People seem to be very tribal. Travelling the world, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re almost all racist. Not necessarily vindictively so, but often even that. Even among the swelling ranks of Corbyn supporters, denouncing straw-man Conservatives for intolerance and xenophobia, it’s not uncommon to find surprisingly ethnically homogenous friendship groups, and a tendency to avoid substantive conversation — or, even, eye contact — when faced with someone speaking English as a second language.
For much of European history, Jewish communities were a major — if not the principal — target for racism. They’re not any more. They’re certainly not in the UK. Members of the white British Generation X know exactly whom the most nationalist, bigoted, and isolationist elements of society have goaded each other to tease, bully, deprecate, or tyrannise over the past thirty or forty years. And the targets are all more recent immigrant communities.
It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing, for me to say that at school through the 1980s and 1990s, I happily don’t recall a single incident of Jewish schoolfriends being a target for racism. By contrast, then and since, I can’t begin to recall the number of incidents that have left me winded over racism targeted at South Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or East Asian friends, partners, or even strangers.
In the South East of England, I had a harder time for being thin than my Jewish friends had for being Jewish. Other friends had a way harder time for having acne, or for being gay. Without doubt, experiences would have been different, and worse, for Jewish children living in more culturally homogenous enclaves, geographically adjacent to — but socially detached from — other British communities. Mine is an idiosyncratic account but, being the direct experience of over 40 years in provincial England, one that is hard for me to completely dismiss as a test of attitudes outside of particular regional flashpoints.
That there is a specifically anti-Jewish racism penetrating the UK body politic — something different to the racism that depressingly menaces relations between all communities — is a notion I’ve not experienced. That, I must emphatically convey, is not to claim that the crime has not been committed, but rather a confession that I can’t offer myself as witness to it.
That this particular strain of social pathology in endemic within the Labour Party membership — to an order that almost defines it demographically against the Conservative Party membership — seems an even more eccentric idea. It is, at best, a happily anachronistic anxiety. At worst, it’s a political device.
Many of us grew up with no axe to grind in the Middle East, had uninformed parents that were unable to make head nor tail of Middle East politics, and a mainstream media narrative that attributed the woes in Israel to a terrorist called Yasser Arafat, who hijacked planes, bombed civilians, and cackled at his victims’ demise like a cartoon villain.
Those of us that went on to discover that the region had a somewhat more complex past and present, unwittingly also went on to discover a second expanse of unchartered territory: that is, being on the receiving end of accusations of racism. Except not for the name-calling, teasing, or bullying that we’d witnessed on racial lines at school, but: for publicly demurring over Israeli government policy.
And right here is, for any newcomers to this political domain, a baptism of fire: A surprising number of people support security policies in Israel that are so dramatically deleterious to Palestinian civic life that they would be unconscionable in Britain. And yet to criticise those policies, with no agenda beyond challenging a friendly nation to manage criminality with more civility, can put you in a uniquely invidious position. Protesting against issues such as ‘detention without trial’ — uncontroversial if levelled at, say, North Korea — weaves you into a discursive tapestry that, by merely following the path of your conscience, can leave you depicted as the xenophobe.
Ever present in this ethical and political labyrinth is the shadow of the Holocaust, and it’s easy to appreciate why. But the unprecedented, industrial scale of human suffering inflicted upon European Jewry less than a hundred years ago is not, first and foremost, a Jewish tragedy: it’s a human tragedy. Any greater ethnolinguistic affiliation I might have with the British prisoners of war working on the Burma Railway, than I do with Jewish families summarily murdered in Eastern European death camps, counts for nothing when reflecting on their fate. They’re all my cousins, and the horrors they endured rank equal to me — in empathy, in sorrow, in opprobrium, and in fact.
Any other view would be a benign version of the ethnic, cultural, or religious exceptionalism that, in its most malignant form, mandated the atrocities in the first place.
And, given how easy it remains to imagine, in flashpoints across the globe, the word ‘Jew’ being displaced by ‘Yazidi’, or ‘Rohingya’, or even by ‘gay’, the relevance and poignancy of our collective memory of the Holocaust is not set to diminish any time soon.
Ethnocentric fascists in the early 20th Century framed, and then blamed, ‘other people’ for society’s problems in an act of political expediency that won them a mandate, at the cost of millions slain. Each time lobbyists invoke pejoratives reserved for those ideologues — purveyors of among the most evil doctrines ever to have terrorised humanity — to institutions as benign as the modern-day Labour Party, another pillar of the history’s potency collapses.
The misuse of history’s most important lessons by the most conservative elements of Israel’s political defenders, in order to silence its most vocal critics, is squandering one of the most valuable pedagogical assets that humanity owes posterity.
Illustration © 2017 Rikki Hewitt