Few radio listeners were aware until this week that BBC radio presenter Emma Barnett is Jewish. She doesn’t have a noticeably Jewish name and, by her own account, “looks” so non-Jewish that when she once visited a London synagogue, she was directed to a class for prospective converts, rather than the Shabbat service. On Tuesday, however, her Jewishness suddenly became an issue.
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Presenting BBC Radio 4's "Woman’s Hour," she was interviewing the Labour Party’s leader and candidate for prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn. Barnett asked Corbyn for the cost of one of Labour’s key election pledges – the provision of 30 hours of free childcare a week for all children in Britain from the ages of 2 to 4 – a relevant question, considering the mystery of where the billions to fund this promise will come from should Labour win the U.K. general election next Thursday.
Corbyn, however, was stumped and began searching for the figure. On air, Barnett said to Corbyn “[You’re] logging into your iPad here, you’ve announced a major policy and you don’t know how much it will cost.” An awkward moment for a politician on the campaign trail, but not out of the ordinary, certainly not a game-changer.
And that’s when Barnett was outed as a Jew. Within minutes of the Corbyn interview, she was being accused on Twitter of being a “Zionist,” of “shilling for Zionism” and of “towing Israel’s line.”
The interview had nothing to do with Zionism, Israel or foreign policy, and Barnett herself is not an Israeli citizen and has never worked for an Israel-related organization. However, for some of Corbyn’s supporters, the fact she had done her job – subjecting a politician to tough questioning – and that according to Google she is Jewish, are somehow related.
For Jewish journalists in Britain and the United States, this is hardly a new experience. In the last couple of years, there are two political figures that you can’t report on or interview professionally as a Jew without receiving torrents of, at most, very thinly veiled anti-Semitic abuse: Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.
And while the president of the United States and the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have a few interesting things in common. Both of them are against NATO; both seem to have a high tolerance for dictators, especially of the Russian kind; and while both strenuously claim not to be anti-Semitic – indeed, there is no direct evidence they are – they both seem to have a disproportionately large number of online supporters eager to attack Jews at the drop of a hat.
Granted, the messages of Trump supporters are usually more crudely anti-Semitic, while the Corbynistas use the code word “Zionist.” When challenged, they say they’re just critical of Israel and it has nothing to do with Jews. The conditioned reflex, however, is identical.
Why do both Trump and Corbyn attract anti-Semites? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: What is it about them that somehow gives license to anti-Semites, who rarely parade out in the open in this day and age, to out themselves and break cover?
In Corbyn’s case, there seem to be two answers. There’s the anti-Zionism that has long been part of his radical leftist ideology, which gives them a semblance of respectability. And then there’s the current vogue for conspiracy theories on the extremes of politics. Where there are imagined conspiracies, there will always be imaginary Jews – sorry, Zionists.
So for British Jews, and in fact for all decent British voters, the choice next Thursday should be simple. Don’t vote for a candidate who just can’t help but attract anti-Semites.
Indeed, up until two years ago, when Corbyn was transformed from a fringe MP whom few in Britain even knew into the leader of the main opposition party, he regularly shared platforms with anti-Semites, though he claims to have never been aware of their views on Jews. And we can believe him on that, because only recently has he “discovered” that anti-Semitism actually exists on the left.
That blind spot to the oldest racist hatred should certainly be a reason to disqualify him. The only problem is that in Britain, you don’t vote for a candidate, you vote for a party.
For all its faults, the British Labour Party is not yet Jeremy Corbyn. A freak crisis of leadership and far-left entryism, or infiltration, of Labour doesn’t change the fact that it remains the party that represents many of the values closest to the best traditions of British Jews – social responsibility, inclusiveness, protection of minorities, an openness to the world and, above all, a sense of a community where the weaker members are not left to swim or sink.
It’s an awful dilemma. Do you vote for the best traditions of the Labour Party or do you punish it for its current period of Corbynite madness? The dilemma would be a much easier one if the alternative to Labour in 2017 was not so dire and, in the not too distant future, even more ominous for British Jews.
For over a generation, the Conservative Party and its leaders, going back to Margaret Thatcher – whose Finchley constituency was perhaps the most demographically Jewish in the British Isles – has never seemed so friendly to Jews. Prime Minister Theresa May is a regular star at Jewish functions and deserves credit for her attention, when she served as home secretary, to the community’s security.
But as Britain gets ready to leave Europe, the Conservatives are now playing up their worst isolationist tendencies. In an appeal to the far-right voters of the UK Independence Party, the party is entertaining dark spirits of xenophobia and immigrant-bashing. So far, this hasn't affected the most successful immigrant group in British history, but it is just a question of time.
Brexit will almost certainly be a financial disaster, plunging Britain into a deep recession with a crippling deficit and high unemployment. When this starts to impact on people’s lives, many of those who supported Brexit won’t admit their mistake. They will be casting around for scapegoats – globalists, bankers, cosmopolitans ... you know where this ends.
For British Jews, the choice on Thursday is between a politician who enables anti-Semitism today, and those who are enabling anti-Semitism a couple of years down the road.