Can the political left tackle anti-Semitism?
While I’ve never been a big fan of celebrity interventions in politics, I will concede that, on occasion, a big-screen actor or a rock star will achieve the kind of impact that mere mortals can only dream about.
Case in point: Maureen Lipman, a much-loved British Jewish actress whom American audiences will recognize from her role in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about the Holocaust, “The Pianist,” in which she played the mother of the film’s main protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Last week, Lipman wrote an article for Standpoint, a British political magazine, titled “Labour has Lost Me.” (She’s referring to the current opposition party in a country where they spell ‘labor’ with a ‘u.’) In that piece, she did two things.
First, she relayed one of the best Jewish jokes I’ve encountered in a long time, about a rabbi so overcome with the desire to try a steamed pig’s head that he ventures in secret to a distant restaurant famed for this dish, only to have a congregant walk in on him as he’s poised for his first bite. The rabbi exclaims, “Can you believe this farshtinkener place? You ask for an apple and this is how they serve it!”
Second, so disillusioned is Lipman with the stance on Israel of current Labour leader Ed Miliband, who is also Jewish, that she will not, she wrote, vote for the Labour Party “for the first time in five generations.”
“Just when the virulence against a country defending itself, against 4,000 rockets and 32 tunnels inside its borders, as it has every right to do under the Geneva Convention, had been swept aside by the real pestilence of the Islamic State, in steps Mr. Miliband to demand that the government recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel,” Lipman thundered. She then told Miliband that his “timing sucked,” as he had turned on Israel when there were so many more pressing problems in the world, from the genocidal Islamist rampage to the machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In her final flourish, Lipman declared that she’d only vote Labour once the party was again led by “mensches.”
(Oh yes, the pig joke—that followed an anecdote about Miliband eating a bacon sandwich shortly after meeting Lipman at a party in London, where he asked whether he might join her for a Shabbat dinner.)
Clearly stung by the mauling he received from Lipman, Miliband has now demanded a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism, citing the vile anti-Semitic attacks on social media upon his parliamentary colleagues Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman as an immediate cause. He also decried the “violent assaults, the desecration and damage of Jewish property, anti-Semitic graffiti, hate-mail, and online abuse,” and revealed that some Jewish parents have told him they are scared for their children.
All in all, it seems to have been much more personal for Miliband than for Prime Minister David Cameron, who issued an equally strong statement against anti-Semitism at the end of a summer stained by anti-Jewish violence. “I am deeply concerned by growing reports of anti-Semitism on our streets in Britain,” Cameron said. “Let me be clear, we must not tolerate this in our country. There can never be any excuse for anti-Semitism, and no disagreements on politics or policy should ever be allowed to justify racism, prejudice or extremism in any form.”
Beyond the specific personalities in this particular situation, the knotty question here for the left—whether in the U.K., in America, in Europe, in South Africa, or elsewhere—is whether it can adequately address the issue of anti-Semitism without also examining how the obsession with the Palestinian cause among progressives has contributed to its growth.
Certainly, Britain’s Labour Party is a pertinent example of how much the “Palestine” issue dominates discussion of wider foreign policy considerations. In his excellent book, “Blair, Labour and Palestine,” the British academic Toby Greene notes former Labour leader Tony Blair’s “refusal to criticize Israeli government policy” in the run-up to the Iraq war. “However,” Greene observes, “it is not clear that if Blair had been more critical of Israel, there would have been less of an opportunity for the far left to promote anti-Zionism”—which it duly did by aligning the slogan “Freedom for Palestine” alongside exhortations to oppose the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
While the far left miserably failed to turn the anti-war protests into an electorally successful political movement, it did succeed in exporting its anti-Zionist principles into much of the mainstream liberal left—which helps explain why one of the first acts of Sweden’s new left-wing government was to recognize Palestine as an independent state.
If the left-wing Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo is correct when he gushes that “anti-Zionism is synonymous with leftist world politics,” then responsible voices on the left need to consider where that will take them.
The fact is that, in the west, “Palestine” is now the primary cause of anti-Jewish violence and anti-Semitic sentiment. That is less shocking when you realize that incitement against Jews, demonization of Zionism, and terrorist violence against Israelis is what defines the present strategies of the main rival Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas.
But it would take a left-wing leader with guts to declare that there is no place for these politics in our societies, that neither civic, nor social, nor racial equality are advanced by their presence here, that it is time for progressives to give their solidarity to the Yazidis of Iraq and the Rohingya of Burma, and not just the Palestinians.
It would take guts to say that critics of Israeli policy need to dissociate themselves from anti-Zionist, eliminationist rhetoric if they want to be taken at face value. And it would take guts to defend Muslim minorities from bigotry and racism while, at the exact same time, urging their leaders to confront the anti-Semitism plaguing these same communities.
Yet if there does turn out to be a leader on the left who is willing to say these things, then he—or she—is fully deserving of the title “mensch.”
Ben Cohen is the Shillman analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.