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Peter Bradley: Important for us to understand roots of prejudice run deep

Politics | Published: | Last Updated:

Recently extreme right-wing conspiracy theories have been circulating on social media blaming Jews for the spread of coronavirus, writes Peter Bradley, former Labour MP for The Wrekin.

The Nazis accused the Jews of spreading disease too but even they didn't invent the lie. In 1348, in the wake of the Black Death, Jews were charged with poisoning the wells and thousands were slaughtered in towns and cities throughout Europe.

There were no massacres in England. But only because the Jews had been expelled in 1290 – and weren't allowed back until the time of Oliver Cromwell, 366 years later.

The left rightly condemns such crude and hateful anti-Semitism. But it has conspiracy theories of its own, usually about the shadowy Jewish – or more often Zionist and/or Israeli – ‘lobby’ which somehow bends the world’s media, banks and governments to its bidding. Ironically, extremists on the right often share this paranoia. But while they flaunt their prejudices, those on the anti-racist left insist that they have none – and that any claim to the contrary is evidence of another conspiracy, to silence them.

So, when Jews raise their concerns about left-wing anti-Semitism, they’re often not prepared to listen, much less reflect.

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But as George Orwell, a great man of the left, wrote even as the gruesome evidence of the death camps was filling the post-war newsreels, “many people will admit that they are frightened of probing too deeply into the subject. They are frightened…of discovering not only that antisemitism is spreading, but that they themselves are infected by it.”

What has this to do with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party 75 years later? Just that it’s important for us, both left and right, to understand that the roots of anti-Semitism run deep in European history and culture, including our own. Not even the horror of the Holocaust has eradicated it.

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Not even the Holocaust has eradicated anti-Semitism

So, though we should be dismayed, we shouldn’t be surprised that anti-Semitism is still with us.

On the left, it has been both invigorated and obscured by the politics of the Middle East. Of course it’s legitimate to criticise Israeli government policies. But when Israel is the prime, sometimes the sole, target for political activists, when it’s held to standards applied to no other country, when Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, is condemned as racism while Palestinian nationalism is proclaimed as a just cause, when Israelis are compared to Nazis, accused of committing genocide and of exploiting the Holocaust to get their way, it’s right to remind the more obsessive anti-Zionists of Orwell’s advice that “the starting point for any investigation of antisemitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ but ‘why does antisemitism appeal to me?’”

Keir Starmer has made clear by actions as well as words that anti-Semitism has no home in the Labour Party. But he has gone further.

The value of the ‘unconscious bias training’ he has endorsed may be debatable.

But some who confidently proclaim their anti-racism should listen when he says about prejudice that, “just saying ‘oh well it probably applies to other people, not me’ is not the right thing to do.”

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