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Press: In an election, you can be partisan or ignored 

29 November 2019


The Chief Rabbi earlier this year

The Chief Rabbi earlier this year

I HAVE every sympathy with those Jews and others who say that they cannot vote for Jeremy Corbyn because of his complicity in the anti-Semitism — which goes far beyond anti-Zionism — of many on the Palestinian side.

With that said, the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the General Election campaign was a piece of doublespeak: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

If he really believes that he shouldn’t be telling people how to vote, why is he writing for The Times in the middle of an election campaign? Anything that any religious leader says in the next few weeks will be read entirely through a partisan filter, and, if it cannot be read that way, it will be ignored.

You might conclude from this that the Church of England has run a brilliant media strategy, since no one has been able to use any of its pronouncements on the election for partisan advantage — and so everyone has ignored them.

None the less, I admired the careful footwork of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to the Chief Rabbi: “That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”

MEANWHILE, the Labour Party’s “Race and Faith” manifesto appears to treat “faith” entirely as an identity for non-white people. This seems to me stupid as well as wrong. For one thing, it concedes the self-identified Christian vote almost entirely to the Right. That’s stupid, especially in a party that once owed so much to Methodism, and that still wants to return to the golden age of William Temple’s welfare state.

It is also wrong and — perhaps an odd accusation to level against a political party — divisive. Once faiths are understood primarily as markers of tribal identity, societies lose their ability to enlarge sympathies beyond those identities, which is something that this country rather desperately needs. The problem for Labour is that it is not enough to point out the astonishing hypocrisy of the papers and parties attacking them; nor should it be. It is not a defence against a charge of domestic abuse to argue that you have been accused of only one of the 724,000 reported in England and Wales last year, and that many of the others were worse — even if it is true.

Yet we should remember the immense gap that separates the rhetoric of division and dehumanisation from its ultimate consequence. Although they do form a continuum, the slide into genocide is a very long one, and the slope is not as slippery as we sometimes fear or even pretend.

ONE of the more awful and most forgotten horrors of the 20th century was the Indonesian massacres of supposed Communists — actually ethnic Chinese — in the 1960s. This was the subject a few years ago of a documentary film, The Act of Killing, that I had to walk out of halfway through, even though it consisted of nothing more than interviews with killers long after the event. One of them died earlier this month, and The Economist gave him a wonderfully thoughtful obituary.

Anwar Congo was the 41st person interviewed by Josh Oppenheimer, who made the film: “He gloated over how they used to crush their victims’ necks with wooden staves, how they hanged them, strangled them, cut off their heads, ran them over with cars — all because they were allowed to. And he insisted that they never felt guilty, never got depressed, never had nightmares.

“Dressed in white slacks and a lime Hawaiian shirt the first day he met the film-makers, he led them up to Mr Sinik’s roof and showed them in person, demonstrating on a friend, how he had garrotted his victims. And how afterwards, he would put on some good music, drink a little booze, smoke a little marijuana. Stepping lightly across the roof, he crooned: ‘Cha, cha, cha.’ By now in his 60s and missing several teeth, he clacked his dentures when the camera began rolling.”

I remembered that part, but I found that I had to walk out of the film before the climactic scene which closes the obituary: “As for Mr Congo, he evaded justice, but not punishment. . . When, on the final day of the shoot that had lasted five years, he was filmed returning, in a mustard double-breasted suit and lemony shirt, to the roof of Mr Sinik’s office, where so many men had died by his hand, he sniffed the night air and then he gulped. Turning away, he retched and retched — until he could retch no longer.”

This does not seem a very adequate punishment to me, but then, what could possibly be justice in a case like that?

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