British Jews Find Their Voice

What has changed is not so much the community, but the environment of British politics.

Demonstraters take part in an antisemitism protest outside the Labour Party headquarters in April, 2018
Demonstraters take part in an antisemitism protest outside the Labour Party headquarters in April, 2018 (Simon Dawson / Reuters)

Sometimes, I don’t think I recognize British Jews anymore. For decades my community has been quiet and watchful, slow to place itself in the public eye. But last week, watching British Jews call out antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party I had to pinch myself. Were these really the Jews of Britain: publicly furious, outraged, venting their fear and disgust as they faced down what might well be Britain’s next government?

I was stunned, because growing up, I never sensed that pride, or fearlessness. Where had this newfound pugnacity come from?

It didn’t used to be like this. Nothing, it seemed to me, better summed up the British Jewry than the letters that the journalist Chaim Bermant said The Jewish Chronicle received, each time they scoured the annual honors list for the likes of us to proudly put on the front page. No sooner had they gone to print than the complaints would flood in: from lords, ladies and esteemed members of parliament insisting that, no, they were not in fact Jews.

I felt ashamed that Clement Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, once sent a correction to the paper vehemently pointing out that since his wedding he was as a matter of fact an Anglican, and no longer actually a Jew. It made me wince that Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s factotum, whose father had even worked at The Jewish Chronicle, responded to having racist abuse directed at him by a foul old MP by insisting that he, too, was “not actually Jewish.”

Sometimes, I wished I was another kind of Jew—an American, an Israeli, even an Iraqi like my ancestors, because at least they knew how be proud of it.  Because British Jews always whispered when they said the word Jew in public.

But they’re not whispering anymore. The row over anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s Labour party, which continues to deepen and toxify, and has spread to the very top, has galvanized the community. In March, hundreds of British Jews gathered with 24 hours’ notice to protest anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Lawyers and bankers, quiet men in suits, stood in Westminster’s Parliament Square to insist: Dayenu. Enough is enough.

The community’s leading organizations, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies, dismissed the desiccated olive branches offered to them by Corbyn during talks in April. Two weeks ago, the Jewish Labour Movement—affiliated to the Labour Party—achieved a seemingly impossible task. It managed to get 68 British rabbis—many of whom do not even recognize each other as rabbis—to write a joint letter condemning the party for having “ignored the Jewish community.”

The spark for this latest insurgency was the Labour Party’s rewriting of its code of conduct vis-a-vis anti-Semitism. Rather than working with the widely-accepted definition established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA), it adopted its own, diluted code.

If further indication of the extent of this problem were needed, look at Ian Austin and Margaret Hodge, two venerable Labour MPs who confronted Corbyn over the new anti-Semitism code. They have been immediately probed for their “abusive” manner, while a pro-Corbyn candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee who recently accused the Jewish community of fabricating anti-Semitism has merely referred himself for equalities training.

The sticking point in all this has, inevitably, been Israel. The new Labour code allows for the very project of Israel’s existence to be dismissed as racist; for comparisons to be made between Israel and the Nazis. Hardliners around Corbyn, such as his director of strategy, Seamus Milne, see the old IHRA code as threatening to silence those who wish to expose the true nature of the Israeli state. Conversely, most in the Jewish community believe that living inside this type of criticism is the foul virus of anti-Semitism. And, in a break from their tradition of discretion, they have been willing to say so, loudly.

Last week, the Jewish community’s three leading newspapers published an unprecedented joint op-ed, entitled “United We Stand.” It described a potential Corbyn government as an “existential threat” to Jews in Britain.

Only this year have I begun to feel truly proud of British Jews. Proud of the dogged exposure, Facebook post by Facebook post, done by Jewish activists like the Campaign Against Antisemitism. Proud of The Jewish Chronicle for revealing a flourishing culture of conspiracy theories inside the Labour Party. Because who else is going to do it for you?

But I felt another emotion too, after reading those editorials. Suddenly I missed the old Jews and their diffidence. After seeing the words “existential threat” in print, I threw up my hands. Because, having taken upon themselves the delicate task of speaking for the Jewish community, over something as slippery as anti-Semitism where specific words—especially in the IHRA—mean everything, the community’s newspapers were throwing around words like “existential threat” as if they meant nothing at all.

Once British Jews would never have thrown around synonyms for genocide so carelessly, at such a delicate and important moment. And then it hit me. What has changed is not so much the community, but the environment of British politics. This is Brexit Britain. A country known for its moderation has suddenly discovered extremism. Once mainstream Conservative politicians such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson consort with Steve Bannon over “hard” Brexit.

Something very important has changed in Britain. Political opponents in Britain are now “traitors.” Judges making unwanted rulings are “enemies of the people.” In just the last week, a conservative politician has called for the reimposition of the Treason Act of 1372 to prosecute Remainers who wish to stay in the European Union; A.C. Grayling, a once measured philosopher, has called Brexit “an existential threat to our country”; and the British government has announced it is ready to send the army in and preparing to stockpile food should the country crash out of the European Union without a deal.

The Scots and the English, for so long proud of their sensible political culture, have, radicalized by two referendums, let themselves slide into some of the most emotional politics in Europe. And this includes the Jews.

The rhetoric of the anti-Semitism row mirrors the populism and demagoguery, the loose deployment of catastrophic language, that has taken over Britain.

The Jewish community is no longer so polite. Now we see incendiary headlines, vigilante Twitter accounts, left-wing and pro-Corbyn Jews branded as traitors. The problem of anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s Labour is very nasty and very real, but to brand it an “existential threat” does a disservice to the many actual existential threats that Jews have faced, both today and throughout history.

It’s worse among the Corbynites. “Trump supporting extremists,” was how one prominent Corbynite described Jews complaining of anti-Semitism. The folk singer Billy Bragg took to Twitter last week to condemn British Jews for “pouring petrol on the fire” and demand they “work” to “rebuild trust” with the Labour Party. Such irrational outbursts have become common in a public sphere where emotion now rules.

What I’ve realized is it’s not the old British Jews I miss, but the old Britain. A country where political discourse was measured and proportionate, petty even. Where every public debate didn’t devolve into existential panic and belligerent name calling. What I miss, in today’s febrile Britain, is the stiff upper lip.