De Montfort University students’ union is calling for a name change, to rid the institution of its association with Simon de Montfort (c.1205-65), the sixth earl of Leicester, leader of the barons’ revolt against Henry III and a key figure in the prehistory of parliamentary democracy. He also happened to be a hater of Jews (antisemitism wouldn’t exist as a term for another six hundred years) who expelled the Jewish community from Leicester. His supporters assaulted and murdered Jews across the country.
Maurice Podro, the last surviving member of the 43 Group, died in June. He was 91. The group fought against the postwar fascism of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts using many of the tactics still favoured by anti-fascist organisations today. Like many Jews returning from the war, Podro was devastated to find fascism thriving in the UK. Mosley had reappeared with a new party, the Union Movement, which, like the British Union of Fascists in the interwar years, sought to stir up resentment against Jews in working-class neighbourhoods by holding rallies at such places as Ridley Road Market, home to East London’s largest Jewish community. In April 1946, the final report of the government committee on fascism concluded it would be neither ‘desirable’ nor ‘in the best interests of the Jews themselves to introduce any special measures against anti-Semitic propaganda’.
I’m an opinionated Jew with a PhD in the history of antisemitism, but I find it daunting to weigh in on the debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. To describe the accusations as disproportionate is to risk being branded an antisemite. But while genuine instances of antisemitism should be tackled, there is no more of it in Labour than in other parties. The sustained offensive by the Labour right and by Conservatives is not only unfairly damaging the party and the left in general, it also unthinkingly reinforces antisemitic motifs.
Walking through downtown Squirrel Hill last Friday, I noticed, not for the first time, how homely it all seemed: the shabby student housing above the storefronts, the faded clapboard of Jerry’s Records, the brushes in the shoe repair window that look as if they were dropped there in 1970, the sidewalk in front of the Greek deli that is scrubbed daily but never gets clean. On Monday night, at a barricade half a block from Tree of Life Synagogue, I overheard University of Pittsburgh students telling a reporter from Le Monde that the neighbourhood is ‘rich’. ‘A rich neighbourhood?’ he repeated, scribbling into a notebook wet with rain. The houses around the synagogue are brick, with generous front porches, and guarded by maples, rhododendrons, hemlocks. They have a classic Pittsburgh beauty. When I heard the word ‘rich’, I felt the cityscape close in. A story would go to press that people around the world would read in a few hours’ time.
With what just happened in Pittsburgh it is easy to forget what things were like in the 1930s in America. I remember because I was growing up then. We used to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio. He said things like this:
Fascism in fiction has been in vogue for a while now: the television versions of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle, Penguin’s republication (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, people scurrying to the bookshelves to note all the pre-echoes of Steve Bannon’s politics in Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. I don’t know what emotional need these might-have-beens and could-it-yet-bes serve, unless it’s a version of ferreting around in Nostradamus for strings of words that might be contorted into a prediction of something that’s just happened: things feel more manageable when you can tell yourself that someone saw this coming.
On Sunday, 27 May, supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gathered in the centre of Berlin. Founded in 2013, the AfD has quickly amassed sizeable support. Were an election held today, the party would probably get 14 per cent of the vote. The parallels between the AfD and Ukip – or, rather, Ukip before its sudden, post-Brexit decline – are striking. Like Ukip, the AfD has its roots in nationalist, anti-EU sentiment. It opposes the perceived dominance of Brussels and the bailout of the banks. Like Ukip, it combines social conservatism with more or less explicit xenophobia and racism. Like Ukip, it contains openly fascist elements. And, like Ukip, it draws energy from the sense of abandonment, resentment and despair bred by neoliberalism and austerity.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise and needs to be challenged. But the working definition of anti-Semitism that was formally adopted this week by the British government is dangerous. It says that anyone who subjects Israel to 'double standards by requiring of it behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation' is an anti-Semite.
In February, the Israeli prime minister praised the British government for introducing new guidelines prohibiting publicly funded bodies from boycotting Israeli products. ‘I want to commend the British government for refusing to discriminate against Israel and Israelis and I commend you for standing up for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East,’ Netanyahu said.
‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or 'Antiqua' letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century. In Britain, the ‘Old English’ variant survived in the ceremonial ‘Whereases’ of indentures and statutory preambles. It lingers on in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ signs, Heavy Metal rock graphics, neo-Nazi tattoos and the mastheads of the dailies Telegraph and Mail.