Opinion |

Naz Shah: I've Campaigned for Race and Gender Equality All My Life. But I Didn't Get anti-Semitism

I was a new MP for the Labour Party, but I had so little understanding of modern anti-Semitism on both the political left and right that I hadn't realized how I'd hurt and offended the Jewish community

Naz Shah
Naz Shah
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Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.
Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.Credit: Facebook
Naz Shah
Naz Shah

This article was first published on July 18, 2016

Just over a year ago, against all the odds, I won my parliamentary seat in Bradford West in the North of England from the divisive candidate George Galloway. Never did I imagine that I would soon be at the center of an international anti-Semitism story.

When it happened, I wasn’t worried about the media storm, or even my career - what really worried me was knowing I've offended people and that I must do the right thing and apologize. I took a long hard look at myself and asked if I - someone who has campaigned for equality of race and gender my whole life - have so little understanding of modern anti-Semitism that I had hurt and offended Jewish people.

In my first apology (published before my suspension from the UK Labour Party), I made sure it was just that - an apology. I didn’t mention that I already had a meeting scheduled with the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, or that I’d been asked to join the UK Parliamentary group for British Jews. I didn’t talk about my history of work with - not against - the Jewish Leadership Council, or about how I felt my own people - the Muslim community – could learn from Britain’s Jews, who have integrated successfully without losing their identity.

I didn’t even tell people about my (already scheduled) visit to Auschwitz to learn more about the Shoah and its legacy today.

My omissions were simply because I needed to say sorry – unequivocally. This was not a moment for mitigation.

And after saying sorry, must come learning. I was blessed to be invited to a local Synagogue to be challenged - compassionately challenged. I came out understanding more about what I had done. We didn’t agree on everything - but that wasn’t the point.

I was attacked by some for bowing down to the ‘Zionist lobby’ - a reminder of the opaque language modern anti-Semitism hides behind. I realized that if my dream of seeing the end of the occupation is to be realized, we need more conversations - not less. And we need to absolutely remove any trace of the poison of anti-Semitism from these conversations.

Nobody in the Jewish community has asked me to completely refrain from criticizing Israel. Anti-Semitism isn’t about Palestine/Israel but it often appears in discourse around it. As Baroness Royall and Shami Chakrabarti have made clear – Zionism must not be used as a term of abuse. I will never shy away from speaking out against unacceptable acts of the Israeli government. I want those criticisms to improve the situation, not to evoke deep existential fear.

My understanding of anti-Semitism was lacking. I didn't get it. I don't believe in hierarchies of oppression but I’d never before understood that anti-Semitism is different - and perhaps more dangerous - than other forms of discrimination, because instead of painting the victim as inferior, anti-Semitism paints the victim as, in a way, superior and controlling. Many parts of British society must also understand this - especially as parts of the political class enable the Islamophobic far-right in this post-Brexit world.

But this isn’t just a far-right problem. I find it tragic - as an ethnic minority Member of the British Parliament who is Labour to the core - that some Jewish people now tell me that the UK Labour party is no longer their natural political home. This is understandable. But if there is one party where every minority community in Britain belongs, it has to be the Labour Party. After the party’s anti-Semitism inquiry, there is hope that this will be restored.

For me you don't have to be black to get racism, you don't have to be a woman to get feminism, and you don't have to be a Muslim or a Jew to get Islamophobia or anti-Semitism. If you’re on the side of real equality, then it's all and everyone's business - simple. And real equality isn’t just about race. Neither is it about everyone having the same outcomes in life - it's about having the same opportunities. It is these values - the foundations of the UK Labour Party - of equality, fairness and justice, which make my party my natural political home.

The Chair of Jewish Labour in the UK shared a vision with me: that in the next general election, boys in skullcaps will help me canvas Muslim areas of Bradford, and girls in hijabs will knock on doors in Jewish communities in North London. I now hope and pray that this will be realized.

A colleague in British politics, Lord Tariq Ahmed, explained the Abrahamic religions to me in this way: Imagine a house. Its foundations are made from the Torah, its walls from the Bible and its roof with the Quran. That is the house of Abraham and we are the children of Abraham.

That is the house I will work to build – for people of all faiths and none - based on our shared values and humanity. A house we painfully need in the UK, in Israel - and in Palestine.

Naz Shah is the UK Member of the Parliament for Bradford West.
Twitter: @NazShahBfd

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