A poster depicting Theresa May with Star of David earrings appeared in Bristol this week, designed by Labour supporters, and drew rightful condemnation for its anti-Semitic overtones.
Those behind the image may have intended for it to symbolise May’s ties with Israel, rather than promoting the age-old trope of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. However, through their actions – intentional or otherwise (one of those involved is quoted as calling the imagery “a critique of [May’s] foreign policy, rather than against religion”) – they undoubtedly evoke the latter.
You’ve seen the media reports of Labour’s anti-Semitic past; Ken Livingstone’s comments, the tone of abuse from certain sections of their support, the criticism Jeremy Corbyn has received for sharing a platform with others that have espoused anti-Semitic views and this ought to be another nail in the party’s coffin, right?
It’s not that simple. Though I do have some reservations as a Jew and a British citizen, I have seen little to suggest life would be better for many inside and outside the Jewish community under five more years of Tory rule.
Here, I am deliberately not going to get into the discussion of British-Israeli relations and associated criticism. While there may be a substantial crossover between those critical of Israel and those prone to unabashed anti-Semitic behaviour, to criticise the country and its foreign policy is not inherently anti-Semitic in nature. Others have written about this specifically in far greater detail, and I urge you to read up on the matter whenever you have the opportunity.
However, there have been more black-and-white examples of anti-Semitic sentiment within the Labour party have not, I feel, been challenged as much as should be the case. Ken Livingstone evoked the ‘money-loving Jew’ trope when he allegedly suggested ahead during his 2012 London Mayoral campaign that Jewish voters, being wealthy, would not vote for him. Speaking at the time, Livingstone claimed:
“Every psephological study I've seen in the 40 years I've been following politics shows the main factor that determines how people vote is their income level. And it's not anti-Semitic to say that.”
Jeremy Corbyn has rightfully attracted criticism for his failure to take a harder line on Livingstone, a man with a history of courting controversy, including accusing a Jewish journalist of “behaving like a concentration camp guard”. But it ultimately feels as though the same criticism of inaction was not sustained as vigorously, or as repeatedly when previous Labour leaders were in Corbyn’s position.
This is not to excuse Corbyn – far from it – but it remains difficult to assume that he or the 2017 incarnation of Labour are the problem, or indeed Labour at all..
People have short memories, it seems. It’s just two short years since Labour’s Jewish leader Ed Miliband was subjected to dog-whistle anti-Semitism in the days, weeks and years leading up to the 2015 General Election.
The repeated line was to characterise Miliband as a member of the ‘North London Elite’; a pointedly “weird” geeky intellectual. It’s a characterisation straight out of the anti-Semitism playbook. As Francis Beckett wrote in The New Statesman earlier this year, ‘Calling Ed Miliband “weird” was another code, and the argument that we should have had David Miliband, not Ed, because he looked and sounded better was a coded way of saying that he looked and sounded less Jewish.’
An entire swathe of the news cycle was devoted to a Jewish man’s struggles with a bacon sandwich, so much so that ‘Ed Miliband sandwich’ remains the third Google autofill suggestion when you search his name.
This kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to Jewish public figures is a staple of the right-wing press, as demonstrated by the Daily Mail’s 2013 article declaring Miliband’s father Ralph ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, and – as Owen Jones noted at the time – ‘That the target of this constant drip-drip of “questionable national loyalty to say the least” is the Jewish son of an immigrant is disturbing’.
Ralph Miliband spent much of his life repeatedly pointing out that a Jewish refugee like him will never be accepted as British, and the Mail responded by printing a character assassination in 2013 (19 years after his death) including the line: “Given this tirade, one is entitled to wonder whether Ralph Miliband's Marxism was actually fuelled by a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder as he lived in his adoptive country.”
And the right-wing’s problems aren’t contained to their press. Make no mistake, the Prime Minister’s attitude towards refugees and immigration, and the populist rhetoric surrounding them, would spelt bad news for Jews seeking refuge in the UK in previous eras.
Jemima Khan this week pointed out the hypocrisy of her brother, Ben Goldsmith, for invoking Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, pointing out that Ben himself was “the grandson of a German Jewish immigrant”, and there remains a sense that part of the Conservatives’ rhetoric when it comes to immigration relies on the sensibilities of those prepared to kick away the drawbridge after making it onto dry land.
We saw this with another Conservative and another Goldsmith, when Zac ran against Sadiq Khan in the most recent London mayoral election. The Tory candidate actively attempted to pit the Tamil and British Indian community against his Rival, with leaflets alleging that Sadiq Khan planned a wealth tax on family jewellery. Here, the good immigrant/bad immigrant binary filters into a divide and conquer attitude, attempting to persuade a willingness for anti-immigrant sentiment even from those Britons descended from immigrants themselves. It’s this same attitude that saw Jewish refugees turned away from post-war America
By buying into the idea that only the Labour Party can pose an anti-Semitic threat, we are being wilfully ignorant of the past and the present. Having mercifully avoided oblique anti-Semitic imagery when growing up in London, I have been far more aware of swastikas and calls to ‘go home’ in the last half-decade.
For this reason, suggestions that things will be ‘less safe’ for us under a Labour government – as Theresa May’s approach to terrorism seems to hinge on – ring hollow. There is minimal evidence that things would be any different under a Tory government. Certain anti-Semites may be empowered by a Labour victory, but to suggest this would mark a change from the countless anti-Semites left undeterred under the current administration is pure speculation that only serves to diminish the genuine issues already faced by the UK’s Jewish population.
If the Conservatives were truly sensitive to our concerns, would they really be talking about them in the future tense? Would they really be holding hands with Donald Trump, a man who, while running for office, shared an image featuring opponent Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of money and with a Star of David centre-stage?
This election, we have a choice between a Prime Minister who has repeatedly called for the diminishing of our human rights, or one who has shown he cares about tackling inequality and has delivered manifesto policies to that end. It makes sense to think carefully about who to vote for at this election, but the premise that no Jewish voter can put a cross next to the name of a Labour candidate has little basis in reality.