Battling terrorism, antisemitism and the threat of Corbyn in Britain

Polls commissioned this year by the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) showed that a whopping 87% of British Jews consider Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to be antisemitic.

VANS WITH slogans aimed at the Labour Party are driven around Parliament Square in London ahead of a debate on antisemitism last year.  (photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
VANS WITH slogans aimed at the Labour Party are driven around Parliament Square in London ahead of a debate on antisemitism last year.
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
I learned a new word last week: “hiraeth.” It’s too good to keep it to myself. It is apparently Welsh in origin and the definition depends on where you look. The teasingly-named Word Porn site describes “hiraeth” as a noun, meaning: “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.”
My first opportunity to use it – and it is not so easy to carelessly drop “hiraeth” into a conversation even if you can figure out how to pronounce it – came when an Israeli friend noted that nothing seemed to have changed in the country after a brief absence. We’re still enmeshed in the same political quagmire around the never-ending elections, the prime minister is still faced with the same legal woes, the stridently secular and ultra-Orthodox are still at odds and the security challenges and threats have not disappeared. The only real news was the rain, so welcome in Israel.
It made me briefly think of growing up in England where the weather was a topic always on the agenda and rain was anything but rare.
I am not homesick for England. I haven’t lived there for more than 40 years. It’s not my home and I feel sick about what’s going on there. I’m not naïve. It was not perfect when I grew up there and it’s far from idyllic today.
I recently did a short radio interview for Britain’s LBC on Netanyahu’s post-indictment situation. It was brief, I realized, because Britain is very busy with its own problems, particularly ahead of the December 12 elections. The average Brit has other things to worry about than the Israeli prime minister’s predicament.
Last week, it became apparent – not for the first time – that the UK, like other countries, shares some of the challenges that Israel has to deal with (apart from mucky politics). On Friday, November 29, a terrorist affiliated with al-Qaeda killed two people in a stabbing attack on London Bridge. Usman Khan, released after serving half of a 16-year sentence and still wearing an electronic ankle cuff, killed Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, both of them bright, dedicated Cambridge University graduates working in a prisoner rehabilitation program.
Passersby tackled the terrorist and managed to bring him down – “to neutralize him,” as Israelis would say – before police officers shot him dead, permanently neutralizing him.
Police officers in the London of my youth were very rarely armed – despite the IRA bombing attacks that always seemed to increase when people were busy with Christmas shopping. The brave members of the public who fought Khan used whatever came to hand – including a narwhal tusk. (The whale tusk had been on display by the door of Fishmongers’ Hall.) It reminded me of the improvised weapons Israelis have employed during “lone wolf” attacks: a guitar, a pizza platter, selfie sticks and nunchucks (a martial arts weapon most Israelis first heard of during the incident.)
British-Israeli Kay Wilson, who survived a terror attack in which her friend Kristine Luken was hacked to death while they were hiking near Jerusalem in 2010, ruefully noted on Facebook the way the media cover terrorism in both countries: Headlines in the UK last week proudly proclaimed “Bravery on the Bridge” and “The heroes of London Bridge.” Contrast this to a 2015 BBC headline: “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two.”
IN “HIRAETH” mode, the England I miss didn’t really exist. A recent video that went viral showed a Jewish father on the train trying to distract his young children while a passenger hurled antisemitic abuse at the family for 15 minutes. Finally, an unlikely heroine stepped in. Hijab-wearing Asma Shuweikh explained in later interviews that she felt compelled to intervene as a mother and devout Muslim.
Not long before I made aliya, I was traveling with a group of friends when the kippah-wearing boys were attacked by skinhead thugs at a London Underground station. My strongest memory is the way that the people nearby did nothing to help – not even calling the police from a safe distance. My second-strongest memory was being astounded the next day when I told school friends of our ordeal, and one (Jewish) girl suggested it was the boys’ fault because – in her opinion – wearing a kippah could be seen as asking for trouble.
There has been a rise in recorded antisemitic attacks in the UK this year. According to a report by the Community Security Trust, there were 892 incidents between January and June 2019, 10% more than the same period in 2018. Jews are being targeted by both far-Left and far-Right. And sadly, there are Muslim or pro-Palestinian youths who do not share Shuweikh’s core values. (I see a natural partnership in Europe between the Jews and Muslims, who face common threats from the far-Right as well as ultra-liberal efforts to prevent religious practices such as circumcision, kosher/halal slaughter of meat and speedy burials.)
Polls commissioned this year by the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) showed that a whopping 87% of British Jews consider Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to be antisemitic and that 47% of British Jewry would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn were to win the election. Hundreds of long-term members of Labour have abandoned it, many of them after their families have voted for the party for generations. There has even been a walkout by Labour politicians, Jews and non-Jews, including Jewish parliamentarians Dame Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger.
In an encouraging change, the Jewish community is no longer remaining quiet. The traditional British stiff-upper-lip philosophy that was adopted by Anglo Jewry, along with the Diaspora-Jewish fear of rocking the boat, is giving way to a refusal to be the victim. It’s sad that things have grown so bad, but there have been rallies, editorials and news stories. Jews are speaking out.
The most prominent recent example is the opinion piece by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis that appeared in The Times. Mirvis clearly had Corbyn on his mind when he wrote the “very soul of our nation is at stake” in the upcoming general election and warned “a new poison” had taken hold in Labour “sanctioned from the very top.”
I was surprised not only by seeing a public political statement emanating from the chief rabbi’s office but also because this time last year, when I heard Mirvis speak at Limmud UK, he downplayed the threat of antisemitism. He likened it then to a white page with a black dot: What you see is the black dot even though it’s only a small stain on the bigger sheet of paper.
Mirvis, like the rest of the community, has been forced to drop his reticence. The British Jewish community launched the #EnoughIsEnough campaign following revelations of Corbyn’s support for antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and even for terrorists who have killed Israelis and Jews. The image of him laying a wreath in Tunisia at the graves of perpetrators of the Munich Olympic Massacre, in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered, is more than a small stain.
On November 30, a Labour election campaign video on minorities championed the rights of more than 20 diverse groups – including “LGBT+,” “Travelers,” “those struggling to pay the rent,” and “[those who wear] a hijab, turban, a cross” – but omitted the 263,000-member Jewish community. Either for Corbyn, the UK Jews don’t exist or he doesn’t see them as having the rights that other minorities are afforded to live lives free of fear – in this case, without the specter of antisemitism.
Last week, in a television interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, Corbyn was unable to bring himself to apologize for the antisemitism that has scarred his party. Neil pressed him at least four times, but it wasn’t until this week that Corbyn on ITV’s This Morning show managed – under duress – to say the word “sorry.”
There are words to describe Corbyn but I can’t share them in a respectable paper. As for “hiraeth,” I doubt my friends and family will ever feel nostalgia for Jeremy Corbyn, only nausea. He’s not the Britain of my past, and for Britain’s sake, he should have no official place in the country of the future.
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