09 Aug 2018

Has the British Labour Party Employed Bilam?

Insights from the S&P Sephardi Community Rabbis on the Parsha

Has the British Labour Party Employed Bilam?

Recently, the British Labour Party offended the Jewish Community by adopting a code of conduct on anti-Semitism which Jewish leaders dismissed as “insulting and arrogant.” Labour acted because of widespread and well publicised anti-Semitism among its members, but it deliberately ignored the definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a definition already adopted in full by the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Labour’s general secretary explained the Party found the original definition at risk of “Prohibiting legitimate criticism of Israel…  It would be wrong, in drawing up guidelines about one form of racism, to prevent other forms of racism from being called out or to limit the rights of other oppressed groups to speak about their own oppression.”

So, Labour admits “one form of racism”, justifying this because Israel and its Jewish supporters are also racist. But what if Labour is racist whilst Israel and the Jews are not? After all, Israeli Arab judges have served on the Supreme Court of Israel. In 2017, Arab students formed 16% of undergraduate students in Israeli universities, a figure 79% higher than in 2010.

Scholars attempting to find the first example of anti-Semitism, often refer to attacks on Jews in 38 CE in Roman Alexandria. Since then, there has been no shortage of examples. The Holocaust has undoubtedly been the greatest calamity, but with the demonisation of the State of Israel, has come the most pressing anti-Semitic issue of our modern age.

No nation is without fault, but Israel is demonised despite its decent behaviour and its amazingly restrained response to provocation. The defence wall between Israel and the West Bank is criticised as apartheid by people who do not even know there were two Intifadas. Yet, Belfast has several “Peace Lines”, tall barriers separating Catholic from Protestant Areas. In the Middle East, Jordan is completing a 500-kilometre fence on its Syrian and Iraqi borders, and Egypt built 11 kilometres on its Gaza border.

Israel’s compassion for the civilian population of Gaza is highly esteemed in military circles. An example involves Israel telephoning residents before bombing Hamas strongholds. One evening, Israel sent recorded telephone messages to 100,000 residents in Gaza City, warning them to evacuate their homes.

Israel’s forbearance on the incendiary “fire kites” that have burned over 6,000 acres of southern Israel is remarkable. Yet these kites are not reported in the West. Editors become interested only if Israel acts to prevent further kites.

What causes anti-Semitism? Why demonise the Jews and the Jewish State? One reason is that Jews are different socially, and humans everywhere place people in “Us and Them” tribes. Yet many other groups are far more different without attracting negative attention. Another reason is that Jews are different religiously. Yet today’s British society celebrates religious differences with many inter-faith initiatives.

The Israeli-American entrepreneur Yaron Brook suggests that the world tolerates Jews much better as weak underlings, but resents it when Jews show themselves competent, hardworking and self-reliant. Western attitudes towards Israel were largely positive before the Six-Day War of June 1967, when “underdog” Israel successfully defended itself against a huge coalition of neighbouring states. Brook suggests envy of competence and self-discipline is a common thread running back through medieval times, where Jewish bankers were hated for living modestly and saving carefully. Those in debt to the Jews often lived extravagantly.

Jewish emphasis on learning, knowledge, self-reliance and hard work —Jewish grit—stems from their religion with its 4,000-year-old laws and 2,000-year-old teachings. These have been preserved from a “pre-welfare state” tradition. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” wrote Maimonides.

Whatever the cause of anti-Semitism, it has recently become part of the catechism of the Left. Celebrate Jews or Israel and many from the Left will dismiss you as a “Zio.”

Anti-Semitism hurts us all, but it often hurts Israel more. Israel, keen to shoulder its burden among nations of the world, often suffers the curse of the non-Jewish prophet Bilam, to become “a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations.”

Left-wing Jewish students at British colleges since 1967 have often taken on an anti-Israel stance, and in many cases retained it for life. Young people bravely rebel against the generation of their parents but are remarkably unwilling to disagree with their peers. Since the Left package is “take it or leave it”, often some young Jews will take it.

Anti-Semitism also has the ability to hurt our children more than the rest of us.  Jewish children at college—particularly colleges with few Jewish students—have been singled out and isolated.

But there is another reason why our young people sometimes accept and internalise left-wing criticism of Israel, and even ignore left-wing anti-Semitism. They may share our natural sympathy for the least powerful, without knowing a great deal about the frustrations of Israel’s efforts for peace.

Jewish families respond to these pressures by arming their children against them. They select Jewish schools, send children on Israel projects and build their children’s social confidence by moving to “Jewish areas” with youth clubs and youth movements.

In the past “hard anti-Semitism” with its pogroms locked our children within the community. Now “soft anti-Semitism” is making parents educate their children within the community to harden them against a rejection of the Jews.

The Nefesh Yehudi, our Jewish soul, holds our children more tenderly than it holds itself. So our community fights on for its values. As Jews we cannot give up our hard work, competence and self-reliance to make ourselves safe; if we did, then we would not be our true selves. We would lose the grit that forms the Jewish pearl whose spark forms part of our ‘Light Unto the Nations’. There is no easy way. But remember, the Jewish struggle against needless hate is half as old as time. We have learned things on the journey. Most of all, we have learned a determination not to let history repeat its horrors in our days.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Israel Elia
Rabbi, Lauderdale Road Synagogue