At the outbreak of World War I, the Jewish Chronicle, which had been wary of conflict with Germany, threw its support behind the war effort in a leader proclaiming: ‘England has been all she could be to Jews, Jews will be all they can be to England.’ A banner reading the same and urging Jews to enlist, was hoist outside the newspaper’s London offices. The Jewish World published a full-page poster insisting ‘There must be no Jewish slackers’ and urging ‘young Jewish men’ to ‘do your duty to your faith and your country’. Naturalised British Jews urged Russian emigres to sign up, even though as foreign nationals they were initially exempt. A patriotic sense of duty was at work, of course, but so too was fear: fear of the repercussions if Jews were not seen to do their bit.
In the event, Jewish enlistment increased tenfold between the declaration of war and the beginning of conscription and thereafter doubled, but that didn’t mean the community’s anxiety was misplaced. Precariousness has been a hallmark of Jewish life in England, the land of the blood libel, the Statute of Jewry, the Edict of Expulsion, test acts, the repeal of naturalisation, Oswald Mosley and now Jeremy Corbyn.
The past three generations or so of tolerance and civil harmony — in which British Jews have had minimal cause to question their future in this country — have been an exception, not the rule. Even if the anti-Semites are somehow kept from power today, there will be no return to liberal neglect tomorrow. Anti-Semitism has been let loose and will take years to tether down again. Precariousness is once more a major theme of the British Jewish story and it will be another generation before it fades back into the subplot. What has been done cannot be undone; new bonds will be needed, fresh trust sought and earned.
The promised resistance to this moment could not withstand the impulses of tribalism and the lure of power. The MPs surrendered, the soft-left retreated, the liberal press collaborated and now only the voters are left on the battlefield. They alone can still stop Corbyn. Whether they will is an open question. We are such a moderate country, we may not know how to respond to extremists. We are such a reasonable country, we might just vote for them for a quiet life.
We must not. We keep being told this is an election about Brexit or the health service or Scottish independence, when it is really none of those things. This is a war election. One party, one half of politics, has declared war on British Jews and British Gentiles are called upon to choose a side and fight. The Guardian says: ‘The pain and hurt within the Jewish community, and the damage to Labour, are undeniable and shaming. Yet Labour remains indispensable to progressive politics.’ This is the ‘stuff the Jews, nationalise the trains’ position. It must not be acceded to, nor must its many variations. This election is not a choice between solidarity with Jews and a progressive Britain; a progressive Britain is impossible if indulgence, denial or justification of anti-Semitism is the price. Jews do not suffer a lesser form of racism and until progressive ideology concedes this fact the left will remain fertile territory for anti-Semites.
The anxiousness of organised British Jewry to pass an unwritten loyalty test existed long before the Great War and exists still today. That trepidation is captured, as one researcher has pointed out, in a Boer War era Jewish song, which ran:
‘For the Jew has heart and hand, our Mother England,
And they both are thine today –
Thine for life and thine for death, yea, thine For ever!
Wilt thou take them as we give them, freely, gladly?
Today, England — in fact, all of the UK — will say whether it takes Jewish hearts and hands as its own or whether it sees Jews as something other, something undeserving, something dispensable.
It is not and never has been for British Jews to prove their loyalty to their own country but it is now for their country to proves its loyalty to the values of fairness, tolerance and liberalism it espouses.
Next week marks the start of Chanukah, a festival of lights and miracles but a reminder too that the sons and daughters of Judah Maccabee are, by necessity and Providence, a warrior people who have outlasted their every persecutor. They will survive some rancid Tony Benn revival act.
But will this country survive the moral toll of choosing this man to lead it? It may well not, but those of us who oppose him and what he stands for are duty-bound to fight today and, if we lose today, to fight every day thereafter, until anti-Semitism has been defeated at the ballot box and cut out from everywhere it has taken root. There must be no Gentile slackers. Jews have been all they could be to England and now England must be all it can be to Jews.