A 2019 Together Against Antisemitism rally in Parliament Square. Credit: Matthew Chattle / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

May 20, 2020   6 mins

A couple of years ago, I went to a birthday party. A convivial Sunday afternoon involving cake, fizzy wine, old and new faces, gossip — and a pleasant conversation in the buffet queue with a middle-aged woman who chatted enthusiastically about black and white movies that we both liked. Hitchcock. Ealing comedies. It might have been on the way home that I received her Facebook friend request, and with that, opened a little window into one of the most painful political controversies of recent years.

Her posts indicated that she was a Labour Party member whose status was suspended. She was also signed up to an online group “created to defend the integrity and objectives of the Labour Party.” Its name, however, conveyed a different impression. ‘Truthers Against Zionist Lobbies’ used a photograph of the Labour leader as its masthead, above the words: “We support Jeremy Corbyn, not Labour Friends of Israel.”

Its timeline was a cascade of grotesque memes. A monstrous octopus, emblazoned with the Star of David, slithering over Capitol Hill; a Photoshopped image of a group of people urinating against the Wailing Wall; a villain in a yarmulke, tapping his temple, with the caption: “Can’t betray a country that you had no allegiance to in the first place.”

Facebook removed the page in December 2019 after the Countdown presenter Rachel Riley presented the company with a dossier of such material. But it had received and dismissed at least one complaint already. I know because I made it.

The journal Political Quarterly has just published the first academic study of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. Its authors are the sociologists Ben Gidley and Brendan McGeever, and the historian David Feldman — all attached to the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London.

Their purpose is not juridical. They are not, like the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, investigating whether unlawful acts have been committed by the party or its employees or agents. Instead, they have crunched data on the views of Labour and Conservative supporters, and examined the language with which the arguments of the crisis were advanced, by those who believe Jeremy Corbyn to be a conscious, unconscious or perhaps semi-conscious anti-Semite, to those who regard the whole business as a smear campaign calculated to damage his electoral prospects.

Their conclusions will comfort few. Conservative voters, the data suggests, are more likely to assent to an anti-Semitic proposition than their Labour equivalents. These numbers are alarmingly large: added together, they work out as about 30% of the population.

So why has Tory anti-Semitism failed to become a source of controversy? Because, Gidley and his co-authors argue, a tradition of Left-wing thinking about capitalism — the view that it is a system rigged by a powerful elite — raises questions to which anti-Semitism provides simple answers. (Somewhere in this picture we might find the former MP Chris Williamson, telling his webcam that “a hostile foreign power … mobilised its assets in the UK — which Israeli diplomats call their ‘power multiplier’ — in an attempt to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour government.”)

The most emphatic point made by Gidley, McGeever and Feldman is a conceptual one. They suggest that most of the participants in the crisis — from Jeremy Corbyn to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis — are guilty of the same intellectual error. They have chosen to characterise anti-Jewish racism as a poison, a virus, a disease — a foreign pollutant that has breached the defences of a 120-year-old British institution. “Figures on all sides,” the article concludes, “conceive antisemitism as an exogenous force which contaminates and spoils the political body it inhabits.”

Rather as the 1999 McPherson Report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence rejected the “bad apple” theory in favour of the less localised and dismissable concept of institutional racism, Gidley and his co-authors want us to reject the reassuringly alien idea of the virus. “If we should use a metaphor to comprehend anti-Semitism,” they argue, “it is not virus but reservoir: a deep reservoir of stereotypes and narratives, one which is replenished over time and from which people can draw with ease.”

To the British, anti-Semitism can seem like someone else’s problem. The Edict of Expulsion was 730 years ago; there were no pogroms in Peterborough, no Shoah in Shepperton; the Mosley men did not pass through Cable Street or the lobby at Westminster. But this complacent habit obscures a past from which it would be wrong to extract a flattering exceptionalist narrative.

The British nineteenth century, for instance, was marked by periodic displays of solidarity with persecuted Jews in mainland Europe. In 1882, Tsar Alexander III instituted the May Laws to curtail Jewish property ownership and freedom of movement: a few weeks later Victorian campaigners had raised a £75,000 in aid. In 1858, the so-called Mortara Affair inspired national demonstrations in support of a seven year-old Jewish boy kidnapped from his home in Bologna by a phalanx of Papal carabinieri. Another good cause — but objections to his treatment expressed as much anti-Catholic as philosemitic feeling.

What about the twentieth century, when Britain licked Hitler and kept the anti-Semitic far right out of power? In the 1930s, the British Union of Fascists failed to gain a single Parliamentary seat, but during the decade their gatherings were listed in the local press among tea dances and cricket matches, part of the pattern of provincial life. During the Second World War, the fight against Nazism coincided with a legible increase in anti-Semitic attitudes — the Mass Observation project recorded British chatter about Jews running the black market or bagging the best places in the communal air-raid shelters.

And after the war, when the population of Britain had gazed on the photographs from the death camps? In April 1946, the Attlee government was discovered to be publishing job advertisements that requested Jews not to apply. The Minister of Labour assured Parliament it would not happen again. Phil Piratin, the Communist MP for Mile End, urged him to speak to the Home Secretary about prohibiting racial discrimination by law, but received no answer.

To speak of this history, the image of the reservoir is not sufficient: these are turbulent waters, in which anti-Semitism swirls and surges beside other ideological currents. But there are ways of observing their movement. Watching those old black and white movies, for one.

Put Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) on your TV, and see Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll untangle a conspiracy; then go back to John Buchan’s novel and register that the conspiracy is the same as the one in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perpetrated, according to one character, by “a little white-faced Jew in a bath chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.”

Watch the Boulting brothers’ Brighton Rock (1948) and run with the Italian razor gangs of mid-century East Sussex; then note that the gangsters of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel are Jews, described in unpleasant terms that the author quietly revised out of the text in 1970. Or enjoy the elegantly murderous class war of Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), then find a copy of its source, Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907), and discover that the protagonist is not an Italian like Dennis Price, but a Jew who kills an aristocratic baby by seducing its nanny and polluting the cot with a handkerchief impregnated with scarlet fever germs. Blood libel territory.

There were, doubtless, people with anti-Semitic views on the staff of mid-century British film studios. Their attitudes, however, rarely made it to the screen. We might explain this with reference to the heritage of the men who kept these businesses running — Julius Hagen at Twickenham; Alexander, Zoltan and Vincent Korda at Denham; Maurice, Mark and Isidore Ostrer at Gaumont-British; and Michael Balcon at Ealing.

We might also say that these institutions created a moral and political culture that offered a model to their contemporary world and to ours. When a hopeful young screenwriter — the nephew of a double-barrelled English playwright — rolled up at Ealing and declared that he was “off to Palestine to beat up those bloody Jews,” it was the studio secretary, Miss Slater, who told him that his services were not required, and marched him out through the gates.

Our present political culture has developed many inadequate ways of talking about racism. When Donald Trump was criticised for telling Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, lhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib to “go back home”, he protested: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” Zac Goldsmith used the same expression after he suggested that his rival for the London mayoralty had links with Islamic terrorism. Jo Johnson certified his brother free of skeletal bigotry, the founder of Momentum did it for Jeremy Corbyn. All of these men are correct. If we were to lay them on the slab and fillet them, we would not extract a femur that thinks Enoch was right, a clavicle that loves a minstrel show, or even a distal phalange worried about Turkish membership of the EU.

The deadlines for peer-reviewed academic journals are long. Gidley, McGeever and Feldman were committed to print before the new Labour leader issued his thoughts on the anti-Semitism crisis in his party. Keir Starmer’s language was much the same as that of his predecessor, though he did add a slightly confusing horticultural layer: “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” went his victory speech. “I will tear out this poison by its roots.”

Prejudice does not show up on an X-Ray. It can’t be collected on a swab or in a blood sample. It lives in our actions and utterances and encounters, and in the culture they generate — on pages and screens, in workplaces and social media feeds. We are, however, a metaphor-loving society. The present moment demonstrates that. Covid-19 is a virus that we discuss in terms of war; racism is a form of human conflict that we discuss in terms of virology and toxicology.

When words fail, sometimes our ideas are at fault. It is an opportunity to find better ones. Better deeds, too. And better friends.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.