Opinion

Boris Johnson Won't Protect the Jews, Either

As U.K. Jews, we should be denouncing Johnson, the ultimate racist opportunist, and his xenophobic Conservative party, with the same fervor we oppose the institutional anti-Semitism in Corbyn's Labour

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson presents the Conservative Party's Manifesto for the General Election campaign, in Telford, England, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019
Frank Augstein,AP

Though Jews don't understand English irony, ours remains a celebrated sense of humor and a good thing too: millions of British voters, weeks before a general election, still refuse to accept that U.K. Labour is an institutionally anti-Semitic endeavor

This despite a leader who has fraternized with murderous anti-Semites, handed jobs to other anti-Semites, and happily invoked anti-Semitic tropes, while failing to recognize, address or apologize for anti-Semitism; a deputy leader who hugged an almost comically anti-Semitic MP, moments before he was finally expelled from the party for anti-Semitism; a shadow Home Secretary who incited her Twitter followers to ridicule a Jewish MP hounded out of the party because of anti-Semitism; and a Shadow Chancellor who is honorary president of a group which regularly defends anti-Semites, but constantly commends his party for doing "everything asked of it" in the fight against anti-Semitism.

So, with a general election imminent, where do we - Jews and non-Jews - go from here? Let’s start with the Jews. A few weeks ago, the former chair of the U.K. Reform movement, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, advised his community to vote for "whichever party is most likely to defeat Labour"; the Jewish Chronicle then beseeched non-Jews to do likewise, before Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis tacitly did both, asking, "every person to vote with their conscience."

These positions are understandable, but problematic for two reasons: practicality and morality.

In a U.K. political system dominated by two parties, the reality is that if Labour are not in government, the Conservatives – whether alone or in coalition - will be. The Conservative party is largely responsible for Brexit - a dishonest, xenophobic and economically ruinous project, the ilk of which rarely ends well for "north London metropolitan liberal elites." 

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, Theresa May - who birthed the "hostile environment" strategy as Home Secretary - became Prime Minster and immediately assumed a more extreme position, demonizing migrants yet further. This betrayed her own racism, her "problem with immigration," and the party's turn to the hard right - descriptions offered by a former Tory MP - intended to schmooze racists who'd unnecessarily defected to the far-right U.K. Independence Party, in search of more overt bigotry.  

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So far, political expediency has dictated that other minorities, rather than Jews, be the focus of this harassment. But if it would be foolish to disassociate recent U.K. anti-Semitic attacks from the aggressive insularity espoused and exploited by the Conservative party and Leave campaign, it requires epochal levels of stupidity to believe that an institutionally Islamophobic body…responsible for racist outrages such as the Windrush scandal...which sought to subvert Parliament…whose new leader revels in racist, homophobic and anti-Muslim taunts...can be relied upon...to protect Jews!

Boris Johnson has fraternized with Victor Orbán, courted Donald Trump and broken bread with Nigel Farage, each a different shade of anti-Semite, yet on his election as party leader, Rabbi Mirvis called him a "friend and champion of the Jewish community." If history has taught us anything, it is that Boris Johnson is a "friend and champion" of one thing and one thing only: Boris Johnson, and would turn on us at the precise juncture he would turn on anyone - the second it suited him.

Alongside our practical obligation to defend ourselves, Jews have a moral duty to care for the most vulnerable in society - something the Conservative party have never and will never do.

A decade or so ago they, along with the Lib Dems, imposed a policy of aggressive austerity, out of choice not necessity, causing unquantifiable suffering and tens of thousands of deaths. Those inclined towards religious ethics - Rabbis Mirvis and Romain, say - cannot possibly deem this compatible with Torah-true values.

Jews also have no right to ignore the plight of other minorities. Traumatic though our history is, others now suffer far greater discrimination than we do; discrimination that would only be intensified by another Tory government.

In his Times column, Rabbi Mirvis extols "British values" of "dignity and respect for all people," sentiments which might chime with his own experience but which will amaze those persecuted by colonial and contemporary Britain. Similarly, Rabbi Romain might reflect on the wisdom of making his case in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Just as we expect others to listen to us, so we must listen to others, and if we do not denounce a Conservative government led by Johnson with the same fervor with which we oppose a Labour government led by Corbyn then we are making a very clear statement: the only oppression that matters is our oppression. We must be better than that.

Meanwhile, even those who believe Corbyn is a greater authority on anti-Semitism than the Chief Rabbi must, nevertheless, accept that frightened Jews are an objectively bad thing, and that allegations of anti-Semitism are reluctant statements of lived experience, not politically-motivated fabulations.

"Socialist" is not a synonym for "paragon": people can believe in progressive taxation, the welfare state and, er, fighting discrimination in all its forms, while still, wittingly or otherwise, nurturing anti-Semitic sentiment. It is absolutely impossible to represent and embody peace, love, tolerance and equality while dismissing every official Jewish body and almost the entirety of the Jewish community.

In this regard, we should expect more from the left-wing commentariat. Just last month, the Guardian interviewed the famously anti-Semitic Ken Loach, who described the BBC’s expose of Labout anti-Semitism as having "bought the propaganda from people who were intent on destroying Corbyn," downplayed by the piece as a "tin-eared" comment - before returning to rhapsodize with Loach.

Just last week, a columnist wrote that perhaps people take against Corbyn because "he is uninspiring or waffly, or he wears wonky glasses," as though they were the only likely criticisms of him; and just this week, an activist/journalist - who harps on his personal valor in challenging anti-Semitism - announced that Labour’s problem is on its "fringes" then condemned anyone suggesting the party leadership was to blame of a "baseless and disgraceful smear." 

Equally hurtful is the suggestion that the community is leaving Labour because it has a problem with left-wing politics, and suggesting so - essentially juxtaposing Jews against virtue - is as intellectually redundant as it is morally repugnant.

And it's historically illiterate too. Jewish Labour voters tolerated the hard left prejudices of the 1970s and 80s, supported Michael Foot without compunction, and consider it their duty to criticize the occupation. But the political climate in Labour has changed. Previously, anti-Semitism could be laughed off as the work of cranks, another mishegas, but now those cranks are an expletive away from Downing Street. Humor has become black humor.

So, where do we go from here? Though tactical voting and a hung Parliament might be a palliative, there is no good answer to the truly appalling dilemma facing Britain on December 12th. The next prime minister will either be Corbyn - meaning anti-Semitism, social justice and a second Brexit referendum - or Johnson, meaning racism, hard Brexit and food banks.

In which context, it is understandable that many voters prefer the former. But for Jews and non-Jews alike, this should be a sad duty not a glorious celebration. We all need to recognize reality before we can change it.

Daniel Harris is writer, screenwriter, film-maker and broadcaster. Twitter: @DanielHarris