This is a guest post by Saul Freeman
It’s the Maths, Stupid
I’ll share 2 of my life-long basic positions:
The UK left is where I both belong and feel “safe”.
Qualitative analysis is where it’s at, not the hard edged cold world of quant.
We’ll return to these.
My family are socialists. The Labour Party is the natural home of the working classes – which is where I’m from. Ok, I confess. I was briefly a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the heady days of Marxism Today. Seems we ended up with political post-modernism so I’m sorry about that. Joined the Labour Party then left it after hearing Ed Balls mention immigration 6 times in the space of 4 minutes.
Half-Jewish and entirely secular on all fronts, I grew up in North West London. At school there were fights in the playground when I was called “Yid” and worse. My name marked me out – it practically yelled it out – as Jewish, even though I was of course only half-Jewish. I pretty much always lost those fights.
Later on I married a Jewish woman and now have a son who is, of course Jewish.
As a politically active student I recall a sense of unease at NUS conference & on campus when groups of keffiyah-wearing students from “other political groups” seemed to be just a bit too interested in the Middle East.
After my student days I joined that group of people who – whilst not politically active day-to-day- knew exactly where right and wrong lived. Whilst we bemoaned the retreats from socialism of the Blair & Brown years, we remembered what it was to live though 18 years of Conservative government. So we never, ever voted anything other than Labour despite some friends moving off to the Greens or seeking other radical homes.
Four years of Conservative/Lib Dem government found my wife and I enraged by the assault on all we valued. I berated the local Lib Dem canvassers for enabling the old-Etonian Praetorian Guard to seize control.
As a family we attended some Reform synagogue services in an attempt to give our son some context for his Jewishness. We drifted away. I learned from my wife how to celebrate Passover but moaned like a teenager at all the “god bits”.
Then in summer 2014 Israel found itself in violent confrontation with Hamas. “So what?” I might have asked. “I’m worried about cuts to my LEA, not whatever mess Benjamin bloody Netanyahu might have got himself into now.” My relationship with Israel had so far been less than intense. I’d never been there and I regarded it with low level unease. “They need to sort their shit out and behave like the rest of us nice, liberal European (half) Jews. Just do what they need to do to get Peace. Now.”
Tellingly, I’d occasionally ordered books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had then rarely managed to finish reading them, over-whelmed and bored by the otherness of it all.
So – there we were in summer 2014, the news full of Israel doing bad things to Palestinian children (again) and my wife and I notice that some of the things we’re reading on Facebook & Twitter are not so nice. About Jews. “Okay”, we think. “That’s not news. We know about anti-Semitism. We know the Right doesn’t like Jews. Those Tories with their aristocratic disdain of the Jew sure as hell don’t like us. But that’s ok – we don’t much like them.”
Actually, we also know that some writers in The Independent don’t seem to like Jews. But we’ve always been Guardian readers. Alright, we know the Guardian does seem to bang on a bit about Israel when it’s being bad, but we just don’t read those articles.
Then on Twitter I see a post from a very prominent British musician. He’s a staple of every middle class CD collection or Spotify “world music fusion” list. He’s a good guy. He’s super smart. He’s one of us. He’s also someone I’ve worked and got drunk with – I used to be a musician too.
But his tweet isn’t funny, smart or good. It’s a graphic suggesting that the world would be a better place if all the Jews in Israel were forcibly removed to the USA, seeing as the US seems to love them so much.
So I contact this avowedly socially progressive musician from an immigrant background and, once we get past the “hey, it’s been a long time, you’re great/no you’re great!” bit, I ask him why he would post such a thing. He tells me that he’s very upset about the children in Gaza and he knows I must be too. I am, of course. But I explain that anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing probably isn’t going to help much and that I find it a little “difficult” to see one of the good guys stoking the fire. He accepts this, apologises for any offense but reminds me that the trauma of witnessing events in Gaza (via mainstream and social media) has caused him to act the way he did. He declines my suggestion that he remove the post. We part on good terms with a promise to keep in touch – as you do – and then I quietly fume for the next couple of months.
In the meantime, my wife and I stop reading below the line on the Guardian website as it appears that pretty much every article (perhaps with the exception of the “my wife/husband doesn’t seem to want sex with me anymore” type – though I’m not absolutely sure about this) end up footnoted by comments blaming the Israelis/Jews/Zionists for whatever bad stuff the article might have been about, or not about.
I have another couple of chats with my Jewish son to check that he’s not getting any hassle at school and to remind him of what to do if he is.
My wife and I try not to focus on the fact that some of her friends have posted “Free Palestine” or “Save Gaza” messages on Facebook but don’t seem to have anything to say about the daily barrage of missiles sent by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. I start trying to actually read some of the books about Israel/Palestine that had been gathering dust.
By March we decide to visit Israel as our summer holiday. An only just sub-conscious two finger salute to what appear to be gathering forces? Our friends raise eyebrows, say “challenging” things and then tell us about their exciting plans to visit China. Or Russia. My wife had twice been to Israel when she was young and spent 6 months on a kibbutz. Brought up in a “normal” Jewish family, as opposed to my messily inter-married version, she has an uncomplicated relationship with Israel and knows exactly what it is and what it is for. Being a gentle and wise woman she never assumes that either my son or I will share this outlook and wants us to work it out for ourselves.
As summer approached I had moments when I wondered why I was taking my family to Israel. Ok, the diving in Eilat would be good but what about the Palestinians? Would I be having “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”? These moments of self-doubt were usually ended by sneaking an almost pornographic look at the comments sections on the Guardian website – “Zionist child killing scum” etc. after an article on de-forestation in Brazil.
Watching a BBC documentary on the “apartheid railway” that is apparently the Jerusalem Light Rail system whilst running at the gym had me seriously doubting both my judgement in terms of the safety of my family and my moral compass. I ran a little harder on the treadmill and tried not to have a panic attack.
Then weeks before our holiday in Israel something happened. The Labour Party had a leadership contest. And Jeremy Corbyn was standing.
I’d recently bought my wife a T-shirt that read “Labour: I prefer their early work” – (from the Guardian shop, of course) and we were intrigued, though we knew little about this obscure backbencher. Could this be a good thing? Would Andy Burnham answer our need for a more left wing candidate or would Corbyn be interesting? Who would we vote for using my wife’s union vote and my Party vote?
My wife Googled the new candidate to see what he was about. She found Corbyn’s explosively angry outburst in a C4 interview. Krishnan Guru-Murphy had asked him a question over his dealings with Hamas & Hezbollah and he wasn’t too pleased about it.
Questions over Corbyn’s deep involvement with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee Stop the War Coalition etc. deepened during the first weeks of the leadership campaign and we rapidly realised that he probably wasn’t going to be our rabbi. We started reading the Jewish Chronicle online for the first time in our lives and watched whilst it asked a bunch of questions of the self-styled “plain speaking” candidate. He declined to answer.
On social media any questions about his attitude to Israel and Jews were revealed as smears organised and propagated by “Zionist powers”. Corbyn fans declared Zionism an evil ideology and that Israel had no right to exist. We spent more time than was good for us trying to work out what was going on. It turned out that Corbyn was at best a reluctant advocate of a two State solution, describing it in pointed terms as being “the only option currently on offer”. His belief that all 7 million plus Palestinians registered by the UNRWA should be given the “right to return” to what is currently Israel made his commitment to the continued existence of a Jewish state appear less than total.
We went to Israel, relieved to be leaving what increasingly felt like a baying mob behind us. As we descended to Ben Gurion airport the lights of Tel Aviv came into view. It dawned on me that Israel was of course not an abstract and remote ideological concept – it was a real place with real cities full of millions of real people. Some of them with names a lot like mine. The Corbynistas declared it had no right to exist. But it didn’t look much like Brigadoon to me.
As our taxi driver drove towards Jerusalem he confided that he worried about those Jews who, like us, did not live in Israel. Were they safe? He knew that his family hadn’t been. “But hang on” we said. “Surely it’s the Jews in Israel that feel threatened, not us”? He looked at us like children and pointed out that Israel knew perfectly well how to look after itself, had survived several attempts to eliminate it and was not about to start again with the existential angst. We felt more sophisticated than our well-meaning taxi driver and smiled knowingly.
As our holiday progressed I realised I really liked Israel. Of course I did – I was on holiday. I had really liked Australia, Scotland & Gambia. I wasn’t too sure about Norfolk though. But standing with my Jewish son at the Western Wall I more than liked it. Climbing Masada, crossing the Negev desert, wandering through Jaffa – I really more than liked it. There were layers of meaning, some narrative to unpick. Norfolk certainly hadn’t had that effect on me.
It might have been the surreal realisation that in most places, most of the people around us were Jews. Everything was the same as anywhere else I’d been to, except that most of the people were Jews. Even the poor people. Jews collecting the bins, working in cafes, driving the buses. And there are Arabs too, travelling on the light rail (deemed ‘controversial’ by the BBC), not waving fists or throwing rocks, but working in shops and cafes alongside the Jewish Israelis.
The exception was our visit to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa. We went there to marvel at the buildings and setting and my wife recalled loving the place when she had visited it 25 years ago. So we joined the other tourists – mostly blond, blue eyed Scandinavians – and queued up to pass through the security gate. Once through, we found ourselves immediately surrounded and shouted at by people who didn’t seem to be welcoming tourists. Stunned by the beauty of the architecture but intimidated by the shouting and the black clad groups of women waving copies of the Qur’an, we left as soon as we could. My wife was shaken by the contrast with her last visit.
We visit Yad Vashem and try to spare our son from the most horrific of the images. Against all the rules forbidding photography, I sneak a picture of a Nazi-era board game that depicts Jews being sent off to Palestine. This is clearly the losing square that you don’t want to land on.
We return home and immediately I find myself spending too much time on Twitter. I conduct one of those debates-by-tweet with a writer whose work regularly appears in the Guardian & the LRB. I express my concern over politicians from the secular UK Left supporting radical Islamic theocratic groups such as Hamas & Hezbollah that want to kill Jews, non-believers and gays and restrict the rights of women. I tell him I’m not comfortable with a potential leader of the Labour Party who has long standing links going back decades with groups that want to wipe Israel from the map.
He lets me know that whilst Zionism is a morally degenerate, evil ideology & must be condemned as such, it would not be appropriate for him or others on the UK Left to pass judgement on any “representation choices of the Palestinian people that may not be congruent with my ego-ideal“. He is angered by my suggestion that the logic of this might be flawed because it offers moral & political relativism about 1 ethnicity, but is not short of a view about the choices of another ethnic group.
He speaks for what appears to be a significant slice of the British Left in finding it not at all problematic to announce that Jews have no right to self-determination. As in not being able to collectively and individually decide their political, economic and cultural fate. They must simply do as they did prior to 1948 and take what they are given, good or bad. The writer declines to identify any other ethnic groups that he extends this kind offer to.
This Guardian writer is far from the only individual who seems to find it important to tell me what is and what is not anti-Semitic. Twitter is bursting with Corbyn fans that are very keen to set me straight. They “know” I am Jewish because of my name – just as they did in the school playground. When I point out that there might be something a little unwise and unseemly about non-Jews telling Jews what is and is not anti-Semitic, they get cross. Very cross. They tend to want to shout at me about dead children in Gaza. My famous musician friend often drifts into my mind once people get to the “what about the children of Gaza?” stage.
These people who identify so urgently with Corbyn and his “position” on the Middle East also appear to have almost no knowledge of the historical, political and cultural basics. They just know.
A significant proportion of the British Left appears to be very, very concerned about what Jews do and don’t get up to.
My wife and I notice that Corbyn supporters get very excited about pointing us in the direction of Jews like the writer Michael Rosen who are themselves anti-Zionists and do not believe that Israel has a right to exist. Rosen is a former SWP member and candidate for George Galloway’s Respect Party. This makes him something of a rarity as most UK Jews do not share either of these attributes, let alone both.
We over-hear one of our very vocal left wing acquaintances saying to another left wing Hackney dweller: “Oh, you should meet X. He’s a barrister – Jewish. He’s fine though -very anti-Israel”.
Corbyn wins the leadership. Well, things can only get better. Surely?
They get worse. Corbyn uses his address to Labour Friends of Israel to engage in some not very subtle “discursive dissonance” by declining to mention the Zionist entity by name. At a meeting that has the word Israel all over the tin. It’s audacious in its execution. My wife and I are stunned fish, gasping on the bank. The Left bank.
My wife realises that her union is a key player in the BDS movement, supporting boycotts of Israeli goods and services right down to picketing outside Jewish-Israeli owned businesses. Her union has been a key backer of the Corbyn campaign. She writes a letter which points out that these two aspects of union policy are a little hard for Jewish members to take right now. Her local union office doesn’t bother to reply. She resigns.
We lurch into October and Israel finds itself under attack from knife and gun wielding Palestinian terrorists.
What is the reaction from elements of the UK Left to the daily tally of horrific terrorist attacks on Jewish Israeli’s? Many like Brighton BDS and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee find it impossible to condemn the attacks. Stop the War Coalition – chaired by Corbyn prior to his winning of the Labour leadership –joins a host of these groups protesting angrily outside the Israeli embassy. They chant for an Islamic Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”.
Gaza Boat Convoy state that if they were Palestinians they would “definitely” drive cars into elderly Jewish Israeli women waiting at bus stops.
The Guardian writer who I “debated” with writes on social media that a Jewish Israeli journalist – who wrote a piece detailing the Palestinian violence – “should have his throat cut.”
The Scottish Green Party considers that this is the right moment to pass a motion which denies the right of Israel to exist as the Jewish state and demands that Hamas be removed from lists of proscribed terrorist organisations.
If calls from those on the Left in the UK for the obliteration of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic Palestinian state and the sheer violence and blood lust in some comments were not surreal and disturbing enough, my wife and I have noticed something else. Silence. From friends on Facebook when my wife posts anything that acknowledges the very existence of Israel or the random horror that is being enacted on its streets.
Silence from the Labour Party on the issue of the Party leader’s associations despite Jewish communities expressing their profound anxiety.
Silence from the Left. No one is falling over themselves to condemn Corbyn’s highly partisan attachment to the Palestinian movement despite its seismic shift from a violent, revolutionary secular form to the radical Islamic shape it now presents. Almost no one from the UK Left is thrusting themselves forward to say “Israel has a right to exist, as does any other legitimate state and terrorism can never be excused or condoned.”
Silence on the fact that those Palestinian groups urged on to victory over the Zionists do not share any of the values that we used to take for granted on the UK Left.
There are of course notable exceptions, and those people and groups know who they are. They would never expect me or other Jews to be grateful, because they are not bestowing this as a gift. They are simply demonstrating their commitment to first principles. Yet these first principles appear to be missing in action for many on the British Left in 2015.
And so my wife and I lose our moorings. We are of the Left, but are no longer welcome, unless we become “good Jews” who are not “bad, Zionist Jews”. We worry about our son. He will be confronted by Israeli Apartheid Week when he arrives on a University campus in a few years. If he is a Jew who believes that Israel has a right to be, he will be hated by many on the student Left. My son is an enthusiastic, articulate and kind boy. The realisation that he will be hated by those who will not see any of these attributes, but instead will see only one attribute – his Jewishness – chills me.
Strangers feel compelled to say hateful things to me. Others threaten violence to all Jews – “go back to Auschwitz, Zionist scum”. All this from the Left.
We slowly become traumatised by the sheer horror of what has unfolded around us.
Mostly, we are distressed because we cannot understand why the Left is so silent when Jews call out. We just don’t understand. None of this makes sense. We have no critical lens through which to view this rupture between us and us.
And then it hits me. Not only have I woken up to the fact that the first of my foundation strands – that I belong and feel safe on the Left – is misguided, largely because I have failed to engage with reality (or the works of Nick Cohen) until very recently, I also realise why.
It’s because Jews are a minority.
In the UK Jews make up just 0.3% of the population. Not even a lousy 1%. A tiny minority. My family – my wife and my son – are part of a tiny, tiny minority. And yet my wife and I had driven ourselves half mad wondering why our voices were not being heard. Dumb, isn’t it?
It’s not the principles, the ethics, the logic, the politics, and the narrative. It’s the bloody numbers. It’s all about the quant not the qualitative. And there goes my second foundation strand….
So this is what being a minority really feels like. And now I understand what our Israeli taxi driver was getting at. This is what he worries about. And this is why he lives in Israel, where Jews are no longer a tiny minority.
It’s the maths, stupid.