Gerard Howlin: Across Europe, there is a real chill setting in in Jewish communities

Gerard Howlin: Across Europe, there is a real chill setting in in Jewish communities
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the Labour Party race and faith manifesto at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, north London. Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

Rereading George Orwell’s 1945 essay Antisemitism in Britain is chilling, in the context of this week’s article in The Times by the orthodox chief rabbi of Britain and Northern Ireland Ephraim Mirvis. Comparing it with the British Labour Party’s new policy, launched today, on race and faith is black comedy.

Children under Labour will be educated about the legacy of colonialism while anti-Semitism, the oldest, most primal exploitation, is being spread from the same source.

What the chief rabbi did in the thrust of a general election was extraordinary. I presume it was done only with the greatest reluctance. But in another way it should have been done sooner. Something always present has come out of the shores which come from underneath Labour.

“A Jewish boy at a public school almost invariably had a bad time,” noted Orwell. But “above a certain intellectual level people are ashamed of being anti-Semitic and are careful to draw a distinction between ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘disliking Jews’”.

Cloaked by anti-Zionism, the preferred anti-Semitism of the left, there is a new permission for, and a renewed virulence of, Jew-hate. That is what this is.

This is an Irish issue, because the chief rabbi leads the small Jewish community in the Northern Ireland. It is an Irish issue too because the Irish Labour Party is allied to, and conspicuously consorts with, its sister party — as recently as its conference in Manchester last September. The Unite trade union here, a part of Unite in the UK, which is an integral part and progenitor of the Corbyn project.

Sinn Féin has counted Jeremy Corbyn as its friend for years. The stated values of all these organisations are the antithesis of what the chief rabbi called “a new poison — sanctioned from the very top” — that has “has taken root” in the party. So where do they stand now?

The Irish Labour Party, while in government, boycotted all-male dinners held in Irish-American circles.

Let’s see if it leaves the UK Labour table it supped at, to burnish its left credentials. I predict that after a little handwringing all-round, nothing will happen. It is that likely outcome of indifference which is chilling and tellingly reminds Jews the virus is incurable and never goes away. It wasn’t hate that killed them, it was apathy.

Neither Unite nor Sinn Féin is likely to even wring its hands. They see solidarity with their enemy’s enemy as a credential.

The rest is collateral damage. In the case of Sinn Féin, it has long since crossed the boundary between criticism of Israel and full-blooded embrace of anti-Zionism — the new, but no longer young, anti-Semitism. It is the permission for and the ether of Jew-hate that has old resonances and new applications.

Fianna Fáil, led by its then foreign affairs spokesman Niall Collins, paddled in the murky drivellings at the edge of this swamp by embracing Senator Frances Black’s Occupied Territories Bill.

His conflation of separate issues was caught on air when he stated that he “wouldn’t entirely blame the Trump administration when we’re apportioning blame to the United States, because right across corporate America and right across America at every level there’s a huge Jewish lobby who have helped create the problem we are now discussing”.

That is of course exactly the alchemy that turns anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. They are there, they are everywhere, they are powerful, and they are hidden.

The premise is that the Jew is shifty, monied, and unmoored to the nation. In that sense Orwell was right. Anti-Semitism will not be definitely cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism.

The chief rabbi called out Corbyn’s defence when he described as “mendacious fiction” the claim that Labour was seriously tackling anti-Semitism. Mirvis, who spent many years leading the Jewish community in Ireland, said his decision to speak out “ranks among the most painful moments I have experienced since taking office”.

Yet he felt compelled to speak out because “the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” at the prospect of Corbyn becoming prime minister.

Given only appalling choices for British voters on December 12, his avowal was an extraordinary and courageous act.

“The way in which the leadership of the Labour Party has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud — of dignity and respect for all people,” wrote Mirvis.

But worse is the likelihood that many will be momentarily discomforted and then look away.

This is a moment of desperation for British Jewry. It is the culmination of decades of collusion, of silence, of silencing, and of normalisation inside a particular political paradigm. It mirrors what it is supposedly opposed to on the far-right. It runs alongside Islamophobia on the mainstream right. But in a western and a European context it has a particular echo.

This is the most horrible prejudice in European history. In and from the mouths of an apparently secular, enlightened left, it recaptures exactly the cachet of Diana Mitford cheering Oswald Mosely on towards the East End on his mission of Jew-baiting and Jew bashing. The Labour Party has been here before, lest it forget.

They rose up as one in indignation when by-election candidates here crossed the acceptable boundaries of political discourse. Apologies flowed from Fianna Fáil senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee in Dublin-Fingal and Fine Gael’s Verona Murphy in Wexford.

But that was easy. There was skin in the game. There are votes at stake. There was a God’s honest opportunity to discomfort an opponent. But on this, it seems there is no stake and consequently there will be no action.

As language coarsens and in that swirl anti-Semitism becomes normalised again as a politically correct extension of anti-Zionism, there is no pause for thought to remember that in its time and place, anti-Semitism was always politically correct. That’s why it happened and had permission. That permission is being issued again.

In countries across Europe, not least France, there is a real chill setting in in Jewish communities.

There is a constant, increasing abrasion of language and comment about Jews, frequently in the context of Israel. Israel is then held to standards that none of its neighbours are required to have.

There is an absolute refusal to consider either current context or recent history. The Jews are being ‘othered’ again.

In Britain this is one shard of a greater sundering. The Conservatives and Labour are in the hands of their own extremes.

The difference is that Boris Johnson believes in nothing, while we must fear that Corbyn believes in everything. Which is worse, only time will tell.

In Orwell’s time the Jew joke was common. That has largely been driven underground.

The joke is replaced now by the jibe. In circles on the left of the Labour Party, those that now control it, Jewishness has acquired the status of an accusation.

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