Rosa Doherty

Momentum missed an opportunity to educate left wingers about antisemitism

The campaign group's video could have explored the complicated connection British Jews have with Israel, writes Rosa Doherty

November 13, 2018 10:45

I was in Israel when Momentum released its second video on antisemitism, in what looked like a genuine effort to tackle the problem among its members. It focuses on Tania Shew, who is like me in many ways. She said she would never dream of visiting the Jewish state.

In the video, Tania, a Jeremy Corbyn supporter, talks about her experiences of antisemitism in the Labour Party. The video outlines an informative history of British antisemitism, and how it manifests itself on the left today.

So far so good. Tania says she is asked about Israel "within seconds" of revealing she is Jewish - an experience nearly every Jewish person will identify with, especially those on the left.

“Israel is a country half way across the world which I have literally never been to,” Ms Shew says. “I can’t vote in their elections.” 

She makes the important point that it is antisemitic to hold Jews responsible for the Israeli government's actions.

But then she adds: “I boycott Israeli goods.” And it was here that Momentum communicated to its audience - not so subtly - that Ms Shew is a Jew they can trust.

Like Tania, until I worked for the JC, I had never been to Israel. Growing up in a mixed faith, left-wing family, my parents opted for summer holidays in Northern Ireland instead, saying something about it being “safer.”

But the fact I had never been to the Holy Land didn’t matter, as I would be asked to give my opinion on it more often than about the country I was born in.

I knew very little about what life was like there, yet constantly felt a pressure to have a strong opinion on its existence.

Unlike Tania, my ignorance of this tiny country everyone seemed to have an opinion on made me curious. I wanted to travel to Israel and learn about Zionism.

Working for a Jewish newspaper, I’ve learned that my and Tania’s experience of Israel is not the same as most Jews.

The vast majority of British Jews, 93 per cent, describe themselves as Zionists, and that does not mean they are flag-waving, Netanyahu-loving obsessives. I’ve rarely met a British Jewish Zionist who does not criticse the Israeli government.

Trips to Yad Vashem with survivors allowed me to experience first-hand what the state means to people who fled unimaginable horror. It is a place of refuge, where families on the verge of extinction could rebuild. That trauma and connection runs deep.

Making Jewish friends, whose families came from neighbouring Arab countries, taught me how Israel was a home for Jews forced to flee in their hundreds and thousands due to antisemitism in their home countries.

And making religious friends, despite being secular, has taught me how important some of the most contested areas in the region are to the Jewish faith.

My lack of faith has not been a barrier to understanding that.

Visits to the West Bank, where I met settlers and Palestinians, meant I was able to see first-hand the realities they face.

I’d hazard a guess it is easier to be Tania in Momentum, than to be a left-wing Zionist, and yet both will exist within the fold. 

Which is why, while the video was a welcome attempt at teaching its audience about antisemitism, Momentum missed a valuable opportunity.

The video could have explored the complicated connection that British Jewry has with the Jewish state. It could have taught about the diversity of Zionism.

However, those attacking Ms Shew also illuminate a problem.

Instead of listening, they belittled her lack of interest in Israel and helped to compound the tensions between Jews who are not Zionists and those who are. Those attacks do nothing but polarise and sow division among us.

They called her naive for boycotting a country that she hasn’t even been to, perhaps a fair criticism of someone doing a PhD in History.

However there is a pressure on Jews on the left to assert how much they are against what Israel does despite them often knowing little about Israeli politics, or having no direct experience of its conflict.

It was revealing that, even in a video about the racism she faces, she felt it necessary to assert her negative view of Israel. Perhaps she wears it as a badge of honour. Or just maybe a defensive shield?

Either way it goes to the heart of Labour’s selective attitude towards Jews.

The video gave me the strong impression that, if you announce you are not a Zionist, the movement will stand with you in solidarity. But announce you are a Zionist? Forget it.

November 13, 2018 10:45

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive