I was born in Egypt in the last year of the Second World War as Jews were being exterminated in Hitler’s gas chambers in Europe. I grew up thinking that we would never forget the horrors that a culture of anti-Semitism can bring.
Yet here we are, over 70 years later forced to talk about anti-Semitism and in particular consider its presence within our political parties. Anti-Semitism remains far more pervasive in the political cultures of Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary. Shocking instances of anti-Semitism occur regularly within the Conservative party – look at Nick Timothy’s recent article on George Soros where his rhetoric about a “billionaire” who “broke the Bank of England” and who interferes “in the democracies of several European nations’ – was shockingly anti-Semitic. While all of this is true I never, ever thought that I would experience significant anti-Semitism as a member of the Labour Party. But I have and it has left me feeling an outsider in the party of which I have been a member for over 50 years.
I am a Jew. My upbringing was entirely secular and I have always been an atheist. I have never practised Jewish religious traditions in my home, neither of my two husbands were Jews and I have been a consistent critic of the governments of Israel down the years. But my Jewish heritage is central to my being.
Recently my sisters have trawled through the correspondence and diaries of my grandparents and family who came from Germany and Austria. My grandmother on my mother’s side lived in Vienna when the war broke out. In her early fifties, she thought she was too old to be harmed by the Nazis and chose to stay in her home. We have the last letter she wrote to her son, my uncle, in 1941, nine days before she was forcibly taken to a concentration camp in Lithuania and shot and killed in a trench outside the camp’s gates. (She never even stepped through the gates of the concentration camp.) In that letter she said – twice – “don’t completely forget me.” And in a postscript to the letter (that she clearly thought would be vetted by the Nazis) she wrote: ‘Thinking about you will help me to endure what is coming. I am sceptical that we shall ever meet again. Who knows when I can even write to you again.”
Her husband, my grandfather was one of seven children. Yet my siblings and I are the only surviving branch of that family. The others either died childless or were killed in the concentration camps. My only surviving aunt from that side escaped the gas chambers because she was a doctor in the British army. An uncle on my father’s side spent much of the war in a village in the Ardeche before he was finally captured, deported and killed in Auschwitz. When I visited Auschwitz I walked into the room full of the suitcases of those murdered in the gas chambers and was confronted by a battered brown suitcase with my uncle’s initials on it. Goodness knows whether it was actually his suitcase but that moment was utterly chilling for me.
All of this is part of my heritage. It is what I am today. I can’t forget. It is one reason for my joining the Labour Party in the 1960s. I believed that the Labour Party was the party that fought against racism and intolerance. It was the party that defended the rights of minority communities and fought all bigotry and prejudice. It was the natural home for Jews who had been subject to inhumane acts for no other reason than their race, their ethnicity and their religion.
In the 2010 General Election I was challenged by Nick Griffin, the Leader of the British National Party in my constituency, Barking. I thought I would face anti-Semitism in that campaign, but surprisingly there was very little evidence of it. The most memorable incident was on Election Day, when a BNP activist at a polling station shouted at me that I should go back to Germany. My retort was that I couldn’t, because they had killed most of my family.
So it has been truly shocking for me to receive a trail of vicious anti-Semitic tweets in the last two years, both from right wing extremists, but also from Labour party members and supporters. I know that my inbox is nothing compared to that of my honourable friends, the members for Liverpool Wavertree, Liverpool Riverside and Stoke-on-Trent North who, unlike me, are all activists in the Jewish community. I also know that social media has facilitated an explosion in utterly despicable stuff coming to all of us with any public profile.But when so many horrible anti-Semitic tweets clearly come from the left, those with the authority to act to stop this should do so promptly and decisively. When I expressed my views on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party this is what I got:
“Bullshit. Zionists who seek to control UK foreign policy are terribly scared as they don’t own or control Corbyn”
“Anybody else think treacherous cu*t @margarethodge needs deselecting to stand as the terrorist, Zionist Tory party.”
“Jewish lobby losing their grip on Labour. Happy happy days”
“Rather than having a go at Jeremy u should be standing outside the Israeli Embassy calling for the prosecution of Netanyahu for war crimes and the attempted destruction of Palestinian Society. But of course you can’t as you’re a friend of Apartheid Israel.”
It is vile attacks like these that concern us. It was in response to these that we Jewish Labour MPs met to consider what we could do, well before the controversy surrounding the racist mural hit the press. We are experiencing a surge in anti-Semitism on the left. In part it has always been there. There have always been those who see every Jew as a paid-up member of the Netanyahu fan club. People who fail to make the appropriate distinction between being a Jew, voicing support for Israel as a place for Jews to live safely and proclaiming support for the Government in Israel. People who now consider the term Zionist as a term of abuse. People who deny the holocaust and people who simply hate Jews. But something has changed in the last couple of years and anti-Semitism has gained a new, misplaced and dangerous legitimacy on the left.
Maybe it’s in part due to a blinkered response to the financial crash of 2008, with capitalism, the elite and the very rich blamed for the crash and in the same way that historically Jews have been railed against as having control of capital and international banking, that stereotype still holds sway and Jews are depicted as the greedy super rich responsible for the crash and willingly treading on the backs of the poor. Maybe it’s the very one sided approach the left have to the horribly complex problems confronting the Middle East. Maybe it’s the rhetoric associated with the new populism that was so dangerous in the 1930s and that pits one community against another, be it Jew against Gentile, or white against people of colour.
Certainly for as long as the Conservative Party allows someone to hold the position of Foreign Secretary after he described black people as ‘piccaninnies with ‘watermelon smiles’ or asserted that Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike’ of Britain, as long as the Conservative party allows that rhetoric to go unpunished, then they lack all legitimacy in attacking Labour for the very real problems we have on anti-Semitism.
My Jewish identity has never defined my politics. My visits to Israel made me a strong critic of the Israeli Government; my secular values have kept me apart from much of the British Jewish community. But I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today at being a Jew. It feels as though my Party has given permission for anti-Semitism to go unchallenged. Anti-Semitism is making me feel an outsider in my Labour Party.
I know that that is not what the Leader of the Labour Party believes in or wants. But his failure to act swiftly and decisively has left him open to the accusation that those who allow anti-Semitic people to peddle their intolerant message are guilty by association. The answer for him must be to properly acknowledge the problem and to act resolutely to stamp out this dangerous, invasive cancer that is infecting our politics. To that I simply say: enough is enough.