David Hirsh

We need to keep our heads

Save the rhetoric of betrayal for those who genuinely kosherise antisemitic politics, writes David Hirsh.

May 10, 2017 10:13

There has been a string of Conservatives writing that the only way to oppose Jeremy Corbyn’s antisemitism is to vote for Theresa May.  Fine: Tories want us to vote Tory. What is new is that we are being told that failing to vote Tory would betray our Jewish identities, even in constituencies where Labour candidates are proven opponents of antisemitism. Labour, they say, is now a Jew-hating party and one must vote Tory just as French anti-fascists from both left and right were obliged to vote for Macron.

These Tory critics know about Labour antisemitism largely because they have been told about it by people like Jeremy Newmark, the Labour candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, who have been fighting it, up close and dirty, for decades.  Yet, ironically, the danger is that these Tories may actually be underestimating the gravity of the situation.  Antisemitism is here, where we are, not only over there, where the people we don’t like are.  We would like to be able to other it, to think of it as existing elsewhere.

But once we recognise that antisemitism is part of our own environment we are faced with a choice:  either try to clean it up or allow ourselves to pushed out of the arena where the antisemitism exists.  It is legitimate to refuse to allow antisemitism to exclude us from the Labour Party or from any other place where we have a right to feel at home; just as it is legitimate to stay in Britain, as Jews, and to expect that we should be allowed to feel we belong here. We cannot cauterise antisemitism simply by defeating Corbyn and Labour; it is too well entrenched.

War films and skinheads have allowed us to forget that people with evil politics are often kind, charismatic and well-meaning.  Today’s antisemitism is self-confident in its own antiracist credentials. Like the other racisms and xenophobias which have become mainstream in British politics, antisemitism portrays itself as the cry of the oppressed; and it portrays opposition to antisemitism as a discourse of power.

There is no short-cut; we have to educate ourselves and our kids, we have to build cadres of smart tough Jews, and non-Jewish allies, in all spheres of life, who know how to recognize and oppose antisemitism.  We have to drive a wedge between decent people and evil politics.  We cannot persuade Ken Livingstone or George Galloway but we need to be better at educating those who find them plausible.

There are some Jews who do profoundly betray the interests of the Jewish community. They spend lifetimes denying, in the face of the evidence, that the politics of boycott and anti-Zionism could have antisemitic motivations or outcomes.  When Livingstone baits Jews by associating them with Nazis there are some Jewish people ready rally to his defence, "as aJew".

By contrast, Jeremy Newmark has been fighting antisemitism all his life: as a leader of UJS, when he worked for the Chief Rabbi, as Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, when he gave evidence against the University and College Union in front of a hostile tribunal, when he re-built the Jewish Labour Movement into an institution to oppose antisemitism within Labour.

Antisemitism comes from an emotional and furious place and it triggers visceral and disorienting fears within us.  But we should try to keep our heads; we should retain the ability to make nuanced distinctions.

If we want Corbyn to be Prime Minister, or if we want May to implement Brexit, we’ll know how to vote; but the rest of us will be voting tactically.  We will weigh up strategies to oppose antisemitism, to protect education, health and welfare, to mitigate the new xenophobia and to join with Merkel and Macron in defending peace and freedom on our continent.

Many Jews will refuse to vote for a local candidate who is not a proven opponent of antisemitism. Some will draw a red line around any MP who cannot be relied upon to do their utmost to keep Corbyn out of Downing Street.  For others, Brexit or the welfare state will be the key issue.

Make your arguments, support your candidates, but save the rhetoric of betrayal for those who genuinely kosherise antisemitic politics.

David Hirsh is a Sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of the forthcoming book 'Contemporary Left Antisemitism'.


May 10, 2017 10:13

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