Danny Stone MBE is the Director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.
As one former Prime Minister put it, politics can be the arena for “the pursuit of noble causes”. The battle of ideas is central to our democratic way of life. However, it can also be the place “of low skulduggery”. Partisan games are cut-throat and unforgiving; Francis Urquhart/Underwood is not, perhaps, entirely fictitious.
One of the most noble causes, of which I can think, is the anti-racist one. Over many years, a number of parliamentary champions have fought to speak and act against racism in society. Where it comes to Jews, parliamentarians such as Lord John Russell, Eleanor Rathbone and of course, Sir Winston Churchill paved the way for Jewish emancipation: opposing the notorious ‘Aliens Bill’, assisting Jewish refugees, and advancing religious equality. Thankfully that tradition continues today and Sir Eric Pickles, John Mann and a number of other MPs across the parties have faced down anti-semitism with full-force.
Regrettably, though, antisemitism can be, and sometimes has been, used for partisan or political purposes. To take an extreme example, Vladimir Putin referenced “anti-semitic forces” amongst the revolutionaries in the Ukraine in March 2014 when seeking to justify Russia’s position on using force against the Ukraine. The resulting backlash led to the Ukrainian Jewish community having to outline its position about the true face of anti-semitism in the country and risk becoming the story of the day. It would be crude to draw direct comparisons, but we should perhaps also not forget historical parallels including Hitler, who sought to highlight the oppression of Sudeten Germans as a justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Though the example is extreme, the point I am making is a simple one. The use of anti-semitism for political purposes simply draws the Jewish community into the midst of a battlefield in which it is most likely to be wounded.
Bringing this closer to home, there have been different responses to Labour’s continuing struggle with anti-semitism in and around the party. During two different fringe events at the conference, Sir Eric Pickles referenced his “genuine sadness at the rise in anti-semitism” in the Labour party and offered to work with “moderate” Labour MPs in seeking to root it out. Amber Rudd set some conditions, arguing that “saying you condemn all violence when specifically asked if you’ll condemn one group’s actions isn’t good enough”. This is a welcome approach. However, one cabinet Minister told delegates that the Labour party was “the most hostile political party, the most anti-semitic party that exists and has existed in generations” and at another fringe event hordes of merry young people cheered at the partisan jibes made against Labour in the context of its anti-semitism problem.
The full-throated condemnation of racism, and in this case anti-semitism, by innumerable Conservative MPs, Ministers and others is welcome, appropriate, important and reassuring. Equally, action by the Conservative Party to address incidents of anti-semitism within its ranks has been fast, and rightly so. To date, the Government has backed this up with clear and identifiable measures against antisemitism, such as the adoption of a formal definition, which show that the party will put its power to good use in this regard. My fear is that condemnation of anti-semitism in other political parties will be reduced to partisan mudslinging, as was evidenced at the conference, rather than each news item and new case being used as an opportunity to educate and set red lines for acceptable debate in our civil discourse.
What does such a response look like? Take the example of senior Labour members, supporters and others levelling the charge that anti-semitism has been ‘weaponised’, made-up or otherwise fabricated to attack the party leadership. In the UK, the definition of a racist incident is based on the perception of the victim; the Macpherson principle, which grew out of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, dictates that cases should be handled, and victims treated, with due care and sensitivity. This was an approach Labour’s own Chakrabarti inquiry endorsed. When individuals connected to the Labour party argue that anti-semitism has been invented, they are doing a disservice to its victims, who presumably would know better than the individuals in question whether anti-semitism exists or not. They are contravening the terms of their own party’s inquiry and a broader principle for how we deal with racist incidents in this country.
It is difficult in the age of the tweet or clipped quote to make such an argument, but that is the challenge for the Conservatives given a platform to speak. In the context of Holocaust revisionism, when a non-historian references the ‘Haavara agreement’ which supposedly details Nazi-‘Zionist’ collaboration, you should not be afraid to point out that the document was a complex financial arrangement, allowing Jews to circumvent currency export restrictions introduced during the 1931 slump, concerned only with German exports to Palestine. Better, you could outline that surveys have shown up to 70 per cent of children aren’t familiar with the term anti-semitism and we could, perhaps, do a bit better at educating our young people about the Holocaust, rather than seeking to use it to further anti-Zionist ends.
In tackling rhetoric, Conservative Party members and others have an opportunity but also a responsibility. Use your words to educate. Be specific in your condemnation. Resist the urge to politicise anti-semitism, and instead continue the trends of Churchill, Mann, Pickles and others in working with others to defeat racism. If anti-semitism becomes a political football, perversely, it will be the Jews that lose.