LONDON – As I write this column, 46.5 million Britons are going to the polls to vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. It’s the end of a protracted campaign and as happens when any grueling electoral season draws to an end, you can feel election fatigue in the voices of the politicians, journalists and those activists and citizens who have been emotionally and physically engaged in this intense tussle for the country’s future.
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Elections and referendums should be a wonderful celebration of democracy, but all too often after all the mud thrown by either side at each other, players just can’t wait for it all to be over and take a good shower. It’s like seder night in a ultra-Orthodox home, where a month of scouring for every last speck of chametz and sourcing products with the most exacting level of kashrut supervision has left the family nearly too exhausted to enjoy and appreciate the festival.
In London this week, I found only one group of politically involved Britons who would be quite happy for the referendum ordeal to continue for a few more weeks. You guessed – British Jews.
“We sat this one out,” a local community leader said to me. “We deserved a brief respite,” said another. Respite from what? Why should the Jews feel that this is about them anyway?
For the last 10 months, British Jews have felt at the center of the political drama engulfing the Labour Party. As veteran radical-left campaigner Jeremy Corbyn surprisingly shot to prominence, winning the party’s leadership election last year by a landslide, embarking on what so far has been a rocky period as leader, it so often has seemed to be about Jews. Whether it was Corbyn’s unsavory friendships with Hamas, Hezbollah and various other Jew-haters and Holocaust deniers, the abuse suffered by Jews who dared criticize him on social media, or, over the last few months, what has seemed a deluge of Corbyn supporters who have come to light as anti-Semites.
This of course has not been the only feature, or failing, of Corbyn’s short tenure as Labour Party leader, but it has often seemed to be the most toxic, and for Jews naturally the most worrying. It has also mirrored in a bizarre way a very similar dynamic taking place at the same time in the United States, as Donald Trump’s campaign to become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate has resulted as well in an entire host of racists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists coming out of the woodwork. Jews who have taken to social media, especially Twitter, to comment on the rise of Trump have suffered very similar taunts to those remarking about Corbyn, the only significant difference being that those quick to attack Jews online in Britain usually tweet against “Zios” instead of using the J-word, and, while having “a thing” for Jews, vehemently deny being anti-Semites. Trump’s cohort of haters are much less abashed at coming out as unvarnished racists.
Supporters of Corbyn immediately protest when comparisons are made between their champion and the Donald. On the face of it, they have a point. Seemingly there is no similarity between the gray old bicycle-riding Marxist, humbly tending his allotment, growing his own runner beans, and the orange-helmeted plutocrat on his Trump Jet. But the similarity isn’t between the two men’s characters and particular beliefs (or lack of them), but in the motivating dynamic of their believers and the surprising swell of support for them in their particular corners of public opinion.
Corbyn and Trump are both populist outsiders, even though they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. They share a mentality of us-against-them, where everyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong, but inherently evil. It is a view of the world without nuance, self-awareness, humor or tolerance for dissent, the kind of platform where fabulists, conspiracy theorists, radicals and racists can rage against the establishment and feel at home.
Both men of course deny having an anti-Semitic bone in their body. Trump has a Jewish daughter and grandchildren; Corbyn says he may even have some Jewish ancestry somewhere back in the mists of the past, but neither of them are eager to recognize or rein in the anti-Semites their meteoric rise has dredged up from the mud. They are visibly annoyed with anyone suggesting there could be something wrong with their ranks of supporters. It’s almost as if the poison dripping in their name through the net doesn’t exist.
How bad really is this outbreak of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic? Consider the fact that last year, in the wake of the attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris, Jews were fearing a much more immediate and physical threat to their very lives. For all the exposure this latest rash has received, its manifestations have primarily been in tweets and posts on Facebook. The closest Jews have actually been to palpable hate, as opposed to that in the virtual world, has been feeling “uncomfortable” in public meetings by harangues against “Zionists.” Previous generations would have scoffed at our consternation over online Judeophobia. They had pogroms, persecution, blood libels and much worse. We have Corbynist and Trumpist trolls on Twitter. Maybe all we need is a thicker skin. Sticks and stones will break our bones but social media never killed anyone. Or has it?
The referendum campaign in Britain has been both toxic and racist. Parts of the “Leave” camp have brazenly played on the fears of unbridled immigration and the arrival of millions of Syrian refugees and Turkish migrants. This time around the racism has been focused on Muslims. Besides a few snide remarks and memes about the big-nosed bankers hoping to keep the Britons in servitude to the EU and global capital, it barely touched the Jews. The optimistic conclusion is that racist Twitter and other forms of internet hatred represent just a bunch of powerless misfits, whose number and influence are monstrously exaggerated by the online echo chamber. Today it’s Jews, tomorrow Muslims, next week women who dare to have an opinion. Perhaps we should just ignore them all and get on with more important things.
But that may be a dangerous conclusion. For a start, the experience of the referendum in Britain was not without casualties. Jo Cox, a member of Parliament and tireless campaigner for refugees, was murdered just a week ago by a white supremacist in northern England. Can this be detached from the racism online? There were of course such hate-motivated murders before the age of the internet, but that is where the hate is now. We shouldn’t lose our cool over every idiot tweet-ranting that Hitler was right, but neither should we ignore how these drips of bile quickly flow into a river at the same time as divisive issues rise on the political agenda and radical politicians climb onto the national podium. It’s no coincidence that a certain kind of supporter forms an attachment to a particular type of politician.