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The British Election Where Racism Came to the Fore

Both Jewish and Muslim leaders fear that it will take years to detoxify the bigotry on the left and the right

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigning in Hengoed, south Wales, December 11, 2019.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigning in Hengoed, south Wales, December 11, 2019.Credit: Ben Stansall / AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim Sunday, just four days before the general election, that EU citizens come to Britain “as though it’s basically part of their own country,” was a reminder of the toxicity of Britain’s political debate over the past four years that now seems to have reached a peak. While much of the attention has been on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, this has been accompanied by rising xenophobia around the Brexit issue and accusations of racism against Johnson himself and his Conservative Party.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that in many cases, these accusations are simply aimed at deflecting attention from anti-Semitism in Labour. The party’s supporters are always quick on social media to demand that the overall media and especially Jews talk about “Tory racism instead.” Two weeks ago, after Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis warned about the implications for British Jews of a Corbyn government, the Muslim Council of Britain was quick to publish its own statement expressing solidarity with the Jewish community’s concerns and then used very similar language to attack the Conservatives over Islamophobia.

But while some of the accusations are obviously whataboutery, there’s no doubt that the Conservative leaders around Johnson, who also led the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, have been playing with fire for a long time. During the Brexit campaign, they repeatedly offered baseless claims about multitudes of refugees descending on Britain if it remained in the EU.

“Brexit has opened a can of worms and it’s become our identity against their identity, and in that atmosphere the prejudices of people will come out,” says Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell MAMA, an organization that fights anti-Muslim hatred, and currently the director of Faith Matters.

Mughal has been an outspoken critic of Corbyn and has signed an open letter calling on British people not to vote Labour on Thursday due to the anti-Semitism issue. But he isn’t clearing Johnson and his party of blame either. He chides politicians on both sides for “playing off one community against another. The identity politics have become so toxic.”

Mughal won’t vote Labour, but according to surveys the overwhelming majority of British Muslims, around 85 percent, will be putting their faith in Corbyn. It’s a mirror image of the Jewish community, where only a tiny handful plan to vote Labour. (According to polls, around 60 percent of British Jews will vote Conservative and 30 percent Liberal Democrat.) It’s unclear whether Muslims’ blanket support for Labour is due more to their traditional vote for the party, their affinity with Corbyn’s crusading zeal for the Palestinian cause or real concerns about a wave of Islamophobia if Johnson stays in office.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Dinnington near Sheffield, northern England, December 11, 2019. Credit: Oli Scarff / AFP

Boris’ racist record

In three decades as a politician and journalist, the scandalous Johnson has accumulated a long list of controversial quotes regarding Muslims and other minority groups, as well as toward women and gay men.

“When I write this stuff, I never set out to cause pain or hurt,” he tried to explain himself in a recent interview. “You just need to go back and look at the context. So much of this stuff is disinterred with a view to distracting from the basic issues of this election.”

But there is some truth in the claim that his racist record has only belatedly come under scrutiny — as there is to claims that it’s not only supporters of Corbyn who have made anti-Semitic statements online. Some Conservative candidates have done so as well. Last year, when a female Labour MP asked Johnson to acknowledge that opponents of Brexit, especially women, were being viciously attacked on social media and receiving death threats, Johnson simply answered: “Humbug.”

“I think that whatever the outcome of this election, it’s important to realize that whoever wins will have less than half the population backing him,” says Mehboob Khan, a Labour councillor in the southeast London borough of Greenwich. “Britain is very split right now and we are seeing the kind of racist sentiments — including anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant graffiti in east London, and a return to the rhetoric of the [racist, far-right] National Front — that haven’t been seen for the best part of the last 30 years.”

Khan, as a Labour member, rejects the accusations of institutional anti-Semitism in the party, but accepts that Labour should acknowledge the concerns of British Jews and apologize “for having been slow to deal with complaints of anti-Semitism when they were made three years ago. But Corbyn has overhauled the process since then.”

Mustafa Field, the director of the Faiths Forum for London, says “the twin issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have not been robustly challenged in this election. They have been politicized instead. Historically, members of faith communities have been free to vote for whoever they wanted. Now we have the sad situation of faith communities looking to specific political parties to safeguard their interests.”

Dire predictions

As the CEO of a large Jewish organization who spoke on condition of anonymity puts it, “My main worry is that after the election, even if Corbyn loses and leaves the leadership, we will find out that the bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities, and the bridges with Labour, have all been burned. On the Jewish side, we will continue blaming anyone who remained in Labour and supported it of betraying the Jews. And in Labour, they will blame the Jews for Corbyn’s defeat.”

Faith Matters’ Mughal echoes those predictions. “If Corbyn wins, I do believe that 20 or 30 percent of British Jews will seriously consider leaving the country and make some form of preparation for that. It’s a real concern,” he says. “And even if Corbyn loses, it will take five to 10 years to repair the relationships between communities and detoxify the atmosphere.”

Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of the Reform movement in Britain who has been spending a growing proportion of her time speaking with Muslim religious leaders, says that “from the moment Johnson said ‘humbug,’ he set the tone for these elections.”

Janner-Klausner is even more scathing of Corbyn for “having failed as a leader” in not dealing with the anti-Semitism in his party. Janner-Klausner is still a Labour member (and the daughter of a prominent Labour politician) but for the first time will be voting Liberal Democrat. She’s unsure whether she supports the advice of Mirvis and rabbis in her own movement not to vote Labour.

“I’m uncomfortable with using our power as rabbis and religious leaders to tell people how to vote. It’s not as if anyone needed a rabbi to tell them how worried Jews are with Labour right now.” She hopes that “with the election behind us, we can finally focus on talking within and between our communities, because a lot of people are shocked by how coarse our public discourse has become. It’s not at all like British society, which is fundamentally decent.”

But some voters aren’t so sure about the decency of British society and are glad that people are talking about the racism in both main parties. “Anyone who says racism isn’t in our nature in Britain has been closing their eyes,” says Brian Matthews, an optician who lives in the north London constituency of Chipping Barnet (which is being closely fought between the Conservatives and Labour).

“In the 45 years since I emigrated to Britain from Kenya, I’ve come up against racism — not only on the streets but also in respectable places like university and the health system, from left-wingers as well as from the right. It’s good that it’s finally coming out and people can’t ignore it anymore.”

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