Beware the language of suspicion

By Martin Bright, August 31, 2012

As the 2012 party conference season approaches, it is probably fair to say that the concerns of the Jewish community could not be further from the minds of the political class. Dark times produce inward-looking party conferences and discussion in the bars will be focused on the economy, whether the coalition can hold together and if the Labour Party will ever be ready to return to government. There will be the odd fringe meeting about the consequences of the crisis for community relations. There will be glancing references to Jewish education in debates about free schools and there will be the usual rows about Israel. But that's about it.

In one sense, this is perfectly understandable. It would be slightly odd if our major political parties devoted large sections of their party conferences to the finer details of shechitah or the German circumcision debate - or even the consequences of the changes to the law on universal jurisdiction.

It may be tempting to take comfort from the fact that the Jewish community remains largely under the political radar. This is not the 1930s, and Jewish bankers are not being blamed for the international economic crisis (at least not in this country). But there have been some worrying developments in the past year, with the language of antisemitism seeping into the very heart of mainstream politics.

This began with the discussion last autumn around the funders of Liam Fox's controversial adviser Adam Werritty, several of whom were Jewish. The debate about the shadowy "pro-Zionist" backers of Werritty's Atlantic Bridge Project stopped short of outright antisemitism. But it was interesting how quickly the individuals involved, Mick Davis, Poju Zabludowicz, Michael Lewis, were transformed from generous donors to sinister lobbyists by the Conservative PR machine. An underlying fear of an antisemitic backlash may also explain why none of the men involved, all prominent and respected figures in the community, chose not to go public to defend their actions.

The left can be particularly susceptible to traditional caricatures of the cosmopolitan Jew who operates beyond traditional national boundaries. But veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn should have known better than to question the loyalty of Britain's first Jewish ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, when he was drawn into the Werritty affair.

Mr Flynn was eventually persuaded to apologise, but Mr Gould was left feeling very bruised by the personal attacks he received.

But the language of suspicion found its voice through Ken Livingstone during the London mayoral election, when he suggested that Jews were too wealthy to vote for Labour. Although he later apologised in the JC, the episode left a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth and ensured that Mr Livingstone definitively lost the Jewish vote in London.

The fact that there was even a debate on the left, over whether the comments by Mr Livingstone and Mr Flynn "crossed the line", demonstrates that some on the left still haven't read their history.

What will be the consequences of the economic crisis or the collapse of the coalition on the Jewish community? On a day-to-day level they will be much the same as for anyone else in the country. Political and social instability serve no one's interest. But minority communities, and this applies to Muslims as well as Jews, remain particularly vulnerable during times of economic turmoil.

There is no cause for panic. During last summer's riots minority communities were not singled out for attack. The Toulouse shootings may leave people nervous, but Jews remain relatively safe in most parts of western Europe and there have thankfully been no equivalent antisemitic atrocities in the UK. The rise of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the Arab Spring, does not bode well for peace in the region, and the threat of an attack on Iran by Israel remains real. It is the sad truth that antisemitic attacks in the UK increase during times of conflict in the Middle East.

At the appropriate receptions during the conference season, politicians will make the usual positive noises about the contribution of the Jewish community to British society, the unbreakable bonds between the UK and Israel and their commitment to the fight against racism on all its forms. These statements at set-piece occasions are important.

But, after a year in which classic antisemitic language made an unwelcome return to the Westminster village, it would be even better to see front-line politicians using the conferences to demonstrate that those responsible really are not representative of their parties. It would be good to think that the Werritty affair and the Livingstone campaign were aberrations rather than the start of a new era of political scapegoating.

Last updated: 10:45am, August 31 2012