Ever since accusations of Labour antisemitism first hit the national media, I’ve found myself fielding uncomfortable questions from friends and strangers alike. I’ve never actually voted Labour before, and I have no desire to become an expert on the party’s internal politics.
But now I have no choice, because although antisemitism is a growing problem, it is being weaponised by some for political purposes. And these people are doing so in my name.
In an unprecedented intervention in the election campaign, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis last week said that Corbyn was not fit to be Prime Minister over his handling of antisemitism in the Labour party. And yesterday after much pressure, Corbyn apologised on ITV’s This Morning. But I disagree with Rabbi Mirvis.
As a British Jew, I’m genuinely scared by the rising tide of antisemitism across Europe and the English-speaking world. But I know that antisemitism and other forms of racism go together. There is no safety or dignity for Jews without safety and dignity for everyone.
I was raised in a relatively observant Jewish household in Hackney, east London, before moving with my family to Jerusalem, where I spent my teens. Coming of age in Jerusalem was a political eye-opener; I too often saw religious doctrine used as a substitute for ethical responsibility.
Now, back in the UK and living in Bristol, my Jewishness is an important part of my life, but I don’t feel represented by established Jewish communities. I still light candles on the sabbath and fast on Yom Kippur. I’ve hosted Jewish workshops and events at my home and with friends. I’m proud and grateful to be part of a growing alternative Jewish community here in Bristol, drawing inspiration from a diverse and radical Jewish heritage.
Being a Jew in today’s world can expose you to violence in all sorts of ways, and my life is no exception. In London, my little brother and I were sometimes physically attacked walking home in uniform from our Jewish primary school.
Later, in Jerusalem, I narrowly missed fatal bomb attacks on a number of occasions. On the same commute, I was regularly followed by a gang of ultra-Orthodox kids who threw stones and called me ‘slut’ for wearing long hair and jeans (my older brother got the same treatment). And I’ve had a rib fractured by the rifle butt of an Israeli border guard while resisting the destruction of Palestinian citrus groves.
Some of these experiences can be directly or indirectly linked to antisemitism. All of them, though, are complicated by the political ramifications of the Zionist occupation of Palestine. As diaspora Jews, we can find ourselves sandwiched between the actions of the Israeli State and the backlash by antisemites in the UK, with spikes of antisemitic incidents occurring during Israeli assaults on Gaza.
A number of Jewish leaders have spoken up recently against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, claiming to speak for all British Jews, and fanning an atmosphere of fear and confusion.
Many Jews have become genuinely fearful and concerned, while non-Jews are left confused and conflicted, not wanting to ignore a serious allegation. We’ve even seen claims that Jews are boycotting Labour and consider leaving Britain en-masse in the event of an election swing to the left.
I will not shy away from the fact that the Labour party’s handling of antisemitic incidents among its membership has left critics unsatisfied. But this is not the same as saying the party has fostered antisemitism, far from it.
As columnist Mehdi Hassan said: “You can agree that antisemitism is definitely a problem on some parts of the left and needs to be loudly denounced while also agreeing that Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents are cynically using it as a stick with which to beat him.”
The idea that the left is uniquely threatening is absurd. Antisemitism has soared along with other hate crimes over recent years, and some took the referendum as a green light for casual racism.
Besides the running scandal of Boris Johnson’s unapologetically racist and homophobic comments, he is friendly with explicitly antisemitic politicians like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Steve Bannon, the former Chief Strategist to Donald Trump.
Two Tory candidates were recently dismissed for their antisemitic remarks, with remarkably little fanfare. Just last week, Theresa May unveiled a statue to Lady Astor, a known Nazi sympathiser. Johnson attended.
Corbyn, by contrast, is a committed anti-racist and has spent over 40 years actively campaigning against antisemitism. While this doesn’t make Labour antisemitism a non-issue, it does make me wonder how and why the scrutiny has come to be so one-sided. Thankfully, many Jewish public figures have spoken up in the last few days to challenge this narrative – a quick web search will find a number of beautifully detailed and patient analyses.
The suggestion that Jews might be somehow better off under any other government than Corbyn’s Labour and may leave en-masse is also a dangerous one, and plays into notions that are themselves antisemitic.
First, it suggests that British Jews are one homogenous block of people with identical views and interests, rather than people with real and varied lives.
Second, it implies that Jews are a universally wealthy, mobile elite with no ties to our specific geographical homes. In truth, most of us don’t want to leave our homes here – and couldn’t afford to, if we did. What’s more, the vast majority of us stand to benefit, not to lose out, from Labour’s proposal to reinstate a healthy social welfare system based on taxing the ultra-rich.
Worst of all, though, it seems to assume that we as Jews could somehow keep ourselves safe by siding with the strong at the expense of other minorities. History shows us that antisemitism goes hand-in-hand with other forms of racism and oppression.
As a Jew who is also queer and trans, this is not a lesson I have the luxury of forgetting. But anybody who is feeling complacent about the place of Jews in the racist world order has only to look at the synagogue shootings in recent years, usually by white supremacists and often explicitly linked to generalised racist sentiments.
This election, I will be thinking of the most important lesson of my Jewish heritage: always stand together in solidarity with others, against oppression in all its forms.
Sage Brice is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol