Speaking as if there is one ‘Jewish community’ is an antisemitic trope

JVL Introduction

Some ideas are taken for granted and trip lightly and unthinkingly off the tongue. One such notion is that of the unified “Jewish community”.

In this opinion piece written for JVL Tony Booth shows up the idea of such a unified monolith as both dangerous and antisemitic.



Op-ed

Speaking as if there is one ‘Jewish community’ or ‘one Jewish voice’ is an antisemitic trope

Tony Booth, 28 April 2019


Labour party must listen to the Jewish community on defining antisemitism
Guardian headline introducing letter from 68 Rabbis

we must speak out with one Jewish voice.
68 Rabbis writing to the Guardian 16th July 2018

I failed to recognise the right of the Jewish community to decide for themselves (sic).
Billy Bragg the Guardian 8th April 2019

it’s bad for the Jewish community’
Jonathan Freedland, Guardian 3rd September 2018

in the last few years it [Labour] has let the Jewish community down.
Gordon Brown, PoliticsHome April 1st 2019

A Labour spokesman said of the Hodge tape: “This shows Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to make procedures as robust and efficient as possible and to rebuild trust with the Jewish Community.
Sunday Times 14th April 2019

Labour members admit to ‘collective failure’ and apologise to Jewish community
Guardian 28th February

“We sincerely apologise to the Jewish community …for our collective failure on this issue to date.”
Labour List 28th February 2019

He [Jonathan Arkush] believes Mr Corbyn and close advisers such as Seamus Milne “have made a deliberate choice to hold the Jewish community in contempt”.
Jewish Chronicle Feb 1st 2018

For almost four years, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the Jewish community has felt increasingly anxious.
Jewish Leadership Council March 7th 2019

 

Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party there has been a large increase in allegations that antisemitism is endemic on the left of the Labour Party despite the evidence. In making and responding to such suggestions it has been commonplace in articles, tweets and Facebook posts to speak as if there is a single Jewish community; to say “the Jewish community speaks with one voice” or to apologise to it for the antisemitism it has identified.

This characterization of Jews as having one community, one opinion, is racist and antisemitic and is perhaps the most common form that antisemitism has taken during the period of heightened allegations, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Party in 2015. It represents and promotes sectarianism among Jews, like that between Christians in Northern Ireland or Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Those who should know better, including many Members of Parliament, are jumping on this bandwagon, eschewing calls for dialogue, in an attempt to gain favour with one group or another. Knowing where sectarianism leads, they should be ashamed of themselves.

A few moments reflection on stereotypes about women, Black people, LGBTI+, disabled people and the elderly, should reveal the prejudices involved whether the generalisations appear to confer a positive or a negative attribute. It is discriminatory to say ‘women are irrational – or nurturing’, ‘Black people are good at sport and like to dance’, ‘Gay men love ABBA’. ‘Disabled people cannot work, or refuse to work’, ‘the elderly vote conservative’. So how can it be acceptable to see all Jews as identifying, for example, with the state of Israel or believing that the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic?

On occasion, people do understand very well that not all Jews hold the same views. Many Haredi Jews have made clear that they do not share the views of the leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Jewish Leadership Council; and Jewish Voice for Labour was established so that people would recognise the diversity of Jewish opinion. Yet the response to this knowledge of diversity can be chilling. The views of Jews which do not fit the stereotypes are seen as illegitimate; they are not proper Jews; they are the wrong kind of Jews.

Like Norman Tebbitt, I was present at the ‘Enough is Enough’, anti-Corbyn, rally outside parliament in April 2018 to witness and try to understand this sectarianism in action. I attempted to engage in non-violent dialogue with those who screamed at and insulted Jews like me for having a different view from them. This mainly proceeded with a degree of civility and ended with a handshake except with one Jewish woman who refused to shake hands and cursed me with the words: ‘may God strike you dead’.  I understood where her feeling was coming from, since she had lost family in the Holocaust, and had started to see me as an enemy, a threat that should be eradicated.

The idea that it was not only left-wing Jewish views but also left-wing Jews who were expendable was chillingly illustrated by the bomb scare at an event at the 2018 Labour Conference in Liverpool. This was organised by Corbyn-supporting Jews and two hundred people had to be evacuated from the screening, many others who were using the women’s education centre building for their regular classes.  It rated only a small mention in the Guardian and no mention at all on the BBC.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is currently investigating allegations of institutional antisemitism against the Labour Party. It should consider the possibility that its investigation reflects an antisemitic premise. It has responded to the demands of some Jews as if they represented the voice of all Jews. They will need to ensure that their enquiry is free from sectarian bias, although there is an additional bias in the sole focus on the Labour Party.

While some in the media report the racism from the Tory Party the dots are rarely connected to reach the conclusion that the Tory Party is institutionally racist and has a racist leader. The evidence includes: the chilling self-designation of some in the ERG group as Grand Wizards, echoing the Ku Klux Klan; Suella Braverman’s attack on socialists and ‘cultural Marxists’, a code name for Jews; the refusal to respond until very recently to the repeated demands from Baroness Warsi for an investigation of institutional Islamophobia; the hostile environment for immigrants and asylum seekers including the notorious Valentine’s day poem issued from May’s Home Office; May’s use of the dog whistle racist – “citizens of nowhere” – in her 2016 conference speech; the Windrush scandal against Black UK citizens and the racist campaign fought over the election of the London Mayor. Boris Johnson’s repeated racism has not disqualified him from being touted as a possibly leader of the Conservatives. The Tories are willing to make accommodations with other racist leaders in Europe, with Donald Trump, who is to be given a state visit in June, and with the most right wing of UKIP voters. These are frightening times, when a global neoliberal ideology has taken away the moral compass of citizens who are thereby more receptive to fascist leaders in the US, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and in the UK too.

The fact that a large section of British Jewry looks leftwards for sources of antisemitism makes them more vulnerable to the racism festering within the fascist right. There is an irony that, it is the left, including left-wing Jews, who will be the first to come to the defence of all those vulnerable to racist attack.  This includes those Jews who are currently seeking to undermine the best source of their protection because of their fear of a left-wing government willing to take inequality seriously, declare a climate emergency, undo excessive privatisation and stand up for the rights of all oppressed people, including Palestinians.


Tony Booth is an educationalist and member of the JVL committee. He says he learnt to combat racism, including antisemitism at his parents’ knees.