Attention can be flattering, but it can be unsettling too. Last week, British Jews got a taste of the latter type when Liz Truss’s campaign wielded its clumsy machinery to announce its pledges to the Jewish community. By going after the votes of Conservative Jews, however, the current favourite to be the next party leader and prime minister managed to infuriate rather than reassure.
What made the most headlines was her pledge to change “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”, a claim met with general astonishment. In a joint letter, the general secretaries of the Prospect and FDA unions said the allegations were “without foundation and offensive”, and accused Truss of using them to make headlines.
Truss’s comments were reportedly related to a “suggestion”, according to Sky News, that she had to “overrule” officials at the Foreign Office over a show of British support for Israel at the UN Human Rights Council. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge put it succinctly when she responded that: “Using antisemitism to peddle the right’s ‘anti-woke agenda’ is below the belt.”
But that wasn’t the only unfair accusation from Truss’s camp. In a statement released to the press after Truss addressed a synagogue in Manchester on Friday (12 August), a campaign source said that “the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer and his colleague Jeremy Corbyn has been a talking shop for antisemitism and antizionism”. Labour’s anti-Semitism saga has been incredibly painful for British Jews. Dredging it up for votes is already not a great look, but equating Starmer’s record with Corbyn’s seems like a gesture of bad faith. Especially given Starmer has put in a fair amount of effort to clean up the mess left by the previous leadership. Lobbing in the phrase “anti-Zionism” alongside “anti-Semitism” is hardly constructive, either. To the untrained eye this might seem like mere nuance, but given that the terms represent a matter of divisive debate among Jews, it’s no way to appeal to the Jewish community.
Then there were the offensive tropes. “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too,” Truss stated, “for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.” Given the harmful stereotypes about Jews, money and greed, the words caused offence among Jews. Moreover, feeling the need to state that Jewish values are British values feels like overcompensation – the implication being that Jews aren’t properly British. Truss’s gaffe was reminiscent of something Corbyn was once recorded as saying, that a group of Zionists lacked a sense of English irony.
Real, constructive action on anti-Semitism would of course be welcome. But in conflating wokeness and prejudice against Jews, Truss is doing the minority more harm than good. To quote Hodge once more, “The oldest form of racism is not a tool to use in the divisive culture war nonsense.”
And, given Truss’s inclusion – unwittingly, one hopes – of anti-Jewish stereotypes, this is more than mere nonsense. Across the Atlantic, US Republicans have also been employing anti-Semitic tropes in political statements (which goes to show that anti-Semitism is always there, just under the surface). Politicians would do well to remember that, when a minority is in the spotlight, their words have impact beyond the immediacy of a press release.