The Bad Company We Keep
By Amos Schonfield
Sometimes, when I'm talking to my three bewilderingly non-Jewish housemates, I remind them that I'm not like them. Not quite as British, not quite as white. I tell them this because even though I appear just as 'native' as they do to someone passing by in the street, I have never felt more foreign. Crisis has followed scandal for the Jewish community in the foreground of a chaotic national picture beset by constitutional upheaval, disaster and terror. The insular and cynical feeling within Anglo-Jewry has clearly rubbed off on me.
At this time of acute loneliness, the Jewish community seems to be in the market for new friends. This is a quest for neither allyship nor solidarity, but rather goes to a yearning for a deeper feeling of validation. The Jewish community has enjoyed a feeling of being a valuable part of the mainstream for decades now, and the ‘othering’ that has happened to Jews across society has caused validation to become a vitamin in which we are deficient. For some, the hunt for this validation has caused them to look further afield.
It is one reason why we recently discovered that members of our community have reached out to Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League. The self-styled journalist and activist has – in this year alone – called the Qur'an a "violent and cursed book" and was seen as inciting anti-Muslim hatred following the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque. He spoke recently to an organised Jewish event in Prestwich, while a leading figure from Jewish Human Rights Watch appeared alongside Robinson in a video. Both incidents have been denounced widely in the Jewish community. These isolated cases form part of a larger narrative in which many Jews seem comfortable adopting the sort of islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric that, a little over 80 years after the Battle of Cable Street, have been turned against us not too long ago.
Seeking validation from the far right is not just a preserve of British Jews. The Israeli government withdrew criticism of the Hungarian government and their poster campaign against the Jewish-American George Soros. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have had regular accusations of antisemitism levelled at them, including by the Israeli Ambassador, alongside other exclusionary policies found on the far right. In providing a hechsher to an attack that they instinctively knew to be antisemitic, the Israeli government has placed bilateral relations with despots over the real concerns of local Jewish communities.
One thing tying together Robinson and Orban is the justification given by those who vouch for them within the Jewish community. It is possible to forgive all sins, it seems, because both gentlemen are “good on Israel”. This particular epiphet is reserved only for those who buy into the prevailing vision of Israel of the day. In Netanyahu’s Israel, that means standing for silencing civil society groups, for evading peace talks, and for occupation. Much like a Blue Peter badge, the “good on Israel” badge is given out to those in exchange for good deeds and comes with exclusive rewards, such as fundraising from the Jewish community in the case of Robinson or closer national ties in the case of Orban.
Relying on such a flawed litmus test is counterproductive. Aligning ourselves with such characters may give the cheap high of validation, but these exclusionary nationalists can never provide us with the kind of support and security that we need, whether that is locally or internationally. Ultimately, the likes of Robinson and Orban – not to mention a whole smorgasbord of others, such as Arlene Foster and Donald Trump, who have been written about extensively elsewhere – find other ways to show their true colours. Their treatment of ethnic minorities, which, as I mentioned earlier, is something many of us are able to avoid because of our passing as white, shows what they truly think. When push comes to shove, the backing of racists and islamophobes will never pay dividends.
In the short term, we need to look for those who can back up good rhetoric with positive action. In the long term, however, we need to pay close attention to the issues that appeal to the unsavoury characters at our door. When Israel’s occupation and anti-democratic swing are attracting these people, we can truly see them for the corrupting influence that they are.
Amos Schonfield is the Youth & Student Outreach Worker at Yachad, and a past Mazkir of Noam.