As the Labour Party once more finds itself engulfed in bitter recriminations about the extent of antisemitism within its ranks, a 95-year-old Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz met with a 79-year-old man, the son of the Nazi governor general of Poland, to talk about antisemitism, then and now.
The woman, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a co-founder of the English Chamber Orchestra; she survived (not just Auschwitz but Belsen as well) because, even at the age of 18, she was an accomplished cellist and so was recruited to the notorious Auschwitz orchestra. The man was Niklas Frank, a former German journalist, who has devoted his life to campaigning against antisemitism and who has described his father as “the butcher of Poland”.
They were in conversation at Sussex University’s Holocaust Memorial event on the same day that the Community Security Trust, the charity that works on combatting antisemitism, reported that antisemitic incidents in the UK, had, for the third year running, hit a record high – more than 100 a month.
Both reflected ruefully on the recent rise of antisemitism in this country. They agreed that the divisions over Brexit had brought out the uglier side of society, and when that happens Jews are frequently first in line. Anita Laske-Wallfisch suggested that it had now become more overt because Jews were fighting back. They had learned the lesson of history and knew that wherever antisemitism appeared they had to combat it. “What a chutzpah,” she joked, “that Jews should fight back, rather than just accept their fate.”
Maybe this is one way of understanding what has happened, and is happening in the Labour Party – that antisemitism has always been around but now, when it does appear, Jewish members, and the Jewish community, are now more ready to call it out? Is the MP Luciana Berger facing a motion of no confidence from her Constituency Labour Party because she has been a critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s (no shortage of those on the Labour benches) or because she has taken such a strong stand against the antisemitism she has personally endured from Labour supporters?
The relationship between Jews and Labour has always been complex. From the beginnings Jews were drawn to the party because, like the European Jewish political tradition, it was on the progressive side of politics; but also, because the Conservative Party gave out such unmistakeable signals that the “other” was not welcome. And whilst there are undoubtedly deep pockets of antisemitism in the Conservative Party, it has proved a far more problematic issue for Labour.
Why should this be the case? First, because of Labour’s long-standing commitment to be, both in theory and in practice, the party of unambiguous equality and antiracism. This has meant that any suggestion that this key principle was being breached was, and is, deeply unsettling for the party and its supporters. But its relationship with Jews and the Jewish community is further complicated by the Israel/Palestine dispute. This has provided cover for the few genuine antisemites within the party but has also cloaked in ambiguity some of the statements made by those who, without any obvious antisemitic motives, can sound that way in their passionate advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
It is a truism to say that being anti-Zionist is not the same as being antisemitic, but the problem comes in defining Zionism. If that definition means supporting the actions of Israel, no matter how worthy of condemnation they might be, then that is a definition so misguided as to be useless. If, on the other hand, it means opposing the very existence of the State of Israel – not at the point of its declaration in 1948, but today – then that is a definition that becomes more problematic.
Many Labour activists would, for example, oppose the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen but they would not call for the destruction of Saudi Arabia (even though its foundation was as controversial as that of Israel’s). The same goes for all those countries committing heinous crimes across the globe, but whose existence is never questioned. So why should that be the case with Israel?
Perhaps there’s a clue in what Anita Lasker-Wallfish has written: “I thought that our suffering was an atonement for all time and that the generations to come would be free of prejudice for ever. Alas, I was wrong.” Which explains why she and Niklas Frank, despite their advancing years, will continue in their valuable and regrettably still very necessary, work. Long may their conversation continue.
Ivor Gaber is a professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies