I attended synagogue for the whole of my life, up until my parents died. Early on I was a scholar of Jewish scripture – but atheism finally rescued me from metaphysics. Even when I was an observant youth it struck me as disconcerting to have to stand with the sacred Torah held aloft while we (the men) recited two prayers: one, to the State of Israel, the other to the royal family. Princess Margaret visited a synagogue and was pleasantly surprised to hear the Prayer to the Royal Family and to be told that it was recited every Sabbath without fail in all synagogues. “How lovely, they don’t do that for us in church; I’ll tell my sister.”[The Guardian, 13.04.2012]
The sentiment is that Jews are conscious of having a ‘home’ in Israel, but at least for as long as we live in England we are grateful to our hosts who can be assured of our allegiance. History teaches us prudence – some would say, at the risk of the sycophancy Margaret Windsor did not fail to pick up on.
Well, first, the idea of having a racial ‘home’ in Israel is a modern fiction, as I have explained in previous Blogs, and against the rights of the indigenous people of that region. The concept of a historical ‘home’ rests mostly upon a claim to genetic purity – an unbroken DNA link to the followers of Abraham, Moses and David. Modern epigenetics dismisses that claim to racial purity. There is no mitochondrial DNA chain. The second point is that having been born and raised in England, paying taxes and voting in elections still does not qualify this country to be my natural home carries an undertone I don’t approve of. And this is before I even recall what it felt like as a republican, anti-royalist to stand and listen to that hooey! In schools, universities, courts, churches and cinemas we are not any longer asked to state our allegiance to any nation state or to a monarchy (I do remember as a youth standing to sing the national anthem in school and cinemas). Why should we in synagogues? Britain is a liberal democracy – we shouldn’t be pleading for fair treatment.
Each of these prayers come from the deliberations of those who claim to represent British Jews. They don’t represent me. Nor do the various groups who claim to represent me today in the panic about anti-semitism in the Labour Party (Board of Jewish Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). I think these strategic prayers and alliances are wrong-headed and, as it happens, out of keeping with the long tradition of Jewish Humanism.
[BTW – JUST TO BE CLEAR: I DO NOT SUPPORT THE DISSOLUTION OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL. WE HAVE TO OWN THE LEGACIES OF HISTORY. I AM A PROPONENT OF A ONE-STATE SOLUTION TO THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PALESTINIANS.]
Anyway, I am a member of the British Labour Party which is under siege with accusations of anti-semitism. It is alleged that the Labour Party is an ‘unsafe’ environment for Jews, that the Leader of the Party (the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) is a racist, and that the election of a Labour government would make for an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews. Well, yes, Labour’s election would make for an existential threat to those many of my fellow Jews whose interests lie with the Conservative Party, of course, and so it should. But the chances of that happening are being reduced by this relentless campaign waged, mostly, inside the Party itself.
I have never knowingly experienced anti-semitism, so perhaps I am not well qualified to talk of this, though I have experienced anti-zionism and anti-Israel political sentiment – some of which I agree with. I am proud of my Jewish cultural heritage, believing Jewish cultural tradition to be one of the historical sources of Humanism. I am equally proud to be a member of a political party that has always stood against forms of discrimination based on prejudice. If I were to leave my house of a morning determined to seek out anti-semitism and other forms of prejudice I would not immediately make for the local Labour Party HQ. There are other excellent candidates around, not least the Conservative Party which, it’s worth a mention, still resists an enquiry into its own Islamophobia.
But we are where we are, and for whatever reason there are those intensifying voices insisting on a privileged hearing for complaints about anti-semitism – well, ‘anti-Jew’, to be strict about this, and not to include prejudice against Palestinians many of whom, as I have said in earlier Blogs, are also Semites and suffer awfully.
So, here is a web-site giving evidence of anti-semitic incidents from within the Labour Party. If you trawl through them you will find much blurring of boundaries between overstatement, unbridled indignation, ill-informed assertion, racism and ethnic stereotyping and just plain nasty and stupid interventions. You may want to have a go at distinguishing Jew-hating from political opposition to Zionism (which has, itself, always been a political movement and up for contestation).
Whether it all adds up to systematic anti-semitism, to a party that is a “fearful” place for Jews to be, is for you to judge. I, for one, would not want my political culture to be defined by this bunch of people, most of whom are drearily incapable of framing a decent and reasoned political point of view. In any event, any campaign that is motivated more by collective hysteria than reasoned judgement too easily creates its own regime of fear. The campaign against Labour anti-semitism is, itself, creating a climate of fear for those who want to express a reasonable critique of Israel, or a reasoned concern for the plight of Palestinian people.
But to show just how flaky are the foundations of this controversy here is a documentary clip that shows how messed-up, uninformed, and frankly abstruse the issue is.
Again, see how hard it is to disentangle Jew-hatred, anti-Zionism, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments. At least, that is the view of at least one of the Labour people in this clip who is, nonetheless, a supported of allegations of anti-Semitism.
So, is there ‘systematic’ anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, encouraged by a racist party leader? Almost certainly not. But that’s not the point. Much more to the point is how political movements come to terms with mutually conflicting ethical arguments over rights. It is not easy to promote the rights of ethnic Jews at the same time as promoting the same rights for Palestinians – not, at least, under contemporary conditions, for Israel makes these rights mutually exclusive, pits one against the other. And yet we must support both. What the Labour Party is going through is the pain of trying to reconcile these mutually exclusive ethical stances – and perhaps the pain is essential. The heat and anger generated sometimes slips out of control to the point where a politician whose career has been much-defined by his resistance to prejudice and discrimination can be called a racist. Some seem poised to take advantage of that hysteria, and this is little to their credit. But this should not mask the truth that the Party is engaged in an honest struggle to make sense of all this. Perhaps a better question to ask is why the Conservative Party refuses to enter into a similar struggle to define and resist Islamophobia.