Short Cuts

Stephen Sedley

When I was about eight my schoolfriend Harvey invited me to join his Anti-Jew Gang. I was born just after the outbreak of war, so this must have been 1947 or 1948. Harvey hadn’t the slightest idea what a Jew was, but since I was his friend it was evident I couldn’t be one. What he had picked up, presumably at home, was the vernacular anti-Semitism which had first excused and then validated everything from the Nuremberg Laws to the gas chambers and might readily have made collaborators of families like Harvey’s if Hitler had crossed the Channel. But it didn’t feel like that either to him or to me. What it presented me with was my first existential dilemma. If I now told Harvey I was Jewish, I was going to be the gang’s first target. So I said nothing, and eventually the gang dissipated without finding anyone to persecute. But what if they had? Either I was going to become a Kapo in short trousers, the paradigmatic combination of bully, coward and traitor; or I would have had to speak up and face the consequences (or, conceivably but improbably, shame the gang into remorse).

Manifestations of this kind of low-level racism were by no means confined to anti-Semitism. The boys’ books and magazines we all read contained the occasional Shylock figure, but the principal stereotypes were the sly and unctuous Oriental (almost certainly carrying a concealed stiletto), the untrustworthy Arab, the ingratiating Indian, and the black ‘native’ (it didn’t matter of where) who was either servile (‘Yes, b’wana’) or murderous. Colloquial English still contained the verb ‘to jew’ – meaning to swindle – and adults would regularly (and as often as not affectionately) call a scruffy child a dirty little Arab.

Cultural givens like these have not gone away, but they are continually changing. We Jews have been unusually successful at assimilating without forfeiting our identity, and I am comfortable as a secular custodian of my grandparents’ Anglo-Yiddish culture. The family still treasures the day my grandfather came home with the news that a bus had been struck by lightning – ‘a blitz hat getroffen a bus!’ When one of the children was sent out to get an evening paper, the headline read: ‘Lightning bus strike’.

Being an intermittently audible but not necessarily a visible minority has helped – an advantage not generally enjoyed by today’s Muslim minorities. Two of my paternal uncles, John and Robert, were blond and blue-eyed. John, in fact, was deployed after war service to the British Mandate force in Palestine. In uniform, he went into a Jewish-owned shop, and the shopkeeper said to a customer to whom she was speaking Yiddish: ‘Just a moment while I deal with this bastard.’ John gave her an earful of Yiddish. Although, as a Jew who doesn’t look particularly Jewish, I’ve heard plenty of low-level anti-Semitic remarks, I’ve encountered many more directed at black people: the brigadier at a dinner party, for instance, talking about the ‘nignogs’ in his regiment, then – when he noticed my expression – adding: ‘Super chaps!’ But I still catch my breath in alarm at some of the abuse directed at ‘obvious’ Jews, like the episode recently recounted by Howard Jacobson when a woman spat on him in the street and then suggested he needed a shower of a particular kind. When you consider the lethal attack on worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque last year, it may well be that it is Muslims who feel as threatened in Britain today as Jews did in the 1930s. (In Scotland, again for obvious reasons, it is Catholics or Protestants who are the targets of most recorded religiously motivated crime.)

EU surveys unsurprisingly show correlations between increases in anti-Semitic incidents and Israeli attacks on Palestine or Palestinians – Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Operation Protective Edge in mid-2014. It is unsurprising not because such reactions are logical or justified, but because they reflect both the cultural confusion and the deliberate conflation of Judaism with Israel – deliberate on the part both of hardline Zionism and of hardline jihadism, both of which it suits to claim or blame the acts of the Jewish state as done in the name of the world’s Jews. For the same kind of reason, the upswing in anti-Semitic incidents in and after 2014 which has caused considerable concern in the UK is far less likely to be a spontaneous occurrence than a crude reaction to events in the Middle East. It’s not difficult to see why anger at the West’s spoiled child, supplied with money and weapons while it continues to purloin its neighbours’ land and shoot down unarmed protesters, gets misdirected at Israelis’ cousins and co-religionists. Ferdinand Mount has described the Balfour Declaration of 1917 as ‘the last gasp of Edwardian nonchalance’, adding: ‘It is hard to imagine Palmerston or Peel launching into such a wild promise without thinking it through.’ But is it really right to describe the declaration’s consequences as unanticipated and unintended? My father didn’t think so. ‘So what came over these anti-Semites?’ he asked. ‘Altruism?’

There can be no doubt that among Israel’s critics and opponents are individuals and organisations willing to use all the anti-Semitic smears in the Nazi paintbox and to deny history. A proportion of them – no one can say who or how many – may hold Labour Party cards. A serious problem for honest critics of Israel in the Labour Party is the risk of finding themselves in bed with such people, and it may well be that Jeremy Corbyn has, at least until recently, been insufficiently alive to this. But it is a long way from here to the suggestion that the Labour Party is institutionally or culturally anti-Semitic, a charge to which the Chakrabarti report gave no sustenance. According to the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, such evidence as there is locates the source of about three-quarters of all anti-Semitic incidents on the far right of the political spectrum, while a YouGov survey last year indicated a marked reduction since 2015 in the number of Labour voters prepared to endorse given anti-Semitic propositions. It also indicated that, Lib Dems apart, other parties had a markedly higher proportion of voters prepared to endorse these propositions.

What has also to be kept in mind is the disinhibiting effect of the anonymity accorded by the internet. While anonymous phone calls and letters have been around for a long time (I received my fair share of the latter during my years as a judge), the ubiquity of insult and calumny in the everyday vocabulary of social media plays a not insignificant part in the foul-mouthed verbal assaults described by Jewish MPs in the recent Commons debate. This said, most Jews do understand the risk of hypersensitivity. There is the story about Goldbloom, doing well in the rag trade in Stepney, who has to make a dash for Euston to sort out a problem with his supplier in Glasgow. As the night sleeper pulls out, he realises he has left his overnight bag behind. Luckily the man occupying the other berth in the sleeper compartment has a spare pair of pyjamas, which he lends Goldbloom, and tells Goldbloom he can use his razor in the morning. But when Goldbloom asks if he can also borrow his toothbrush, he politely declines. The next evening, when he returns from Glasgow, Goldbloom’s wife asks him how the journey went. ‘Not bad,’ says Goldbloom, ‘but did I meet an anti-Semite!’

It may be worth asking why now? How is it that the use of live rounds to shoot unarmed protesters on the Gaza-Israel border (38 of them fatally at the time I write: without much question a major crime) has been pushed off the front pages by the continuing accusation that the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism about which Corbyn either can or will do nothing? One reason is that an undeclared war is going on inside the party, with pro-Israeli groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement seeking to drive out pro-Palestinian groups like Jewish Voice for Labour by stigmatising them, and Corbyn with them, as anti-Semitic. It is also a proxy war in which outside bodies – the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, neither of them noted for balanced criticism of Israel – are weighing in, aided by generous media coverage. The Board of Deputies has now insisted that Labour adopt in full the clumsy and tendentious definition of anti-Semitism put out in the name of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes a number of examples that can be seen as expressing legitimate criticism of Israel. Labour, correctly and in contrast to the UK government, has not adopted these.[*]

To support Palestinian rights is ineluctably to oppose Israeli behaviour and policy. But no logic dictates that opposition to Israel’s policies and conduct means opposition to Israel’s existence. History runs on a ratchet-wheel. The Israeli state, whatever one’s view of the rightness of its foundation, is today not only a fact on the ground (to use a phrase its politicians favour) but a sovereign political and legal entity. This being so, its entitlement to defend itself, like that of any other state, does not extend to enlarging its territory by stealth or force, much less to holding the population of neighbouring territories in military subjugation or using live rounds to shoot unarmed protesters beyond its own boundary. When an FCO-sponsored delegation of British lawyers, of which I was a member, went to Israel and the Occupied Territories in 2011 to look into the army’s treatment of Palestinian children, almost the first thing it saw, painted on the door of a deserted shop in Hebron, was ‘Gas the Arabs.’ Nobody, evidently, has a monopoly of genocidal abuse.

[*] Stephen Sedley wrote about definitions of anti-Semitism in the LRB of 4 May 2017 and in a letter of 8 February this year.