“Thanks for nothing, Mr Wakeford – you’ve had your pound of flesh” – some thoughts, David Hirsh

In response to JC 26 January, “Thanks for nothing, Mr Wakeford – you’vehad your pound of flesh” 

Angela Epstein accuses Christian Wakeford, the Tory MP who joined the Labour benches, of a ‘stinging act of disloyalty’ and ‘hypocrisy’; she says he is ‘dishonourable’ and ‘duplicitous’ and that he has betrayed the Jews who voted for him against Jeremy Corbyn.

Wakeford ‘made us feel we were safe’ she writes. But we had little choice. Many of us felt forced to vote vote only as Jews against antisemitism and so for the Boris Johnson Brexit Party that we did not support. This did not make me feel safe. Epstein says she feels the ‘Jewish vote amounts to a pound of flesh after all’ but we should also reflect on the harm done by reducing us to a ‘Jewish vote’.

When Jews are accused of ‘wanting their pound of flesh’, they are being accused, in the  language of the blood libel, of lacking Christian generosity and of enforcing our bare rights in violation of decency and justice. She aims this usually antisemitic jibe at Wakeford, who is not Jewish but who is supportive of the fight against antisemitism.

Angela Epstein twice employs language generally associated with the devil. She says Wakeford is now ‘supping’ with Corbyn’s former comrades and that he has ‘sold his soul’ to save his political career.

I resigned from the Labour Party on 21 February 2019. There were good reasons to ‘stay and fight’ and many who did feel vindicated by events. If Luke Akehurst had not stayed, how would the proposal at Labour’s NEC to restore the whip to Corbyn have been defeated? If Adrian Cohen had not stayed, what would have happened to Labour Friends of Israel? If Keir Starmer had not stayed, and in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, if he had not sidestepped some of the specific issues relating to antisemitism, who would be the challenger to Boris Johnson today?

I resigned because I was treated as a traitor: to the party, to decent values, to the left, to Britain. I was treated as an ‘Israeli asset’ and a closet racist, pretending to be on the left while really trying to help its enemies.

In a two party system, everybody has to pretend that one is a community of decent people while the other is morally corrupt. When antisemitism happens ‘over there’, it is symbolic of their moral corruption; but when it happens ‘over here’ it is only the odd bad apple.

It might not have gone so well for the ‘stayers and fighters’, even the ones who actually did fight. Many of them had promised to take a stand when they realised the antisemites had taken control. But when Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and the other five left on 19 Februry 2021, and Joan Ryan two days later, and a few brave Tories too, many MPs stayed in their comfy seats and portrayed themselves as the fighters; even Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, who had sung Am Yisrael Chai to show how much he opposed antisemitism, who might have led a critical mass of Labour people, and who in the end went without a word about why.

And remember that the Tories were also a Zombie party at that time, killed, hollowed out and re-animated by a populism that was anathema to the values that the Conservative Party had embraced for decades. It also turned on its own MPs, like Anna Soubry, Rory Stewart and David Gauke; Even Ken Clarke; and made them pariahs. The Johnson Tories tried to close down Parliament, they denounced educated, hard working people as unpatriotic, they exhumed the totalitarian language of ‘cosmopolitans’, ‘metropolitans’ and the ‘liberal elite’; and they denounced high court judges as ‘enemies of the people’.

Politics is a dirty game. Maybe it was smart to hold tight, weather the storm, and position yourself for when it passed. Tom Tugendhat came into the Commons quietly, with the cohort of Brexiters who replaced the unperson Tories. Tugendhat was there to make his iconic speech against the Biden-Trump-Johnson agreement to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Christian Wakeford was another in that cohort. While Luciana Berger was offering Finchley and Golders Green the chance to vote for an MP who opposed the mob politics of both Johnson and Corbyn, Wakeford was slipstreaming into Parliament proclaiming his readiness to vote for a ‘no deal Brexit’.

Today, Berger and Ummuna are forgotten and Wakeford is a proud Labour MP.

It is time to move on from the language of betrayal. Jews who have been active in the labour movement, or scholars or students in the humanities, or cultural producers in the arts, or teachers in our schools: most of us are pretty sick of accusations of disloyalty.

Left and right populism will be back, in Europe and America. The structures of the Labour Party have been cleaned up, it has formally recognised what it did and apologized, not least to its own whistle-blowers. The leadership is not antisemitic and Corbyn is not a Labour MP. Last year’s conference voted for the right motions against antisemitism but then it voted for the politics that underpins antisemitism: that Israel is apartheid and it should be boycotted and dismantled. There are reasons to worry about the right, too: its rhetoric about refugees and Muslims, its thirst for conflict with the European Union, its willingness to stoke the ‘culture wars’.

I do not forgive the Labour Party for the way it subjected me to antisemitism, and for the way it threatened British Jews. I will not rejoin but I could vote for it; other Jews are free, now, to make other judgments.

But Angela Epstein seems to have forgotten that it was Labour people like, for example Richard Gold, the Councillor in Bury, who understood the antisemitic threat most clearly. He has fought it for decades. Bury Labour did as much to fight Corbyn as Christian Wakeford did. We need a more engaged and reflective politics than ‘one side is good and the other is bad’.

David Hirsh
Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London