Sometimes in the middle of grand political events – including grand political cock-ups – the story of one individual stands out and speaks for more than itself. Such a moment occurred last week with decision of one British man and his partner to leave the UK.
Mark Lewis (54) is not a household name. Although as one of Britain’s leading experts in media and libel law, plenty of the events of his life and career have intersected with moments of public interest. Lewis was the lawyer representing some of the most prominent victims in the News International phone-hacking scandal. His clients included the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and also the singer Charlotte Church. More recently, he represented the food-writer Jack Munroe in her successful libel case against Katie Hopkins.
Though he was near to limelight, he never sought it for himself. A modest, self-effacing and cerebral figure, his career was not about seeking personal notoriety, but of practising the law, representing his clients and upholding what he saw to be the principles of a free and fair society.
Lewis’s decision to leave the UK, then, is the sort of act that demands some attention.
As well as being a leading lawyer, Lewis is also Jewish. As is his partner, Mandy Blumenthal. In recent years, Lewis has watched events in Britain and across Europe with increasing concern. He has watched the attacks on Jews across the continent, and has seen anti-Semitism become acceptable again in Britain – this time on the political Left. And he has seen the equanimity with which British society, and the British state, has come to view anti-Jewish extremism.
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For example, every year in London a march occurs called ‘The Al-Quds day march.’ It goes through the centre of London, passing the great institutions of the state, including the BBC. The day it commemorates was instituted by the late Ayatollah Khomeini and it is a day which Khomeini hoped would unite Muslims around the world. The specific purpose of the march is to call for the destruction of the state of Israel (“Al-Quds” being the Arabic for Jerusalem).
Each year, the march includes the most overt support for terrorism – including flying the flags of the terrorist group Hezbollah. The speeches follow suit. In 2017, one speaker at the Al-Quds day event (himself from a Khomeinist organisation misleadingly named the Islamic Human Rights Commission) did not merely call for the destruction of the Jewish state, but blamed “Zionists” for – among other things – the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
No charges were brought against him for this speech. It seems likely that if somebody stood up in public and made such unfounded and inciteful comments against any minority group other than Jews (even while hiding behind some thin, veneer smokescreen such as “Zionists”) that the authorities would have taken action.
In the same way that if a march took place on an annual basis which called for the eradication of a state which was the only safe-harbour for any race of people other than Jews, it is highly unlikely it would be allowed to go ahead. And if it did go ahead, then decent members of society from every walk of life and background would unite in opposition to it. But they do not. The public do not turn out to protest the Al-Quds day march as they would a march by the KKK or some neo-Nazi group.
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Earlier this year, Lewis – who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and sometimes needs to use a wheelchair – made his own stand. As the ‘Al-Quds Day’ march set off in June, Lewis – in his wheelchair – placed himself right in front of the march. Amid furious and intimidating scenes he held his ground. He refused to budge, halting the march for almost an hour. At which point a police officer threatened to arrest him and forcibly moved him to the side of the road. It was a heroic moment, where one man showed a dignified protest in the face of ceaseless and apparently unstoppable hate.
But now he has had enough. Mark Lewis and his partner Mandy arrived in Israel last week to start a new life. “Europe in my view is finished”, he told Israel’s Channel 10 on arrival into the country. “You see people murdered in museums in Belgium, people murdered in schools in France, people attacked in England. There is only one place for Jewish people to go.”
He also said that in recent years he had been subjected to an increasing number of death threats and other abuse. The couple is in no doubt as to where at least some of the blame must lie: “Jeremy Corbyn moved the rock, and the anti-Semites crawled out from underneath the rock. They’re not going back.”
Like many other Jews, it is the discovery that anti-Semitism has crept up on them from the political Left that is one of the propelling factors for such a move. It is one of the cruellest ironies of our day that the place of last resort for Jews worldwide should have become the primary focus of hatred by people who – among other things – like to think of themselves as ‘progressive’ and on the side of minority groups.
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However, the most heart-breaking comment – which should be widely heard across Britain and Europe – is what Lewis said as he arrived in Israel. “We’re a wandering people, and it’s time to wander again,” he said. “People just don’t want to see it.” He also knows other people considering the same path.
Perhaps they will see it in due course. One of the most haunting phrases in fiction in recent years is the moment in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission in which the French law professor learns that his student, and lover (who is Jewish) is planning to leave France and go to Israel to live. As she mentions it, Houellebecq’s character reflects that “I don’t have an Israel”.
To that haunting phrase of Houellebecq’s invention can now be added Lewis’s terrible one. There are many things that people can say are emblematic of an era. But that statement, “It’s time to wander again”, is as sobering and disturbing a phrase as I have heard. With implications that go deep as well as wide.
Whether words mean anything in the current era (where they often seem to mean whatever anyone wants them to) is one matter. Whether actions count for much in an era deluged by unprecedented noise and images, is another. But it seems to me that the words and actions last week of this one Jewish man and his partner should count for something. And should be thought upon by anybody who still cares to think.