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Anti-semitism and Labour: Why the mud keeps flying

PAUL HALAS offers a personal perspective on the anti-semitism issue, proposing a counternarrative to challenge the orchestrated nonsense about anti-semitism with which Labour’s opponents smear lifelong anti-racists like Jeremy Corbyn

IN the past I’ve been quite outspoken about issues relating to anti-semitism and Israel, so it’s unsurprising that some of my Labour Party colleagues sound me out whenever a new accusation flies Jeremy Corbyn’s way. After all, there are not so many Jews in our corner of Gloucestershire, let alone our local CLP. 

In a way I feel a bit of a fraud. I’m a septuagenarian retired comic-strip writer with no religious beliefs; similarly my parents adhered to no religion. 

Many would consider me not to be a proper Jew at all, but my ancestry and family history tells another story. 

My father’s family were Hungarian, with relatives in Austria and Germany. Our family histories go some way to shaping who we are, and, as with many Jewish families, my forbears’ history has been a very turbulent one.

In spite of the populist and official anti-semitism that afflicted Hungary after the first world war, my father, the youngest of seven brothers, somehow acquired skills as a film animator and travelled abroad in search of better opportunities. 

He arrived in Britain in 1936, where he met my mother and jointly set up an animation partnership that would last the rest of their lives — and help shape film animation in this country.

Their fledgling company first came to prominence making propaganda films for the Ministry of Information during the second world war, but while they just about survived a direct hit during the Blitz my father’s Hungarian family went through far worse. 

Even so, they were luckier than most. My Hungarian grandmother survived, as did four out of her seven sons. One of them escaped from an extermination camp-bound train in Poland and made his way back to Hungary on foot in the dead of winter. 

Another, who’d settled in Paris and was active in the communist resistance, was tortured by the Gestapo in the Drancy transit camp, left for dead, and was daringly rescued by his wife and comrades. 

He was “never the same” afterwards and spent most of his time running errands for l’Humanite, the communist newspaper. (Incidentally in the 1960s he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He refused to accept it from the despised DeGaulle, but was very happy about the generous pension that came with it.) 

So, spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins, the wider family — all disappeared, and many were subjected to the vilest anti-semitic abuse and its fateful consequences. 

So if there were indeed a problem of “institutional anti-semitism” within the Labour Party, given my own family’s traumatic history at the hands of anti-semitic abuse, I’d be the first to speak out.

Growing up and going to junior school in north London, I had many classmates and friends who came from mainstream Jewish families; we spent school holidays in one another’s houses and I attended numerous family celebrations. 

As I grew older, though, I gradually learned that among some of their parents at least, my own were regarded as bohemian and not people to mix with. 

We were the wrong sorts. A couple of them were told not to associate with me any more. I came to realise that while I was sort of Jewish, I wasn’t, to put it flippantly, kosher. 

While not being the real deal, genetics tell their own story. In my old age I’m a dead ringer for the uncle who escaped from Drancy. 

As a young man in my twenties, sporting Christ-like hair and beard, the traditional Jews to whom I delivered bales of fabric at East End clothiers frequently recognised my ancestry. 

On entering university, one of my sons was immediately identified as Jewish by a pro-zionist student group (who failed to recruit him). It’s not a matter of being taken out of the Jewish milieu, I was never in it — but what is Jewish can never be taken out of me.

So what does this have to do with anti-semitism, or allegations of anti-semitism, in the present political climate? It’s to do with a perception of “otherness” among the various Jewish communities, many of which have a history of being highly homogeneous. 

Persecution and pogroms over millennia have shaped tight-knit communities, even among groups that have been settled and prosperous for generations. Historically there is a sensitivity to both slight and threat.

And then there are the twin elephants in the room: Israel and zionism.

Growing up, my generation learned that Israel was courageous and plucky — there was something deeply admirable about its rugged self-sufficiency. 

It was the heroic David against the Arab Goliath, that sought to push its gallant inhabitants — the Palestinians were never mentioned — into the sea. 

For many young people, and not just Jews, the height of adventure and a means of gaining vital life experience was to go and work on a kibbutz. To turn arid desert into a new Garden of Eden. 

Then came the Six Day War, and in its wake the land appropriations, the expanding settlements and the evictions. For some of us, certainly those on the left side of politics, the golden ideal started to tarnish. 

People began talking about Palestinians and their rights, or lack of them. The mask of the gallant David was starting to slip. 

For many Jewish families, however, Israel was and remains an ideal — something larger in idea form than it is in reality. Something magnificent. And if, as it turns out, it has its faults and its flaws it’s because its back is forever against the wall. 

The glue that binds many Jews together with Israel, even if they’ve never been there and have no intention of ever doing so, mustn’t be dissolved by those who seek to attack it.

I don’t need to point out to this newspaper’s readers that almost certainly none of those who accuse Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party of personal or institutional anti-semitism believe a single word of it. We know that criticism of expansionist zionism and anti-semitism have been manipulatively conflated. 

We also know that there’s a suspicious trail of influence and money behind the MPs who want Corbyn’s scalp and the small army of faceless people conjuring mountains out of molehills. 

What I think needs some understanding, however, is why it is that many good people apparently choose to believe what are largely spurious accusations. 

Quite simply, it is due to decades and centuries of very real anti-semitism that have left them predisposed to do so — an emotion- trauma- and fear-driven belief system that often seems to be quite impervious to rational argument or evidence. And this is why the reaction is to form the wagons into a circle.  

And because accusations of anti-semitism appear to gain more traction than most other attacks on the Labour left — something that our opponents know only too well — they’re not likely to end any time soon. 

But what we on the left can do is to tell our personal stories and repeat these realities again and again, so that a convincing counter-narrative is created that can challenge the disgraceful orchestrated nonsense that our opportunistic opponents use disingenuously to smear us, including exemplary lifelong anti-racists like Jeremy Corbyn.

Paul Halas is press officer for Stroud Constituency Labour Party.


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