Labour MP John Mann is not Jewish. He is a blunt, tough-talking former trade union official from Yorkshire who says he has only ever come across one Jew in his Bassetlaw constituency in Nottinghamshire. There may be nothing Jewish in his background but, according to informed figures, no-one has done more than Mann in recent years to fight hatred against British Jews.
He has persuaded parliamentarians from every continent to come to London for the London Conference to Combat Antisemitism which begins on Sunday. The cast of characters is, like Mann, predominantly non-Jewish. He does not see this as strange or unusual. Indeed, he is adamant that the fight against antisemitism should be led by non-Jews.
Over coffee at Westminster, Mann, who is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, recalls: “I went to a global forum in Jerusalem where I was the only non-Jew attending and that seemed absurd.
“It’s not the way we do things here. It’s imperative that the wider community leads the fight against antisemitism, which should be called what it is — a form of racism.
“The vast majority of MPs in this country are not Jewish and so the vast majority of those involved in our work are not Jewish — it’s a good thing that we have Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists [in the parliamentary group]. It’s what makes our work representative.”
The participants at the conference, which is hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is the first of its kind, will be discussing a range of issues on which Britain has already made considerable progress. In fact, those in the know feel that Mann and his committee lead the world in many areas.
Mann says: “I hope that individual countries will be more inspired but also more informed on specific actions they can take. What we want are not grand plans but successes.”
He is particularly proud of the work his committee has done on internet hate. He feels that the methods adopted by Britain should be an example to the rest of the world.
“We’ve had huge successes in Britain and in our view, the world can learn from that. We want to showcase the detail of how it’s been done because in my view — and in this case the view of the British government — this is a good model.”
Mann is also concerned to ensure that other areas are tackled effectively — notably campus hate and antisemitism in football (he also fronts the Football Association’s Task Force on Antisemitism and Islamophobia).
Ironically, he believes that the fact there are more recorded cases of antisemitic incidents in Britain compared to other European countries is actually proof that we are getting things right.
“That is because people are more likely to complain and protest here and also that the recording and monitoring systems are better. Others could learn from that. We are the most honest here and increasingly the Jewish community — not least the young Jewish community — is prepared to do something rather than accept it.”
However, he does see as disturbing the fact that January’s total of reported antisemitic incidents — more than 270 — is the highest on record. “Of course it’s linked to Gaza,” he says.
“This has provided the subtext for those with hatred or ignorance. It’s perfectly reasonable to have a debate over what is happening in the Middle East, but to use it as an excuse for racist actions is not acceptable.”
Mann is under no illusions that Britain faces a considerable antisemitic threat but feels we all need to tread that fine line between paranoia and complacency. “Despite the fact that Jews are right to be on their guard, it is others who are on the receiving end of the brunt of racism in the UK,” he says.
“The overwhelming majority of race-hate crimes are committed against the Muslim community. It’s a far bigger population and tensions are quite high in some areas.
“There aren’t those tensions in Jewish areas. The Jewish community is well integrated in British society and has been there for a long time. In light of that, it’s shocking that there are any incidents involving the Jewish community at all. The risk to any individual Jewish person is very small. But if you tolerate any risk, there is always a danger that the problem could worsen.”
So what is the source of the problem? Mann feels that it lies in three main areas which have been well documented by his committee — on the far-right, from Muslim extremists and from those on the political left. Of those three, he sees left-wing antisemitism as the most insidious because of its dishonesty.
“Antisemitism on the left isn’t a new problem but it has re-emerged. There is a deliberate and calculated confusion of anti-Israel sentiments with antisemitism. Sometimes it is deliberate and sometimes it stems from ignorance, but that doesn’t make it any different for someone on the receiving end.”
Ignorance is certainly no excuse for parliamentarians and Mann has witnessed serious antisemitism in the Palace of Westminster itself.
“As a non-Jew I hear things that people would not say if they perceived I was Jewish. I have witnessed shocking, disgraceful and outrageous antisemitism in Parliament, including statements from those who are meant to be bastions against racism. One of the things I’ve challenged is the perception that Jews are rich and therefore are ‘good for donations’. Other antisemitism has been more abrupt and upfront — and completely cross-party.”
Mann has spoken fluently and passionately for nearly an hour on the subject of antisemitism but he is much more reluctant to talk about his own background.
He has been an MP since 2001 following careers as a union official and as a businessman running a company organising conferences. He gives his entire biography in two terse sentences and waits patiently for the next question. So why did he get involved in the fight against antisemitism? After all, there is very little, if any, political capital in this issue.
He smiles and looks embarrassed. “I don’t know. I drew the short straw I suppose. Someone asked me on the right day or perhaps the wrong day. I didn’t have any great interest in it relative to other issues. I had no particular knowledge or expertise.” His comments are perhaps slightly disingenuous. He was noticed as a potential chair of the All-party Committee when he turned up unannounced at a Commons adjournment debate on antisemitism and gave what was widely perceived as the best speech on the day. So what made Mann speak? “I can’t remember,” he replies.
He considers for a moment before continuing: “If I may say so, it’s a strange question. Why shouldn’t people be interested in this kind of thing? If we are political leaders, shouldn’t it be part of our role? The strange thing would be if people weren’t interested.” He adds with a smile: “I have no vested interest and no one has paid me to do the job. I wouldn’t accept the money anyway — I’m not in the House of Lords, you know.”
Born: January 10, 1960 in Leeds
Early life: Brought up in Pudsey, Yorkshire. Attended the independent Bradford Grammar School after winning a scholarship. Studied economics at Manchester University
Career: Active in the Labour Party from a young age. Chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students. Worked as TUC national training officer and as head of research and education for an engineering union. MP for Bassetlaw since 2001. As well as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, is also on the Treasury Select Committee
Family: Married to Joanna White, with whom he has three children