Tuesday 3 December 2019

This is not good for the Jews

On the question of Labour and antisemitism, my Jewish friends are divided. My Jewish family, on the other hand, are all voting Labour, either in Canterbury, where Rosie Duffield won a historic but fragile victory over the sitting Conservative just two years ago, or here in our south London constituency of Tooting, where the admirable Rosena Allin-Khan has a relatively safe seat.

I suppose I am as personally invested in the fate of British Jews as a non-Jew can be. And I don’t dismiss the accusations of antisemitism within the Labour ranks as simply a right-wing smear campaign, though the tabloids have certainly played a role in distorting the facts and exaggerating the problem. But I’ll be voting Labour anyway.

This will be, at least in part, a tactical vote to defeat the Conservative Party and its vision for our country as an off-shore tax-haven subject to the ravages of global corporate asset-stripping (if I lived in Brighton, I’d vote Green; in Dominic Raab's nearby constituency I've been stuffing envelopes for the Liberal Democrats). It will certainly not be a vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. 

As a member of the Labour Party, I voted against Corbyn three years ago when his leadership was challenged. My objection to him was not that he came from a left wing faction of the party, whose priorities I mainly agree with, but that he was allowing the party to be divided by factionalism. There's a desire among his more enthusiastic supporters to purify the Party and remake it in Corbyn's image. I marched against the Iraq war and thought Blair too timid in his support for the public sector, but I don't see the point, 12 years after his departure, of labelling Labour moderates as Blairites and working to have them deselected. The bullying of MPs who waver from left-wing orthodoxy on the Palestinian question rises from the same well of self-righteous intolerance. 

It’s clear that among some Labour activists the line between criticising Israel and blaming Jews has been hopelessly blurred. Whatever his private convictions, Corbyn has been sloppy about this himself and has failed to take a firm stand against it as leader.

So how can I justify voting for his party? First, because the Corbyn faction doesn’t yet represent the party as a whole. The Conservatives, in contrast, have been thoroughly taken over by Brexit-mongers. And second, because Boris Johnson’s prejudices are not even in question and have been on display for years. Though he uses his bumbling comic style to deflect criticism, in a bigotry competition with Corbyn, Johnson would be the clear winner.

As the husband and stepfather of Jews, should I take comfort in the fact that Johnson’s sneers have been directed at Muslims and people of colour, rather than at our lot? Well, no, because I refuse to be pushed into making a choice between antisemitism and Islamophobia. Those in positions of power have always found it useful to turn the poor, the powerless and the culturally marginalised against each other. It’s not a game I’m willing to play.

And in any case, the racist impulse tends to be indivisible. People who express hatred of one group of foreigners are not reliable friends to any other group. An ultra-conservative Britain that isolates itself from Europe because it dislikes Poles, threatens to deport elderly British West Indians on a historical technicality, deliberately creates a “hostile environment” for refugees and other undocumented migrants, and gambles with the future of its own Irish citizens is not a trustworthy friend to Jews.

I think about those White Supremacists marching in Charlottesville. How easily their chant slipped from "You [brown people] will not replace us" to "Jews will not replace us". I wouldn’t trust Little Englanders not to engage in the same kind of slippage if it suited them, or if it suited their leaders to encourage it. Expressions of support for Israel from members of the extreme Right are not reliable indicators of an absence of antisemitic feeling any more than concern for the Palestinians necessarily means indifference to the fate of the Jewish population of Israel or of Jews around the world.

Last week a group of British writers published a letter explaining why they could not, in good conscience, vote Labour in this Election. Perplexingly, some of them have never been Labour supporters, so the suggestion that Corbyn’s views were causing them moral anguish was disingenuous. But for the progressive voters among them the dilemma is clearly genuine. “Antisemitism,” they wrote, “is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?"

That question, with its distant echo of Niemöller's confession, correctly identifies the sliding nature of prejudice. But it is misleading in implying that, in contemporary Britain, the Jewish community is at particular risk. We don’t need to ask who would be next because the victims of prejudice are all around us. One way of compiling a list would be to start with a compendium of Boris Johnson’s jokey ethnic slurs.

My late and much lamented mother-in-law would occasionally, in response to some turn in American or global events, drily observe that “this is not good for the Jews”. The Brexit project, if and when it is completed, will be no better for British Jews than for the British people in general.