The shame of anti-semitism in British politics

Following her bilious and inflammatory comments about Israel last week, Baroness Jenny Tonge has been forced to resign from the Liberal Democrats. In her resignation statement this week, however, there was not the slightest hint of contrition or regret. Her comments were, to use the time honoured phrase, “taken completely out of context” and made in “protest at the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank”. She went on to accuse Israel of breaking international law and violating the rights of Palestinians. Moreover, she accused her party of always seeking “to abet the request of the pro-Israel lobby”. This last comment ought to raise the biggest horse laugh of all. For if anything is true, it is that her party has repeatedly failed to abet the request of pro Israel supporters to have her permanently removed from the Liberal Democrats.

Describing the Palestinian campaign of terrorism during the second intifada, Tonge said that, “If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one (a suicide bomber) myself.” At best this could be taken as a typically ignorant attempt to articulate the motives of suicide bombers, at worst, an outright justification of terror. Two years later, she declared that the “pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party”.

Evoking wild conspiracy theories about the reach of Jewish power is one of the more familiar themes in modern anti semitism. Yet despite the widespread condemnation of her remarks, Tonge remained a Liberal Democrat. Then in 2010, she lent credence to the view that Israeli soldiers had harvested organs in Haiti in 2010. This time, she was swiftly demoted from her position as the Liberal Democrat health spokesman in the Lords. Quite why she had not been kicked out altogether was the real mystery though.

Yes, Nick Clegg has taken the right decision to finally remove the whip from his outspoken colleague. But this has come after years of outrageous comments, and numerous calls for her dismissal that have gone unheeded. That is not sound leadership but cowardice.

Among those criticising Tonge was Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Rather sadly, his party’s track record in ousting its extremists is hardly better. Labour’s Gerald Kaufman is notorious when it comes to hurling malicious political invective in Israel’s direction. During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, he directly compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to those of Nazi Germany. Citing the murder of his grandmother at the hands of the Nazis in WW2, he told MPs:”My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza”.

Israel’s Government was, he said, “ruthlessly and cynically” exploiting “guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians”. Nor was this Jewish parliamentarian averse to attacking fellow Jews more directly, as when he declared that the Conservative party was under the control of “right wing Jewish millionaires”.

At the same time Labour MP Martin Linton, a veteran pro Palestinian campaigner, warned of the “long tentacles of Israel in this country” which were “funding election campaigns and putting money into the British political system for their own ends”. Another Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, was unapologetic when he said that Tony Blair was being unduly influenced by a “cabal” of Jewish advisers running a “Likudnik” policy.

These men implied that any support for Israel within their party was due to the shadowy influence of a secret pro-Israeli lobby which was operating behind the scenes in sinister fashion. This spectre of malign Jewish power and financial influence bears all the hallmarks of classic anti semitic conspiracy theories, a 21st century Protocols of the Elders of Jerusalem, if you will. Yet for all their shameful comments, none of these MPs were deselected, or threatened with deselection. What does that say about the Labour leadership’s repeated denunciation of anti-semitism?

No doubt there are several reasons, apart from obvious tribal loyalty, why parties choose to protect their own miscreants so persistently. For one thing, the pressure to demote or remove an MP will be proportional to the media firestorm that erupts after an alleged wrongdoing. While there are some redoubtable bloggers and commentators who pick up on every anti semitic utterance, their influence is inevitably limited. Without sustained impact, a story can quickly disappear and the offence then goes unpunished. And despite the alleged ubiquitous power of the pro Israel lobby, the fact remains that the greatest shaper of public opinion in the UK, namely the BBC, frequently adopts a pro Arab narrative itself.

Perhaps the second reason is that party leaders refuse to read into the inflammatory rhetoric any anti semitic connotation. As wayward politicians appear to be focusing on alleged Israeli misdeeds or the supposedly nefarious influence of its lobby, their protestations of being anti racist carry great weight. The usual refrain is that one can criticise Israel and not be opposed to Jews. Thus Nick Clegg has described Tonge’s outbursts as “risible not racist”.

But the imagery associated with her previous remarks, and those of the other MPs, bears more than a passing similarity to familiar Judaeophobic racism. These MPs have drawn upon the language and themes of conspiratorial anti semitism, even if they have not consciously acknowledged these influences. Drawing from the well of Jew hatred, even unintentionally, is still vile and indefensible.

This is why Britain’s party leaders need to wise up. It is one thing to condemn racism in all its manifestations, and quite another to mean it. With anti semitism creeping more and more into the political discourse of the Arab-Israeli conflict, our political leaders must make every effort to stamp it out.

About the Author
Jeremy is an author and the Director of B'nai Brith UK's Bureau of International Affairs