Michael Berkowitz reflects on the role of antisemitism and issues concerning Jews in the ongoing election, and on how the history of Jews in Britain might guide the perplexed.
Britain’s politics has to some extent engaged various Jewish questions even when there was no official Jewish community between 1290 and the mid-seventeenth century. This electoral season has been unusual for the degree to which issues concerning Jews, and antisemitism in particular, have played a significant part in the political discourse.
To no small extent this is a consequence of changes in media, especially the rise of so-called ‘social media’—which might be better termed ‘anti-social’ media. Facebook, Twitter, and other forums (which are alien to this writer) encourage factious, extreme opinions and crackpot forays into a supposedly ‘democratic’ marketplace of ideas.
Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, has been assailed as shockingly insensitive to Jews. The treatment of members who felt compelled to leave the party, such as Luciana Berger, was appalling. Yet the Tories are far from spotless when it comes to antisemitism. In the Brexit debate Jacob Rees-Mogg raised the spectre of his ‘colleagues’ Oliver Letwin and John Bercow as arch-perpetrators of an evil, duplicitous Jewish ‘Illuminati’ conspiracy. And Nigel Farage has has peddled the barely disguised antisemitic trope of George Soros and ‘globalists’ as a menace to British interests.
By default, it appears that the only safe ground, for those concerned with the ever-obnoxious and absurd question of ‘what’s good for the Jews’ is a third party such as the Lib Dems. (The question is absurd because there is no coherent, unified field of ‘the Jews’ and individual Jews inhabit just about everywhere and nowhere on the political spectrum.) But put more proactively, rather than defensively, Jewish history in Britain and beyond might serve as something of a general guide for the perplexed.
First: there is, however inconsistently applied, a strong strain of social justice in traditional Jewishness, as exemplified by Maimonides’ untranslatable concept of dealing charitably with one’s neighbours, Tzedakah, as the highest ideal.
Second: Jews, a notably mobile people, have more often than not benefited from relatively open borders.
Third, relatedly: Jews have thrived in societies that have ethnic and religious variety, as opposed to a single dominant group.
Fourth: Jews have fared poorly in authoritarian regimes.
And last: not even an island is an island. The far-right has especially become adept at supporting and cross-pollinating the like-minded in different countries. In the United States there is a disturbing link between antisemitic conspiracy theories, including the aforementioned fixation on George Soros, and those who brandish automatic weapons. Supporting those who will ardently challenge the current president of the United States, who continues to show contempt for his oath of office and enable racism and antisemitism, should be a paramount concern.
Michael Berkowitz is Professor of Modern Jewish History at UCL.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL