. If Jews were hated because society viewed them as rootless and lacking a home, then being hated because they now had one perfectly illustrates how anti-Zionism has become the latest mutation of anti-Semitism. It is that fact that exposes Corbyn’s deluded conviction that anti-Zionism is not racism. If unversalists still don’t believe that Zionism provided a solution to anti-Semitism, they need to ask themselves how likely the Holocaust would have been if there was a Jewish state and an army willing to defend their interests everywhere.
To impugn Zionism as a racist enterprise reveals its own ugly prejudice. Racism is targeted at a particular group, but nowhere in any of the original Zionist text is any mention made of racial intent. On the contrary, both the Balfour Declaration and the Constitution of the State of Israel make particular references to the rights of minorities living in Israel. Zionism is a dream of national self-determination designed to inspire other peoples with similar hopes. How far Israel has lived up to this aspiration, especially in light of the controversy of the recent Nation-state Law, is a separate argument about Zionism as its practiced, not as it was intended.
If Jews can unite in their opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, they are more likely to be divided over Donald Trump, the ultimate particularist. And indeed the reason why Jews who take particularism to an extreme in terms of their commitment to Zionism and Orthodoxy at the exclusion of broader ethical principles, tend to support him. The classic response Jewish people hear from their fellow Trump supporting co-religionists when voicing concerns about him is “but he’s pro-Israel!”. But is that really going to become the certificate of Kashrut for any political leader, when that support of Israel comes at such a huge cost for other minority groups who find themselves on the wrong side of Donald Trump’s prejudices? Not only does this provide succour to anti-Semites who accuse Jews of lining up with Trump, it reveals its own problem. If as Jews we’re willing to trade in our universal convictions about feminism and equal treatment of minorities for the sake of endorsing a seemingly pro-Israel president, can we really be angry when those groups whose rights we’ve forsaken ignore our cries of anti-Semitism?
As political leaders continue to stigmatise one group against the other for the sake of votes – Labour vs. Jews, Tories vs. Muslims, Brexiteers vs. remainers – the Jewish community will find it hard to find a safe place. A commitment to universal principles of fairness and equality, while acknowledging the distinct needs of specific groups, seems pretty straightforward, except that in today’s heated climate of anger, it somehow isn’t.