Jewish people are being shut out of the debate on their own suffering – it can't continue

Jewish people are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, so why won't the media let them?

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Friday 12 July 2019 17:21
Labour's former head of disputes: department's 'mental health went through the floor' while investigating antisemitism claims

Picture this: a new BBC documentary has just exposed a major problem of sexual harassment in one of the main political parties. Women have bravely spoken out about their experiences, detailing the abuse, the trauma and the subsequent alleged cover-up. It is the main story in many newspapers and given rolling coverage on TV. Guests are invited on panel shows and news stations to discuss the issue. Commentators are given countless column inches to debate it.

But there is a problem.

In both cases they are, with almost no exceptions, men. None have actually experienced sexual harassment, nor are they likely to. They do not fear for their safety in the workplace or walking home, and have never dealt with the trauma of abuse. They have, in truth, no idea of what they are talking about. This would, of course, cause mass outrage; it is unthinkable that producers and editors would even consider it.

Yet this is the experience of British Jews today. Time and time again, in the debate about antisemitism, Jewish voices are marginalised, their views ignored, their pleas dismissed. Instead, they must watch as the usual faces – professional commentators, newspaper columnists, politicians, none of them Jewish – take to the airwaves to talk about the suffering of Jews.

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Producers who would never compile an all-male panel to discuss sexual harassment have no problem excluding Jews from the debate on antisemitism. Editors would not dream of asking only men to write about abortion, but are happy to run countless pieces from non-Jews.

Denialism – the refusal to listen to those who are suffering – is more prevalent in Labour than those making outright antisemitic comments. This is bad in any political party, but we should expect far more from the media. Instead, newspapers and broadcasters alike have fuelled a debate in which Jewish people’s views on antisemitism are routinely sidelined in favour of non-Jewish people who have no experience of the problem they are all too happy to discuss. The media’s obsession with “balance” too often means simply giving equal weight to those shouting loudest on both sides. There is no real balance in a debate about antisemitism – no meaningful debate at all, in fact, if Jewish voices are not heard.

This is why we have ended up with a narrative determined to turn the Labour antisemitism story into one purely of politics – one about process, factions and disputes. Those things matter, but at the very centre this issue is the experience, the suffering, of Jews in one of our main political parties. The more their views are shut out of the debate, the less obvious that becomes. The more non-Jewish voices are prioritised, the less the debate becomes about actual antisemitism rather than the political fallout of it.

The victims are being increasingly ignored, often in favour of the perpetrators and the deniers.

This is not a debate between Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters and his critics, nor between Labour and the media. It is a debate between, on the one hand, the vast majority of Britain’s Jews and their allies, and on the other those who wish to dismiss and shout them down. When those are the dividing lines on antisemitism, there should barely be an argument about it at all.

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Here is just one single example: on Thursday morning, hours after the Panorama expose, the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show invited four people on to its main panel, along with a number of Labour supporters who were invited to give a brief view. On the panel, which was granted most of the air time, were two MPs – Stephen Doughty and Stephen Kinnock – and two commentators, the Guardian columnist Owen Jones and Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar. None of them have spoken of a Jewish heritage.

If you were wondering what Jews made of the widespread abuse they face, you wouldn’t find out by watching this segment (or the many others that followed in other shows, on other broadcasters, and in the wider media). Some of these commentators here giving voice to the concerns raised by Jewish people, which is welcome – but Jews are perfectly able to give voice to their own concerns.

Instead, those doing most of the talking in this debate have never had to send their children to school behind barbed wire. They have not had their loyalties to their country questioned, nor been told they are acting for a foreign power. Most will not need police and professional security workers guarding their places of worship, or have to fear their families’ graves being desecrated.

It is bad enough that so many in the Labour Party ignore the voice of Jewish people. But our media should not be making the problem worse. It’s time for British Jews to be given space to debate the prejudice they face.

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