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3 October 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:38pm

Why I don’t think Priti Patel’s reference to “north London” was an anti-Semitic dog whistle

I do not believe that the Home Secretary had the slightest intention to refer to Jews in her speech, even obliquely.

By Daniel Sugarman

On Tuesday afternoon, Priti Patel made her speech at the Conservative Party Conference. The Home Secretary announced her intention to end freedom of movement and instead introduce a points-based immigration policy, of the sort currently used by Australia. And then she went on to say the following:

“Let me tell you something. This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the north London, metropolitan, liberal elite.”

When I logged on to social media on Tuesday night, after a 48-hour hiatus due to Jewish New Year, I found that this sentence to be the topic of fierce debate for both Jews and non-Jews. Was the phrase “north London metropolitan liberal elite” an anti-Semitic dog whistle?

For me, a Jewish north London resident for most of my life, the answer was no. And I hear of lot of such whistles, on both the left and right. For example, at a fringe event at Tory conference the night before Patel’s speech, a Conservative MP suggested that the Chief Rabbi is demanding “special status” for Britain’s Jews. If this were a compilation album, it’d be named Now That’s What I Call a Dog Whistle.

Patel then appeared to do what seems to be an instinctive reaction among certain right-wing politicians – such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban – accused of using anti-Semitic language: she pointed to her support of Israel. Just a few hours after her speech, she tweeted a picture of herself with her “dear friend”, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, at the Conservative Friends of Israel reception at conference.

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The political equivalent of “some of my best friends are [insert minority here]” is apparently “one of my favourite countries is Jewish”. The idea that one cannot be anti-Semitic if one supports Israel is a growing and problematic attitude on the right. It is mirrored by a now apparently prevalent attitude on the left that criticism of Israel never crosses over into anti-Semitic. Both are completely incorrect.

But unlike both Trump and Orban, I don’t think Patel is guilty of anti-Semitism at all. As far as I was concerned, whenever politicians talk about those they deem to be hopelessly out of touch with what they call “the people”, they reference inhabitants of north London neighbourhoods. For years, Private Eye has run a comic strip called “It’s grim up North London”, which parodies that caricature of north Londoners as being soppy, intensely politically correct liberals with more money than sense. I’ve never had the sense that it was talking about Jewish people.

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“Metropolitan”? If the word used had been “cosmopolitan” my anti-Semitic radar might have bleeped – after all, the description of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was a fixture in the left-wing anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union. But “metropolitan”?

And “elite”? Deservedly or not, neighbourhoods in north London, including Hampstead, Highgate and pockets of Islington, have developed a reputation for being full of wealthy lefties. I’m sure some of them are Jewish, but most of them are not. 

The Home Secretary has done more than take a photo with the Israeli ambassador. Six weeks ago she met representatives of prominent Jewish communal organisations, pledging to work with them “to stand up to the threat of anti-Semitism and ensure the security and safety of Jewish communities”. I do not believe any of those communal organisations felt then, or feel now, any suggestion that Patel will not do exactly that.

We can have a longer discussion as to whether alt-right talking points have subconsciously seeped into right-wing rhetoric as a whole – I believe, awfully, that they have. But I do not believe that Patel had the slightest intention to refer to Jews in her speech, even obliquely.

On Twitter, I said I didn’t think her words were an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Many people agreed with me. But many others felt differently.

I have little respect for some of the latter – if you’ve spent the last few years dismissing hundreds of examples of Labour anti-Semitism as “smears”, only to suddenly magically rediscover your ability to recognise anti-Semitism when it’s a Tory talking, you’ll forgive some of us for being slightly sceptical of your motives.

But a fair number of people I highly respect do not fall into that category, and they clearly felt the Home Secretary was invoking an anti-Semitic trope.

As has become customary in debates of this type, some cited a scene from the American comedy series, 30 Rock. In the scene, television executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) starts telling Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), head writer of the network’s prime-time sketch comedy show, that “the television audience doesn’t want your elitist, east coast, alternative, intellectual, left wing…”

Liz Lemon interrupts him. “Just say Jewish, Jack, this is taking forever.”

It’s a golden scene, precisely because certain phrases can and are often used as get-out-of-jail-free alternatives by bigots who are too cowardly to say what they really mean.

But I do not believe Patel is one of those people. She does not appear to be someone who would hide what she really felt behind any sort of “nudge nudge, wink wink” rhetoric.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and assume the Home Secretary did indeed mean Jews. That speech would sounds as follows: “This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from Jews. That’s what you get with a government driven by the people’s priorities. And of course there will be only two dissenting voices. You can work out who they are. Diane Abbott. Jeremy Corbyn.”

When you put it like that, it sounds utterly bizarre. Polling for the Jewish Chronicle has found that more than 85 per cent of the British Jewish community considers the Labour leader himself to be an anti-Semitic. The idea the Home Secretary has employed an anti-Semitic trope, then says that the only people to disagree will only be Jeremy Corbyn and one of his closest political allies …it just sounds less and less credible.