Jeremy Corbyn Spent Passover With a Group of Socialist Jews. Here’s Why I’m Not Insulted.

How dare the world decide for us who’s a proper Jew.

Jane Miller April 25, 2018

For better and for worse, politics is based primarily on giving people things—chief among them, hope. Labour delivered. (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m not just torn, I’m quar­tered by this dis­pute about anti-Semi­tism in the Labour Par­ty. What’s going on? Appar­ent­ly anti-Semi­tism is rife” on the Left of the par­ty. There are more than a few bad apples,” and Momen­tum itself, the move­ment that has grown up round Jere­my Cor­byn, admits to the pres­ence among its mem­bers of anti-Semi­tism in forms they describe as most­ly uncon­scious bias.” The focus has been on two exam­ples. Jere­my Cor­byn seems to have dis­cour­aged the removal of an unpleas­ant and anti-Semit­ic mur­al with­out look­ing prop­er­ly at it. When he did, he apol­o­gized, lat­er. And then one Labour Par­ty offi­cial has post­ed” another’s holo­caust denial on Face­book, whether approv­ing­ly or not we’re not told. Both of these mis­de­meanours could have been due to care­less­ness and inat­ten­tion, but per­haps they weren’t.

I am an inactive but faithful member of an organization called Jews for Justice for Palestinians and I give a small monthly sum of money to another organization that supports the medical services in Gaza.

It’s not that I want to deny the exis­tence of anti-Semi­tism on the Left, although I am a lit­tle sur­prised to find it exposed and vil­i­fied with such vig­or by right-wing news­pa­pers, some of which have a poor record them­selves. But anti-Semi­tism lingers as a pos­si­bil­i­ty all the time and every­where, just as oth­er forms of racism do, even though this coun­try has a rel­a­tive­ly bet­ter mod­ern his­to­ry of coun­ter­ing anti-Semi­tism than most coun­tries do. There is some pub­lic acknowl­edge­ment after all that crit­i­cism of Israel’s treat­ment of its Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion is not the same thing as anti-Semi­tism, but a good deal of the dis­cus­sion delib­er­ate­ly blurs that distinction. 

Let me start some­where else. I am Jew­ish. My moth­er was Jew­ish. So, I’m told — though with what author­i­ty I am nev­er quite clear — I am Jew­ish. I’m per­fect­ly hap­py with that, though grow­ing up in a fam­i­ly where my father was not Jew­ish and not reli­gious meant that we did not know very much about Judaism. Jew­ish cul­ture is strong­ly famil­ial, not to say patri­ar­chal, so that aspect of Judaism was part­ly absent from my expe­ri­ence. How­ev­er, my mother’s Jew­ish fam­i­ly was large and impor­tant for us. My grand­fa­ther was one of the fif­teen chil­dren of a man who made a small for­tune devel­op­ing parts of Lon­don like Not­ting Hill Gate. Four­teen of those chil­dren sur­vived to live com­fort­able lives in large hous­es, in Lon­don and the home coun­ties, and almost all of them mar­ried Jews. There were sev­en girls and sev­en boys, and though one girl became an anthro­pol­o­gist and my grand­fa­ther became a sci­en­tist, most of them dab­bled a bit in busi­ness, but can’t be said to have had pro­fes­sion­al careers or even jobs. One of them, indeed, dab­bled the fam­i­ly for­tune away, his mind on high­er things.

They were Ashke­nazi Jews, whose ances­tors had come to Eng­land in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry from Hol­land and Czecho­slo­va­kia and who sold hats and oth­er things, notably ostrich feath­ers, and were staunch­ly British and patri­ot­ic as well as Jew­ish and pret­ty well non-obser­vant, though my grand­fa­ther presided over Seder nights, and my grand­moth­er, whom I nev­er knew, was a Hebrew schol­ar, a poet and a Zion­ist. Odd­ly, my sec­u­lar grand­fa­ther bought a fam­i­ly plot in the so-called ortho­dox” part of the Jew­ish ceme­tery in Willes­den, where he and his two wives are buried. Lat­er gen­er­a­tions, how­ev­er, have been refused bur­ial there because they were non-observant.

We all knew that my moth­er was shown the door” by some grand Jew­ish friends of her par­ents when she mar­ried my father, and that their mar­riage met with more dis­ap­proval from the Jew­ish side of the fam­i­ly than from the oth­er, osten­si­bly Uni­tar­i­an, side. My sis­ters and I grew up rather wish­ing we were, as our many cousins were, prop­er” Jews, instead of half-and-halfs. If we suf­fered any dis­crim­i­na­tion (and we didn’t much) it was from prop­er” Jews. One sis­ter was exclud­ed from Hebrew class­es for not being a prop­er” Jew and lat­er, as a med­ical stu­dent, from a Jew­ish stu­dent soci­ety. I was lec­tured unkind­ly by a Jew­ish young man at my uni­ver­si­ty, who has become a well-known writer since then, for hob-nob­bing with non-Jews some of the time. But all that is small beer. And espe­cial­ly small beer, you might say, giv­en the his­to­ry of the Jews and anti-Semi­tism on the one hand, and the unjust Israeli gov­ern­ment on the other.

I am an inac­tive but faith­ful mem­ber of an orga­ni­za­tion called Jews for Jus­tice for Pales­tini­ans and I give a small month­ly sum of mon­ey to anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports the med­ical ser­vices in Gaza. I don’t attend meet­ings at all reg­u­lar­ly or march in protest very often. When I have done either I have been struck by the deter­mi­na­tion and courage it has tak­en for some of the Jew­ish peo­ple I’m meet­ing or march­ing with to declare their sym­pa­thy for the Pales­tini­ans, since it has often entailed seri­ous clash­es with their fam­i­lies and even extru­sion from them. 

It sounds a bit as though I’m say­ing that Jews give each oth­er more lip and trou­ble than they get from oth­er peo­ple, and some might agree with that. But I think what I’m get­ting at is that Jews are just like oth­er groups of peo­ple who agree about some things, but not about every­thing. Some will find their reli­gious or trib­al or cul­tur­al loy­al­ties in con­flict with their pol­i­tics or their fam­i­ly loy­al­ties, just as oth­er peo­ple do. It is no eas­i­er for Jews to feel all of a piece, com­fort­able with dis­crep­an­cy and con­tra­dic­tion, than for any­one else. Per­haps social­ism is more impor­tant to me than Jew­ish­ness, but per­haps not as impor­tant as fam­i­ly loy­al­ty or affec­tion for my friends, for instance. Social­ism was for a time more impor­tant to me than belong­ing to the Labour Par­ty, which I left for some years. I rejoined when Jere­my Cor­byn stood to become its leader and I vot­ed for him then. 

How­ev­er, I was on the verge of adding anti-Semi­tism to an only just tol­er­a­ble list of objec­tions to cur­rent Labour pol­i­cy and to the unde­ni­able care­less­ness of Jere­my Cor­byn. There is their shilly-shal­ly­ing about Brex­it, their fail­ure to wel­come into their inner cir­cle real­ly good MPs like David Lam­my, pre­sum­ably because he once served in a Blair gov­ern­ment. But I find I mind those things slight­ly less than see­ing Cor­byn jeered at for spend­ing Passover with a group of young Social­ist Jews who call them­selves Jew­das. This was seen by the press as insult­ing to prop­er” Jews. It wasn’t insult­ing to me. How dare the world decide for us who are prop­er Jews and who aren’t, while telling us, as Hitler did, that just one grand­par­ent and we’re Jews whether we like it or not. And then telling us that we are anti-Semit­ic or self-hat­ing Jews if we think the Jew­ish state of Israel is oper­at­ing some­thing very like Apartheid.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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