Two issues have dominated the UK over the last twelve months: Brexit and antisemitism in the Labour Party. The politics of both debates turn out to have much in common.
Conflicting national narratives; opposing notions of self-determination; a complex question presented as having a simple solution; a lack of civility in public debate; the use of fear tactics; and the demonisation of opponents.
In short, both issues have created plenty of heat but not much light.
The Brexit and antisemitism debates were running in parallel for most of 2018. In fact, the allegations of antisemitism made against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, was the only story to regularly push Brexit from the top of the domestic news agenda.
As we begin 2019 and the House of Commons confronts its on-going multi-dimensional gridlock, the same themes and poor behaviours have returned to both debates.
Brexit is a very British tragicomedy and, as our Prime Minister said this week, we could be heading for “uncharted waters”. The same ominous language could be applied to the antisemitism debate.
For full disclosure, I should say at the outset that I voted to ‘Remain’ in the EU in the June 2016 referendum. I voted as a UK citizen, as a European Jew and as a campaigner for Palestinian rights. On all counts I saw our biggest challenges as requiring an international approach with the need for greater co-operation between nations. I haven’t changed my views on that.
Looking at the similarities between Brexit and the antisemitism debate is a helpful way to understand the dynamics at play particularly within the Jewish community. That could turn out to be even more relevant if the Brexit deadlock leads to a second referendum or even a General Election in 2019. At that point, the Brexit and antisemitism debate will become part of a single story.
Since the leadership of the Jewish community in the UK (and around the world) insists that all discussion of antisemitism must now be understood within the context of Israel and Zionism, it’s safe to say that both Brexit and antisemitism have become debates about what constitutes national identity and national self-determination.
Jewish history can be read as a never ending story about how best to achieve Jewish security as a minority community.
After the European Enlightenment of the 17th century the options for security and success appeared to multiply for Jews as individuals but remained highly problematic for Jews collectively. The emerging European nationalism had a regressive outlook about who could or could not ‘belong’ and who would be forever ‘alien’. Even the most successful and assimilated Jews, even the most radical and revolutionary, turned out to be ‘foreigners’ when it really counted.
In Zionist thought, the Holocaust is seen as the final proof of the ultimate impossibility of Jewish acceptance and the failure of all survival strategies pursued up to that point.
While leaving or remaining in the EU still divides the UK population as a whole, over the last 70 years the debate over how best to secure long-term Jewish security appears to have been settled once and for all.
Zionism and its belief that Jewish peoplehood and national self-determination are best defined in the context of a nation state with the same ethnic bias as 18th century European states, has won the day. So much so that it’s no longer possible to even present this strategy as a once competing ideology among many. Zionism is now understood as timeless, essential and beyond criticism. It’s a truly remarkable achievement.
What was once a political programme is now an article of faith for the vast majority of religious Jews, and common sense for secular Jews. For religious and non-religious, the necessity of Zionism is no longer a question of political affiliation, it’s an emotional disposition. It’s this which makes the debate over what is and isn’t antisemitism so difficult both within the Jewish community and beyond. Jewish critics of Zionism become traitors and non-Jewish critics become antisemites. Palestinian objections are also reduced to a timeless hostility towards Jews as the root cause of their antipathy.
But despite our emotional attachment to Zionism, half the world’s Jewish population still choose to live in countries other than Israel. There’s no barrier to Jews moving to Israel to exercise and guarantee our self- determination individually and collectively. Yet, 50% of us are still trying our luck elsewhere.
In theory we’re in no doubt about Israel. In practice we’re ambivalent. Squaring this circle is usually achieved by viewing Israel as a ‘life raft’ with guaranteed seats reserved. It’s comforting to know you have a ‘spare country’ if things get tricky, as they often have, and could do again. Most minority groups have no such option.
Zionism, to use the campaign rhetoric of the Brexiteers, is all about ‘taking back control of our destiny’. There are other Brexit similarities too. Zionism believes it’s possible to ‘go it alone’ and that this is the best way to address the challenges we face. But like those that believe ‘Leaving’ the EU is a panacea for all our woes, Zionism has also presented us with a false prospectus, a simple solution to complex problems.
If safety and security and the ‘normalisation of the Jewish condition’ was the promise of Zionism, then surely it’s been a failure.
Creating a garrison state based on European style settler colonialism which we present to ourselves and the world as a ‘Return’ hasn’t solved the question of how to be Jewish. However, it has, as I wrote to commemorate Israel’s 70th anniversary last year, created a whole host of new problems.
A longer reading of Jewish history, including our previous biblical attempts at nationhood, should have alerted the 19th century Zionist thinkers of the shortcomings of this strategy. We’ve tried this before.
The kingdoms of Ancient Israel were fragile and vulnerable, dependent on endless compromise and negotiation with more powerful neighbours. Ancient Israel was either protected or vanquished at the whim of regional empires. Has anything changed? Yesterday’s Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Roman empires are today’s America, Russia and China.
A toxic debate
Brexit has created a general hardening of political discourse in the UK and a disturbing decline in civility in public life.
One prominent Remain voting Tory MP, Anna Soubry, was this week called a Nazi by pro-Brexit supporters as she took part in a live BBC interview outside Westminster. It was a rare occurrence of ‘Nazi’ being used as a term of abuse outside of an Israel/Palestine context.
Like Brexit, the debate about antisemitism has also become increasingly toxic and uncivil, with accusations of Nazism (from all directions) all too common.
The reason for the toxicity within Jewish affairs is the need to defend Zionism against the charge of racism which, if it sticks, not only undermines the legitimacy of the State of Israel but will cause the unraveling of our modern, Zionist-anchored, Jewish identity too.
So, just as with Brexit, the stakes are high. Both debates feel, and are treated as, existential in their implications.
It explains the concerted efforts by the Jewish establishment in the UK to vilify Jeremy Corbyn for his Palestinian solidarity. It explains the agenda behind the promotion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism along with its illustrations, including the insistence that calling Israel “a racist endeavor” is an example of antisemitism.
It also explains the abuse directed at young Jews in the UK who last year had the temerity to think the Palestinian protestors killed by Israeli snipers along the Gaza fence were worthy of their Jewish prayers.
Those that publicly prayed for the dead of Gaza were accused by a leading mainstream orthodox rabbi, Yitzchak Schochet, of being no better than “Kapos” – the Jewish concentration camp inmates who helped the Nazis with their killing.
Liberal and Reform Rabbis, such as Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, have called for greater civility, fearing the debate over Israel could “destroy” the community. Similar calls have been made in the Brexit context.
It’s a shame that even our most progressive rabbis are trapped in a Zionist outlook that severely limits their critique. The Book of Deuteronomy tells us “justice, justice, shall you pursue” but today, when it comes to Israel, it seems we must make do with a better run debating society.
The absence of civility may not be destroying the Jewish community just yet, but it’s certainly pointing towards a growing generational fracturing over Israel, just as we’re seeing in the United States. These are our “uncharted waters”.
Hardline pro-Brexiteers like to accuse their opponents of running a scare campaign about the consequences of a no-deal departure from the EU this spring. Corbyn’s accusers within the Jewish community have been running their own version of ‘project fear’. And this is where it starts to look as if the Brexit and antisemitism debates are intersecting.
Last summer’s incendiary claim that the Jewish community faces an “existential threat” under a future Corbyn government was being re-stoked at the turn of the year.
Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, the pro-Brexit City Editor for the Pro-Brexit Daily Mail, Alex Brummer, set out the financial reasons why the Jewish community should fear a Corbyn government. The article was headlined “The thought of Corbyn has Jewish investors running for the hills”.
If it hadn’t been written by a Jewish journalist and published in a Jewish newspaper it would certainly have been held up as gross antisemitism. It presented the Jewish community as obsessive about its wealth and in fear of Labour’s “chilling” tax hikes targeting the well-off. And before too long, Brummer was invoking the Holocaust as a precedent for Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s potential taxation plans.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, the confiscation of Jewish assets in Germany and elsewhere signaled the start of the Holocaust, a period that is built into Jews’ DNA.”
I thought the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, was foolish in likening Corbyn to Enoch Powell last August, but clearly there’s no longer a political or moral filter in place when it comes to defending Israel and Zionism.
If Theresa May fails to get Commons backing for her EU departure deal (currently the vote’s scheduled for 15th January) any number of scenarios could start to play out. Including a General Election. If that happens, the anti-Corbyn version of project fear will have accusations of antisemitism baked into it.
The communities we build together
Faith in the rejuvenating powers of Brexit or faith in the notion that Jewish national self-determination is sacrosanct both turn out to be false messiahs.
There is no such thing as ‘taking back control’ or ‘going it alone’ for any of us.
For the UK, the challenges of global capitalism, climate change or mass migrations, cannot be addressed in isolation from our nearest trading partners. For the Jewish community, defending an ethnic nation state built on the dispossession of another people, will never achieve security or normality. Antisemitism is real, it always will be, and it will not disappear because we have a nation state.
Knowing how to adapt to changing circumstances will continue to be the Jewish story both in Israel and around the world. Jewish peoplehood rather than Jewish nationhood will stand the test of time but not without setbacks and tragedies as we saw in Pittsburgh last October.
For all of us, we are only as safe and secure as the communities we build together locally and internationally. Everything else is an illusion.
A version of this article was originally published by Robert A.H. Cohen on his blog at Patheos on January 9, 2019.