When Jews are just fodder for the Tory propaganda machine

JVL Introduction

Antony Lerman is the former founding director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Associate Editor of the international academic journal on racism Patterns of Prejudice and has written widely on antisemitism.

Here he writes penetratingly on the current situation when “the weaponisation of antisemitism has become commonplace, for reasons that have very little to do with serious concern for the welfare of all Jews.”

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Sat 9 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

When Jews are just fodder for the Tory propaganda machine

“To get away with dog-whistle antisemitism and at the same time in the chase for votes shamelessly exploit Jewish fears is quite something.”

In calmer times, I like to think, a senior, mainstream politician’s ostensible expression of concern for the security of the UK’s Jewish population which at its core contained the antisemitic assumption that all Jews are rich, would have been exposed for its hypocrisy.

But such times are a receding memory. General alarm and media concurrence, rather than reasoned scepticism, met Tory Party chairman James Cleverly’s comment in a Sunday Telegraph interview that Jewish ‘individuals and groups, including entrepreneurs and other business figures’ – people he had known ‘much of my life’ –  were planning to leave the country if Labour won the forthcoming General Election. The paper’s front page editors didn’t hesitate before turning the people Cleverly knows into an unlimited number in their banner headline: ‘Jews will leave if Corbyn wins’ – a statement that, given the paper’s leading role in fanning the flames of a nasty English nationalism, could easily be read as assuming that those clever rootless cosmopolitans, interested only in turning a profit for themselves, can shift their assets and homes around the globe at will.

Michael Gove then took to social media to urge Jeremy Corbyn and some of his high-profile supporters to condemn a tweet from a user claiming to be a member of Labour and Momentum, saying ‘we can’t trust Jews’. Both organisations confirmed that the account ‘Joe Woods #JC4PM’ did not belong to any of their members. Mr Gove was attempting to ‘smear us through association’, Momentum said. It seems that cabinet ministers are licensed to say anything outrageously untrue to smear Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as anti-Semitic, and that Jews are just fodder for the Tory propaganda machine.

Were Cleverly and Gove more concerned, they might have stepped up when Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Commons Brexit debate on 3 September, castigated Sir Oliver Letwin and Speaker John Bercow for blocking Brexit. Here was a man who prides himself on his unparalleled and comprehensive knowledge of the meaning of words, referring to two fellow Tories of Jewish background, as ‘Illuminati who are taking powers into their own hands’. The historian of antisemitism, UCL’s Michael Berkowitz, pointed out that this was a stereotype of ‘Jewish criminality’ – an antisemitic trope – used by the Nazis and their accomplices. Yet Rees-Mogg made no apology for this smear and when Boris Johnson and other senior Tories were asked to condemn him, they were silent.

To get away with dog-whistle antisemitism and at the same time in the chase for votes shamelessly exploit Jewish fears is quite something.

But even I am tempted to say – Who can blame them? – when the weaponisation of anti-semitism has become commonplace, for reasons that have very little to do with serious concern for the welfare of all Jews. And when Jewish leaders have been conniving in the stoking of Jewish fears. As it happens, the Cleverley intervention hit the headlines immediately after the Jewish Chronicle gave front page coverage to a letter senior Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote to his entire Maidenhead congregation, warning them that a ‘Corbyn-led government would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it . . . whether it be utterances that cause Jews to feel victimised, less secure and no longer at ease . . . or maybe even legislation that restricts Jewish life or relations with Israel in some way, then you may wish to vote to ensure that Labour does not gain your local seat.’

JC’s editor, Stephen Pollard, whose hawkish exaggeration of the threat of antisemitism pre-dates Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader by many years, was given a platform by the Sunday Telegraph to double down on the fearmongering. Labour’s ‘so-called moderates [have chosen to] throw Britain’s Jews under a bus. . . . The simple truth is that every Labour member who campaigns for their party to win is sticking two fingers up to Britain’s Jews.’ The piece is a sad reprise of Pollard’s ‘Greatest Hits’ album. In it, he cites the 47 per cent of Jews in a Survation poll who said they would ‘seriously consider’ emigrating if Labour won, the 87 per cent of Jews who say Corbyn is antisemitic, the 88 per cent of potential Labour voters who say ‘Labour’s antisemitism is not a problem’ and a list of unsubstantiated examples of Corbyn’s own alleged expressions and legitimization of antisemitism.

Pollard simply does not understand why his Jeremiads about Labour have not resulted in the Party’s demise or the demise of Corbyn, even though the truth is staring him in the face. This has been a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy. He is responsible, together with Jewish establishment leaders and deeply misguided politicians for leading the charge in generating, justifying and encouraging such reported sentiment among Jews. If you keep banging on about the threat to Jewish life from a mass-membership party, especially at a time when there is widespread confusion about what constitutes antisemitism, it’s absurd to be shocked when some people seem to want to leave the country. The shock comes tinged with a kind of self-congratulatory triumphalism.

From Pollard, one expects such irresponsible ravings. But Rabbi Romain, in my experience, is different: he has been a liberal, progressive and balanced voice, never taking part in moral panics. How is it then that he doesn’t give a moment’s thought to the many thousands of non-Jewish constituents in his parish who during ten long years of austerity have suffered at Tory hands, from poverty, deprivation, discrimination, a struggling NHS and watching billions of pounds that could have been invested in social care, poured down the Brexit plughole? These are the people who might understandably and finally look in hope for the brighter future promised in the policies of a reforming and transformative Labour government. People who simply haven’t got the luxury of dreaming about some better bolthole to which they can escape. Since when has it been kosher for Jews to abandon social responsibility in favour of selfishness grounded in baseless fears? (Thankfully, at least one of his fellow rabbis, Howard Cooper of the Finchley Reform synagogue, has called Romain out.)

The growing numbers of far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremists in the UK must be delighted at this state of affairs: Jews, the Tory leadership, much of the mainstream media are combining to do their work for them. With friends like Cleverly, Gove and the deeply confused former Labour MP John Mann who sees no irony in being appointed ‘Antisemitism Tsar’ by Boris Johnson, we Jews don’t need enemies.

Given powerful living memory of the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the decades and centuries of persecution that preceded it, it’s not surprising that invoking current existential danger might turn our thoughts instinctively towards a safer haven. But is it mature, considered, wise leadership to both generate and promote the notion that Jews in the UK are on the brink of being subjected to a Yellow Star regime? To do this uncritically? Yet this is what Romain, Pollard and many other senior communal figures, on Twitter and elsewhere, are either doing or implying they agree with. When the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl told us in August 2018, that ‘Corbyn has declared war on the Jews’, what else are we expected to think?

Reasons for feeling secure

The recently published co-authored book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, to which I contributed a chapter, has revealed the stark contrast between public perceptions of the scale of the problem of antisemitism in Labour and the evidence-based reality. A national Survation poll showed that on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism, when the actual figure was far less than 1 per cent. The book clearly states that ‘the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party should not be minimised’, but that there was no ‘army of antisemites’ (Sunday Times headline 7 April 2019) and that the party is not ‘riddled’ with antisemitism.

Mistakes have been made in tackling the problem, but these are largely to do with institutional dysfunction. They are not evidence of institutional racism. Rabbis and sensible leaders do not have to be supporters of the Labour Party to understand that in the worsening climate of racism both here and abroad, it’s vital that a party that has been in the forefront of fighting racism for decades should be given positive encouragement to renew its role. As the book’s academic authors conclude: ‘the constant attacks for other purposes on its leader and the traducing of the membership as a whole is in the end counterproductive. It weakens the forces on which all minorities including Jewish people will depend for their security in the conflicts that lie ahead’ (188). It may be a tough struggle stemming the tide of moral panic and collective hysteria among many Jews in the UK, but in standing one’s ground, rather than feeding feelings of insecurity, working together across communities and not being seduced by the notion of Jews as ‘a people that dwells alone’, it can be done.

When you look soberly across the world, is the idea of flight to safety realistic? In the United States, 11 Jews were murdered by a neo-Nazi in their synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, the President promotes white supremacism, defends antisemites, stokes enmity against minorities and attacks liberal Jewish critics of Israel as false Jews. In Israel, 7 Israeli citizens were killed in the West Bank in 2018, your children could be put in harm’s way if eligible to serve in the Israel Defence Forces and you would be choosing a society seeking to maintain a Jewish majority in perpetuity in the entire Israel-Palestine area by restricting and denying the rights of the Palestinians. In France, Jews have been murdered in recent years just for being Jews and, although no one knows exact figures, a flow of Jews to other countries, particularly Israel, has been under way for some time. But many are returning to France in greater numbers thanks to the pull of their French identity, which allows for their Jewish faith to be treated as a private matter, in contrast to that of a society where religion plays a central public-political role and values are very different from those in France. The rise of far-right populism, nativist nationalism and a backlash against immigrants is common to so many countries, it is morally indefensible to give credence to flight. Moreover, it only validates the antisemitic charge: Jews don’t belong.

How is it that the manifest virtues of life in the UK for British Jews are so lightly discarded by the likes of Rabbi Romain in the face of a confected threat? This isn’t a question of degree, as if there were a certain percentage chance of Labour in government singling out Jews for discriminatory treatment, official abuse, the denial of rights, the suppression of Jewish religious practice, the imposition of a pernicious tax regime targeting Jews ­– whatever Pollard’s febrile imagination envisages. This kind of speculation is bizarre and completely without foundation. Were a Labour government to pursue a foreign policy more critical of Israeli human rights abuses and more focused on securing equal rights for the Palestinians, surely British Jews who object to such a move know full well that engaging in discussion and reasoned argument through the political process is the sensible way of making their views known, rather than levelling accusations of antisemitism at the policy-makers.

Moreover they are simply ignoring the strong countervailing forces against antisemitism in the UK – financial support for security at Jewish institutions; very close ties between the Community Security Trust, the private Jewish charity monitoring and combating antisemitism on behalf of the organised community, and the government and police; an official willingness to adopt and propagate the so-called ‘new’ IHRA definition of antisemitism (a deeply flawed document in my view) notwithstanding little inclination to do the same for Islamophobia; the funding and construction of a new Holocaust memorial and education centre right next to parliament in Westminster; the media’s widespread and continued sensitivity to the issue of antisemitism; and the freedom Jews enjoy to express their religious and cultural Jewishness. To ignore this is to fail to recognize that there is probably no place more secure for Jews anywhere else in the world.

There is really no excuse for the lachrymose exceptionalism James Cleverly would have us embrace for the grubby purpose of giving the Tories electoral advantage. Now more than ever, at this decisive moment in the country’s history, we should be looking beyond the selfish obsessions of so many religious and secular Jewish leaders and focusing on the needs of others, recognising the continued reality of anti-Black racism, the pervasiveness of Islamophobia – the truth, as Fope Olaleye reminded us in the Guardian on 28 October – that racism is about power, not a perception of negative sentiment that only the group affected is supposedly allowed to define.

Our fellow citizens

Not that Pollard shows any signs of ceasing to serve the Tories’ interests. As if it were not more than enough that he preaches to Jews about how they should be voting, he has devoted the front page of the 8 November JC to addressing a similar message to ‘all our fellow British citizens’. He essentially asks them to believe the calumny that Jeremy Corbyn is a racist and that putting him in No. 10 would send a stark message to Jews that their ‘dismay’ and ‘fears of where that will lead, are irrelevant’, that they ‘count for nothing’. So it’s not enough to insult the intelligence of the Jews he purports to defend: he’s now repeating the affront in his appeal to the wider population.

These are divisive, bitter and angry times, but we must be vigilant against the unconscious use of antisemitic stereotyping to demonstrate concern for Jews. It’s been happening a lot recently. Other minorities experience a similar racist framing, for example: ‘concern’ for the state of fatherless black families, as the ‘cause’ of the disproportionate involvement of black youth in knife crime; ‘concern’ for Muslim women subjected to conservative dress codes cited as a reason for Islamic terrorism; ‘concern’ for immigrants and asylum seekers who fail to learn English because they are harming their opportunities to integrate. However, whilst the framing is similar, the unconscious bias in these unfounded and therefore racist assertions is far more damaging for the groups in these examples than the unconscious Cleverly stereotyping is for Jews.

The current prioritising of antisemitism as a special case of racism, something sought by so many Jewish leaders, opinion-formers, public intellectuals and their non-Jewish supporters, legitimises and reinforces a privileged exceptionalism; the unconscious bias against other victims of racism leads to the reinforcement of their exclusion. The former is dangerous because it’s a kind of self-inflicted othering: it may feel good in the short term, but it’s not a recipe for a good Jewish future in an open and liberal society.

Tory politicians may think riding these two horses – the ‘good Jews’ and the ‘bad others’– works for them politically. But we shouldn’t allow them to get away with this divisive politics of belonging – another reason why Jews must work with other minorities to fight real racist abuse, discrimination and demonization which, so obviously today, comes from its traditional source: the right and beyond.

Comments (19)

  • Ann Miller says:

    Sanity and reason.

  • Prof Ellie Palmer says:

    This timely article by Anthony Lerman provides a perfect opportunity for the Labour Party to demand a BBC debate about the exaggerated weaponisation of Jewish suffering by the Conservatives and other opposition parties (in collusion with the BBC channel 4 the Guardian and right wing media during the run up to the election and beyond.

  • royston maldoom says:

    What an amazing piece of writing..so much wisdom, so much truth. Incicive, clear and detailed in its analysis. A must-read.

  • Jan Plummer says:

    An excellent and clear article, taking the debate out of the gutter into which it seems to have fallen. Enables objective examination of the issues and reminds us of our common ideals. More should be said about how “crying wolf” damages us all.

  • RH says:

    This is an excellent reminder from an authoritative source of the true nature of the Labour ‘antisemitism’ issue – particularly coming on a morning when yet another Labour spokesperson’s only response is to apologize for a non-threat.

    The following reminder is timely for anyone like Pollard who is exploiting the issue for their Tory bent :

    “The growing numbers of far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremists in the UK must be delighted at this state of affairs: Jews, the Tory leadership, much of the mainstream media are combining to do their work for them.”

  • Jack T says:

    An excellent article from Anthony Lerman who gives an ‘insiders’ view on the way Tories are weaponising A/S against Labour and Corbyn. It has to be said though that there are those within Labour who either by intent or naivete are assisting the Tories with their attacks by insisting that the IHRA definition was adopted.

  • Allan Howard says:

    The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was blackmailed and bullied by the corporate media and Co into signing up to the IHRA definition, just as it has been blackmailed and bullied into apologising for the anti-semitism which has been mostly confected or grossly exaggerated. As Justin Schlosberg points out in Chapter 4 of Bad News for Labour:

    “In contrast to other contexts, the antisemitism issue by its very nature inhibits the development of a counter-narrative. This is because much of the discursive framing serves to pre-emptively delegitimise any defensive response as ‘part of the problem’”.

    If you own and/or control the media, then you hold all the cards, and have complete and total control over the narrative. And the very media that is dissembling this massive falsehood is hardly going to give those that it’s directed at the opportunity to expose the falsehood they are a party to.

  • Frank Land says:

    Letter to Guardian referring to Opinion column by Jonathan Freedland:

    I read today’s column by Jonathan Freedland with dismay (Many Jews oppose Brexit, but how can we vote for Corbyn, 9th November, Opinion). The column, underneath a photo showing placards howling for Corbyn to be held to account for his anti-Semitism, begs the question who should be held to account, Corbyn – or Freedland, for falling for the hype generated by a section of the Jewish community, including Labour MPs, who transform legitimate criticism of Israel actions into evidence of anti-Semitism. But we, the descendants and victims of the holocaust, must be the most understanding of what it means to be oppressed, and confront oppression when we see it wherever it comes from. I am surprised that Freedland, normally an astute and progressive analyst, should be prepared for a perpetuation of this Tory Government inimical to what I as a Jew hold dear, not based on evidence but on what often has turned out to be hearsay or even fake news.

    Frank Land
    9 Apple Wharf
    The Plains
    Devon, TQ9 5QL
    01803 862257
    [email protected]

  • Tony Graham says:

    Jonathan Freedland yesterday in the Guardian:

    “… while I have nothing but contempt for Johnson and his hard-right party, the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn fills me with dread… specifically the notion of Corbyn and his inner circle running the country. The thought of it prompts in me, and the overwhelming majority of the community I grew up in, a fear that we have not known before.”

    Close to the election, Freedland’s shamelessly fact-free opinion piece is the latest effort from the liberal media to perpetuate a fear about Corbyn and ”his inner circle running the country”. That very phrase suggests that as well as British Jews, democracy too, is under threat from a cabal of conspiring, anti-semitic, political demons. Freedland uses his privileged position to speak on behalf of Jews to explain (and thereby fan) ‘our deepest fears.’

    What chutzpah! To repeat old smears, to deny the evidence in plain sight, to help stir up fear and then explain that its real source lies with the Labour leadership. In what way is this the act of a responsible journalist?

    Thanks be to Antony Lerman for his voice of reason and clarity in the face of such monumental deception.

  • Colin says:

    It seems apparent to me that a dual purpose is being served here. Convincing British jews that, what could well be the next government, is rabidly anti-semitic may increase the vote for the Conservatives, but also may well convince some to migrate to Israel. So win win for supporters of Zionism.

  • Mary Davies says:

    I learnt a lot from this excellent article. Thank you.

  • John says:

    An excellent article.
    Freedland’s Guardian is a zionist rag which has always opposed Labour.
    What is surprising is to see people like Romain getting all-hysterical.
    His work in opposing so-called “faith” schools may have earned him sufficient opposition within the Judaic community that he now finds himself supporting ridiculous zionist claims about Corbyn and Labour as a way to get himself re-accepted among members of the British Jewish community?

  • Jennifer Borel says:

    This is Brilliant. Thank You. The voice of reason. I get told to go back to where I came from because I’ve lived and worked in different countries and I don’t speak as most people in my area. I get asked where I’m from and I reply where do you think I’m from and they say that they don’t know but that I’m not from around their area. Actually I’m from Broomfield, Herne Bay. So we have discrimination with being different too.

  • Jim Dooher says:

    Better late than never.
    A must read for all the reactionary ‘trope’ hunters and the silent self serving bureaucrats in the Labour Party who still won’t lift a finger to right the wrongs they have inflicted on their ‘comrades’? When next you lot have the barefaced gall to sing your ‘Red Flag’ anthem and get to the part – #”though cowards flinch and traitors sneer…”, you’ll always know, that bit is about you. Scabs.

  • Susan Calvo says:

    Another excellent article, a calm voice of sanity that encourages us to look further than media headlines, Tory propaganda and neo-Nazi virulence…. Thank you

  • david speakman says:

    I left the Labour Party this year because of this Anti-Semitism , not because of it in Labour or society in general which I find abhorrent but for Labours lack of fight against what are plainly smears from people working to an agenda many of them within the party Margaret Hodge in particular. I may not be able to stop them weaponising Anti-Semitism but I don’t bloody well have to support they pedlars of this filth by my subscriptions !

    I am not Jewish , and I can not even pretend to understand the hurt that Jewish People may feel , I will call out any form of Racism with my dying breath . Do I honestly think that Jeremy Corbyn is an Anti-Semite ? do I hell never in a month of Sundays , Corbyn is the most principled man in Parliament .

    What is happening at the moment (and I hate to say this, but it is facilitated by Jewish people working to an agenda) is a bastardisation of Anti-Semitism and a disgraceful kick in the teeth to Jews who have suffered throughout history , it is a dreadful sell out of their hurt .

    Many thanks for this article , I just wish it could be published in the tabloids because many believe everything they read in the Mail/Express/Telegraph/Sun. There lies much of the trouble people lap up what they want to hear , it suits their agenda of hatred , it empowers them , they don’t care two hoots about Anti-Semitism but they will use it as a tool to get Corbyn , who they are terrified of for the simple reason that he will call out all racism , injustice and speak up for those without a voice . That fills the right wing with absolute fear .

  • Mike Harris says:

    Anthony Lerman has an important and partially true point of view. However he ignores those within labour such as many Jewish Labour MPs who feel forced out by labour.

  • Frederick G. says:

    Two points. (1) The effect of this propaganda has been compared to that of the famous Zinoviev letter, which stymied the first Labour government in 1924 three days before an election. Published in the Daily Mail with full-on anti-semitic overtones (Zinoviev was a Jew), it turned out to have been a complete fake. The comparison is obvious, except that this time it is more sophisticated: anti-semitism potentially stoked by anti- anti-semitism.
    (2) There is a class dimension to all this. Writing in the Daily Mail on 6 June, Margaret Hodge referred to the ‘grossly bigoted mural’ in Whitechapel on the grounds that it portrayed ‘hook-nosed Jews’. I saw her in the audience at the Proms a few years ago for a performance of the Wagner Ring Cycle, of which she is clearly a fan (ok, I was there myself). Wagner depicted ‘Jewish degeneracy’ in his operas, wrote openly anti-semitic tracts, and was Hitler’s favourite composer. One rule for murals, another for high culture.

  • Robert Dyson says:

    Excellent comment, especially the sidelining of other forms of racism has always worried me. I have for several years commented to others that this in the end will backfire and make Jews less safe. I think that most antisemitism on the left is due to confusing Israeli government policy with being Jewish, and education will mostly fix that. On the right antisemitism is racial hatred and may be impossible to cure.

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