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Phil Rosenberg: Why I think Camden needs to an anti-semitism definition

OPINION: 'History tells us that economic uncertainty, anti-rationalism and populism are always fertile spaces for hatred'

22 April, 2017 — By Councillor Phil Rosenberg

Phil Rosenberg

I DID not get in to politics to talk about antisemitism.

I took it as more or less a given that one just couldn’t be racist against Jews or any other group – and that this didn’t really require any further discussion.

I intended to focus my work as a local councillor on school places, libraries, housing, pot-holes and – dare I say it – waste collection.
But over the last few years, something has clearly changed and, to my utter dismay, I now feel the need to add the issue of racism against people like me to my ‘to do’ list.
The Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors antisemitism in the UK, found that 2016 was the highest year for antisemitic incidents since they started recording in 1984. The 1,309 incidents nationwide represented a 36% increase on the 2015 figures and above even the previous record of 1,182 incidents in 2014. Jewish people are feeling scared and victimised.

This is why it is so important that Camden Council is looking to adopt a new definition of antisemitism, first put forward by the 31-member state International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and subsequently adopted by the UK Government, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, the London Assembly, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and local authorities including Harrow, Hertsmere and our neighbours in Barnet. It has cross-party support and I see no reason why this motion should not pass unanimously in Camden.

Of course, this increase in hateful incidents against Jews does not come in a vacuum. Muslims are seeing a rise in Islamophobia and we saw a sharp rise in xenophobia following the Brexit vote. Particularly on social media, we see an open sewer of homophobia and misogyny.
These things are connected.

History tells us that economic uncertainty, anti-rationalism and populism are always fertile spaces for hatred. Antisemitism is often the first to manifest itself – but rarely ever the last. Jews are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for a society. If Jews are being mistreated, you can be sure that other groups will soon also become targets.
This also means that fighting antisemitism has a value beyond the Jewish community. Putting in place strong safeguards against antisemitism will often mean safeguards against other forms of racism and prejudice too.

Historian Robert Wistrich called antisemitism ‘the longest hatred’. Over time, it has manifested itself in many forms, whether the religious persecution of the Spanish Inquisition or the racial genocide of the Nazis. With the creation of the State of Israel, and actions by its government that sometimes draw legitimate criticism, we sometimes see people – often unwittingly – reaching for these old tropes to make a point that would have been far better made without them. The value of adopting a definition is that it allows people to be able to see and understand concretely where the lines are between legitimate criticism and antisemitism and then resist and confront them.

There are some people who seem to fear that adopting a definition on antisemitism will somehow suppress discussion about the policies of the Israeli government or Palestinian human rights. I would urge such people to read the definition.
The definition gives a small number of examples of things that are antisemitic, like supporting terrorism against Jews, making allegations about a Jewish conspiracy or seeking to twist or distort the history of the Holocaust, which in no way prevent anyone from raising concerns about the policies of the Israeli government or any other.

Frankly, if you need to invoke Hitler or talk about some sort of Jewish control over political or financial institutions to make your point, you are probably not providing the sort of help that Palestinians want or need!

I am proud that Camden Council is on the verge of making a statement that, in these uncertain times, we will not tolerate abuse against our Jewish residents. I am proud that Camden continues to go the extra mile to make sure that we continue to be the diverse and inclusive Borough that we all love so dearly.

The Camden Labour Party is putting forward a motion on antisemitism at the Full Council Meeting on Monday 24 April. This comes in response to rising rates of antisemitism over recent years. The definition has so far been adopted by the UK Government, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, the London Assembly, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and local authorities including Barnet, Hertsmere and Harrow.

Phil Rosenberg is Co-Chair of the Camden Faith Leaders Forum, a local councillor for West Hampstead ward and Director of Public Affairs at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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