The left must take the anxieties of British Jews seriously

In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence case, racism was defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

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Accusations about Labour Party anti-Semitism often look absurd. The former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, interviewed in last week’s NS, argues that Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that British Zionists “don’t understand English irony” (itself an absurdity) is “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”. Really? More offensive, to take just one example, than Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test” (1990), claiming that people of Asian heritage who cheered for India or Pakistan at Test matches were insufficiently integrated into British life?

Frank Field, the MP who has just resigned the Labour whip, writes that “Britain fought the Second World War to banish these [anti-Semitic] views from our politics”. That is simply wrong: in 1939, hardly anybody mentioned Hitler’s treatment of Jews as a reason for fighting Germany and, even after the Holocaust began, it was rarely talked about.

All this is madness surely? Doesn’t the fuss about Corbyn’s anti-Semitism conflate hatred of Jews with opposition to (hatred of, if you prefer) the present Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians? Hasn’t that conflation been engineered by the Labour leader’s political enemies and Israeli government propagandists?

You can say that if you like and you may be half-right. But think again. Some Jews I know – by no stretch of the imagination fanatical Zionists – say that the ecstatic cheering and foot-stamping that greets denunciations of Israel in Labour meetings frightens them, particularly when contrasted with the polite ripples of applause that greet denunciations of, say, Saudi Arabia.

In the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, the Macpherson report in 1999 recommended that racism be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”. The left welcomed that definition and applied it to words as well as actions. It cannot now refuse to take the anxieties of British Jews seriously on the grounds that it is all in their minds.

Left-field Frank

As for Frank Field, he is widely described as a “maverick”. I suspect this is a polite way of saying his ideas don’t quite hang together or translate into the real world. For example, explaining in 2016 why he supports Brexit, he argued that a vote to leave was “the only option to ensure the fundamental reform of the EU on which the government should have embarked”. As I understand this opaque statement, Field believed that a British vote for Brexit would somehow inspire other EU members to rebel.

I am reminded of how in 1997 Tony Blair appointed him “welfare reform” minister to “think the unthinkable”, but removed him after barely a year because “I couldn’t  … get him to focus on the practical policy.” The problem, Blair recalled, was “not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable”.

The Daily Pravda

Another Monday morning, another column by the former foreign secretary in the Daily Borisgraph, formerly known as the Daily Telegraph. The column, a menage of mixed metaphors and rather incoherent comments about Brexit, the Chequers plan and the Irish border, is puffed across the upper half of the front page with a giant picture of Johnson (naturally against a blue background) trying to look Churchillian. I have no old copies of Pravda to hand, but I sometimes wonder if even Stalin enjoyed quite such lavish promotion.

Doctors’ note

Doctors have been advised by the royal medical colleges that they should write to patients in plain English, avoiding Latin, acronyms and technical terms. They won’t do it. By using impenetrable language, doctors deter increasingly disputatious patients, armed with Google search results, from challenging their authority. If you have a cold, you feel wrong-footed when your doctor talks about a contagious viral upper- respiratory tract infection. All professionals – lawyers, architects, accountants, schoolteachers, academics – use jargon to disempower what they call “laypeople”.

Tax-deductible musical

“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex [Prince Harry and Meghan Markle],” the Times reports, “went back to work… to watch Hamilton, the hit musical.” Work? I too attended Hamilton and wrote briefly about it here. Should I therefore count it as work and claim the tickets for myself and my wife – who, since I am partially deaf, has to explain to me what is going on – as a tax-deductible expense? Perhaps I shall ask HMRC.

Cook declares at 33

Before the Second World War, Test match cricketers frequently continued playing well into and even beyond their forties. Wilfred Rhodes played until he was 52, WG Grace until 50, Jack Hobbs until 47. As recently as the 1970s, the Yorkshire batsman Brian Close played for England at 45 and Colin Cowdrey did at 42. Extraordinarily, both were recalled because England were struggling against intimidating fast bowling.

Now Alastair Cook, the most prolific batsman in England’s Test history, announces his retirement from international cricket at 33 after a run of low scores. That has become a fairly common age for players to step aside. The change is partly explained by the greater frequency and intensity of international matches. But more important perhaps is the ubiquity of video analysis. If, like Cook, you have played 160 Tests, bowlers know everything about your strengths and weaknesses, and you are probably too tired to keep changing your batting technique. And, in Cook’s case, you find yourself being outscored by 20-year-old Sam Curran, about whom bowlers know nothing because he has played fewer than 50 first-class matches and was anyway picked mainly for his swing bowling. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left