It’s difficult for straight white Americans to understand what it is to be Jewish in Britain. But it’s important to try if you want to make sense of the ongoing scandal of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in the shadow of Brexit.
Today, for example, Baroness Royall’s full report into allegations of anti-Semitism in the Oxford University Labour Party (the non-Jewish chair resigned in disgust at anti-Semitism) was just leaked to the London Jewish Chronicle after having been suppressed by Labour’s National Executive Committee for over two months. Why that matters hinges on the types of racism (including anti-Semitism) that pervade British society and how they’re dealt with.
A generation ago, I went to one of the top ten private schools in Britain. I was frequently called a “yid” by other students (including sons of teachers) and regularly called a “f—king yid.” It had nothing to do with my actions or appearance; they just hurled this epithet the same way a racist in America, annoyed by an African-American driver taking a parking spot, might spew the n-word. At the same school a generation before that, my father had explicitly racist teachers, and in my grandfather’s time one of the school’s “principals” was a blackshirt.
In the late 1980s I played club soccer in a competitive league in which, to my knowledge, no other Jews played, and I routinely mischaracterized where I lived — even to my own team. Living in Alwoodley (“All-yid-ley”) was too much of a giveaway, so I would say Moortown. Sort of like saying Midtown Manhattan instead of the Upper West Side. Since I was six feet tall, light-haired and blue-eyed, it was easy to pass.
Although I never saw the few black lads I played with or against get into trouble, race and class were always categories of suspicion. It was a working class league, so I would use stronger Leeds dialect on Sunday afternoons so that my mother’s London accent and my private schooling didn’t make me stand out. This was in a league full of outstanding sportsmen, where I never saw any anti-Semitism and when our coach was a strong-minded and forthrightly tolerant Catholic who would have tolerated no nonsense. It was a time when the incidence of Irish and Palestinian terrorism meant that British sympathy was still for Israel.
Still, passing for goyish was a standard precaution.
In the half-century after World War II, two significant things happened in terms of race relations in Britain. First, and partly in reaction to Nazi wartime atrocities, there was a general if slow movement to ensure that officials and institutions could not be racist. Second, there was an influx of immigrants from the British Commonwealth, notably from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. For British Jews, still only a fraction of 1% of the population, this meant that racism was no longer an official bar to opportunity. It also meant that the primary victims of racism were those new arrivals whose skin color marked them out as different.
In 1968, Enoch Powell — then a Conservative Member of Parliament — gave his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech claiming that in 15 or 20 years “the black man will have the whip hand” and that “rivers of blood” might be spilled to prevent that. Although far-right parties and tendencies hovered in the Conservative party’s orbit — and party leader Norman Tebbit famously proposed that those who supported other cricket teams against England might be considered disloyal — such inflammatory racism was scarcely seen after that in the major parties.
The Labour Party was a coalition of the unions, two thirds of the working class, some progressive middle classes and the intellectual left. Minority ethnicities felt that the party accepted them, valued them and guaranteed their communities rights and equality. Whereas, especially under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party reacted against Powell-esque racism by negating communities and society as a whole, and instead fought for an ethos of individual opportunity, irrespective of race. This had an obvious appeal and there were a number of Conservative Jewish cabinet ministers during the period when my friends subjected me to anti-Semitic slurs.
Overblown rumors that we are revisiting the politics of the 1930s are contradicted by the strong postwar institutions of justice that have been set up in Europe and the U.K. But one particular type of racism in Britain is important because it is a threat to these institutions: political anti-Semitism.
Since the end of the last century, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and general right-wing drift has led to significant, and justified, critiques. However, much of the time the rhetoric used to criticize the Jewish state and its supporters has used classic anti-Semitic tropes. Anti-Israel criticism (the government is wrong) is not anti-Zionism (Israel shouldn’t exist), and anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. But much criticism of Israel describes itself (wrongly) as anti-Zionist and is actually anti-Semitic.
This has coincided with the increasing influence of Islamic politics and Arab money in Europe. To over-generalize to make my point, the European left allied with European Islamists to oppose war in Iraq and the system of exploitative western capitalism. It held its nose about the treatment of women and minorities by its new allies, but by painting Israel as a colonial, capitalist outpost in the Middle East it was able to support the Red-Green alliance in anti-Israel activities, mostly in anti-Semitic ways.
Never mind that the last Labour leader was ethnically Jewish. The two reports by Baroness Royall (about Oxford University) and Shami Chakrabarti (originally about anti-Semitism, later broadened to be about anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism) are an explicit acknowledgement of the threats to the party’s image of itself as racially inclusive and of the threats to the party’s actual role in providing a bulwark against institutional racism in Britain.
It is profoundly worrying, therefore, that under Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader, the party, suppressed all but the executive summary of Baroness Royall’s report, which explained how anti-Semitic much anti-Zionism is. It’s even more worrying that he was offensively dismissive about the Chakrabarti report at its launch, equating Jewish support of Israel with Muslim support of ISIS.
Despite Brexit, the people of Britain who work with the different ethnic communities in the country are not racist. But what Brexit shows is that the fears and prejudices of the nation can be excited by unscrupulous elites for political ends. When the country has just voted for the wing of the Conservative Party that has appealed to those fears, and Her Majesty’s opposition (the party of race and class unity) is being led by a cadre who will not admit that — despite two internal inquiries telling it so — it has a serious anti-Semitism problem, shadows are gathering. Until Britain’s two major parties accept some blame and stop their truck with racism, it really is time to start considering whether the institutional safeguards that distinguish this century from the last are under threat.
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter at @danfriedmanme