In the past two years, there has been a disturbing trend toward anti-Semitism in British politics. Jewish community leaders have been asking, “Do we have a future here?” Some lawmakers have even said that they no longer feel safe. Women members of Parliament have been particular targets for abuse, which they shared with a horrified House of Commons during a debate on anti-Semitism last April.
Both Britain and France have seen Islamist terrorists conduct terrible attacks, such as the bombing of a pop concert in Manchester and the Bataclan massacre in Paris. But in France terrorists chose some targets because they were Jewish, such as during an attack on a school in Toulouse and another at a kosher supermarket in Paris. In the UK many have a usually unspoken fear that the greater acceptability of anti-Semitism in public discourse will encourage extremists to seek Jewish targets.
The Jewish community in Britain has been integrated almost to the point of invisibility, except perhaps for the strictly Orthodox. So what has gone wrong?
Historical anti-Semitism is not unknown in Britain. In the late nineteenth century, there was hostility toward refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, which led to restrictive immigration laws. British anti-Semitism was more like snobbery. It was rarely political. When Oswald Mosley launched a fascist, anti-Semitic party in 1932, the consensus was that he cut a ludicrous figure. Other extreme-right movements have similarly failed. Now, however, there is something new: in the past 20 or so years, anti-Semitism has swung from right to left.
Anti-Semitism seemed to worsen noticeably after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. He has a long track record of supporting organizations that are hostile to Israel. Corbyn has also been associated with far-left groups that use the rhetoric of imperialism against the West. Traditionally, the Labour Party has incorporated a broad swathe of left-wing tendencies, from social democracy to neo-Marxism. Corbyn’s election jolted the scales much more toward the left.
The hard-left movement that masterminded his ascendancy, known as Momentum, is fiercely critical of Israel. For a Labour MP to voice support for Israel today is to risk deselection. This political shift could have profound consequences for Britain’s international policies. UK politics is currently in a febrile state, with the governing Conservative Party bitterly divided over Brexit and questions of leadership. In these circumstances, it is conceivable that Corbyn might become prime minister.
In recent months, a debate has raged over whether the Labour Party would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. IHRA examples include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and singling out Israel for disproportionate criticism. Labour’s ruling body recently accepted the definition, but with the rider that “this does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” Corbyn cannot let go of Israel. Even when Labour adopted the IHRA resolution, he tried—and failed—to get the national executive committee to agree that it was not anti-Semitic “to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact.”
There is more at work here than a misguided and possibly obsessed politician. Corbyn taps into something subliminal. The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 has left in its wake a great deal of anger. Bankers and others who made foolish decisions have not been held to account. The rich seem to have become richer, and the gulf between them and the populace has widened. In Europe you hear references to “the one percent” of the world’s population, meaning those who make global decisions and profit from them. Such language appeals to young people who struggle to find jobs or affordable housing. This easily plays into ancient tropes of Jewish cabals. Many on the left seem unaware of these overtones. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Corbyn had previously defended an artist whose mural in London had depicted hook-nosed financiers playing a board game. He seemed surprised when it was pointed out that the image was like something out of the Protocols.
Christian leaders in Britain are strongly critical of the new anti-Semitism. It has been condemned by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others. There are good communications and friendly relations between Jewish and Christian leaders. Before the Holocaust, there was a low-key reflexive anti-Semitism in the churches, where it could be said that Judaism was a spiritually dead, legalistic religion, or that the covenant with Israel had been abrogated. Such statements are rare these days. Today there is a growing awareness in the churches of how they contributed historically to the rise of anti-Semitism. Still, it is interesting that the current wave of anti-Semitism has arisen at a time when the majority of the British population would now tick the box saying “no religion.” There is a trend in Britain toward seeing all religion, including Judaism and Christianity, as inherently oppressive. This disdain for religion is itself illiberal. But that would never occur to those who mouth the criticism.
Terry Tastard is a Catholic pastor in London. He was formerly a journalist and has a PhD in Holocaust history.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Corbyn in West Kirby, England, on May 20, 2017. By Andy Miah, via Flickr.