One of the rarely discussed challenges of millennial life is watching the news on a laptop and having to resist the urge to hurl it at a wall. This was the position that I, along with a large number of British Jews, found myself in this week as I settled down to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil.
The Labour leader was repeatedly offered, and repeatedly declined, the chance to apologise to the Jewish community for hurt caused by the party’s mishandling of the antisemitism scandal that has embroiled Labour for the last three years. Corbyn’s failure to apologise was infuriating, not least because at this point it would have been politically expedient, and re-confirms what to many did not need re-confirming: that there is a deep-rooted cultural issue on the left when it comes to recognising antisemitism and taking steps to address it.
The exchange was doubly infuriating since it echoed an exchange from Prime Minister’s Questions just a few months earlier. In Boris Johnson’s first PMQs as leader of the Conservative minority government, he too was offered a chance to apologise to minority voters for a slew of highly publicised racist remarks, including describing Africans as “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles” and, in a supposed defensive of Britain’s liberal values, comparing Muslim women to “letterboxes”.
These remarks were cited as factors in a spike in hate crimes against Muslim women, and it’s important to remember that racist words have real world consequences and that racism is measured in effect not intent. Like Corbyn, Johnson declined to apologise. Instead he chose to attack Labour for its record on antisemitism, shifting focus and refusing accountability.
It is one of the nauseating quirks of our current political discourse that the Tory party – the party of Windrush, of Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood, or Theresa May and her Hostile Environment – get to present themselves as campaigners against racism. But it’s important to understand what this selective outrage signifies, not least for the people it purports to protect.
This faux concern is not just disingenuous, but actively dangerous, and it does nothing to support Jewish people or amplify our voices. All is does is other us further, driving a wedge between Jews and other minorities we have plenty in common with and whom we would otherwise look to as natural allies. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump employs a similar playbook, using his support for Israel and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Jewishness to whitewash charges of his own rampant racism.
Perhaps Johnson has forgotten his own party’s record on antisemitism. Earlier this month, Tory Candidate Ryan Houghton was suspended from the party for posts claiming that some “events of [the Holocaust were] fabricated” while another candidate Amjad Bashir was withdrawn for calling British Jews who’d spent time in Israel “brainwashed extremists.”
Meanwhile, and more tellingly, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg, notable in his absence so far this election campaign, in April defended his promotion of a video from Germany’s far right Alternative fur Deutschland party whose co-leader Alexander Gauland has dismissed Nazism and the Holocaust as a “speck of bird poop” in the nation’s history and whose rhetoric is believed to have inspired a terror attack in Halle in October 2019 in which a neo-Nazi gunman attempted to storm a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Perhaps too Johnson has forgotten his own dalliances with antisemitism. During his tenure as editor of The Spectator, Johnson was happy to publish the work of the then 64-year-old enfant terrible of British journalism Taki Theodoracopulos. In 2001 Theodoracopulos wrote a piece for the magazine so extreme in its anti-Jewish racism that it prompted The Spectator’s owner Conrad Black to compare him to Goebbels. But even leaving aside Johnson’s short memory and galling hypocrisy, his willingness to use antisemitism in Labour and, by extension, the Jewish community as a human shield to deflect attention from his own misdeeds tells us all we need to know about where his true concerns lie.
Anti-racism, despite what the current state of our political discourse might tempt you to conclude, is not a zero sum game. You don’t need to choose a minority whose victimisation you're prepared to stand up against: on the contrary, you need to stand up to all of it. Jewish people understand better than most that an attack against one minority is an attack against all of us. Johnson’s record of both careless and calculated provocation disqualifies him as a defender of Jewish honour just as his party’s own record on race relations disqualifies them as arbiters of good practice.
But then, I suspect, Johnson and his right hand man Dominic Cummings – who himself faced accusations of antisemitism this week after posting a blog which alluded to pro-EU “Goldman Sachs bankers” – know this already. Charges of cultural and institutional racism are far more damaging to a party founded on the principle of opposing discrimination than they are to a party founded on the principle of social conservatism and distrust of immigrants.
It suits the Tories well if the discourse around this election is reduced to charges and counter charges. This is not to say that Labour don’t have charges to answer and that they have repeatedly fallen short of doing so. But like everything else about him, Johnson’s hypocrisy and his selective interest in defending minorities is a gambit. It cares about no-one, least of all Jews.
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