Writing in The Telegraph on 3rd May, the UK’s Chief Rabbi addresses the problem of antisemitism on the hard left of British politics.
The time has come to give the lie to a myth that has not only dominated recent headlines, but that has poisoned public discourse on anti-Semitism and Israel for decades.
It is astonishing to see figures on the hard Left of the British political spectrum presuming to define the relationship between Judaism and Zionism despite themselves being neither Jews nor Zionists. The likes of Ken Livingstone and Malia Boattia claim that Zionism is separate from Judaism as a faith; that it is purely political; that it is expansionist, colonialist and imperialist.
It is unclear why these people feel qualified to provide such an analysis of one of the axioms of Jewish belief. But let me be very clear. Their claims are a fiction. They are a wilful distortion of a noble and integral part of Judaism. Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years. One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.
“To those who so eagerly reach for a vicious Holocaust reference in order to exact the maximum amount of pain and offence upon “Zionists”, I say: You are spreading that ancient and insidious virus of anti-Semitism. Look around you”
Open a Jewish daily prayer book used in any part of the world and Zionism will leap out at you. The innumerable references to the land of Israel are inescapable and demonstrative. Throughout our collective history we have yearned for a chance to determine our own future, to revive an ancient language and return to rejoice in our love for this tiny sliver of land. Zionism is a movement celebrated by people right across the political spectrum, all over the world, and requires no endorsement or otherwise of the particular policies of any Israeli Government at any time.
But to those people who have nevertheless sought to redefine Zionism, who vilify and delegitimize it, I say: Be under no illusions – you are deeply insulting not only the Jewish community but countless others who instinctively reject the politics of distortion and demonisation. To those who so eagerly reach for a vicious Holocaust reference in order to exact the maximum amount of pain and offence upon “Zionists”, I say: You are spreading that ancient and insidious virus of anti-Semitism.
Look around you. There are many good people in our society who are no longer prepared quietly to endure your poisonous invective, simply because you used the word “Zionist” or “Zio” instead of the word “Jew”. There are many people who are now calling you out and forcing you to answer for your prejudice. There are many people, from all sectors of our society, who are demanding more responsibility, particularly from our politicians, for stamping out racism and anti-Semitism.
“It has never been clearer to me just how widely understood that truism is. Anti-Semitism is not just a problem for Jews; it is a problem for all of our society”
Comments from senior and long-standing members of the Labour Party, both Jewish and not, showjust how severe the problem has now become. Everyone agrees that there must be no place for anti-Semitism in our politics and I welcome the inquiry recently announced by the Party’s leadership. And yet, I would sound an urgent note of caution.
In recent days, we have heard anti-Semitism in the Labour Party described variously as “a smear” and as “mood music” being manipulated by political opponents of Jeremy Corbyn. There has been nothing more disheartening in this story than the suggestion that this is more about politics than about substance. The worst of mistakes, in trying to address this problem, would be to treat it as a political attack which requires a political solution.
If this inquiry turns out to be no more than a sticking plaster, designed to placate and diffuse until after the elections this week, the problem will surely get worse and not better. Jeremy Corbyn has stated that his party “will not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form,” and I very much hope that this inquiry will deliver on that pledge and be followed by decisive action. All political parties share in the responsibility to rid our society of anti-Semitism but we cannot achieve that objective with political posturing or empty promises of action never to be fulfilled.
“If anything, I feel optimistic about the way that this problem has been received”
The last 10 days have lifted the lid on a challenging issue, but if anything, I feel optimistic about the way that this problem has been received. Jews are frequently compared to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, an enduring signal for when the world is failing to meet its obligations in tackling bigotry. It has never been clearer to me just how widely understood that truism is.
Anti-Semitism is not just a problem for Jews; it is a problem for all of our society. I draw a great deal of comfort from the very strong response that this sorry affair has elicited. There must be no corner of Britain today in which anti-Semitism can lurk.