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The Way Race Has Been Used in This Election Has Been a Complete Shitshow

The campaign has been a bewildering mess for anyone who cares about combatting racism.

by Eleanor Penny
06 December 2019, 5:48pm

Protesters on a 'Fck Boris' march. Photo by Christopher Bethell

This election, no one expected Queensbury Rules or a genteel campaign where politicians politely swapped regional railway development strategies. But few were ready for the level of hellfire and vitriol that would be unleashed when the racism scandals grumbling on for years reach their desperate crescendo as the race for number 10 narrows.

As someone from a Jewish background, I have been openly critical of how the Labour leadership has botched some internal processes for dealing with racism within its ranks. I am light years more terrified of Boris Johnson. Watching this campaign unfold has been teeth-grindingly frustrating.

In November, the Chief Rabbi – leader of a denomination which represents around 30 percent of UK Jewish households – condemned Jeremy Corbyn and urged people not to vote for him. Andrew Neil then asked Corbyn to apologise for antisemitism – a catch-22 the Labour leader spectacularly failed to wiggle out of, opting for the headline “Corbyn refuses to apologise for antisemitism” as the lesser evil compared to “Corbyn apologises for being antisemitic”.

The brawl continued online and in the media. Jewish people who didn’t line up behind the Chief Rabbi were called kapos by the right. Jewish people who didn’t immediately deny the existence of left antisemitism were accused of being in the pocket of Israel by the ogres of the swivel-eyed conspiracist left. A personal low-light was when I took to Sky News to debate this and was lectured about racism by Tom Harwood, a distinctly goyish Guido Fawkes reporter and leader of Briefcase Boy Scouts for Boris, opportunistically leaping on the bandwagon.

People have rightly railed against Boris Johnson’s well-documented personal history of Islamophobia and anti-black racism, whilst mysteriously neglecting his party’s record of antisemitism. Recent leaks of the Labour EHRC report reveals how the vicious antisemitism of a handful of members has spilled out into horrifying abuse flung at their Jewish comrades. But cries for an inquiry into institutional Islamophobia in the Conservative party are pretty much ignored.

Many black and Muslim people – facing the full throated contempt of both our PM and his broadsheet cheerleaders – are despairing that those racisms weren’t treated as similarly scandalous. Jewish people are despairing that they are being asked to take sides against other minorities. Astonishingly, this week the Jewish Chronicle ran a front page interview with Boris Johnson warning of the “very real” danger of Jeremy Corbyn – in which they ask him not a single question about his links to the far-right.

In short: It has been a complete unadulterated shitshow.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of an increase of antisemitic incidents nationally and across the world. Jewish people have been abused on the street and gunned down in synagogues. Last week a rabbi was attacked in the streets of Stamford Hill by a pair who yelled “kill the Jews”. The police have been criticised for doing next to nothing.

Few are the voices proposing genuine solutions: to beat back the rise of fascism, to rout antisemitism out of every section and shade of public and political life. The media is more interested in sanctimonious performances of hollow solidarity than things that will really address the threat that grows more real by the day. The debate is dominated by non-Jewish voices from the Conservative party and their allies. This party has fuelled open hostility to minorities and an economic collapse, creating a fertile breeding ground for the far-right, who pose the most critical threat to Jewish life.

Make no mistake: the Conservative party is crammed with antisemitism. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg pal around with former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who edited racist website Breitbart and has links to antisemitic white-nationalists. Theresa May and Suella Braverman have reheated antisemitic conspiracy theories in parliament. Tory MEPs opposed a move to censure hardline antisemite Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and Michael Gove backed them. Conservative philosopher Robert Scruton was fired from his government position after antisemitic and Islamophobic comments. Boris Johnson argued for his reinstatement.

Former Labour MP and alleged creep John Woodcock denounced Corbyn for antisemitism before jumping ship. He now supports the Conservatives and has been pictured with representatives from NHP, a far-right ultra-nationalist Turkish party, whose militarised youth wing has reportedly distributed copies of Mein Kampf. I do not for a second believe these people seriously care about combatting antisemitism.

To top it off, Theresa May went off to the south coast for an afternoon to christen a statue of someone who reckoned the actual fucking Nazis were a “solution” to the “world problem” of Jews. This isn’t ancient Tory history, this is dredged up from the annals of LAST THURSDAY.

This country is in dire need of an honest reckoning with its deep and vicious history of racism. Mutually-reinforcing racisms are woven tightly into the historical fabric of this country. Islamphobia, antisemitism, anti-blackness, xenophobia; all are powerful tools deployed by the ruling class to pit people against each other and secure their hold on power. Racism was the ideological apparatus of colonialism, built into the foundations of the modern British state.

The discourse around race this election is not that debate. It is fundamentally uninterested in challenging systemic racism. It is conducted with all the cynicism, slippery disingenuousness and ruthlessness you’d expect from a bunch of aristocrats and hedge fund managers mud-wrestling for the crown of Least Completely Awful.

The pious theatrics of “concern” for Jewish life in this country aren’t backed up by any genuine commitment to unstitching the deep roots of antisemitism burrowing hundreds of years deep into British history.

What we have is the politics of anti-compassion. In the tiny minds of the PR executives of a flailing upper class, real suffering and real consequences of racism are crushed into flimsy talking points, all meaning and urgency squeezed out of them. The real, urgent struggle against racism becomes a shallow struggle against whoever happens to stand between yourself and another cushty five years in power handing out tax breaks to your nearest and dearest fracking lobbyists.

This suffocatingly cynical framing blends genuinely appalling episodes of bigotry on the left with swivel-eyed conspiracies and muckraking. Even earnest observers struggle to sift the good faith concerns from the bad, exhausting public patience required for any actual solution to antisemitism.

Matt Hancock, floundering in front of a local hustings as attendees called out his bogus claims about nursing levels, reached immediately for the issue of antisemitism as a handy human shield against his own incompetence. He was quickly drowned out by jeering and slunk back to his seat. I’m glad that the audience called him out on his bullshit. But it’s still scary to see the debate around antisemitism so debased that the first mention of it is met with open mockery and disbelief. That is what this abysmal conversation has come to.

To bad-faith conservatives, I doubt the difference is recognisable. They’ve always had a consciously wrongheaded view of bigotry a personal moral defect, or a form of extreme impoliteness. Accusations of racism are bad not because they’re part of a wider picture of oppression, but because they besmirches the honour of the fine sporting gentlemen of politics who would, of course, never dream of causing offence. They see antisemitism as less a structural issue, more a fundamental character flaw of every red-flag-waving socialist renegade. (Ironic, considering that socialism used to be considered a fundamental character flaw of every Jewish person).

Perhaps this is why accusations of “Islamophobia” don’t have the same impact when levelled at a tory politician. When 60 percent of their membership believe Islam a threat to western civilisation, when Boris refuses to apologise for slandering Muslim women, when they happily write it into legislation – they seem see it less as a personal failing and more as a personal duty.

No wonder the debates are increasingly incoherent. We are not talking about the same thing. A minority of left-wing people dismiss antisemitism as a mere conspiracy – a wedge tactic dreamed up by the right. But the majority try – if sometimes clunkily – to engage with earnestness in a debate about how to rectify a structural failing which crops up in their ranks. Those on the right are trying to cause as much chaos amongst the ranks of the anti-racist left as possible, whilst dog-whistling to the Islamophobes in their own party. They are treating it as a series of parries and blows in a PR war, the victor of which will be decided on election night. In the bloodless art of public school debate, the trick is not to care about what you’re saying as long as it secures victory. They have perfected it.

This royal stinking mess is only possible because our public debate assumes that islamophobia and antisemitism are entirely separate – even opposing – issues. The Times published an article claiming Labour racism is worse than its Conservative equivalent, whilst unironically opining on the difficulties of “the Muslim question”. Labour antisemitism is weighed on a tally sheet against Tory Islamophobia and the public is asked to decide: “Which is worse? Whose lives are more valuable?” An unanswerable and ahistorical question.

In reality, both Islamophobia and antisemitism are intertwined in a rabid racist imaginary which presumes that both Jews and Muslims pose cultural and political threats to where power lies; in the hands of the white establishment. Those who now scaremonger about Muslims and Black people to propose hardline controls on immigration are building on a foundation of early 19th century designed to criminalise Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.

For the left, racism is a routine historical blindspot – it’s over a hundred years since Auguste Bebel observed that antisemitism is the “socialism of fools”; an anti-elitist impulse twisted into vicious hatred. For the right-wing elites this is a modus operandi, the unexamined heart of their power.

If you clawhammer different racisms apart, you conveniently avoid talking about the role the British state of building and maintaining these interlocking systems of oppression and exclusion. You can blithely avoid an awkward examination of your own complicity. If you talk about them as personal defects unique to a certain political sect, you can shelve the thought of actually doing anything about it. You might have to accept that you are part of the problem, and happily fuelling division to paper over the cracks in your crumbling administration.

Left-wing antisemitism is alive and dangerous. I want left-wing people to call out antisemitism whenever and wherever they see it in our own ranks. But that necessary reckoning is being hijacked by cynical forces to imply that the left are the worst or indeed the only threat. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the right-wing who embolden and enable the far right who shoot up synagogues, and the left who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me to block neo-Nazis swarming through the streets of London. I refuse the politics which requires me to mistake my enemies for my allies, and to throw Muslims to the wolves.

Racism existed before Corbyn came to lead the Labour party, racism will exist when this twisted Conservative government eventually falls. To fight it, we need sharper analysis to cut through the noise and bluster – where the fears of minorities are taken seriously, where they aren’t siloed off and pitted against one another. Minorities are not soldiers to be conscripted into a culture war by generals with a fleeting, shallow commitment to their wellbeing. There are actual lives at stake.

@eleanorkpenny

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Politics
RACISM
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Race
Anti-Semitism
Conservatives
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