Oh. I get it now. I’m an anti-Semite because you said I am. Sorry to be so dim.
Posted on February 25, 2019
I really didn’t think I’d still be writing about this, but….deep breath….here goes.
When the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party emerged as an issue shortly after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader (work it out for yourself) Shami Chakrabarti was commissioned to report on the issue. In 2016 she concluded that Labour was not ‘overrun’ by anti-Semitism or any other form of racism, but noted that there had been careless use of language, especially when related to criticism of Israel and its actions. She urged Labour supporters to be especially thoughtful about how some of their social media comments sounded to Jewish people. She pressed Labour to act more promptly to deal with complaints and to speed up its disciplinary procedures.
The report was roundly panned as a whitewash by those determined to find a problem. I have no idea whether its critics read beyond the opening couple of sentences: their reactions would suggest that 40 whole pages were too much for them. Whatever the situation, this ugly, manufactured row groans on and on. I’ll explain why I remain utterly incandescent about this. Bear with me while I give you some context.
Mt own history replicates that of many secular Jews. I was born in Birmingham in 1953. My maternal grandparents had escaped the pogroms of Russia in 1905 and somehow fetched up there. In 1938 my father miraculously escaped from Vienna, literally hours before Nazis rounded up the Jews in his street, and found his way, somehow, to what must have been a safe house where he met and later married my mother. (For a fuller and, I hope, funnier version of this story, have a look at the opening chapter of this book)
I went to a Jewish primary school three miles away from my home, despite there being a perfectly good school 100 yards away. Consider, for a moment, what that looked like to the kids in my street. Once at the Birmingham Hebrew School located, for those of you who may be familiar with the area, in the heart of Balsall Heath, I was immediately made aware of the popularity of Jews and Judaism outside the confines of school and family. From there, as a scholarship boy, to King Edward’s, Birmingham in leafy Edgbaston where I soon found that, posh boys, clever boys or whatever, my tongue, and occasionally my fists, were the best defence against frequent anti-Semitic barbs and ‘banter’.
All of which is by way of explaining that I know something of which I speak.
To the disappointment of most of my loved ones, I gradually lost faith with the faith. As a young adult, the socialist movement became the driving force in my life. Much of this has been inspiring, a great deal has been very humbling and plenty of it has been taken up with the eye-watering mundanity of booking coaches and meeting rooms, stuffing envelopes, picking up speakers who are late and returning late home myself from meetings which I’ve addressed and have been attended by three pensioners and a sleepy dog.
I’ve been a senior lay trade union officer in two trade unions, secretary and chairperson of more campaigns to defend the NHS, prevent local cuts or, yes, to defend Palestine, than I can remember. I’ve been a central organiser of street mobilisations to oppose various neo-Nazi groups from the NF, to the BNP to the EDL and the latest abomination of UKIP/FLA. You’ve got the picture: I’m soaked in this stuff.
During five decades of political activity on the left, it would be impossible to estimate how many people, some in the Labour Party, others not, that I’ve met and spoken to. So, I’ll try not to shout the next bit, though, goodness knows, my continuing ire about this nonsense is inflamed with every careless accusation of anti-Semitism slopped out so lazily by those who wish to discredit Corbyn.
In over forty years of campaigning I have never, once, ever – am I making myself clear here? – heard an anti-Semitic comment or the expression of such sentiment. If – and this happens very rarely – clumsy comment is made in such circles that somehow conflates criticism of Israel with criticism of Jewish people and Judaism, it is jumped upon with alacrity. I’m talking about tens of thousands of hours of political interaction. I’ll leave it there: I’m not going to over-egg it.
Just so that there is no room for ambiguity, I firmly believe that any Labour Party member found guilty of anti-Semitic comment or behaviour should be expelled. Much has been made of the fact that the number of live complaints relate to the actions of around 400 people – that’s 0.1% of the membership of the largest political party in Europe (yes, really). I’m not cheered by that figure; it’s 0.1% too many. If one person in that 0.1% is guilty, that’s one person too many.
Do I believe that there’s been a growth of anti-Semitic and racist behaviour in society? I’d have to brain-dead to deny it. The growth of such feeling is an age-old, well documented reaction in all societies at times of hardship, uncertainty and fear for the future. However, the fact that it has somehow become normalised to blame the Labour Party for this is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Anti-Semites are people who hate Jews for who they are. Just so that we’re clear, someone else saying to you that you hate Jews doesn’t make you an anti-Semite. It’s an easy enough distinction.
One final thing. I’ve now lost count of the number of people who have told me that they are disappointed with how Corbyn has handled this row. I agree with them – but not how they want me to. My regret resides in the fact that the moment this ugly farce started, he didn’t tell people to get back in their box and take their accusations elsewhere. As I argue here, taking a backward step when someone with impeccable credentials on equality and anti-racism is traduced in this way only encourages even more egregious behaviour and unscrupulous conduct.
I love writing this blog but I’ve hated having to write this. A grotesque political vacuum is being created and there are genuine forces of reaction waiting to fill it. Meanwhile, fiddling while we burn, the malicious and the mischievous work to discredit a party founded on notions of social justice and led by a lifelong, brave campaigner. Such people need to examine their consciences – always assuming they can find them.