Saturday, 30 April 2016

Antisemitism, Islamophobia and criticism of Israel

“Something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilisation, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.” - George Orwell, “Antisemitism in Britain”, 1945 

I am very glad that Jeremy Corbyn has set up an independent inquiry led by Shami Chakrabarti into antisemitism in the Labour Party. The inquiry will also look into other forms of racism in the party. The vice chair will be the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Professor David Feldman.

What has been missing from much of the debate around these issues over the last few days is context.

Some knowledge of history is needed. Antisemitism has blighted the lives - and often cost the lives - of Jews over the centuries and in many different places since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. The last century saw the greatest horror of all when 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. 

In 1948 the State of Israel was created. Much of its population has felt under a more or less constant existential threat ever since.

It is understandable that a keen awareness of the very real dangers of antisemitism is rooted deep in the psyche of many Jews. 

Context also requires looking at the problem of Islamophobia in the UK. Some people bridle at such a link being made. However, these issues have become so inextricably linked, world-wide, since the founding of Israel and since 9/11, that anyone who is determined to tackle antisemitism in the UK must necessarily also address Islamophobia. 

Islamophobia is a huge problem in Britain today. A visible manifestation is how over recent years there have been quite a number of vile headlines about Muslims, which would not have been published about any other group in the UK (except for the most discriminated against group of all, Gypsies and Travellers). 

Baroness Warsi, then a Tory Cabinet minister, said in 2011 that prejudice against Muslims had "passed the dinner-table test" and become socially acceptable in the UK.

Context also requires a discussion about Israel. People must be allowed to criticise the actions of Israel in the same way that they can criticise the actions of any other country. Many people have very fierce criticisms to make of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians since 1948 and to date. Many were shocked by the Israeli action against Gaza in 2014, which they viewed as grossly disproportionate.

There are some people who see all Jews as responsible for the actions of Israel. That is antisemitic and to be condemned.

However, there are some other people who seek to prevent legitimate criticism of Israeli actions by labelling any such criticism as antisemitic. That is wrong and must be resisted. It is an unjustifiable curb on free speech. 

And context also requires an understanding of the political forces at work in Britain. Not everyone attacking Corbyn’s Labour Party over antisemitism is doing so primarily because they care about antisemitism. Some are using the issue quite cynically, for their own political advantage. David Cameron is one of these people.

In 2014, a Tory MP, Aidan Burley, purchased a Nazi SS uniform to be worn at a stag do in France. Burley was present when the party toasted the Third Reich and cheered ‘Hitler’ and ‘Himmler’. Cameron described Burley’s behaviour as “offensive and foolish” and refused pressure to strip him of the Tory whip.

Furthermore, Cameron and other prominent Tories have disgracefully fanned the flames of Islamophobia by their persistent efforts to smear Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. 

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s enemies on the right of the Labour Party will use any means they can to damage him. They are driven more by hatred for Corbyn than hatred of antisemitism.

As for Ken Livingstone, I await the verdict of the Chakrabarti review. In the meanwhile, I hope Corbyn will borrow a famous line from Clement Attlee and tell him - “a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”

This is what I have been tweeting as @TomLondon6

Antisemitism is vile and must not be tolerated.

Islamophobia is vile and must not be tolerated.

Criticism of Israel is legitimate.

Finally, Naz Shah, the Labour MP who precipitated recent events, was elected to represent Bradford West in 2015. The synagogue in Bradford West has now released a press statement.

“On a personal level we would like to say that Naz Shah MP has been to a number of events at Bradford Synagogue both before and after her election as MP. She has expressed her full support for the Jewish community.

We are, of course, saddened to hear of the comments Naz Shah made before she became an MP, but also welcome her heartfelt apology.”

We can all learn from the Bradford Synagogue.


  1. Thoughtful and restrained piece. Thank you.

  2. This is the question I am asking on Facebook, of those who seek to make light of Ken Livingstone's comments: Is "Hitler was a Zionist" a statement you are prepared to defend? Ken's 'historical fact' ignores the actual fact that Israel didn't exist in 1932. And the idea that the Haavara Agreement - which he will present in his own defence - was something other than a bid to rid Germany of its Jews is ludicrous. I've always been a bit of a fan of Mr Livingstone, despite his bouts of hypocrisy, tax dodging and violence. But comparing a Jewish reporter to a 'Nazi camp guard' and now saying that 'Hitler was a Zionist' - I'm sorry; he's off my Christmas card list. To add insult to injury, he said that the book he will also produce in his defence is "not known to MPs because it's not taught in Israeli school". Personally, I think he's the one who may be going slightly mad.

    1. I agree with everything you say except the ’historical fact' bit. Zionism began in the 19th century and predates Nazism by decades. However, it obviously didn't predate the antisemitism at the core of Nazism; some of the bile printed in Der Sturmer first saw light of day in earlier Catholic publications such as L'Osservatore Romano.

    2. Despite the frequently repeated opinion, I'm not sure Ken did say "Hitler was a Zionist". He said "Hitler supported Zionism", referring I think to the Haavara agreement, but it would be inexplicably odd if he meant by that that Hitler was in general a fan of Zionism. Have people taken him to mean that?

    3. Ken didn't say that. Read the transcript in the independent. Defending that Ken actually said that would legitimise your claim and your claim is not legitimate.

    4. Ken didn't say that. Read the transcript in the independent. Defending that Ken actually said that would legitimise your claim and your claim is not legitimate.

  3. gary jo gardenhire30 April 2016 at 17:43

    while i realise this is an edgy topic to discuss nowadays, it's refreshing to hear a calm, reasonable voice through the media storm.

  4. Thank you for a sensible and sober analysis. Anyone who like me is Jewish or partly Jewish, without being obviously so, has experienced pervasive casual antisemitism at all levels of English society (I can't speak for the rest of the UK), and I'm certain all English Muslims experience an even higher volume of casual Islamophobia much of the time. Antisemitism has been a feature of English culture for centuries and it permeates almost all institutions from gentlemen's and workingmen's clubs to trains and buses: and it would be very strange indeed if political parties were immune to it. Setting up a solemn inquiry into it, even when headed by the splendid Shami Chakrabarti, is not going to make any real difference and it will be exploited mercilessly by crazies and obsessives, both racists and professional anti-racists, who will merely inflict fresh wounds on each other and thus set up targets for party political exploitation. Most of those who occasionally reveal mildly antisemitic prejudice wouldn't dream of being personally offensive to Jews in face-to-face encounters, still less of actively discriminating against them. It's all part of life and we just have to get used to it, calmly exposing and mocking it when it shows its head above the parapet, but never losing sleep over it.

  5. If Jews and Muslims feel they have been mistreated in English, or British society, reflect on the experiences of Irish & coloured people, especially during the 1970s-1990s period. For all its openness and welcome, some in Britain are very racist.

  6. Caroline Bottomley1 May 2016 at 09:34

    Thanks Tom London, that is a very helpful piece that helps order my thoughts. It very much reflects what I feel and - I am very critical of Israel and its illegal land grabbing and bullying destruction of Palestinians' houses and homes, but am absolutely opposed to racism in all its cowardly forms.
    I've been a bit confused about Ken Livingston comments, as they're not inaccurate and everyone is running scared about them. I suppose as a politician he must be well aware he is trouble-making. But he should be allowed to say it and I think shame on us for wanting to pack him away in box called anti-semitic.

  7. Caroline Bottomley1 May 2016 at 09:56

    and/but...Ken Livingston is playing a very short game, I don't suppose I would want him as a senior member on my team

  8. Thanks for this piece, Tom, which is thoughtful and restrained and says things that need saying.

    What I also feel needs saying is to do with John Mann. Caroline says about Ken Livingstone "I suppose as a politician he must be well aware he is trouble-making." The same thing goes for John Mann, unless he is a complete meathead.

    I know very little about John Mann, until last week it certainly never even crossed my mind that he might be Jewish, I still don't know whether he is or not, and that's fine by me. What I do know about John Mann is that he has been a very reliable rent-a-quote for the Tory press seeking a negative quote about Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. He has quite literally been prepared to quote to the papers on any issue, no matter how petty, as long as it serves to attack or undermine Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party. He's not the only one, there are a small team of them, all Blairite MPs.

    Well fair play to them, it's a free country, supposedly.

    But what grosses me out, is the thought that a row about anti-Semitism has been deliberately ignited in the week before the London Mayoral election in the week before Londoners (including the Jewish community, often the most reliable of Labour’s voters) are being to go out and elect the first ever Muslim Londoner to the office of Mayor. What weird and mad about all this is that John Mann & co don’t even have a problem with Sadiq Khan as a guy. It’s all about a comfortable win for Sadiq shoring up Corbyn’s position as leader, whilst a shock defeat for him would be the perfect pretext for an attempt to depose Corbyn.

    I suspect that that is the game John Mann is playing. It's simply about "sowing the seed of doubt in the mind of the public" - there's a play book for it in right wing circles, that was invented by the tobacco lobby and has been used by the climate change denial people as paid for by the oil industry.

    People like Andrew Neil are in on it – no doubt he would claim he’s just a journalist trying to stir things up, but it seems pretty obvious to me that he likes to be thought of a player and indeed a play-maker.

    I received one of Zac Goldsmith’s election leaflets that was aimed at Brent’s Hindu community and was sickened by the sectarianism Lynton Crosby is trying to stir up and use in the desperate attempt to win the Mayoral election. I live in London and I don't want to live in a city that is cynically manipulated by the elite to become sectarian in outlook. This is real news story and it is not being reported.

  9. Criticism of the policies and behaviour of Israel is perfectly legitimate. Calling for the abolition of Israel with the likely consequences for the Jews living there is more likely to be a manifestation of antisemitism.