After a show of hands in my north London synagogue, I started to wonder if this rolling row had its roots in how both groups define themselves
It’s not easy to make sense of the current furore about antisemitism and the left. But it may be that a fundamental part of the explanation is quite simple.
At a meeting of the synagogue that I attend – one of the largest in north London – members were asked to hold up their hands to discuss which factors were the most important in promoting their sense of Jewish identity. A large number put up their hands when Israel was mentioned. Similarly, the Holocaust was seen as very important as was antisemitism. Jewish ritual and practice was not, relatively speaking, an important factor.
It is a small sample, and it comes at a time when antisemitism is rarely out of the news, but it did get me thinking.
Maybe it’s not Friday night dinner or prayers at Yom Kippur that define Jewish identity in the UK, but the fact that Jews are still hated and have suffered over the years?
It is also a fact that, as a small and vulnerable people, Jews have managed to create a Jewish homeland – which has stood firm despite the various attacks on it over the last 70 years. This is a source of tremendous pride.
There are, thankfully, very few serious antisemitic incidents in Britain. Rabbi Herschel Gluck, an orthodox rabbi who does extensive liaison work with other communities, last year had a briefing from the Metropolitan police. During the high holidays – when numerous Jews are on the streets – not one antisemitic incident was reported to the police.
There were no reported attacks, no abuse, not even anything serious on social media.
Monitoring remains robust however. There are organisations collecting data on antisemitism which are well-funded by the Jewish community. There is the charity, the Community Security Trust (CST) which is probably the best established and most respected of these groups. There is also a relatively new organisation called the Campaign against Antisemitism.
The CST reveals that last year there were 1652 antisemitic incidents. However the vast majority of these consisted of abuse – much of it on social media. There were 123 physical assaults, most of which were non-serious. One of these was regarded as “extreme” – an incident which could potentially have led to grievous bodily harm.
This sort of behaviour is not acceptable, of course, but in my view, pales in comparison, compared to the experiences of Muslims and black people in the UK.
So why is such a fuss being made? This is not because Jews are trying to “weaponise” antisemitism. There are obviously some Conservative Jews who are keen to make as much noise as possible, but more broadly, a lot of Jews do have a sincere sense that they are under attack. And they feel that by complaining about antisemitism, they are defending their identity and their community.
Star of BBC show The Apprentice, Alan Sugar, makes very clear that he has no interest in Jewish practice. But he is at pains to state that he feels Jewish and he gives to organisations that defend jews. By paying money to fight antisemitism, he feels that he is maintaining his identity.
Within the Jewish community, there remains an enormous sense of insecurity. There is a widespread belief that antisemitism lurks just below the surface of most non-Jews. And in that context it is no surprise that many feel any attack on Israel may be linked to the idea that most people – in their hearts – harbour misgivings about the Jewish community in the UK.
Conversely, left wingers are very keen to attack Israel – even though there are many countries with worse records on human rights. The attacks are not simply about Israel’s questionable record here, but because it is backed by the West. It has become a symbol of Western and American imperialism.
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For a left-winger, attacking Israel is a mark of commitment. In the same way that any self-respecting left-winger in the seventies and eighties complained vigorously against South Africa, the target of choice these days is Israel.
This is not helped by the fact that Israelis politics, which used to be liberal and left-leaning, has taken a violent swing to the right.
After that show of hands in a North London synagogue, I wondered if this sustained row about antisemitism on the left boiled down to a clash of identities: the left feel strongly they should be attacking Israel, and Jews feel that anyone attacking Israel must be antisemitic.
Obviously, this is not a great combination, but if we understand the dynamic at work, it does at least give us a better chance at finding a solution. If we don’t, then the Labour Party will continue to steadily lose Jewish support and the Jewish community will end up being ever more closely identified with every move of whoever happens to be in government in Israel.