Some blame the current anti-Semitism row in Britain’s Labour Party on Jeremy Corbyn’s politically-motivated desire to placate Muslims. Others fear it might be only another contrived weapon against Mr Corbyn, who is hugely popular in the country but is thoroughly disliked by the chattering classes. A visitor from India cannot but feel that India’s Muslims could do with some similar demonstration of support by a leading national politician, whether Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi.
Complaints about Labour’s attitude to Jews led to the party’s national executive committee recently approving a new code of conduct that says, “Anti-Semitism is racism. It is unacceptable in our party and in wider society.” But some Jewish leaders and Labour MPs are furious it doesn’t go far enough and demand that Labour adopt the nine-page international definition of anti-Semitism. It says, to start with, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Criticism of Israel is also included as anti-Semitic.
The argument, which has been simmering for about a year, exploded recently when 74-year-old Dame Margaret Hodge, born in Cairo of German Jewish refugee parents, confronted Mr Corbyn in the House of Commons, reportedly swearing at him and calling him an anti-Semite. As a result, the veteran Labour MP, who claims to have lost family members in the Holocaust, is facing disciplinary action. Despite that, she told the BBC that she stood by her criticism of the party leader. “What has happened over the last months — from failure to respond to anti-Semitism against Labour Party members, from failure to respond to the massive demonstration, unique demonstration by the Jewish community, culminating in the failure to adopt in full the universally used definition of anti-Semitism is just a bridge too far” she said.
However, Dame Margaret insists she would not leave the party. “I am going to fight within the Labour Party – and it is terrible that in 2018 I have to do that” she added defiantly. Rejecting her allegations, Mr Corbyn says he is “committed to eliminating anti-Semitism wherever it exists.” He told supporters earlier this year, “Prejudice and hatred of Jewish people has no place whatsoever in the Labour Party.”
One view is that Britain’s four million Muslims vote Labour and must be placated. Others claim Mr Corbyn’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause makes him anti-Israel and, by extension, anti-Semitic. No one mentions the historic anti-Semitism that underlies Britain’s working class culture. The pre-Second World War British joke “We’ll give you Palestine if you give us back Golders Green” referred to the North London district with a heavy Jewish concentration. When I lived in Manchester in the 1950s, it was not uncommon to refer jocosely to Palatine Road leading to Didsbury as “Palestine Road” and “Yidsbury”. The popular Alf Garnett show on TV never failed to draw laughs when old Garnett, a working class Cockney, disparaged Jews. Roles are reversed in Howard Spring’s novel ‘Shabby Tiger’ when a working class constable diffidently courting a middle class girl suddenly discovers she is Jewish. Roles are immediately reversed.
The controversy recalls Edward Koch, the feisty mayor of New York, asking Indira Gandhi if there were any Jews in India. Surprised and obviously ignorant about the subject, Mrs Gandhi lapsed into defensive platitudes. She should proudly have affirmed that India boasted several separate Jewish groups as well as the world’s first self-governing Jewish state in Cochin. Cochin’s Paradesi Jews, Mumbai’s Beni-Israel and the later Baghdadi Jews added colour to India’s demographic tapestry.
Now, the Bnei Menashe in Manipur and Mizoram claim to be Jewish and are accepted as such by Israel. There are also the Bene Ephraim, a small group of Telugu-speaking Jews in eastern Andhra Pradesh, and the so-called Black Jews of Kerala, many of whom have migrated to Israel. To suggest that Israel sees some of these people as a potential source of cheap unskilled labour might be taken as another instance of anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, there are too few Jews in India and those few are too scattered in time and space for any defined Indian attitude on Semitism. However, ever since P.V. Narasimha Rao turned India’s economics and politics around, there’s been a special sense of obligation to Israel, which might include Jews. General J.F.R. (Jake) Jacob, a colourful retired army officer who belonged to Calcutta’s rich Baghdadi community, and was highly regarded as the hero of the Bangladesh war, was one of several bridges. After visiting influential friends among London’s British Jewry, Jacob went on to pay a surprise visit to Israel where the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, gave him a long private interview and a virtual blank cheque for Narasimha Rao to establish diplomatic relations.
The prime minister had already instructed Lalit Mansingh in the Indian embassy at Washington to establish contact with two important Jewish organisations, the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with 55,000 members and a $14.2 million budget. Friends in the state department were happy to introduce Mansingh, who was surprised to find how many Americans in high position like Stephen Solarz were Jews with Israeli connections.
No wonder Harry Truman had lost no time in reneging on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assurances to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz about a Palestinian homeland, telling dismayed American officials that he had to answer to hundreds of thousands of people who were anxious for the success of Zionism but did not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among his constituents. The league suggested that diplomatic relations between Israel and India would facilitate cooperation. Their UN delegations already consulted each other and Israel had trained a batch of 45 commandos when India raised the National Security Guards in 1984.
Israeli diplomats always claimed that India publicly shunned Israel only because the Congress Party (like Mr Corbyn’s Labour) depended on the votes of 180 million Muslims. But when India did establish full relations with Israel, the adverse Islamic reaction of which New Delhi had been terrified for 45 years boiled down to a single protest letter from Syed Shahabuddin, a career diplomat with several West Asian postings who had left the foreign service to stand for parliament and become a spokesman of Muslim interests.
The Muslim factor is probably exaggerated in Britain too. What possibly happened was that some Labour politicians slipped up in their political correctness. The leadership’s promise to “reopen development of the code” in consultation with Jewish groups and to respect the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism may help to soothe matters but the present outburst should serve as a warning to be more careful in future. Labour is due to vote in September on a definitive approach to anti-Semitism.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.