After years of internal divisions over anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, British Jews of all stripes and their supporters united this week in the face of an anti-Jewish tirade on Twitter and Instagram from an unexpected and challenging source: a Black rapper decorated by the Queen.
The tactic chosen to protest Twitter’s lax response to the stream of abuse unleashed last week on Friday and Saturday by the rapper Wiley was a 48-hour self-imposed Twitter silence from Monday to Wednesday under the hashtag #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate. While there was some disagreement over the particular campaign, the political fault lines that had divided communities and families appear to be fading.
The reappearance of reasoned dialogue between community groups previously at loggerheads over a similar matter — years of alleged systemic anti-Semitism in the Labour Party — was striking. British Jews have not found perfect harmony, but they are at least singing a similar tune.
While some questioned why the campaign seemed tougher than responses to anti-Semitic posts by white Jew-haters, the boycott drew support from major figures across a broad spectrum of British arts, music and politics. Local household names included former England football captain Gary Lineker — who has 7 million followers — actresses Dawn French and Kathy Burke, singer Billy Bragg, “Veep” and “The Thick of It” creator Armando Ianucci, and broadcasters Martin Lewis and James O’Brien.
“If there’s even the slightest chance that this gesture can influence the companies concerned to stem the tide of ignorant lies, conspiracy theories and violent hatred that they allow to flood social media and feed prejudice daily, then how could I not join in?” well-known actor Jason Isaacs told The Times of Israel.
“Anti-Semitism, like racism, sexism, homophobia and every other shade of hatred needs to be stamped out as early as possible before the weeds take over the garden,” said Isaacs, who has appeared in “Harry Potter,” “Star Trek,” “Dig” and “The OA.”
Wiley’s tirade, accompanied by the white supremacist hashtag #JewishPrivilege, came after the British Jewish community lent wide support for the UK’s Black Lives Matter movement. Many feared this might be undone by the outburst.
The boycott was started by Tracy-Ann Oberman, an actress and outspoken critic of anti-Jewish hate speech. It was directed at Twitter for failing to take quick, decisive action against Wiley, rather than a personal attack on the rapper himself that could be misinterpreted as Jews piling onto a Black celebrity. On Tuesday, Wiley’s personal accounts on Facebook and Instagram were deleted for violating the terms of service.
The silence campaign attracted extraordinary support from actors, theaters, companies and cultural institutions across the country, many of which rarely make political statements, including London’s Hayward Gallery; publisher Little, Brown Book Group; the National AIDS Trust; and the National Museums of Liverpool.
The Liberal Democrat and Green parties joined in, along with dozens of their local branches and those of the Labour and Conservative parties. Scores of performance venues, record labels, agents and performers also went silent to protest Twitter’s lackadaisical response to Wiley, who was awarded an MBE for his services to the music industry and is known as the Godfather of Grime.
Among more than 100 politicians was Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary and former chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, who was endorsed by the Jewish Labour Movement in the recent leadership contest, and has said in the past she was “ashamed” of the anti-Semitism within her party.
BBC Radio host Emma Barnett did not join the boycott, but excoriated the rapper live on air, referencing her own family members who survived the Holocaust.
“Those words burn. I am sure I don’t need to tell most of you that, but in case I do, they burn deep,” she told listeners.
Former Labour head Jeremy Corbyn, who had been plagued by accusations of harboring or abetting anti-Semitic sentiments during his five-year tenure, and his closest political allies, refrained from comment.
“I saw Jeremy Corbyn cycling in Finsbury Park yesterday. Which led me to wonder what the man ‘with not an anti-Semitic bone in his body’ had to say about Wiley’s stream of racism,” noted award-winning author and Guardian contributor Linda Grant. “I checked his Twitter feed. Absolutely nothing.”
But many Corbyn supporters responded positively. Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who had slammed former British chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for calling out Corbyn’s anti-Semitism in 2018, but expressed sympathy for similar comments by current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in 2019, joined the boycott.
Jewish Voice for Labour and Jewdas, left-wing Jewish groups that bitterly rejected criticism of Corbyn, chose not to join the silence but civilly addressed Wiley’s comments after years of mutual mudslinging.
Jewdas, who famously hosted Corbyn at an alternative Passover seder, blasted Wiley’s comments immediately, but at first mocked the boycott as “meaningless gestures from liberals with no commitment to racial justice.”
— jewdⒶs // ייִדהודה (@jewdas) April 3, 2018
But after 24 hours Jewdas softened its tone. “It is the racists, not their victims, who should vacate social media. Silence is a questionable tactic against bigotry,” Jewdas said, recommending support for 48 social justice, anti-racist and pro-Palestinian groups instead.
Jewish Voice for Labour ignored the Wiley controversy for several days, but also joined the fray on Tuesday, expressing “alarm at the anti-Semitic statements” from the rapper.
“We condemn promotion of the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege by an artist with a huge following among young people. Social media platforms have a responsibility to ensure that hateful speech is not allowed to pollute public discourse in our diverse communities,” said JVL spokesperson Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi.
“At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened awareness of the systemic racism experienced in their daily lives by people of color, we applaud the coming together in collective solidarity of Jews, Muslims, people of African and Caribbean origin and other ethnic and religious minorities. The actions of one misguided individual must not be allowed to shake our unity in facing down ignorance and hatred wherever it occurs,” she said.
That was also the hope of Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, a Black Jewish journalist who was one of the first to confront Wiley on Twitter.
“The community since Black Lives Matter has been incredible. I can’t praise the British Jewish community enough for everything that they’re doing to support Black Jews now,” said Batchelor-Hunt, who has written about her spat with Wiley and will participate in an online panel on Black-Jewish solidarity for Limmud UK on August 2.
So, apparently Wiley's taken to Facebook to start chatting shit there – this man is so jobless, get a hobby you clown
— Nadine Batchelor-Hunt (@nadinebh_) July 28, 2020
Batchelor-Hunt said she experiences abuse from all sides — questioned by security guards when entering synagogues, denounced by Jewish extremists for her leftist views, and maligned for calling out anti-Semitism in a Black Lives Matter UK tweet. But in the torrent of invective from Wiley and his fans, and a Jewish group questioning her motives, she was called a “coon” and a “white supremacist Zionist c**t whore.”
“That was very difficult to deal with,” she told The Times of Israel. “When it comes to Twitter, if you’re using the platform as a Black Jew, you are always vulnerable to abuse from all ends.”
Batchelor-Hunt did not join the boycott, just as she had not joined Blackout Tuesday against police brutality in June. “Vacating the platform and allowing loads of people to post whatever hatred they want unabated isn’t a great strategy,” she said. “I find it better to be louder, not be quieter.”
I find it better to be louder, not be quieter
“I definitely think this is on the coattails, an addendum, to Black Lives Matter,” author Linda Grant told The Times of Israel. “It’s part of the same movement, part of the same protest. A few weeks ago we were asked to be putting black squares on our Instagram accounts and we did it. We were being asked to do all kinds of things to show support for BLM and we did, and I think that created the mental space for people to say, let’s not leave out anti-Semitism.”
Grant joined the boycott even though she was also skeptical about the effectiveness of silence.
“It’s about the whole of the moderation policy of Twitter. The whole thing is just completely out of hand. They haven’t got a handle on it at all. The reason it was Wiley was because of his nearly half a million followers,” she said.
One Black Jewish journalist participating was Stephen Bush, political editor of the left-leaning New Statesman political weekly and chair of the Board of Deputies’ commission on racial inclusivity, who called Twitter “a safe space for hatred.”
“From bitter experience of both, I can tell you that Twitter deals with complaints about anti-Black racism in the same hollow way it handles anti-Jewish racism: a pro forma response and no action,” Bush wrote.
“And when I’ve reported other hatreds committed against Twitter users across the spectrum, I can’t say I have ended any of those interactions feeling that Twitter has handled the problem well. The number of unregenerate hatemongers still on Twitter speaks for itself,” wrote Bush.