We confess up front that we are at a distance from British Jewry and cannot fully grasp the Jewish community’s angst over the Labour Party’s attitude toward anti-Semitism. Apparently, the Labour Party has long been the political home of much of the British Jewish community, which is therefore doubly distraught over the manifestations of anti-Semitism in the party and its inadequate treatment of the problem by party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
We also confess a prejudice up front: We have always been under the impression that the British Board of Deputies is impeccably responseible, informed, disciplined and articulate advocate for the Jewish community. That makes us doubly uncomfortable about its attitude, in part, toward the attempts of the Labour Party to address the anti-Semitism in its midst.
Again, without grasping the precise scope and nature of Labour’s anti-Semitism, there remains one critical aspect of the Board of Deputies’ response, reflecting a widespread social-political malady that is tantamount to self-pleading and, on that score, not only narrow and wrongheaded but ineffective.
We refer to what the Board takes to be inadequacies in the Labour Party’s definition of anti-Semitism (after all, if one is attempting to rid a political body of anti-Semitism, one must be able to define it). In pointing out these inadequacies, the Board of Deputies has more than once denounced the party because, so says the Board, only a Jew can know and define anti-Semitism.
Bing! The bells of failed social discourse immediately go off. Only Jews know what anti-Semitism is? Only Jews can define it? Reword the sentence, fill in the blanks, and you get:
Only Palestinians can define a Palestinian refugee.
Only blacks can define racism.
Only Holocaust survivors can opine on the Holocaust.
Only immigrants can have a valid position on immigration policy.
Only novelists can comment intelligently on literature.
Only the Japanese can formulate nuclear arms agreements.
Only physicians can mold public health policy.
The minute one says that only a person of a certain class, race, background or social status can know or express a valid opinion on his own condition, all rational discourse has been rendered impossible. All rational discourse has ceased. The evaluation of points of view becomes pointless and even recourse to research becomes suspect.
Of course non-Jews in the Labour Party can set forth a definition of anti-Semitism! It may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong because it is demonstrated to be wrong on rational grounds, not because a non-Jew sets forth the definition.
It is true that often a persecuted group best understands its persecution in all its facets — which can be incomprehensible to those who have never directly suffered from it. It is also true that a persecuted group has only the insider perspective, with its attendant blind spots.
The Board, by lashing out at the Labour Party and demeaning it for offering a definition of anti-Semitism, is painting itself into a corner. The Board is reducing its effectiveness by wrapping itself in a non-communicative ethnocentricity. The classic cocoon. The classic bubble. Or, to use a more contemporary metaphor, the silo.
The British Board of Deputies is fighting insidious attempts by many on the British left to divorce virulent anti-Israel activism from anti-Semitism. The vast majority of British Jews understand that the two “anti’s” are one and the same. The impetus to take ownership of the definition of anti-Semitism is understandable, but it is a conceit that should be resisted.
We suggest that the British Board of Deputies engage with the Labour Party and tell it not just where — but why — its definition of anti-Semitism is wrong, if it is. Put aside the foreshortened “you have no right to talk about this” approach. If sustained, that will spell the ghettoization of British Jewry and, possibly, its end.
Yes, anti-Semitism can render British Jewry unwelcome. But, by transmogrifying the essentials of universal discourse, British Jewry can also do this to itself.
Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News