“Something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilisation, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.” - George Orwell, “Antisemitism in Britain”, 1945
I am very glad that Jeremy Corbyn has set up an independent inquiry led by Shami Chakrabarti into antisemitism in the Labour Party. The inquiry will also look into other forms of racism in the party. The vice chair will be the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Professor David Feldman.
What has been missing from much of the debate around these issues over the last few days is context.
Some knowledge of history is needed. Antisemitism has blighted the lives - and often cost the lives - of Jews over the centuries and in many different places since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. The last century saw the greatest horror of all when 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust.
In 1948 the State of Israel was created. Much of its population has felt under a more or less constant existential threat ever since.
It is understandable that a keen awareness of the very real dangers of antisemitism is rooted deep in the psyche of many Jews.
Context also requires looking at the problem of Islamophobia in the UK. Some people bridle at such a link being made. However, these issues have become so inextricably linked, world-wide, since the founding of Israel and since 9/11, that anyone who is determined to tackle antisemitism in the UK must necessarily also address Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a huge problem in Britain today. A visible manifestation is how over recent years there have been quite a number of vile headlines about Muslims, which would not have been published about any other group in the UK (except for the most discriminated against group of all, Gypsies and Travellers).
Baroness Warsi, then a Tory Cabinet minister, said in 2011 that prejudice against Muslims had "passed the dinner-table test" and become socially acceptable in the UK.
Context also requires a discussion about Israel. People must be allowed to criticise the actions of Israel in the same way that they can criticise the actions of any other country. Many people have very fierce criticisms to make of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians since 1948 and to date. Many were shocked by the Israeli action against Gaza in 2014, which they viewed as grossly disproportionate.
There are some people who see all Jews as responsible for the actions of Israel. That is antisemitic and to be condemned.
However, there are some other people who seek to prevent legitimate criticism of Israeli actions by labelling any such criticism as antisemitic. That is wrong and must be resisted. It is an unjustifiable curb on free speech.
And context also requires an understanding of the political forces at work in Britain. Not everyone attacking Corbyn’s Labour Party over antisemitism is doing so primarily because they care about antisemitism. Some are using the issue quite cynically, for their own political advantage. David Cameron is one of these people.
In 2014, a Tory MP, Aidan Burley, purchased a Nazi SS uniform to be worn at a stag do in France. Burley was present when the party toasted the Third Reich and cheered ‘Hitler’ and ‘Himmler’. Cameron described Burley’s behaviour as “offensive and foolish” and refused pressure to strip him of the Tory whip.
Furthermore, Cameron and other prominent Tories have disgracefully fanned the flames of Islamophobia by their persistent efforts to smear Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for mayor of London.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s enemies on the right of the Labour Party will use any means they can to damage him. They are driven more by hatred for Corbyn than hatred of antisemitism.
As for Ken Livingstone, I await the verdict of the Chakrabarti review. In the meanwhile, I hope Corbyn will borrow a famous line from Clement Attlee and tell him - “a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”
This is what I have been tweeting as @TomLondon6
Antisemitism is vile and must not be tolerated.
Islamophobia is vile and must not be tolerated.
Criticism of Israel is legitimate.
Finally, Naz Shah, the Labour MP who precipitated recent events, was elected to represent Bradford West in 2015. The synagogue in Bradford West has now released a press statement.
“On a personal level we would like to say that Naz Shah MP has been to a number of events at Bradford Synagogue both before and after her election as MP. She has expressed her full support for the Jewish community.
We are, of course, saddened to hear of the comments Naz Shah made before she became an MP, but also welcome her heartfelt apology.”
We can all learn from the Bradford Synagogue.