How did we get into this situation? Last week we were faced with a choice. Theresa May promised a headlong attempt to alienate Britain from its friends, its markets and its talent, and to break up the democratic institutions which Europe built when it emerged from totalitarianism; and the other option was voting Labour, knowing that it might put Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has been heavily involved in antisemitic politics for decades, into no. 10. Next month, or perhaps in six months, we’ll be faced with a similar choice again.
The Tories gave us this disastrous referendum, whose poison in the body politic will not be spent for a generation. Theresa May jumped to the simple conclusion that Brexit meant Brexit. She was wrong. She thought that the country had decided to leave the European Union and she offered to execute that decision in rational way.
What she didn’t understand was that Brexit didn’t mean Brexit; it was a cypher, a codeword; and it meant different things to different people. Some voted Brexit because they thought the EU was socialist and it prevented Britain from following a free market agenda; others voted Brexit because they thought the EU was capitalist and it stopped Britain from following a socialist agenda. Some voted Brexit because they felt out of control and they imagined it would help; others because they didn’t like foreigners living in Britain; some felt a special resentment towards the foreigners who were working hard, educating their children and making a life for themselves in difficult circumstances. Some voted Brexit because they believed the EU takes all our money; they didn’t know that the burgeoning Brexit bureaucracy, the new ministries, experts, lawyers and negotiators would be much more expensive, and for no benefit.
May offered a strong and stable Brexit and the electorate just laughed at her. Those who wanted ‘strong and stable’ didn’t want Brexit and those who wanted Brexit were excited about radical and reckless transformation. They didn’t want it implemented, that was last year’s politics of resentment. This year’s is Jeremy Corbyn.
And why is he the only alternative? If you don’t know by now that Jeremy Corbyn embraces certain kinds of antismeitic and totalitarian politics, then you don’t want to know.
I thought that just Corbyn’s work for the Iranian propaganda TV station disqualified him from leadership; or just the fact that he had once said that Hamas and Hezbollah were dedicated to peace and justice; or that he supported a boycott of Israel but nowhere else on the planet. Any one of a hundred things he’s done makes him unsuitable to lead the Labour Party, let alone to be Prime Minister.
But we need to stop being surprised. I was shocked when my academic colleagues voted to boycott Israel; and again when they failed to understand why that was so wrong; and again when we were pushed out of the discussion in the University and College Union; and when the Employment Tribunal listened to our evidence about antisemitism for three weeks and then told us it all amounted to a dirty trick to silence criticism of Israel; and again when Corbyn was elected leader; and then a second time; and when when Shami Chakrabarti whitewashed the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism; and when the Labour Party refused to expel Ken Livingstone; and then when Corbyn came within a sniff of no. 10. We need to stop being surprised. Respected film makers like Ken Loach and loved children’s writers like Michael Rosen will continue to goad us for even raising the issue of antisemitism.
I sat at home all day last Thursday brooding. By 8pm my step-daughter took me by the arm and insisted I exercise my democratic right. I stood outside the polling station. She pushed me in. I stood looking at the names on the ballot. My Tory neighbour three doors down Mike Freer? I like him. We chat in the street; he is a good man, a liberal, a democrat, a fighter against antisemitism and homophobia. But he’s on Team May and Team Brexit. The Lib Dem Jonathan Davies? Sure, he seems nice; but we are in a two-party system.
Jeremy Newmark, my old comrade from the trenches against antisemitism? We have fought Corbyn’s politics together for 25 years. I wanted him in the Parliament, inside the Labour Party, fighting antisemitism. And when I thought he might have won his seat, I was happy; I couldn’t help May or Corbyn, but Newmark could be in Parliament.
It turned out that there were only four constituencies where Labour was punished for its leader’s antisemitism and one of them was Newmark’s; all four are home to significant Jewish populations. Four Labour gains from the Tories might have made a difference. And they were close. Antisemitism did not seem to be an issue anywhere else. I was transfixed by the election night coverage for nine hours; anitsemitism was not mentioned once.
We don’t know if people just don’t care about antisemitism; or if they don’t know; or they don’t want to know; or they don’t understand; or they think it’s all a Zionist and Tory smear; or if they think Corbyn just wants to help Palestinians. Or if they judge Jeremy Corbyn to be an antisemite but they vote for him anyway, because there are other issues in the mix too.
But of course Corbyn is also a cypher, a blank populist canvass onto which everybody paints their own fantasy.
Lots of UKIP supporters in the old Labour heartlands voted for him. London Remainers also voted for him. People who have experienced the humiliation and fear of Tory ‘Work Capability Assessments’ voted for Corbyn. People who hate the cash squeeze on the NHS voted for Corbyn. People who can’t, or don’t want to help pay for their kids to go to university voted for Corbyn. People who work hard but can’t afford somewhere to live voted for him. People who blame British foreign policy for terrorism and people who imagine that if we were nicer, the terrorists would leave us alone. People who admire Hamas, the IRA, Hezbollah, Chavez, Castro and Putin voted for Corbyn. People who blame bankers, the Rothchilds and the ‘Davosocracy’ voted for Corbyn. People who like Corbyn’s refusal to step into line voted for him. People who hate Corbyn but like Labour voted for him. People who hate Labour but like Corbyn voted for him.
We’re going to be in an impossible position in the coming election. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it but I know how we got into it. We were unable to stop antisemitic politics being normalized on the left and we were unable to stop it from moving into the mainstream. And liberal Tories were unable to stop the politics of resentment and xenophobia from mainstreaming too.
Yet Rabbi Joel Levy at Kol Nefesh Shul told me on Shabbat morning that I must bless what has already happened, or at least accommodate myself to it; accept it. But that I should scream at the future; and pray for help in shaping it.
Tories need to understand that denouncing Labour voters as Nazis is not a strategy; they have to understand how their own populism endangers British democracy. As Michael Hestletine said, if they press ahead with Brexit now, they will give us Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. They need to offer an alternative to Corbyn, not a mirror image. Promising to tear down European co-operation and institutions and to license the rise of xenophobic nationalism across our continent will not pull middle England away from the small marginal swing to Labour that would give us a Corbyn government.
And we on the left have to start winning our basic arguments. We have to force Corbyn to account for his past if he is to carry on into future; we have to keep our courage and not go silent; we must not be seduced into acquiescence by a sniff of power. We will not stop educating people to recognise and oppose antisemitism; we will not stop calling it out when we see it; we will not stop treating antisemitism as something important.
Antisemitism is not one little eccentricity; it is an indicator of a profound political malaise. It cannot be ignored, or put in the balance against other priorities.
But don’t forget, Corbyn did not win. David Seymour, a scholar of antisemitism, wrote that the current atmosphere reminds him of a small town whose non-league team just held Manchester United to a draw; now it is rashly looking forward to the replay at Old Trafford.
On the other hand, maybe Corbyn is on the rise and is ready to sweep to power. I am no longer in the prediction game.
All I can say is that we need to keep screaming about the future; we need to keep focused on democracy and reason and the fundamental equality of human beings; and we need to keep opposing the politics of symbolic rage.
We have not forgotten that another critique of democracy bathed our people in blood even during this election campaign. This is not the time for empty cyphers or adolescent rage; it is a time for democratic clarity and unity: in Britain, in Europe, in America, and across the world.
Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London
Author of the forthcoming book ‘Contemporary left Antisemitism’