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We're relieved at Corbyn's defeat - but Jews’ presence in Britain now feels more conditional than before

Jonathan Freedland reflects on an election that saw 10.3 million Britons ready to make the Labour leader PM

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December 18, 2019 17:30

Not every Jew will have gone as far as the strictly Orthodox congregation in Golders Green which marked Labour’s election defeat by adding an extra course to a festive meal — an offering of thanks that the threat of “an evil ruler hostile to the Jewish people” had been averted.

No, most Jews will not have responded that way, but I suspect quite a few will understand the sentiment. As we know, polling showed only six per cent of British Jews were preparing to vote Labour. Which leaves a lot of people who would have greeted last Thursday’s result with a loud and heartfelt sigh of relief.

That group will have included the substantial number of Jews who carry no torch for Boris Johnson and who hoped — in vain, as it turned out — that there might be some parliamentary permutation that would allow this country to avoid Mr Johnson, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

They were the ones who watched the election campaign and felt it was a shame that both leaders couldn’t lose. But for all their misgivings at seeing Mr Johnson back in Number 10, they too felt a measure of relief that that black door was not about to be opened to Mr Corbyn.

Plenty outside the Jewish community — and some inside it — never quite understood the fear that underpins that reaction. “I understand why Corbyn might offend you,” I heard one journalist say to a Jewish colleague. “But what exactly are you frightened of? I mean, there are not going to be pogroms.”

Many conceded that Mr Corbyn had said some awful things, had embraced some hideous antisemites and looked past antisemitism even when it stared him in the face. Indeed, he committed that last offence yet again in the course of the campaign, and in spectacular fashion.

A standout moment in his car-crash interview with Andrew Neil came when the BBC presenter read out a sentence in which “Rothschild Zionists” were described as “controlling…world governments.”

Mr Neil asked Mr Corbyn several times if that sentence was antisemitic. Mr Corbyn couldn’t say yes.

But still they didn’t quite get it.

 For Jews, the idea of someone like that running the country was frightening. They saw that not only had Mr Corbyn failed to act against Jew-haters in the Labour party, his inner circle had actively and persistently intervened in the disciplinary process that might have chucked them out.

The meddling by his ruling clique, so meticulously documented in the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, always tilted in the same direction: leniency towards the antisemites.

It shouldn’t be hard to see why Jews might fear such a person holding the most powerful office in the land.

But relief is not the whole story. There is also sadness that it was ever allowed to get this far, that Britain reached the point where a man with a record like Mr Corbyn’s was one of only two possible candidates for prime minister.

For four years, Jews set out the evidence, all but pleading with Labour MPs, members and supporters to act, but they didn’t. Plenty made the right noises, expressing solidarity, tweeting their disappointment and disapproval. But in the end, they tolerated the intolerable. They wore the red rosette. They campaigned to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister.

 The same is true of Labour’s former bigwigs. They had no careers to protect; they could easily have said they were suspending their membership for as long as Mr Corbyn remained the party leader. They could have denied him the moral cover of their reputations. Imagine how powerful it would have been if, say, former leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett and Neil Kinnock had all declared their support for Labour formally frozen until Mr Corbyn was gone.

Instead, we saw dozens of celebrities, commentators and others line up to say, in effect, that though there had been some unpleasantness involving anti-Jewish racism, other things mattered more and therefore they would cast a well-publicised vote for Labour, urging others to do the same. Boiled down, it was the same message many of us heard from neighbours, colleagues and old friends.

The impact of that recedes a bit now that we know most Britons rejected Mr Corbyn. But it doesn’t disappear. The knowledge that 10.3m of our fellow citizens were ready to make him prime minister, that they found a little racism acceptable for the sake of the larger cause, makes our presence here feel more conditional than it did before. As I wrote in the Guardian a month before the election, “It means that what we thought about this country wasn’t quite true.”

Nevertheless, there is something to value in the experience of the last four years. For many decades, our history and our self-image suggested a community that kept its head down, that preferred not to make a fuss.

Part of our collective myth is the story of Oswald Mosley and his 1936 march through the Jewish East End, how the Jewish communal organisations didn’t want to protest too noisily, hoping it would all blow over — and how it fell to Jews and their non-Jewish allies on the ground to take a stand.

 Well, this period too will be studied by future generations. And what they will find is a community that refused to go quietly. Tellingly, the key slogan was #BeLouder, along with Enough is Enough.

Both speak to a community that’d had it with passivity and was determined to speak up for itself. Whether it was Tracy Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley taking no prisoners on social media, or the relentless industry of Twitter’s @GnasherJew and @NudderingNudnik, digging out the racist jottings of assorted Labour councillors and party officials, or the JLM activists and their lawyers who compiled the EHRC evidence, or Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth, Louise Ellman and Margaret Hodge who confronted the Labour leadership directly, to say nothing of the communal organisations, British Jewry can know that it came together and defended itself.

Some might say that we got too wound up and over-reacted; there were days when we whipped ourselves into something close to hysteria. But I can’t condemn that. Because somewhere deep in our folk memory is the knowledge that, in the past, we underestimated the danger, that we were too complacent. This generation of Jews was determined not to make that mistake again. And we didn’t.

So what now? We will have to stay vigilant: the hope that the Corbynites might feel shamed by their failure and exit the stage was hopelessly naïve. They seem determined to stay in charge, even if the man himself retreats to his allotment.

But with no election in sight for a while, another task suggests itself.

One thing that mattered a great deal during all this was the support of allies.

There were the non-Jews who formed Labour Against Antisemitism; there was Ian Austin as well as those MPs who quit Labour to form the Independent Group; there were the likes of John le Carré and journalists Suzanne Moore and Sathnam Sanghera who spoke out.

But of particular import were those Muslim Britons who rallied to Jews’ side, whether it was Fiyaz Mughal and his Muslims Against Antisemitism group or the woman in a hijab caught on film stepping in to protect an Orthodox Jewish family from being abused on the Tube.

I’m reluctant to restart a battle with my longtime sparring partner on these pages, Melanie Phillips, but this is why her column last week was so dispiriting.

Dave Rich of the CST got it right when he said that it mirrored the worst of the “antisemitism-deniers in recent years”.

After we Jews have spent so long asking for empathy, urging people to listen when a community describes its experience of prejudice and to let it be the authority on its own pain, it is appalling and unacceptable for one of our most prominent voices to inflict on Muslims the same hurt we have just endured — to say they cannot be trusted to define bigotry against them, that it does not exist the way they say it does, that it is in fact a slur against us.

Instead, let something good come from this horrible period — a new-found confidence and willingness to defend ourselves, most certainly, but also a determination to stand with other minorities as they fight their own battles against racism. We’ve learned how to take it on. Let’s use that experience for our sake — and theirs. 

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist and a JC contributor

December 18, 2019 17:30
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