Just how anti-Semitic are British politicians?

Do the ramblings of a few minor figures without much influence really matter? The consensus is yes, because their vicious rhetoric normalizes extremism and encourages irresponsible discourse

Illustrative photo (Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA, flickr)
Illustrative photo (Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA, flickr)

LONDON — Cruising down the highway in his Jaguar on Christmas day 2007, Nazir Ahmed was distracted. He had just read and sent a couple of text messages, and did not notice another car parked on the shoulder of the road. Crashing into it, he killed 28-year-old Martyn Gombar, who was reportedly drunk inside.

Lord Ahmed reportedly claimed during an interview in Pakistan that English Jews were persecuting him because of a controversial visit to Gaza. (YouTube screenshot)
Lord Ahmed reportedly claimed during an interview in Pakistan that English Jews were persecuting him because of a controversial visit to Gaza. (YouTube screenshot)

Some might say that Ahmed, who had been made a Lord by then-prime minister Tony Blair in 1998, got off lightly, sentenced to just 12 weeks in jail for dangerous driving, and serving just 16 days. Not him. Last month The Times of London uncovered a television interview he gave in his native Pakistan, in which he blamed his imprisonment on “my Jewish friends who own newspapers and TV channels”.

The expose hit the Jewish community at a particularly sensitive time. Since early 2013, not a month had gone by without an elected politician – or, in Lord Ahmed’s case, an appointed member of the House of Lords – making offensive remarks about Jews or Israelis.

So does the British political system have a problem with anti-Semitism? And if so, what can be done?

The recent spate of incidents began in January when Liberal Democrat MP David Ward, whose party is currently in government with the Conservatives, wrote on his website that he was “saddened that that Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust… could be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians.” The following month, Respect Party leader George Galloway walked out of a university debate when he discovered his opponent held Israeli citizenship.

Already in the pantheon were Labour MP Paul Flynn, who in late 2011 suggested that Matthew Gould, the UK’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, had “divided loyalties,” and Aidan Burley, a Conservative MP who attended a Nazi-themed stag party. For years, the Jewish community has had a strained relationship with Baroness Jenny Tonge, another member of the House of Lords who was censured by the Liberal Democrats after she suggested the IDF investigate allegations it harvested organs in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

But while British experts do not deny there is a problem, they urge a nuanced response.

“The tendency is to throw all these incidents together as if they are all the same,” says Antony Lerman, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “The immediate response is that they are anti-Semitic, but I question that. Some of them may be, but we can’t link them so easily.”

Mark Gardner, director of communications at the Community Security Trust, which monitors British anti-Semitism and provides security services for Anglo-Jewry, agrees.

“The headlines make it look bad, but we have to take each one on its individual merits,” he says. “Some are motivated by anti-Israel hatred, others by anti-Israel criticism. Some have been dealt with properly, others have not.”

The political system as a whole takes Jewish concerns very seriously

While everyone accepts that Lord Ahmed’s comments were anti-Semitic, for example, Lerman considers Ward “ignorant about how to express his concerns about the Palestinians.” Nazi stag-party guest Aidan Burley, meanwhile, who apologized to the Jewish community “for the offense that has been caused,” did not make any anti-Jewish statements.

Both Lerman and Gardner agree that two points do broadly apply. The first is that almost all the figures are marginal, and do not represent the mainstreams of their parties. Even Galloway, who routinely grabs headlines, was expelled from Labour and had to set up his own tiny party, and none of the others are rising stars.

The second is that the political system as a whole takes Jewish concerns very seriously.

This is largely thanks to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, which includes MPs from across the political spectrum. In 2006, it conducted a major inquiry into the escalation in anti-Semitism in the UK since the second Intifada, producing 35 recommendations on how government, parliament and civil society could improve the reporting of anti-Semitic incidents, tackle anti-Semitism on campus and create better interfaith and inter-community relations.

According to Gardner, the report – which was later treated as a model by Canada – actually made a serious difference, giving the government a way to understand what was going on on the ground, and support the Jewish community.

“It marked a real improvement from the previous scenario in which government departments lacked a coherent framework within which to hear, understand and cope with what was then a quite new phenomenon – the reality of which was still contested by some in the media and elsewhere,” he says.

Both the Labour and Conservative governments produced responses, in 2007, 2008 and 2010, outlining their action plan and achievements, and the All-Parliamentary Group is currently following up with an inquiry into how political candidates address racism during election campaigns.

Many senior politicians, including ministers and the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, who is halachically Jewish, are also frequent guests at Jewish organizations’ events, pledging support for the community.

Given this context, is the rambling of a few minor figures without much power or influence actually important?

There seems to be a consensus that it is, if only because their rhetoric on Israel – which seems to be the focus of most of the controversy – normalizes extreme positions and encourages irresponsible discourse.

Danny Stone, director of the PCAA Foundation. (photo credit: courtesy)
Danny Stone, director of the PCAA Foundation. (photo credit: courtesy)

“It’s less a systemic problem of anti-Semitism among political leaders, more about the debate around the Middle East and how this plays out,” says Danny Stone, director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism.

He says that on the far-left, the debate has already been radicalized by the availability of Middle Eastern channels on satellite television, which transport harsh rhetoric about the Jews from the Arab world to the West.

“If you don’t like Israel or have a problem with Israeli policies, you start to get interested in that debate, and pick up and involve yourself in discourse where the language comes from a different context,” he says. “I am wary of how that plays in civil society.”

Jews in the constituencies of the offending MPs also have a problem, he adds.

“If your MP is saying things that are questionable, for example if you are a Jew in Galloway’s constituency, it could be very worrying and unsettling.”

The Liberal Democrats reprimanded David Ward when he accused ‘the Jews’ of atrocities, but adjourned the disciplinary process against him even though he had gone on to suggest it was ‘the Jewish community’ instead

But the parties have a mixed record when it comes to reacting to their own members’ inflammatory behavior. When Lord Ahmed’s Pakistani interview was exposed, the Labour Party suspended him the very same day. Prime Minister David Cameron fired Aiden Burley as an aide to the transport minister when it emerged that he had hired the Nazi costumes for the stag party, although he will still be allowed to stand for the Conservatives in the next election. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, reprimanded David Ward when he accused “the Jews” of atrocities, but adjourned the disciplinary process against him even though he had gone on to suggest it was “the Jewish community” instead.

While the Lib-Dems’ reaction was “not the right way to deal with things,” Stone says, he urges patience.

“It’s a learning process,” he says. “Not every party will get it right, and there have been senior members in the [Liberal-Democrat] party who have spoken out.”

The parties have come a long way in understanding the issues since the All-Party report in 2006, he adds; the key is to support and encourage those who do take action against offending MPs.

Whether the UK can ever rid itself entirely of such parliamentarians is doubtful. Their opinions reflect a strain of thought in wider society that is unlikely to disappear soon. In addition, their views on Jews and the Middle East may not become clear until long after they have joined Parliament. (Training potential candidates on anti-Semitism, LBGT and other ‘hot’ topics is one issue that the new inquiry into electoral conduct hopes to address.)

Peers like Lord Ahmed, who are appointed to the House of Lords for life, should be closely scrutinized but are often regarded as “known quantities” as they are selected on the basis of previous achievement. Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think-tank, has speculated that at the time Lord Ahmed was selected, the establishment cut corners because they were desperate to increase ethnic diversity. Lord Ahmed was one of the first three Muslims appointed to the House of Lords.

The fuzziness is around Israel: at what point does political condemnation of Zionism turn into something more sinister?

Finally, it is hard to tackle anti-Semitism, in the political system and elsewhere, when what constitutes anti-Semitism is unclear. The fuzziness is around Israel: at what point does political condemnation of Zionism turn into something more sinister? Are attacks on the Jewish state the same as attacks on the Jewish people?

“In effect there has been a fundamental re-definition of anti-Semitism,” says Lerman. “When I first came to look at contemporary anti-Semitism in the 1970s, there was a broad consensus about what that was. Nowadays that’s gone – there is a fundamental divide around the degree to which criticism of Israel is okay or not.”

Sarah Cardaun, a teaching fellow at the Middle East program at King’s College, London, says that “tolerance, multiculturalism and respect for different minorities is deeply ingrained” in British society, which will immediately pounce on anything perceived as classically anti-Semitic, that is to do with race or religion. That is why, she says, George Galloway was so roundly condemned for walking out on his Israeli counterpart during a debate.

“It was seen as racism, which is a key word. Everyone is uncomfortable with racism, there’s no controversy.”

By contrast the “new anti-Semitism,” which manifests as opposition to Israel, is difficult to tackle without being accused of trying to shut down debate on the conflict. Government cannot easily set the lines, Cardaun says, although she notes that the All-Party Inquiry did provide official recognition of the phenomenon, acknowledging that Israel’s actions could often “provide the pretext” for anti-Semitic actions, and that as a result, “condemnation is… increasingly conditional”.

How then should the Jewish community react when a politician makes comments about Israel or Jews some find offensive? Firmly, everyone seems to agree – if the case is proven.

“Calling someone an anti-Semite is the political and legal point of no return, and is not something we do often at all,” says Gardner. “We must use it with great care and be able to fiercely defend each occasion we’ve actually used it.”

Britain's Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould and President Shimon Peres toast Queen Elizabeth II at a Tuesday event marking her Diamond Jubilee (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Britain’s Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould and President Shimon Peres toast Queen Elizabeth II at an event marking her Diamond Jubilee (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Naturally, there is disagreement over whether this is the case. While foreigners often accuse the British leadership of not reacting strongly enough to anti-Semitism, Lerman, for example, believes the Jewish establishment’s outcry in the media helped foster “a febrile atmosphere” in the wake of the Ward, Galloway and Lord Ahmed incidents, making the community needlessly fearful. He would prefer to see the Jewish leadership work harder with the parties and individuals concerned to defuse controversies before they explode into major affairs.

The establishment would say that, over the long-term, this is exactly what they are doing. According to Stone, the All-Party group is working with the CST to talk about responsible discourse with each of the political parties, carefully establishing that “this is not an attempt to stifle free speech [or force] a pro-Israel agenda” but to prevent anti-Semitism.

Ultimately, he says, the parties are coming to understand that it is in their interests to be clear about where the boundaries lie in order to give them credibility in the Israel debate.

“If they set the lines, stamp out what is seen as illegitimate comment,” he says, “it gives them something to point to when they do say something critical on the Middle East.”

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