For what it’s worth, I’m going to throw my two-pence into the current debate about anti-Semitism within the Labour party. I know from friends how much nervousness there is around anti-Jewish rhetoric; school friends whose grandmothers were in Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz, who watched their sisters being shot in front of their eyes, who were starved to a point from which their bodies never recovered, who died in the camps and left children – mothers and fathers of friends – who are still trying to overcome the emotional legacy.
I understand the frightened words of Jack Lewy, a student who writes passionately in The Independent about his feelings when he hears Ken Livingston’s comments on the radio or reads articles about Naz Shah, ‘In the last few weeks I have never been made to feel more uncomfortable about my race and my religion…we are horrified but more importantly we are scared’. I have deep sympathy for Jack Lewy’s feelings and I know they are shared by others.
At the same time, the charge of anti-Semitism should not be leveled against people who disagree with the politics of the Israeli state. It demeans the significance of the charge and it links all members of the Jewish community to the politics of Israel, whether they agree with these politics or not. This is wrong.
I was at a dinner a few months ago during which I expressed my support for Jeremy Corbyn. One of the guests replied that Jeremy Corbyn was an anti-Semite. This made me cross as he is not an anti-Semite and has fought against injustice throughout his career, often alongside Jewish activists fighting the same causes. When I pointed this out, the charge of anti-Semitism was turned on me.
I left that dinner deciding the man was a bully who I should ignore. But I was very upset. It’s a heck of a charge to be called anti-Semitic, especially when you were brought up in North West London and all your secondary school mates are Jewish. It’s doubly hard when your parents have spent part of their careers making documentaries about the Holocaust and who count Jews amongst their closest friends. But even if that wasn’t my background, it’s a very big charge to throw at someone. For everyone’s sake, it should not be done lightly.
In an article in CapX a few days ago, the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wrote ‘No one had mentioned Israel. It was Piers Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn’s brother) who has introduced Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism, for no reason other than to attack the idea that it needed to be tackled’. But that message gets diluted when the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev, makes a statement on Saturday urging the Left to take the following action: ‘It is important that the leadership is not neutral or agnostic about anti-Semitism… You have had too many people on the progressive side of politics who have embraced Hamas and Hezbollah. Both of them are anti-Semitic… There needs to be an unequivocal message from the leadership saying there is no solidarity with anti-Semites’. This not religion. This is politics.
I thoroughly agree that Ken Livingstone should be suspended for his comments and I hope he understands how terrifying it is for the Jewish community to hear him makes these statements. But to claim the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism seems unfair. If anything, the Labour party has been a great friend to the Jews over the years: there have been more Jewish MP in the Labour party than in any other party, Labour have appointed more Jewish peers and, until only last year, the leader of the Labour party – Ed Miliband – was Jewish.
So I guess my plea is for people to save the charge of anti-Semitism for those who really are prejudiced towards the Jewish community, who really do sign-up to stereotypes and who have a racist mentality. The politics of Israel are just that –politics. The Jewish religion, as I experience it, is spiritually nurturing, thoughtful and questioning, and yet mystical; infused with an easy-going closeness between family and friends, it celebrates humour and believes in building confidence in others. I really do not believe it is fair to make Judaism synonymous with Israel’s politics, and I hope this stops being part of the rhetoric.