On Sunday there was a rally in London demanding ‘zero tolerance’ of anti-Semitism. About 4,500 people gathered in front of the Royal Courts of Justice. Speakers who addressed the crowds included the Chief Rabbi, Maajid Nawaz and me.
Among the things I told the crowd was to expect more and to demand more of their ‘communal leadership’. Long-term readers will know that I’ve never had much time for communal leadership of any kind. I don’t like the groups who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims – groups which disproportionately represent a politicised and fundamentalist hard-line interpretation of their faith. And I don’t like groups that have claimed to have speak for the ‘gay community’ (whatever that is), tending as they do to be leftists who believe anyone identifiably ‘conservative’ is their enemy. Jewish communal leadership is an equally mixed blessing.
Just last week there was an example of how such leadership can be counter-productive to the interests of the community it claims to represent. The Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) co-signed a letter with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). This letter – which has already attracted a good deal – made it to the front-page of the BBC’s website. It was also the most terrific shot in the communal foot of Britain’s Jewish communities. What the Board of Deputies apparently did not realise in signing a joint letter with the MCB is that it was not only harming the long-term situation of Jews in Britain but also devastatingly undermining moderate and progressive elements within the Muslim communities.
In endorsing the MCB as a legitimate partner, the BoD was doing something that successive British governments have resisted doing. Two of the most powerful objections to the MCB concern its attitudes towards Jews. First, there was its historic decision to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day. Also, in 2009 a senior leader of the MCB was found to have co-signed the ‘Istanbul declaration’, a document which appeared to advocate attacks on British ships should they take any part in the blockade which aims to prevent weaponry being shipped to Hamas-run Gaza. This incident caused the last Labour government to sever ties with the MCB.
So the UK government – acting in part on behalf of British Jews – wherever possible avoids dealing with the MCB. Yet here is a communal ‘leadership’ organisation, which claims to speak for Britain’s Jews, endorsing and working with that very group.
At Sunday’s rally the grassroots anger with the BoD really boiled over. When their names were announced, Vivian Wineman and Laura Marks from the Board of Deputies were booed. Even before they even spoke, a scornful chant went up from the crowd: ‘You need to do more’. Wineman and Marks claimed that the BoD was at the forefront of fighting anti-Semitism. Marks amazingly attempted to prove just how effective the BoD was by proclaiming that initiatives like the joint letter with the MCB ‘don’t just come from nowhere’. Indeed. They come from a communal leadership group intent on signing side-deals with a Muslim organisation that they should shun.
But I do pity Jewish leaders trying to deal with this issue. It isn’t easy. First there is the problem of failing to identify the enemy. On Sunday Maajid Nawaz identified the principal source of anti-Semitism today. It is not the far right, as in the past, but the far left and the Muslim communities. This is true, though it is a subject most Jewish leaders wish to keep a million miles away from.
One of the rabbis who also spoke, Laura Janner-Klausner, tried to summon up the spirit of Cable Street in her remarks. ‘They shall not pass’, she declared. A noble sentiment – and one I wholly support – but the question of ‘who?’ is quite important, isn’t it? Who shall not pass? Nazis? Tick. The British Union of Fascists? Tick. But that was 80 years ago. Who shall not pass today? Surely we need to know before blocking the streets against such a foe?
And even when they do nod to the problem, the Jewish leaders has trouble addressing it. The Chief Rabbi followed the example of the Board of Deputies by condemning ‘anti-Semitism and Islamophobia’ as though they were more or less identical. But they are not. ‘Islamophobia’ remains a nonsense term that encompasses anything felt at any time to offend any Muslim – including facts. Moreover, in its justifiable desire not to appear sectarian, the Jewish leadership can undermine its own cause. Why is that?
Well, no less a witness than the left-wing Muslim firebrand Mehdi Hasan has said that ‘anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace’. Just last year Hasan wrote: ‘Any Muslims reading this article – if they are honest with themselves – will know instantly what I am referring to. It’s our dirty little secret.’ He went on: ‘To be honest, I’ve always been reluctant to write a column such as this. To accuse my fellow Muslims of being soft on the scourge of anti-Semitism isn’t easy; I feel as if I am “dobbing in” the community… [But] as a community, we do have a “Jewish problem”. There is no point pretending otherwise.’
Now this causes a problem, doesn’t it? Because the claim made by most Jewish and non-Jewish mainstream voices is that the Muslim extremists constitute a tiny proportion of the Muslim population in Britain and other Western countries. They maintain that the ‘vast majority’ are overwhelmingly ‘moderate’ and opposed to all such extremist views. Yet when it comes to Jews it would appear – as Hasan implies – that a very large proportion of Muslims, perhaps a majority, are anti-Semitic. So how do Jews oppose Muslim anti-Semitism without being ‘Islamophobic’?
These are difficult waters and ones we are all going to have to navigate. But the booing of the crowds in London at the weekend signalled an interesting shift in opinion over the general ability of these communal groups to do any good. As one Jewish friend I spoke to afterwards put it, were this the 1930s the Board of Deputies would not be standing on Cable Street shouting ‘You shall not pass’. It would be busily doing side-deals with the British Union of Fascists.