Antisemitism in Modern Society

Part of Exiting the European Union (Agriculture) – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury) 6:32 pm, 20th February 2019

For me, this debate is personal. I am not Jewish, but as a black man I know what it feels like to experience racism of both the individual and the institutional kind. I understand how a racist insinuation is not just offensive, but isolating, making you suddenly feel vulnerable and excluded. I know how the repetition of a well-worn stereotype or trope, followed by the inevitable denial that it is racist, can be undermining and exhausting. I know, because I have seen it and felt it, as well as read about it, that hostility to Jewish people and age-old antisemitic stereotypes are becoming more common.

Many people speaking in this debate will have experienced antisemitism at first hand, as we have already heard in some of the distressing testimonies today. As has been stated, it is clear that most of the well-documented rise in antisemitic incidents here and in many other parts of Europe is driven by the alt-right, the far right and the fascist right. They are emboldened by the xenophobic rhetoric of our age to form a sickening new far-right internationalism, with sometimes devastating consequences for all racial minorities.

Did I believe that in 2019 I would wake up to the news that “No blacks” signs had been daubed on the front door of the home of a 10-year-old boy who had just started a new school, or that Islam would be seen as a threat to the British way of life by one third of people in the UK, according to a poll commissioned by the anti-fascist group, HOPE not hate?

I know that racism can take different forms and all of us can hold unconscious biases. In a frank self-admission, George Orwell, writing in 1945, suggested that the starting point for any investigation of antisemitism should be not just condemning others but looking inside ourselves. This is good advice, even today, that I know some people in my party seem to find quite difficult to follow. The fact that the left is opposed to racism in principle does not mean that it is immune to being, consciously or unconsciously, racist or antisemitic in practice. It can be all the more difficult for us to face up to this fact given the extent of unacknowledged racism in other parties, which goes deep.

In the 1930s, assertions of hidden power and wealth were routinely hurled at hundreds of thousands of poor Jewish immigrants living in the slums of London and Manchester. Today, similar projections, conscious or otherwise, can be heard in the repeated association of Jewish people with shadowy conspiracies, often associated with Israel—especially when complaints of antisemitism are made, even when the evidence of it is before our eyes. And it is before our eyes.

The same HOPE not hate report affirms the seriousness of modern antisemitism, online and off, including the very real problem of left-wing antisemitism. Sometimes I hear it said that antisemitism should not be focused on at all in modern Britain as that takes space away from highlighting racism against other groups—as though there is a finite space for this discussion that cannot expand. That can unwittingly reproduce a stereotype of Jews as somehow powerful and privileged even when they are calling out the racism that they experience.

As a black man who has experienced racism all my life, I see the situation very differently: to my mind, closing our eyes to racism against one group only emboldens racism against us all. The only way to combat racism is to show no tolerance to any of it, ever. In that spirit, a few of us have recently formed the new Black, Asian and Jewish Alliance, which we call BAJA. Through our existence, we aim to highlight diversity within our groups as well as between us. Based on the principle of mutual solidarity, we recognise that what we hold in common is considerable, but we also try to listen and learn from each other about our distinctive experiences.

Above all, we know that racism can be defeated only if we stay united and refuse to be divided by any of the current tensions that swirl around us. As we look around the world today, with the rise of the hard right in the form of Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini and too many others, we know that tackling the scourge of growing antisemitism, wherever it is found, has rarely been so urgent.