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18 March 2019

I was wrong to think that Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism had nothing to do with me

For a long time I extended him the benefit of the doubt, but the “English irony” remark I could not rationalise away.

By Nicky Woolf

I can tell you the exact moment Jeremy Corbyn lost me on anti-Semitism: when video surfaced of him saying Zionists “…having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives… don’t understand English irony”. Ugh, I thought, more disappointed than angry. I am sensitive to unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism: in the US, where Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was accused of it over comments she made about the Israel lobby, I stridently defended her against what I felt was a disingenuous attack.

For a long time I extended Corbyn the same benefit of the doubt, but the “irony” remark I could not rationalise away. There are many legitimate grounds to criticise Israel and Zionism – I’ve argued some myself – but it seems clear Corbyn was talking about the characteristics of a people. I am not alone: the anti-Semitism scandal that has bedevilled the Labour Party is reaching a climax. Pro-Corbyn Twitter trolls hurl anti-Semitic slurs. Several Jewish MPs, including Luciana Berger, have quit, and in March the Equalities and Human Rights Commission opened an investigation into how the party handles anti-Semitism complaints.

The relationship between Jewishness, Zionism, Israel and anti-Semitism is unbearably complex. When I was at school, “Jew” was an insult meaning, vaguely, to be stingy or avaricious. That sounds bad, but I honestly didn’t give it much thought back then – the cognitive dissonance required to separate the slur from my identity was easy. I was hardly alone in being stigmatised; “gay”, too, was a widespread schoolyard barb. We were too young to understand linguistic oppression, and largely forgot about it as we grew up.

What I didn’t grow out of so easily was my sense that being Jewish somehow entitled me to a plum spot near the top of the moral high ground. This made me extremely sensitive to other Jews who I saw as acting in a way that put my moral superiority – paid for, I subconsciously figured, by my ancestors, in blood and ash – in question. Upon examination, I am ashamed of that: it is narcissistic, and rooted in the same conceptual framework as anti-Semitism itself. But I felt it nonetheless. I didn’t even genuinely subscribe to Judaism as a faith, having never really been sold on the existence of God – but, instinctively, I still contrived to conceive of myself as other.

If anything, I am not unsympathetic to the anti-Israel position Corbyn professes. I have family there but I am unambiguously British, and characterise my heritage as eastern European in flavour. I yearn for the shtetl, not the desert. As the descendant of survivors of pogroms and the Holocaust, I am appalled by Gaza. The thought that a nation founded on the principle that the crime committed against my ancestors must never happen again could itself become the oppressor makes me want to scream.

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When Prime Minister Netanyahu says things such as, “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or ill, survive,” which he did in August 2018, I cringe at a macho militarism I do not recognise. The biblical Israel I learned about in Sunday School was an idea, not a place: divinity, not geography. Why must everyone take things so literally? I don’t want to die for a metaphor.

Yet it isn’t just outrage I feel when I read about the killing of a Palestinian journalist by an Israeli sniper in 2018; it’s shame, too, as if I am both burdened by the unfair expectation to defend Israel’s actions and somehow complicit in them. As if, despite wanting to feel no more obligation towards Israel than any other nation, I also want to be privileged enough in standing to demand it behaves better. When I unpack this it, too, is problematic: I measure Israel by a double standard of which I am not fully in control.

But I have covered digital subculture at a time when Nazism is reincarnated. Online, anti-Semitic memes and Nazi imagery, alongside other forms of racism, and homophobia, are baked into the discourse – and do not remain in the digital sphere. According to a recent poll, one in four Europeans say they believe Jews have “too much influence” in global finance. In the UK, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has broken the all-time high three years running. In the US, torch-bearing neo-Nazis chanted “Jews shall not replace us” as they marched in Charlottesville in 2017. Anti-Semitic incidents in America rose 60 per cent that year. In October 2018, a man murdered 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most deadly attack on American Jews in history. The gunman had been an active poster of anti-Semitic memes on social media.

At Passover – my favourite holiday, growing up – Jews retell our escape from slavery in Egypt. The story is encoded into the ritual meal: charoset, a paste of ground fruit and nuts, for the mortar of the Pyramids; salt water for tears; horseradish for bitterness. More metaphors. Perhaps ritualisation defanged remembrance, because I grew up thinking of the Holocaust in the same abstract way. Like many survivors, those in my family who lived through it rarely talked about their experience. That’s not to say I wasn’t drawn to it: like many young Jews, I had a phase of compulsively seeking Holocaust literature, which I devoured obsessively – yet passively, as if at a distance. It wasn’t that I was unmoved; it was that I thought we now lived in a different world.

Now, I think: maybe we do, maybe we don’t. When Corbyn says Zionists don’t understand “our” irony and so, by implication, can never truly be English, I think he means me, too. My grandparents have all passed away; I never thought to ask them when they were alive whether I was right to read, say, Anne Frank’s diary, the way I did: with sorrow, but without fear.

Nicky Woolf is editor of NS America

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control