Over the past few years the UK’s Jewish community has been repeatedly told that its survival is at stake. It’s time to take stock and see where the real threat lies
In the spring of 1945, George Orwell wrote an introduction to Animal Farm, his allegory of the way cults of personality can lead to dictatorship. Yet when Secker and Warburg published it in mid-August of that year, Orwell’s introduction was missing. So you won’t have read it, even if you have read what became an internationally recognised classic.
Here is part of that missing introduction:
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”
Later, Orwell developed this theme when he wrote in his novel 1984 about societies that succumb, willingly or unwillingly, to what he termed ‘groupthink’. He had an instinct about the ways in which societies can become dominated by hyper-conformity, often out of deference to, or compliance with, the thoughts of strong personalities or leaders.
There is one more significant sentence from Orwell’s unpublished introduction:
“If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.”
The question of what ‘harms’ a community gets close to the nub of our current discontents in the Jewish community. In 2018 we were continually told that our community was being harmed “in some quite unmistakable way”.
Let’s be clear what it means that people have the right to say or print what they believe to be true. It means Donald Trump has the right to tweet whatever fatuous and narcissistic remarks he wants – and each of us has the right, as do commentators anywhere, to mock, argue with or just ignore what he has tweeted. He’s not harming the rest of the American community – people agree with him or not – the harm he’s doing is more to the Office of the Presidency, and to the notion that there is a difference between facts and opinions.
So what about Jeremy Corbyn? What does he have a right to say, and what has he said that might have done “harm to the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way”?
Firstly, he has the right to say that he abhors racism and antisemitism. He has a long track record supporting that claim. The problems that have arisen for some revolve not around this claim but around him offering support to pro-Palestinian groups, and solidarity with those who have clear antisemitic views. That was enough, three or so years ago, for the Jewish press in this country and some leaders of communal organisations to start a campaign to expose him as an antisemite. Until recently it’s been a campaign of slurs and innuendo and guilt by association but then came that revelation – gold dust – posted online by the Daily Mail about his remarks in 2013 at a meeting with the Palestinian ambassador Manuel Hassassian.
And yes, when you refer to a group of people in a room – or even if they aren’t in the room – as Zionists, who, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony” – then, yes, that crosses a line. The implication of that is pretty clear: Jews are fundamentally ‘other’, alien, people who will never be truly English/British. It’s a classic antisemitic trope and as my colleague Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote, his words were “indefensible, ill-advised and, no doubt, designed to rebuke and give maximum offence”.
Was he aware, when he said this, that it was antisemitic? Who knows? Unlike Trump, Corbyn is not an ignoramus. But these comments revealed a clear moral blind spot and this needs to be, as it has now been, called out.
I want to leave Corbyn for now. He will soon become a footnote in the history of these decades. I hold no candle for him – I think his leadership on the gravest issue facing this country, the Brexit fiasco, has been hopeless. So don’t hear my remarks about him as coming from some Labour-supporting cronyism. I’m much more concerned about the witch hunt against him by elements within the Jewish community and the harm that could do to its well-being than I am concerned about one leader’s failures to be rigorous in his commitment to anti-racist views.
The issue is wider than Corbyn – it’s about real antisemitism in parts of the Labour party, and the party’s failure to address this comprehensively. I’m not naive: I have no doubt that strands of hostility to Jews exists in the UK – this is nothing new. It exists in all parties and in all sectors of society, from what used to be called the working classes through polite English middle class prejudices to the aristocracy and their long-standing contempt for interlopers into their ranks. Think of the upper-class opprobrium heaped in the 19th century on men like Disraeli, the prime minister, and the Rothschilds; or of the antipathy towards Jews expressed by writers such as T S Eliot and G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Graham Greene. Antisemitism has always been part of the fabric of this country. But we have survived it and thrived.
So why am I wanting to bring Orwell into this furore? Sadly, it’s prompted by what I see going on around me: am I alone in thinking that it’s become hysterical, all this talk about ‘existential threat’, this fantasy that British Jews are ready to pack their bags en masse and leave the country out of fear for their survival?
An atmosphere, an attitude, has been created, led by some prominent communal voices (rabbinic and lay) and by the Jewish press, that has become a kind of orthodoxy.
I sometimes wonder – and I hesitate to say this – if there’s a kind of unconscious wish, where we can secretly compare ourselves to Jews in Germany in the 1930s. But this time make the story turn out differently, as a victory over the forces of evil rather than being annihilated by them.
I have heard people comparing Corbyn to Hitler, and one renowned British rabbi has compared Corbyn’s ignorant remarks to Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech of 50 years ago. Powell made the speech as shadow defence secretary in the highly charged atmosphere of the arrival of thousands of Kenyan Asian British citizens and the debate over the 1968 Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination. To make that comparison is a wilful misappropriation of history. It hardly helps Jews in this country to be aligned in the public mind with that wave of immigration that was stirring up ill feeling and that Powell was addressing.
I’ve heard speeches given by major British Jewish figures, rabbis and lay leaders, who go to conferences abroad or give interviews to European or American newspapers – and they talk about Anglo-Jewry as being awash with fear. This kind of hyperbolic language has now flooded into our communal discourse and it is ratcheting up our fears in ways that are just not congruent with our external realities.
Because when I look around me at communities across the religious spectrum, I see dynamic programming, whether it is for Jewish learning or social action or interfaith work. I get reports from Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow which aren’t filled with doom and gloom. What I can see across London is a vibrancy, a freedom to innovate and explore Jewishness that isn’t only within religious sectors of the community, but is there in communal institutions like JW3 and the Jewish Museum. It’s in Limmud, it’s in the passionate commitment of those who work in and support a huge range of Jewish charities, it’s in music festivals and cooking, the arts and film, it’s in the spread of Jewish schools, it’s in a sub-community of Israelis who have left their homeland to set up life here, no doubt for a variety of reasons, but surely not unaffected by being told by Israel’s leaders that they are under daily existential threat for their lives.
What I see when I look around me is not a community waiting to pack its bags but a community that is a leading European centre for Jewish life.
It was ironic – thank you Jeremy Corbyn – that while this brouhaha was going on here, I was at a conference of Christians and Jews in Germany. I listened to some of the pastors there, to members of congregations, Catholic and Protestant, and they spoke about the rise of the AfD in Germany, an anti-immigrant party which entered parliament for the first time in September 2017 and is gathering 20-30 percent support in the polls. This is the party that was behind the attacks on foreigners in Chemnitz last summer, a party that joins in demonstrations with Nazi salutes, a party that is not as overtly antisemitic as other parties in Europe (in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic) but only because Muslims make a more readily identifiable target at the moment. When I look at the rise of real antisemitic activity on the mainland of Europe I know that many European Jews still do remain vulnerable. But that’s not the situation we are faced with.
As this new year begins I’d like us to feel what a privilege it is to be able to live as Jews in this country at this time in our history, free to celebrate, free to be as expressive as we want to be. And free to critique and resist the ‘groupthink’ some in the community would like to impose on us, Let’s celebrate who we are, what we have, and the good fortune we have to be living in this place at this time in the long and glorious history of our people.
By Rabbi Howard Cooper