Labour Power-Games Threaten 150 Years of British-Jewish Identity
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Labour Power-Games Threaten 150 Years of British-Jewish Identity

Toby Guise
Toby Guise
5 min read

We live in an age of demonstrations – but the one protest you never see is a Jewish one. Until this week, when it was revealed that the leader of the British Labour Party had posted approvingly about a Protocols-of-Zion style public mural. This triggered the first public protest against anti-Semitism since 2012. But taking to the streets is a huge departure for the Jewish community, whose security has typically rested on fitting in. Unlike other minority groups – which now self-organise at the smallest provocation – Jewish organisations try to keep calm and carry on. This was the thrust of last year’s major report into anti-Semitism by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), in spite of it being commissioned in response to a 30 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

Sitting behind this enforced calm is the memory that Jewish de-assimilation can be fast and fatal. Berlin and Vienna were both thriving Jewish centres right up to the First World War, in which German-speaking Jews served with distinction. What came next was too fast to be believed. “This can’t be happening in the 1930s,” came the refrain. But it did. The resultant phobia of self-identification is a thread that runs through Jewish-infused culture. The Meet the Parents film – about a secular-Jewish male nurse marrying into an all-American service family – turns on just such assimilation anxiety. So did the wave of unease which greeted a UK reality TV show called Jewish Mum of the Year. It was even present in the reaction to feminist author Julie Burchill’s pro-Jewish memoir Unchosen, which was said by the editor of the Jewish Quarterly to “exemplify not anti-Semitism but its difficulty”. The message seemed to be that the next worst thing to an antisemite is a philosemite – because both cast an external light on Jewish difference.

Demonstrating outside the UK parliament therefore represents a profound shift. This is all the more pointed for the protest being called not by fringe group – like the one six years ago – but by Britain’s 300-year old Jewish leadership organisation, the Board of Deputies. At a knowing cost to cherished assimilation, it called for British Jews to self-identify – and for fellow-travellers to join up. The decision will have caused profound grief when set against Britain’s role in the vanguard of Jewish emancipation. When the Dreyfuss Affair rocked France in the 1890s, Britain already had Jewish representatives in both Houses of Parliament. When pogroms then visited the Russian Empire, Britain’s Jewish community was in the forefront of relief. Yet inflows of un-assimilated refugees only showed how far British-Jewish life had already moved from the shtetl. The subsequent advent of Nazism crystallised this patriotism further. The Rothschild Bank helped unquestioningly with British efforts in World War II, and the RAF built synagogues for its Jewish pilots.

This week’s events stand to bifurcate that hard-won identity. They also disrupt the greater task of communicating a positive Jewish identity – namely one not formed in response to anti-Semitism. The latter was the inevitable result of last century being so overshadowed by the Holocaust. But this century has – or had – seen efforts move towards a Jewish identity defined on its own terms. Such a shift was central to the creation of Jewish education centres from Brooklyn to London, and reflected a confidence in the decline of western anti-Semitism.

Its revival under Corbyn is firmly moored in the history of Marxism. This was unwittingly revealed by the clumsy use of Lenin’s borrowed aphorism – ‘anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools’ – in Corbyn’s letter of apology. The dictum reflects that ‘Jewish influence’ is a lazy means of scaling the massive edifice of Twentieth Century capitalism. The reality – as traced via the likes of Rockefeller and JP Morgan – was as much a WASP conspiracy as a Jewish one. Yet cliches are a short-cut to mobilisation, and so the old theme resurfaces: just as it did when an excitable Washington lawmaker recently aired his suspicion that the Rothschilds were controlling the weather, as well as everything else.

In the UK, the effect of political anti-Semitism is amplified by two awkward data-points from last year’s IJPR survey. First, the oft-drawn distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not heard by all Jewish ears. This is both because many individuals feel a cultural affinity to Israel, and because anti-Semites abuse the ‘anti-Zionism’ defence so readily (most recently when the UK’s Holocaust Education Trust was dismissed as peddling ‘Zionist fantasies’). Second, the two responses both intersect and become more pronounced among observant Muslim respondents – who are, in turn, over-represented in the Labour vote. These vectors square the circle of Jewish concern over Labour’s apparent race-baiting.

Now the community has taken the radical step of protesting; even in the knowledge that doing so may only isolate it further. It was a brave move to gather only yards from the site of last year’s Westminster terror attack, shortly after its first anniversary. And yet the event garnered a fraction of the police protection afforded – for example – to Free-Palestine and Al-Quds-Day marches. Much of the security instead fell to private organisations, in another indicator of the unwelcome risk of separatism. Equally isolating is the perception that anti-Semitic hate speech is tolerated above other sorts of hate speech – in spite of being proved to be an early indicator of terror tendencies.

The creeping fear is that Jeremy Corbyn’s historified anti-Semitism magnifies an existential threat to life. It was a threat of which Europe was reminded last week, when 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor, was stabbed and immolated in her flat in Paris. Yet Corbyn’s focus remains on the internal dynamics of his powerbase. ‘Moderate’ MPs who joined in the anti-Semitism demonstration are now apparently being targeted for deselection. Such introversion is supported by the readiness of Corbyn’s supporters to believe in their own displays of maskirova. This old Soviet strategy means ‘masking’ the truth behind an endless static of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, until only the voice of the leader is heard. Within hours of the demonstration being announced, the hashtag #thenextCorbynsmear was circulating on Twitter.

In the self-rooted hagiography of Corybnism, the leader cannot put a foot wrong – while no-one outside the hierarchy can put a foot right. Had only a fraction of his anti-Jewish sentiments been expressed on the Tory benches, Corbyn would now be loading his moral potato-gun. But so unwilling is he to turn it on his own benches – let alone himself – that his own Head of Dispute Resolution has now resigned. We have seen the same display of partisanship on soi-disant liberal issues ranging from physical misogyny to fatal child grooming. Such mendacity has been wearing thin on the British public for months. If mobilisation of the Jewish community provides an inflexion point against Corbyn’s courtship of violent undercurrents, then it is a departure for which we should all be grateful.

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