On Sunday night, I went to the local synagogue to listen to a talk by Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside. This was surprising on several levels. I hadn’t set foot inside a synagogue for over 30 years (apart from weddings and bar mitzvahs) and had even gone as far as marrying a non-Jew. Also, before the past couple of weeks, I had no interest whatsoever in seeing a politician, of any stripe, speak.
A few minutes into Ellman’s speech, I was horrified to hear of the abuse that had been meted out to this charismatic, grandmotherly politician by members of her own party. ‘She has no human blood,’ some delightful individual had written on social media. Mrs Ellman, 73, made a Dame in last year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, was called ‘a racist child abuser’ and a ‘Jewish Labour movement bitch’.
But then, maybe I wasn’t entirely surprised. Because the weekend before, I had been involved in a (minor) Twitterstorm of my own. I was watching the coverage of the Tory leadership vote, thinking ahead to a possible general election. Feeling a little mischievous after a glass of wine, I tweeted out the following:
‘Please help. Labour voter since 1987. Am Jewish. Obviously am not going to vote Labour now. Do I vote Tory? Do I endorse Boris? Do I just waste my voting privilege that women died for? Please advise.’
What was I thinking? I had to take cover under my desk. Because without giving me pause for breath, the Momentum trolls dived in. Immediately the subject got on to Israel, of course:
‘War crime regime of Israel my advice is to use your heart and brain,’ suggested one user. Closely followed by: ‘Hamas is a legal political party, and one error does not an anti-Semite make. “Journalist” indeed.’
My journalistic integrity was impugned several times over. Someone asked me if I had ever ‘written anything worthwhile’. ‘Who is she? Who cares?’ asked someone else. I was dissed as a ‘so-called’ journalist (if 25 years at national papers and several magazines doesn’t make you an ‘actual’ journalist, I’m not sure what does).
Perhaps it was the rhetorical question that threw them: most of these people had terrible spelling and grammar. And such charm. ‘Do’t [sic] let the door hit you on the arse on your way out,’ wrote one member of the public, helpfully.
Then proceedings took a more encouraging turn, when politicised Jews joined the fray. These were closely followed by supportive tweets from reasonable people across the political divide, from Conservatives to Lib Dems to moderate Labour party members.
I took a breather to call a (successful, female, Jewish) friend and update her on my weird weekend. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Jeremy Corbyn has made a lot of people who didn’t feel very Jewish, Jewish again.’ Yes! This was it in a nutshell.
Back on my Twitter feed, political commentator and author Nick Cohen had obviously been listening in to this conversation. ‘The reaction against Labour is creating a new Jewish identity,’ he wrote. I was reminded of a recent interview given by Dame Margaret Hodge, another beleaguered Labour MP who humorously told how her father had tried and failed to make her Jewish, as had her local rabbi, and her friends. ‘It took the leader of the Labour Party to do it,’ she said.
The stories kept coming, not just from luminaries, but from ordinary Jews, who were now interested in rediscovering their culture, their religion. ‘This is 2019, not 1939,’ wrote one commentator, ‘if my heritage offends anyone, so be it.’ On an anecdotal level, a cousin of mine has started going to synagogue twice a week. Most interesting of all was a renewed interest in and support for the state of Israel. Not what the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) people were hoping for, perhaps. Jewish friends are going crazy for Israeli Netflix TV shows such as Shtisel (about a Haredi family in Jerusalem) and Fauda (undercover Israeli special forces.)
As for myself, I absolutely do count myself among them. I haven’t been to Israel since 1989 but now want to see the Start-up nation again, to find out more about its advances in medicine and technology, but also sample the nightlife, the beaches, the food. I’m proud of my Jewish surname (I haven’t always been). Newly single, I am even enjoying a flirtation with a Jewish novelist in Philadelphia.
Coming back to my visit to the local synagogue last Sunday night, I felt a kinship with Dame Louise. Answering questions from congregants, she explained about the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) investigation into the Labour party. She nixed the rumours that she was about to leave, like Luciana Berger. ‘Anti-Semitism is not just a matter for the Jewish community but for the whole of society,’ she said.
During the break for tea and cake (there is always a break for tea and cake at Jewish events) I sought out Dame Louise and asked whether I could give her a hug. She graciously let me.
Back on the stage, my favourite new MP was in bullish form. ‘I am upset, horrified and appalled by the anti-Semitism in my party,’ she said. ‘It’s a national disaster. But I am fighting on.’