This was delivered as a speech in the recent Commons debate on modern antisemitism.
For me, this debate is personal. I’m not Jewish but as a black man I know what it feels like to experience racism, of both the individual and institutional kind. I understand how a racist insinuation is not just offensive but isolating, making you suddenly feel vulnerable and excluded.
I know how the repetition of a well-worn stereotype or trope, followed by the inevitable denial that it is racist, can be undermining and exhausting. And I know, because I have seen it and felt it – as well as read about it – that hostility to Jewish people and age-old antisemitic stereotypes are becoming more common.
Many people speaking in this debate will have experienced antisemitism first hand and it will be distressing to hear their testimonies. It’s clear that most of the well-documented recent rise in antisemitic incidents here and in many other parts of Europe is driven by the alt right, the far right and the fascist right. They are emboldened by the xenophobic rhetoric of our age to form a sickening new far right internationalism with sometimes devastating consequences for all racial minorities.
Did I believe that in 2019 I’d wake up to the news that ‘no blacks’ signs would be daubed on the front door of the home of a 10-year-old boy who had just started a new school? Or that Islam would be seen as a threat to the British way of life by one third of people in the UK, according to a poll commissioned by the anti-fascist group, HOPE not hate?
But I also know that racism can take different forms and all of us can hold unconscious biases. In a frank self-admission George Orwell, writing in 1945, suggested that the starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not just be condemning others but looking inside ourselves. This is good advice, even today, which I know some people in my party seem to find quite difficult to follow.
We are an anti-racist party. We are the party that introduced all the race discrimination and equality legislation. We founded the former CRE and Equality and Human Rights Commission. We are implacably anti-fascist and always have been. And yet there’s no denying that some quite shocking sentiments and stereotypes have been repeated by members of my party against all racial minorities.
The fact that the left is opposed to racism in principle doesn’t mean it’s immune to being (consciously or unconsciously) racist or antisemeitic in practice. It can be all the more difficult for us to face up to this fact given the extent of unacknowledged racism in other parties, which goes deep.
Whilst, over the years, some of us on the left have traced anti-black racism to colonialism and slavery, how many of us have thought about the distinctive features of antisemitism? How many of us have reflected on the specific racial stereotyping of Europe’s ‘internal other’, which ultimately led to the genocide of two thirds of Europe’s Jews? Do some of us believe that the oppression of European Jews began and ended with the Nazi Holocaust and has little to do with our own history here in the UK?
Race or religious hatred and vicious scapegoating at times of deep national tension – like the one we’re living through now – have historically been the main drivers of antisemitism. The claim that nasty stereotypes are not ‘real racism,’ with ‘no material effect,’ is not a convincing argument for many Jewish people.
When echoes of such attitudes are discovered on the left today – the very place minorities should find solidarity and protection – this can be particularly painful and destabilising. Decades of prejudice, exclusion and stereotyping in Britain – the first country in Medieval Europe to expel all Jews – have associated people of Jewish origin with money, power and control of the media and banks, regardless of the actual life experiences of individual Jews.
Can you imagine how disempowering – and I use the word advisedly – it must be to told you are powerful, or linked to power, regardless of the barriers you face in your life? How can you fight the racism you experience when it is always implied you are privileged?
In the 1930s, assertions of hidden power and wealth were routinely hurled at hundreds of thousands of poor Jewish immigrants, living in the slums of London and Manchester. Today similar projections, conscious or otherwise, can be heard in the repeated association of Jewish people with shadowy conspiracies – often associated with Israel – especially when complaints of antisemitism are made; even when the evidence of it is before our eyes. And it is before our eyes.
The same HOPE not hate report affirms the seriousness of modern antisemitism – online and off – including “the very real problem” of “left-wing antisemitism”. Sometimes I hear it said that antisemitism should not be focused on at all in modern Britain as it takes space away from highlighting racism against other groups; as if there is a finite space for this discussion which cannot expand. This can unwittingly reproduce the stereotype of Jews as somehow powerful and privileged, even when they are calling out the racism they experience.
As a black man who has experienced racism all my life, I see this very differently. To my mind, closing our eyes to racism against one group only emboldens racism against us all. The only way to combat racism is to show no tolerance to any of it – ever!
It is with this spirit that a few of us have recently formed a new Black Asian Jewish Alliance, which we call BAJA. By our existence, we aim to highlight diversity within our groups as well as between us. Based on the principle of mutual solidarity, we recognise that what we hold in common is considerable. But we also try to listen and learn from each other about our distinctive experiences.
Above all, we know that racism can only be defeated if we stay united and we refuse to be divided by any of the current tensions that swirl around us. In today’s world this has become urgent! Labour has made a start in tackling the antisemitism within our party but has more to do. We should invite all political parties to join us in developing robust, transparent procedures to monitor and combat all forms of racism in their respective parties be they antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-black racism.