David J. Goldberg: These ill-judged political tactics are a cause for concern

Is there something nasty going on beneath the surface as politicians and their spin doctors gear up for the election campaign?
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Insofar as any post-Holocaust Jew can be classified as balanced, non-neurotic, "normal", I like to think that I'm a plausible candidate. I feel at ease in the pavilion at Lord's or in my synagogue opposite, possess the effortless intellectual arrogance of those blessed with an Oxbridge education, mix in cultural and academic circles where a fair proportion of the great and good are fellow Jews, and have graciously declined membership of the Athenaeum and the Garrick on the ground that I can imagine few coteries more boring than men-only clubs.

Insofar as any post-Holocaust Jew can be classified as balanced, non-neurotic, "normal", I like to think that I'm a plausible candidate. I feel at ease in the pavilion at Lord's or in my synagogue opposite, possess the effortless intellectual arrogance of those blessed with an Oxbridge education, mix in cultural and academic circles where a fair proportion of the great and good are fellow Jews, and have graciously declined membership of the Athenaeum and the Garrick on the ground that I can imagine few coteries more boring than men-only clubs.

In the perennial controversy surrounding the state of Israel, Zionist supporters accuse me of being a self-hating Jew and Palestinian supporters taunt me with being a Zionist stooge, which suggests that I've got the balance about right. On the question of real or alleged anti-Semitism, I despise Holocaust deniers or political parties that play the race card, and automatically suspect anyone who prefaces his remarks with "Some of my best friends are Jews." Equally, I make jokes about Jewish paranoia, and am contemptuous of those Holocaust institutes, mainly in America, that rely for their funding on the fear factor, by talking up the level of anti-Semitism in Europe.

All this is by way of explaining why I don't think it is ultra-sensitivity on my part to have been disturbed by some straws in the wind as we prepare for the next general election. A psychoanalyst whom I greatly respect has a maxim about human behaviour: "Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action." Three recent instances have alerted my Jewish antennae. Some would say there was a fourth, Ken Livingstone's bizarre remark likening a Jewish journalist to a "concentration camp guard", but I discount most things that emerge from the weird unconscious of London's newt-breeding Mayor.

Initially, I also discounted the New Labour poster that showed Michael Howard's and Oliver Letwin's heads superimposed on pigs' bodies. Put that down to accident. The outrage about insulted Jewish feelings was feigned, and as politically motivated as the poster itself. Neither the Conservative leader nor his shadow Chancellor are known as zealously observant Jews who would faint at the jest that if their sums add up, then pigs can fly. Michael Howard happens to be a valued member of my congregation, but won't take umbrage if I say that his synagogue attendance is limited to high days and holy days. I don't know if Oliver Letwin even has a synagogue affiliation.

But the second poster, showing a sinister-looking Michael Howard swinging a gold watch, is less easy to brush away. It clearly tapped into folk memories of Fagin, money-lending, and "You've got to pick a pocket or two" from the musical Oliver. Let us, generously, put that one down to coincidence.

It was the third incident, conveniently forgotten in the furore over the ill-judged posters, that makes me ask whether something nasty is going on beneath the surface, as politicians and their spin doctors gear up for the election campaign. I am referring to Mike O'Brien's comments to Muslims that their concerns were more likely to be addressed by New Labour than by Michael Howard. Hotly deny it though he did, O'Brien's inference was clear; as a Jew, Michael Howard could not be expected to be impartial on the Middle East or Muslim issues in this country.

Not for one moment am I suggesting that Tony Blair or his party are anti-Semitic. The Prime Minister has as many Jewish friends and advisers as did Maggie Thatcher, and in his case there are no snooty remarks in the background about more Old Estonians than Old Etonians in the cabinet.

But I can't forget that at the height of the Rushdie Affair, with book burnings on the streets of northern towns, mealy-mouthed Labour MPs in constituencies with a large Muslim vote would begin their feeble denunciations of mob violence with fulsome expressions of empathy for the hurt and outrage felt by people who had never even read The Satanic Verses. The same happened recently in Birmingham, where Sikh protests closed a play, and the new platitude from local MPs was "criticise but responsibly". It is instructive to observe how worry about their majority can suddenly persuade our elected representatives that freedom of speech is not always a good thing.

There are certain ineluctable facts about politics. Farmers no longer count in an election, because they only produce about three per cent of our GNP. Perhaps 350,000 Jews live in the United Kingdom, whereas the Muslim population is calculated at nearly two million. Lawyers searching for a motive ask cui bono? Unless they can reassure my Jewish anxieties about their tactics, Tony Blair and his party won't be getting my vote - and not just because of the war in Iraq.

David J. Goldberg is Rabbi Emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

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