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Press: Jeremy Corbyn and Jewish communities

20 July 2018

MANY of my friends think it ridiculous to have too much faith in Jeremy Corbyn. They argue that he cannot possibly perform the miracles that his followers expect, and perhaps demand.

But who else except a miracle-worker could unite the Jewish communities of Britain as he has done?

The Hasidim are so neurotic about women in public life that their newspapers used to cut Hillary Clinton out of photographs in which she appeared as Secretary of State. Liberal and Reform Jews loathe and despise them right back. But Avraham Pinter, a leading Hasidic rabbi, has co-signed a letter with Laura Janner-Klausner, of the Liberal movement. I don’t suppose there was any physical contact involved, but the mere mingling of electrons must have carried a threat of ritual impurity.

And it was Corbyn who brought the two together: the letter, denouncing the Labour Party’s new definition of anti-Semitism, appeared in The Guardian as the latest example of the party’s difficulty in reconciling the freedom to luxuriate in denunciations of Israel and international capitalism with the sensibilities of its Jewish members.

The new definition appears to adopt the wording of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance — but removes a couple of its examples, such as accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations, and comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis.

In any other week, this would be a bigger story. The rows over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party are the biggest disruption of mainstream British politics by a religious question since the last time the question of a cap on school admissions by faith was discussed.

I don’t mean that they are the biggest religious question in British politics. The larger problem of attitudes to Muslims seems to me more important, although it is clearly related, in as much as the Labour Party is impaled about anti-Semitism primarily because of the use of Palestine as a rallying call for Muslims of every description, most of whom vote Labour.

But hatred or distrust of Muslims is much more widespread in society, and especially in the Conservative Party. This is not, though, a political problem in the same way, because the party has avoided framing, let alone taking, any decisions about it.

The row over anti-Semitism prefigures, though, what the religious stories of the next few years, or decades, will look like. They will not be arguments about theology, authority, or even sex: they will be clashes of collective identities, which more resemble the conflict between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland than anything that can be filed as “conservative” or “liberal”.

The international nationalist Right are the to first discover how to weaponise this. I don’t quite yet see how the Left can do so, unless we take the blurring of the line between Zionism and Jewishness as a dreadful example of weaponising religion as a marker of outgroup identity.

THE political advantage of using religion in this way is that it can unite against the chosen outgroup people who are otherwise at one another’s throats. In their rather different ways, Richard Dawkins and the Telegraph’s clever American conservative Tim Stanley illustrate this beautifully.

Dawkins tweets that he is “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar’. Or is that just my cultural upbringing?” — one of those rare headline questions to which the answer is “Of course it is.” The contrast between Christianity-as-Englishness and Islam could hardly be more plainly put.

Tim Stanley, meanwhile, writes in the Telegraph: “In Poland last year, Trump used the ‘civilisation’ word a lot, adding that: ‘The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.’ What he meant was that, while Islamists threaten the West from the outside, liberals are eroding it from within, by destroying old values and even (a popular topic among civilisational conservatives), killing the family.

“Russia’s birth rate is of great concern to Putin. He has issued prizes and bribes to get women to breed, but the nation’s birth rate remains low — perhaps, ironically, a product of the very chauvinism some non-Russians respect. Despotism leads to corruption and economic stagnation, which kills hope. When people have no hope, they stop having babies.”

This is half-Bannon and half-balderdash: the noise made by a clever man tying himself in knots. There are countries all over the world that are far worse governed even than Russia and where the birth rate remains far higher than it is there. They stop having babies only when they have access to contraception and abortion as well as no hope.

On the other hand, Stanley has grasped the power of a narrative where “the West” is threatened by Islamists from the outside and traitors from the inside. If that can somehow be given a religious coating — something Trump can’t even pretend to care about, but Steve Bannon does — there is the makings of a coalition of resentment which can crystallise around a genuinely fascist movement, to produce something more powerful than either on its own.

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