Wednesday, December 11, 2019

British Jews Should Announce They Can't Support Corbyn--or Johnson

This was a piece I initially wrote for publication outside of the blog. It had a tumultuous journey, including being accepted in one newspaper before the editor withdrew the offer an hour later. Most recently, it spent two weeks in limbo after the editor who was considering it solicited the draft ... then immediately went on vacation for a week. When he returned, he promised to get to it "first thing Monday". I never heard from him again.

Anyway, the election is tomorrow and there's still no sign that he will get back to me, so you're getting the piece here. It's slightly less timely than I'd like -- though much more timely than if I posted it after election day.

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Earlier this month, The Guardian published a letter from twenty-four prominent non-Jewish figures, publicly declaring that they could not support Labour in the next election due to the raging antisemitism that has enveloped the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

For the UK’s beleaguered Jewish community, it was a taste of that elusive elixir: solidarity. The knowledge that Jews do not stand alone, that we do have allies, that there are people who will not stand idly by and do nothing as this wave of antisemitism comes bearing down. That the letter’s signatories included figures like Islamophobia watchdog Fiyaz Mughal, who is intimately and painfully aware of the direct dangers a Tory government would do to him and his community, only makes it more powerful. In a very real sense, this is what it means to have true allies.

These past few years have been rough on British Jews, but if there is a silver lining, it is in moments like these: the public witnessing of all those who remain willing to plant their banner and fight antisemitism. The statements of resignation from persons who no longer can associate with a party that has become a force for hatred against the nation’s Jews. The figures—some Jewish (like MP Ruth Smeeth), some not (like London Mayor Sadiq Khan)—still bravely resisting antisemitism from within the party.

And there is grim satisfaction to be taken in Corbyn’s almost comically-high public disapproval ratings—which have reached upwards of 75% in some polls. For this, too, is at least in part a public and visceral repudiation of the brand of antisemitism Corbyn has come to represent.

Yet it is the ironic misery of the Jewish fate that we cannot even take unmediated satisfaction in those rejecting Labour antisemitism. Why? Well, because of the primary alternative to Labour: the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson.

The Tories have their own antisemitism problems, although—and as a liberal it pains me to say this—they pale in comparison to those afflicting Labour, at least today. And for me, I’ve probably written more on Labour antisemitism than I have on any other social problem outside of America or Israel.

But if the Tories are not today as antisemitic as is Labour, where the Tories can be aptly compared to Labour is along the axis of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. It is fair to say that on those issues, the Conservative Party is institutionally xenophobic in a manner that is on par with Labour’s own institutional antisemitism. Or put differently: Boris Johnson is to Muslims, Blacks, and Asians what Jeremy Corbyn is to Jews.

This is hardly unknown, and the latent nativism of the Conservative Party’s Brexit policy is only the tip of the iceberg. We saw the ugliness of Conservative racism in the Windrush Scandal, where Afro-Caribbean British citizens were harassed, detained, and even deported as part of the Tories’ pledge to create a “hostile environment” for undesired immigrants in the country (notwithstanding the fact that the Windrush Generation consisted of natural-born British subjects). We saw it in the game efforts by Muslim Conservative politicians to draw attention to festering Islamophobia amongst Tory candidates and politicians, and the grinding resistance of the Conservative political leadership to seriously investigate the issue—surely, this resonates with Labour’s own kicking-and-screaming approach to rooting out antisemitism inside its own ranks.

And—like with Corbyn’s Labour party—Tory xenophobia starts right at the top. In 2018, Boris Johnson was slurring Muslim women in Europe as “letter boxes”. Advocates at that time urged then-Prime Minister Theresa May to withdraw Johnson’s whip. She declined. Now he’s Prime Minister. In the meantime, Islamophobic instances in the country surged 375%.

There is a terrible commonality here: the legitimate fears Jews have about a Corbyn-led British government are mirrored by the equally legitimate worries BAMEs (Blacks, Asians, and Minority Ethnics) about the prospect of another term of Conservative rule.

To be clear: the Jewish community has not endorsed these Conservative predations. They are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit. They have spoken out and stood out against racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, and have done so consistently.

But there is another step that has not yet been taken. The Jewish community might return solidarity with solidarity, and write their own letter announcing that they cannot sanction voting for Labour—or the Tories. Twenty-four Jewish luminaries, each pledging that just as Labour’s antisemitism means that they cannot support Labour, Conservative racism and xenophobia preclude them from backing the Tories.

The UK, after all, is not a complete two-party system, and in many constituencies there are very live options that extend beyond Labour and Tory. The resurgent Liberal Democrats, for one, bolstered by refugees repelled by Labour antisemitism or Conservative xenophobia and showing renewed strength particularly in marginal constituencies where Labour is flagging. Regionally, the SNP or Plaid Cymru also are often competitive. Even the Greens, in some locales, are a viable option.

None of these parties are perfect. One does not need to search far to find instances of antisemitism in these other parties, for example, and the Liberal Democrats still have trust to re-earn following their disastrous stint as junior coalition partners to the Tories less than a decade ago.

But imperfections notwithstanding, none of these parties has completely caved to gutter populism in the way that both Labour and Tory have. They are cosmopolitan in orientation. They have faced antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, but they’ve responded decisively to it. They are not perfect, but they are viable choices, in a way that neither the Tories nor Labour can at this point claim to be.

And yet, still this companion letter—rejecting Conservative hatred with the same public moral clarity as The Guardian writers rejected Labour hatred—hasn’t been written. As much as many dislike Conservative politics, as much as many loathe Boris Johnson and the insular nativism he stands for—we have not forthrightly declared that the bigotry of his party is of equal moral weight and equal moral impermissibility at the bigotry of Corbyn’s party. We have not insisted that both be rejected.

Responding to the argument that Labour antisemitism had to be overlooked because of the pressing necessity of avoiding the disasters of a Tory government, the Guardian letter writers asked “Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?”

One could perhaps forgive the Windrush Generation for taking a tentative step forward in reply.

So again: why hasn’t that companion letter been written? Why hasn’t there been the declaration that the Windrushers, the migrants, the Muslims—that these community’s concerns are indispensable in the exact same way that the Jewish community’s concerns should (but often are not) be viewed as indispensable? Why has the wonderful solidarity demonstrated by the Guardian letter not been returned in kind?

The most common answer is that as terrible as Johnson is and as repulsive as Tory policies are, only a Conservative majority can guarantee that Corbyn will not become Prime Minister. Even the LibDems might ultimately elect to coalition with Labour if together they’d form a majority (ironically, many left-wing voters who dislike Corbyn but loathe Johnson express the same worry in reverse to explain why they can’t vote LibDem—they’re convinced that Jo Swinson would instead cut a deal to preserve a Conservative majority). As terrible as Johnson is, stopping Corbyn has to be the number one priority for British Jews. And a vote for anyone but the Tory candidates is, ultimately, a vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Jewish voters who act under this logic, they would say, are by no means endorsing Brexit, which they detest, or xenophobia, which they abhor. They hate these things, genuinely and sincerely. But their hand has been forced. In this moment, they have to look out for Number One.

I understand this logic. I understand why some Jews might believe that in this moment, we cannot spare the luxury of thinking of others.

 I understand it. But it is, ultimately, spectacularly short-sighted.

To begin, if we accept that British Jews are justified in voting Tory because we are justified looking out for our own existential self-preservation, then we have to accept that non-Jewish minorities are similarly justified in voting Labour in pursuit of their own communal security and safety. We cannot simultaneously say that our vote for the Tories cannot be construed as an endorsement of Conservative xenophobia but their vote for Labour represents tacit approval of Corbynista antisemitism. Maybe both groups feel their hands are tied; trapped between a bad option and a disastrous one. And so we get one letter from the Chief Rabbi, excoriating Jeremy Corbyn as an “unfit” leader, and another competing letter from the Muslim Council of Britain, bemoaning Conservatives open tolerance of Islamophobia.

But if the Jews reluctantly vote Conservative “in our self-interest” and BAME citizens reluctantly vote Labour “in their self-interest”—well, there are a lot more BAME voters in Britain than there are Jewish voters. So the result would be a massive net gain for Labour. Some pursuit of self-interest.

Meanwhile, those Brits who are neither Jewish nor members of any other minority group are given no guidance by this approach. There is no particular reason, after all, for why they should favor ameliorating Jewish fears of antisemitism over BAME fears of xenophobia. From their vantage point, these issues effectively cancel out, and they are freed to vote without regard to caring about either antisemitism or Islamophobia. At the very moment where these issues have been foregrounded in the British public imagination in an unprecedented way, insisting upon the primacy of pure self-interest would ensure that this attention would be squandered and rendered moot.

Of course, all this does not even contemplate the horrible dilemma imposed upon those persons who are both Jewish and BAME—the Afro-Caribbean Jew, for instance. They are truly being torn asunder, told that no matter how they vote they will be betraying a part of their whole self.

And finally, whatever we can say about the status of Tory antisemitism today, painful experience demonstrates that tides of xenophobia, nativism, and illiberal nationalism reflected in the Conservative Party will always eventually swallow Jews as well. That day will come, and if history is any guide it will come quickly. Jews should think twice and thrice before contemplating giving any succor to that brand of politics, no matter what seductive gestures it makes at us today.

So no—it will not do for Jews to back the Tories out of “self-interest”, for doing so will ultimately fail even in protecting ourselves. Ultimately, the reason that Jews should clearly and vocally reject both Labour and Tory is not sentimentality, but solidarity—solidarity in its truest and most robust sense. There simply are not enough Jews in the United Kingdom to make going it alone a viable strategy. We need allies, and so we need to find a way to respond to the reality of Labour antisemitism in a way that binds us closer to our allies rather than atomizing us apart. The solidarity they showed us must be reciprocated in kind.

If there is one theme I have heard over and over again from UK Jews, it is the fear of becoming “politically homeless”: unable to stomach voting for Tory nativism, unable to countenance backing Labour antisemitism.

But as The Guardian letter demonstrated, Jews still have friends, and allies, and people who will have our backs no matter what. And if you’ve got friends, allies, and people who have your back, what do you do if you’re worried about homelessness?

I’d say, you start building a new house—one with room enough for all of us.

1 comment:

LWE said...

Well, quite a large number of professional anti-antisemitism campaigners, Jewish or not, British or not, are busy celebrating Labour loss quite vocally (even if they may take a potshot or two at the Tories). So your balanced plea was largely ignored, it seems.