The problem with British anti-Semitism, revisited

We need to talk about British anti-Semitism. Again.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Times of Israel titled ‘The problem with British anti-Semitism,’ arguing that there were two distinct attitudes to Jew hatred. On one hand, there was the widespread acknowledgement that prejudice against our people was A Bad Thing. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge and the ensuing frenzy, there were numerous sympathetic media discussions about the issue, recognising that the Oldest Hatred  was newly reborn. A cross-party body, the All Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, was quickly convened, releasing a plethora of serious studies and reports. And a man was given a prison sentence for tweeting racial slurs at a Jewish MP.

On the other hand, I also noted an awkward asterisk that could be applied to any contemporary case of anti-Semitism, highlighting in the small print a metaphorical ‘Get-out-of-jail’ card that might be used as an excuse:

“It’s hard to say that anti-Semitism is being ignored or white-washed when a man has just been locked up for threatening a woman online — and yet, if only he’d had the foresight to wrap his musings in a metaphorical Palestinian flag, or the luck to be part of the establishment rather than a troll, he might well be free today.”

I highlighted three small examples, case studies from the fringes of the Left. The Guardian newspaper publishing a fawning article with anti-Zionist Israeli academic. A British clergy man who had popped over to Iran to hob-nob with leading conspiracy theorists. And a veteran back-bencher of the Labour party who had inadvertently ended up speaking at the same Palestine Solidarity Campaign event as an out and out Nazi.

I tried not to think about it too much at the time. After all, every political, religious, or social movement has its extremists, zealots and nutters, the hardliners and the literalists, those who define themselves as much by their hostility to their moderate cousins as they do to their ideological opponents.

It’s tempting to use the iceberg analogy here: above the surface of the water there is a clearly visible, acceptable face of the contemporary left. Principles of economic redistribution and social inclusion, a re-alignment of power and resources from the top to the bottom, from the Haves to the Have Nots — all of this is recognisable as the basic, reasonable  DNA of parties and politicians from a hundred different places and times.

But lurking below the surface is something else. A Manichean mutant that rejects any kind of compromise, that sees the right, conservatives, America, capitalism and everything associated with these mortal enemies as essentially impure and unworthy, and anything opposed to them as valid and acceptable. And unfortunately for Jews, Israel and ‘Zionism’ has found itself on that blacklist.

The reality of all this has been exposed in the wake of the British general election last May, where the right-wing Conservative party won by a slim majority, prompting an internal election for the new leader of the losing left-wing Labour party. As a last-minute sop to grassroots members, Labour members of parliament selected not only three ‘career’ politicians (I use the term in as purely a descriptive, non-pejorative sense as is possible) but a veteran back-bencher, an unelectable dinosaur, a symbolic token of Labour’s Marxist roots.

Spoiler alert: said veteran back-bencher is now on course to become Leader of the Opposition as head of the second largest party in parliament, and official candidate to become Prime Minister. Said veteran back-bencher is Jeremy Corbyn, whose dramatic popularity is apparently testament to widespread enthusiasm for unabashed socialist values at a time when austerity cuts are seen to be disproportionately affecting the weakest and most vulnerable. And, awkwardly, said veteran back-bencher is the same veteran backbencher who shared a platform with an out and out Nazi earlier in this piece.

The last few weeks have seen an avalanche of similarly horrific accusations and terrible character references thrown at Corbyn.  He has described Hamas and Hezbollah, genocidal theocrats who believe in the spiritual value of exterminating Jews, as ‘friends.’ He championed Stephen Sizer, a pastor who was condemned by the Church of England for promoting the conspiracy theory that Jews orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. He defended Raed Salah, an Islamist hate preacher who claimed Jews murder children in order to use their blood for culinary purposes. He lobbied for a visa to get a Muslim radical into the country. He has been accused of donating to a group run by an unapologetic Holocaust Denier. And until a recent public outcry, he was set to share a stage with Carlos Latuff, prize-winning contributor to Iran’s ‘Mock the Holocaust’ cartoon competition.

Corbyn himself is not, as far as anyone can tell, an anti-Semite. No accusations of the kind have been made, and there isn’t a scrap of evidence that he himself subscribes to racist views. Jeremy is about as far away from the stereotype of a goose-stepping, crowd-berating demagogue as you’re likely to get. He comes across as a mild-mannered, slightly weary geography teacher who sometimes gets a little bit tetchy. No one seriously thinks the Jews will need to start packing a spare suitcase if he somehow gets into power.

And yet. And yet. How is it that a fundamentally decent man has found himself at the heart of such a veritable rogue’s gallery of villains? What does it say about him that he sees no apparent contradiction between opening his arms to Muslim extremists in the name of dialogue, and yet would seek to boycott academics from the world’s only Jewish state? And what lessons can we draw about the fact that none of this has had any demonstrable negative impact upon his campaign?

Because so far, any and all accusations have by and large slid off him. Overt anti-Zionists have predictably enough rushed to his defence, accusing his critics of smearing him in bad faith (with a horrendous anti-Semitic backlash on social media against anyone who dares criticise Comrade Jeremy), but more worrying has been the general silence of the average Corbyn supporter. Those on the liberal-left who are most likely to rail against any perceived racism have simply ignored this issue — not just held their noses and backed the candidate most likely to further their economic goals, but denied there is a bad smell in the room entirely.

Counter-example. A few years back there was a to-do involving a local candidate running for the  United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing party whose primary goals are (a) leaving the European Union and (b) curtailing immigration levels. As you might imagine, such a party gets accused of ‘racism’ more than most. An unfortunate image of the candidate making what might have been a Hitler salute emerged on the internet, and he became embroiled in a minor scandal. He was eventually cleared — but not before UKIP suspended him.

Let that sink in. An awkwardly-angled arm was enough to temporarily stall the budding career of someone in a party whose very raison d’etre is the rejection of political correctness. But in the Labour party, the standard bearer of all that is right-on and good and just, serial associations with racists, Holocaust deniers and blood libellers have been batted away with nary a concern.

There is a (not entirely unfair) caricature of the modern left as being prone to falling over itself in its desire to seek offence on the behalf of victims and minorities. It’s easy to mock and deride such knee-jerk reactions. But there are worse things than an over-reactive defence mechanism against discrimination. Like no defence mechanism. Or, in our case, a selective one. Somehow, the white blood cells that defend the life-blood of the left have developed a fault whereby anything marked ‘Palestinian’ is granted automatic access, anything tagged ‘Zionist’ blocked on entry.

I don’t expect adding my voice to the chorus of disapproval that has emerged primarily in the Jewish and right-wing press will have any significant impact. After all, I’m easily dismissed. I’m writing for the Times of Israel as the Chairman of the Zionist Federation, credentials that automatically disbar me in the minds of those I would most like to reach.

But it shouldn’t be down to me. It should be down to all individuals of good conscience to sound the alarm, to make it clear that anti-Semitism is no more acceptable from someone in a keffiyeh than it is from someone with a skinhead. To acknowledge that, if you’re going to claim solidarity with Jews, you need to be talking about the Arab Street, not Cable Street.

My fear is that too few people are saying this, too late. But if this whole issue isn’t confronted head on, then the problem of British anti-Semitism is going to get a lot worse.

About the Author
Paul Charney is chairman of the ZF (the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland). The ZF is the UK’s grass roots activist organisation for Israel. Each year the ZF initiates events, ranging from lobbies of Parliament to events on campuses to empower Jewish students to stand up for Israel in hostile environments. As Israel is constantly subjected to campaigns in the press to delegitimize its existence, the Zionist Federation continues to stand at the forefront to ensure the dynamic future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.