Ask the rabbi a question

Theresa May and Ephraim Mervis

JVL Introduction

David Rosenberg inveighs – thoughtfully – against the Thought Police imposing a form of totalitarianism on us

Thoughts on the latest episode of “Storm in a Teacup – our everyday summer saga of antisemitism allegations.” Tonight’s special guest: Pete Willsman

In Yiddish there are two words for a question: “frage’ (fra-geh) and “shayle” (shy-leh). But there is an important difference. you can ask anyone a “frage”. But a “shayle” is what you ask a rabbi. Rabbis welcome questions and are supposed to be good at answering them.

Actually I want to ask 68 rabbis a couple of questions:

1. Why did you sign that letter absolutely defending every word of the IHRA (working) definition of antisemitism and its accompanying examples (for guidance) as if they were carved in stone and handed to Moses on Mount Sinai?

2. What was your evidence for saying that the Labour Party had a “widespread and severe” problem of antisemitism?

Now my name is Rosenberg, and I spent my teenage years in Ilford. I reckon I’ve got a good chance of getting an answer.

If my name was Pete Willsman though, and I asked the questions in an intemperate, frustrated and pissed-off manner, I reckon that in today’s wild and febrile political atmosphere I might risk getting called an “antisemite”.

Willsman asked the second question. And speculated in a closed meeting – in what was supposed to be an open discussion where people speak their mind and might change their mind too – that the rabbis might be wrong, that a few Jewish Trump supporters are pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and that a number of the allegations relate to comments on fake social media accounts.

I don’t know Pete Willsman except as a name on the Labour left, an anti-racist campaigner, and activist in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.


But I do know that there has been an all-out War against Corbyn-led labour, and one of the battalions, alongside the Tory Party and the Pro-Tory press, and pro-Israel lobbyists, has been a narrow group of right-wing pro-Zionist Jews, some of whom are absolutely  open in their support and admiration for Trump. And I do know that antisemitic posts have been outed as being from fake accounts pretending to be Labour members/supporters, so I don’t think it is at all outlandish to contribute that to the debate with those thoughts. It is not how I would do it, and his badgering question to his fellow NEC members: “How many people have seen antisemitism in the Labour Party?” was not so clever,  but we are getting to the point where certain quite reasonable questions are being dismissed as “antisemitic” in themselves.

I absolutely understand the desire to suppress hate speech but what has happened to ordinary free speech and the right to ask questions in our Party? And why on Earth should we allow free speech to be inhibited because a member of that NEC is disgracefully making secret recordings of private discussions and then leaking them to hostile anti-Labour papers.

We don’t know who was responsible for the leak but I would hope that those responsible for disciplinary procedures will declare their intention to come down very heavily on them when they are discovered.

Meanwhile the heat is on any dissident Jews who stray from complete obedience to the Thought Police of the Jewish establishment organisations and complete agreement with the very flawed IHRA document, that 40 Jewish organisations from 15 countries have heavily criticised.

This is so unlike the Jewish culture I grew up in. A friend posted on a discussion the other day: “Whatever happened to two Jews, three opinions.” I replied: “In a cost-cutting exercise they have reduced it to one opinion.” A joke – only it isn’t. We are letting people impose a form of totalitarianism.

But let’s come back to those rabbis. How do they know what goes on in the Labour Party apart from encountering very biased news reports. I looked down the list and I recognised several names of rabbis I knew had very right wing/Conservative/pro-Zionist political views – so I understood them putting the boot into the Labour Party (though a bit of an unrabbi-like thing to do). I saw a few names of people I was surprised went along with this, but what I didn’t see were many rabbis I knew to be Labour Party members. Maybe a small proportion of them were.

I know what happens in the Labour Party because I go to meetings, at ward level, at General Committee level, at local Executive Committee level; I participate in online forums of Labour members and supporters. I canvass with other members, go to the pub after meetings, have lots of conversations with them. Since I rejoined the party in 2015 I have only encountered one (borderline) incident – a comment made by a member in a discussion in the pub. And though I accept that people who are not Jewish may not have as sharp a sensitivity to subtle antisemitism as Jews, I actually believe the members (non-Jews and Jews) I have interacted with around the country who tell me they haven’t seen it or heard it in their local party.

I’m sure it does exist in pockets. It would be surprising given how deeply embedded antisemitism has been in British history and culture, if it didn’t surface somewhere consciously or unconsciously, out of the mouths of some Labour Party members, and I hope when it does that it gets challenged in an effective educational way.

But how would those rabbis know unless they are telepathic? Is it that unreasonable to ask them for evidence? And just because they are rabbis does that make them amazing intellectuals? I think about my late mother-in-law, Zelda, who used to sometimes go to synagogue on the Sabbath. When it came to the rabbi’s sermon, she used to take her hearing-aid out and was lost in her own thoughts. She got her intellectual nourishment elsewhere.

A quiz question: Where were Theresa May and her husband the night before she became Prime Minister?
Answer: at dinner with the Chief Rabbi at his house. He mentioned to her how friendly he had been with David Cameron. Politically neutral? No, I don’t think so.

So, there have been calls from the usual Blairite quarters for Willsman to step down from the NEC slate for the election, to step down from the NEC, to be expelled from the party… he must wonder what he has achieved all these years with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. I note that he has issued an apology for aspects of his behaviour at the NEC, clarified his stance towards antisemitism, and referred himself to equalities training by the Party. Good. But he is not stepping down, and that is also good. The release of the tape a week after the meeting but after the NEC elections has begun, was meant to result in one less seat for the pro-Corbyn slate and too late to put in someone else. At least that failed. I have every intention of voting for the full #JC9 slate, and hope you will too if you have a vote..

Comments (1)

  • Jan Brooker says:

    They cannot answer that question because the Research report by the Jewish Institute for Policy Research & Community Security Trust ~ *Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain*, found that “Looking at the political spectrum of British society, the most antisemitic group consists of those who identify as very right-wing. In this group about 14% hold hard-core antisemitic attitudes and 52% hold at least one attitude, compared again to 3.6% and 30% in the general population. The very left-wing, and, in fact, all political groups located on the left, are no more antisemitic than the general population. This finding may come as a surprise to those who maintain that in today’s political reality, the left is the more serious, or at least, an equally serious source of antisemitism, than the right.” p.64.

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