Mar 2005 Journal

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Playing the 'Jewish card'

In modern Europe antisemitism has always been a political weapon of the right (for all that some early socialists like Proudhon vilified the Jews as the vanguard of capitalism). Only in Britain have things not been so clear-cut as that because the (baptised) Jew Disraeli both led a Tory government at a crucial time in world affairs and coined the phrase 'One Nation Conservatism', which still has a resonance in current politics.

Even so, it is undeniable that the appeasement policy of the Tory prime ministers Baldwin and Chamberlain was influenced by the antisemitic prejudice of opinion formers like Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail.

In the late 1940s Labour showed that it could be equally insensitive to Jewish concerns when, in order to appease the Arabs, Ernest Bevin stopped concentration camp survivors from reaching Palestine. Thirty years later the maverick Tory cabinet minister Enoch Powell not only stirred the racial pot, but also threatened postwar asylum seekers with revocation of British citizenship.

Prominent Labour politicians meanwhile denounced all forms of racism and antisemitism. This simple formula broke down when the rise of a self-conscious Muslim bloc of voters impacted on British politics. From a prolonged bad patch in the Eighties Tony Blair led Labour to an astonishing victory in the Nineties, marginally helped by the ethnic vote.

Labour lost the support of Muslim voters (as has been demonstrated in bye-elections) over the Iraq war, and it has been suggested that their projected posters for the oncoming election campaign - the flying pigs with Howard's and Letwin's faces and Howard as a latter-day Fagin - were anti-Jewish ploys to regain Muslim votes.

At around the same time Tory leader Michael Howard came out with the pledge that a future Conservative government would fix quotas for the admission of asylum seekers to this country. This has elicited a protest from AJR's Chairman Andrew Kaufman, who argued that a quota system might prevent genuine refugees from reaching a safe haven, as tragically happened in the Thirties.

In other words, on the eve of the 2005 general election both major parties have laid themselves open to charges of pandering to prejudice, with charges and counter-charges flying back and forth.

In my personal opinion, Labour HQ can be absolved of antisemitic intent - though not of clumsy insensitivity - in the commissioning of the controversial posters. The charge that Michael Howard played the xenophobic card has more substance - but he would probably put forward the supreme Machiavellian justification that, in fighting for his political life, he had to try and land a blow on Labour where it was most vulnerable. I personally also find the maunderings of A. N. Wilson in his weekly literary columns in the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph - where he has paid obeisance to Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley - quite offensive.

Where Labour comes dangerously close to antisemitism is in the extreme anti-Zionist utterances of some of its - not necessarily official - spokespersons. Thus when Mayor Livingstone was challenged by a Green member of the London Assembly about lethally homophobic statements by Sheikh Qaradawi, he hit back alleging a Zionist conspiracy behind the challenge. And now, as Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is moving up the political agenda, there are those who project a Jewish component in the dangerous standoff. They do this questioning Israel's right to be the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. What these critics conveniently forget is that a nuclear threat to Israel would put the long-term survival - not so much in the physical sense as in the psychological - of the Jewish people in doubt.
Richard Grunberger

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