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Why anti-Semitism means it’s not ‘the Brexit election’ for everyone

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson (left) is greeted by the party's candidate for Finchley and Golders Green Luciana Berger as she arrives for a visit to a mental health enterprise in Golders Green. Picture: PA Images - Credit: PA

The issue of anti-Semitism is an inescapable one in this election, says MARIE VAN DERZYL, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

For many, this is a single-issue general election. Since the 2016 referendum, the battle of Brexit has been raging up and down the country and this campaign is being touted as the opportunity for Leavers and Remainers to have their say on how the issue has been handled.

However, there is a minority for whom Brexit is arguably not the most important issue – no matter how strong some of them may feel on the subject. For many in the UK’s 300,000-strong Jewish community, anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewish racism, as it is equally well-described, is the one factor upon which their votes are being decided.

Of course, there is nothing new about anti-Jewish racism. Most of the UK’s Jews are descended from refugees of the 19th century pogroms in Eastern Europe and there are survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust still living in our community today.

However, anti-Semitism has wormed its way into back into our political culture in a way that would have been thought unthinkable only a decade ago.

Those who grew up, like I did, in the 1970s, would have been subjected to hatred from the far-right National Front and later the British National Party. At times of crisis in the Middle East there has sometimes been a rise in anti-Semitism in the country, for example during the Gaza crisis of 2014, when there was a sudden spike in racism against Jews.

However, until very recently, there was never anti-Semitism emanating from our mainstream political parties, and certainly not from Labour, which in the first half of the 20th century, among the working class Jewish communities of London’s East End was overwhelmingly the party of choice.

Indeed, there used to be joke that when a boy completed his barmitzvah – the coming of age ceremony for 13-year-olds – he would receive as gifts a fountain pen and a Labour membership card.

As recently as 2005, Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair received the largest share of Jewish votes – and this when he was standing against a Conservative Party with a Jewish leader in the person of Michael Howard.

Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis changed all that. Recent polling has shown that Labour’s support among Jews has slipped to single figures.

The reason most would give for this sea change could be summed up in two words – Jeremy Corbyn.

His election in 2015 was accompanied in the Jewish media by serious questions about his past associations. Corbyn has been a lifelong campaigner for the Palestinian cause. There is certainly nothing inherently anti-Semitic about this stance.

However, there were questions about those he welcomed in. He invited Raed Salah to tea. Salah is a Muslim cleric who had repeated the infamous ‘blood libel’ – that Jews use the blood of Christian children in Passover matzos.

Corbyn had a long association with Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. He called representatives of Hamas – the terrorist organisation governing party in Gaza, which has anti-Semitism written into its constitution – his “friends”.

The crisis burst into the headlines in 2017 when Ken Livingstone was quoted as saying that Hitler had supported Zionism before the Second World War.

This was followed by plenty of other instances, none of which were dealt with promptly or effectively. Jackie Walker, the then vice-chair of Momentum, claimed Jews “were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. NEC member Peter Willsman called Jews “Trump fanatics” and Chris Williamson MP accused the Jewish community of weaponising anti-Semitism.

The Labour Party dragged its feet over the adoption of the internationally-recognised definition of anti-Semitism and ultimately accepted it only with a number of caveats. The party has refused to institute independent adjudication on complaints or an education programme for members run by its own 100-year affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement.

Labour MPs Luciana Berger and Dame Louise Ellman have resigned their memberships following campaigns of abuse from some in their local parties. A Panorama programme last summer graphically demonstrated that the Labour complaints unit was being subjected to intense pressure from the leadership on investigations it was running into alleged anti-Semites.

This is not to say there are not honourable and brave Labour MPs who have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community. We are not, like some in the community, telling Jews not to vote Labour.

This is not our place. However, we have and will continue to highlight problems within the party and will not rest until the leader’s actions on anti-Jewish racism match his words.

While the lion’s share of these issues have been in the Labour Party, I should, in the interests of fairness, also point out that the anti-Semitism which has been unleashed in this campaign has not been restricted to Labour.

Other parties have skeletons in their cupboards too. Last week, the Conservative candidate for Leeds North East, Amjad Bashir, was suspended following his statement that British Jews travelling to Israel had returned as “brainwashed extremists”.

The Liberal Democrats have had their problems too. Back when Tim Farron was leader, both Baroness Jenny Tonge and David Ward MP were expelled from the party following repeated instances of anti-Semitism. In this election, the Lib Dem candidate for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Waheed Rafiq, was also suspended last week after he called for a boycott of “Zionist-backed” WhatsApp.

The Green Party also had to suspend candidates who shared anti-Semitic material, and the Scottish National Party last week suspended a councillor for sharing an anti-Semitic blog.

Much of this anti-Semitism comes from the same place. It is rooted in anti-Israel sentiments but has morphed from legitimate criticism of the Israeli government into something more sinister.

Ancient tropes by which Jews control governments and the finance system have been spread on social media in slightly modified form – the word ‘Jew’ has been replaced by the word ‘Zionist’ to dodge the accusation of racism. ‘Rothschilds’ is now code for Jew, indicating that Jews control the world’s finance system.

Social media has played an important part in making it easier for those who wish to perpetrate this pernicious form of racism to do so effectively and, in many cases, anonymously.

Social media providers and, crucially, political parties need to seen to be acting promptly and effectively in disciplining anyone caught sharing or promoting anti-Semitic material, making statements or repeating tropes.

We believe that the issue of anti-Semitism is akin to a canary in a coalmine – a litmus test for a healthy society. If this kind of blatant racism is thriving among those who would be members of parliament, what does that say about our supposedly multicultural and tolerant society? We should only be electing those who can be trusted to be strong on this and all racism.

Meanwhile, the Board of Deputies of British Jews has produced a ‘Jewish Manifesto’ which highlights all the areas of concern for our community – not just on anti-Semitism but on many other areas including religious freedoms and education.

We have a section focussed on Brexit in which we ask that – if Britain does leave the European Union – terrorist organisations are subject to at least the same sanctions as operated by the EU; that the Jewish community still has access to kosher food and that any rising labour costs on Jewish social care and security are mitigated.

Perhaps most importantly, we ask that Jews and other minorities are protected and respected in the aftermath of Brexit. We have sent this out to thousands of candidates around the country and many politicians have already signed up to our Ten Commitments.

Ultimately, we are a small community but we have we have a right to feel safe and a right to feel that our fears are being listened to. This is what my organisation is campaigning for.

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