The British Left’s Weak Anti-Semitic Excuse

written for The Daily Beast, 5th May 2016

Image credit: Garry Knight ( via

Image credit: Garry Knight ( via

Nearly two years ago, Indhu Rubasingham, the director of London’s Tricycle Theatre, cancelled the venue’s deal to host a Jewish Film Festival, citing the ongoing hostilities in Gaza. “The festival receives funding from the Israeli embassy,” Rubasingham said at the time, “and given the current conflict in Israeli and Gaza, we feel it is inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved.”

Amid a national media storm over her comments, leaders of the British Jewish community complained—with high-profile actress Maureen Lipmann noting, “The Tricycle have decided to punish Jewish people in the Diaspora for one view of what is taking place in the Middle East and that is quite unacceptable”—but the country’s arts establishment backed The Tricycle. Rubasingham, they pointed out, is a progressive, thoughtful director, a rare woman of color in a white male world, and responsible for Adrian Lester’s star vehicle Red Velvet, about the African-American actor Ira Aldridge (a hit on Broadway that year). The Israeli Embassy had sponsored the festival to the tune of £1400 (around $2,000). And cultural boycotts against Israel—even supported by some liberal Jews—are de rigueur in the British arts world.

“I know Indhu,” one prominent director said to me, after I’d taken umbrage at his vociferous attacks on Rubasingham’s Jewish critics. “And I find it personally hurtful and malicious that anyone should wish to label her some kind of racist.”

It didn’t matter, in Rubasingham’s case, that I’d spoken to four separate people associated with the Tricycle, who asked to remain anonymous and were concerned by her descriptions of the Jewish community. While she still insisted publicly that she could distinguish between Jews and Israelis, these four sources told me that she’d objected to the presence of the Community Security Trust, a volunteer organization of British Jews that provides anti-racist security at every UK synagogue. “I won’t have Israeli heavies guarding my theatre,” they claimed they’d heard her say. A cultured, anti-racist campaigning artist, my sources alleged, hadn’t known the difference between a Jewish community group and the Israeli military.

The Tricycle Theatre, through their PR department, denied these claims in strong terms. “The situation between the Tricycle and the UKJFF [UK Jewish Film Festival] has long since been resolved—as per a joint statement and the Tricycle’s further apology for any upset that was unwittingly caused,” the Theatre noted, adding that the accusations against Rubasingham were “without foundation.”

“Just to be clear: the Board and the Tricycle and all its staff stand alongside its Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham in that it does not, never has and never will tolerate any form of discrimination. The Tricycle is home to all our communities and its mission is to give a voice to all.”

I’ve been thinking of Rubasingham’s righteous, anti-racist defenders a great deal this week, as the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism grows greyer. Only yesterday, British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn skirted four demands in the House of Commons that he withdraw a description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “my friends”. (Usually at Prime Minister’s Questions, it is the opposition who interrogate the Prime Minister, but yesterday it looked like the other way around.) It comes after a week in which his party has been convulsed in speculation about whether the Bernie Sanders-style Corbyn insurgency has brought with it a wave of “progressive” anti-Semitism. (Corbyn’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, for years a hard-left pariah, recently returned to favor as an influential Corbyn advisor. In one of the most gob-smacking moments in recent British politics, Livingstone took to BBC Radio last Thursday to argue that ‘anti-Zionists’ could “hate Jews in Israel” without being anti-Semitic. “A real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington,” he argued, naming London suburbs with large orthodox Jewish communities. He went on to peddle a popular Neo-Nazi theory that instability caused by Zionism, and the failure of the 1933 Haavara Agreement, were to blame for the radicalization of Hitler. “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel,” Livingstone claimed. “He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”  Jews, it seems, invite genocide on themselves.

Livingstone wouldn’t have been having this conversation were he not defending a Labour colleague, Naseem “Naz” Shah. Shah is the new Member of Parliament for Bradford, and only one of a long string of senior Labour figures whose suspensions, grudgingly, have been forced upon the party leadership after prolonged British media questions about allegedly anti-Semitic activities. (Shah made a thoughtful apology for a two-year old Facebook post, and was firmly backed by a local synagogue for her community work; by contrast Livingstone—who did not respond to Daily Beast requests for comment—has spent the past week touring media studios affirming that he’s “not sorry for telling the truth.”)

At Oxford University, the young President of the Labour Club recently resigned in protest at the preponderance of anti-Semitic discourse amongst members, describing “terms for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan.” So halfway through the current row, Shadow Cabinet member Jon Trickett went on the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program to deny that the party contained anti-Semitic elements. After reminding viewers he had a Jewish grandmother, Trickett declared: “Anti-Semitism is racism and racism is normally an attribute of the right.”

There are many dodges to the charge of anti-Semitism. The author Howard Jacobson, in his recent novel Shylock Is My Name, depicts a skinhead footballer indignantly demanding his accusers name “a single occasion on which he’d been booked for fouling a Jewish player.” The left, in Britain, has long countered the accusation by pointing to its proud anti-racist past.  (Thus Diane Abbott, once Britain’s first black female MP, was dispatched to dismiss the crisis as a ‘smear’.) But like my theatre director friend, they think in extremes; in nouns, not adjectives. Good People can’t be Racists. Good Leftists (often the same thing) can’t be Racists. One’s friends can not be Racists, because to acknowledge their racial prejudice is to dismiss them forever from the society of man.

Notoriously, this remains a problem in the arts world. As a critic, try to start dialogue about anti-Semitic tropes on stage or in a Booker-nominated novel and it feels as if you’ve accused a much-loved artist of being irredeemable, not ignorant. It’s one reason the debate over the Tricycle’s decision—in a summer which also saw an Israeli theater group prevented from performing in Edinburgh by a mob—became so painful. The Tricycle is an asset, not a stain, to its community, notably birthing the MUJU Crew, which promotes reconciliation amongst Jewish and Muslim groups through art. And Indhu Rubasingham remains a talented, exciting director, whom I’ll continue to applaud and appreciate as a critic. It is possible to believe all of those things, and to believe that she’s a human being who made a mistake.

These mistakes do seem to happen a bit too often in theaterland. And the arts world matters, because at its strongest, it’s still where our national stories are shaped. The Jewish community’s own approach to is Israel diverse at the best of times, fragmented at the worst—invite five Jewish relatives to a Shabbos dinner and you’ll get six definitions of ‘homeland’.  But like Ken Livingstone, non-Jewish writers too often use the Palestinian humanitarian tragedy as an excuse to talk about good Muslims and bad Jews. In The Globe’s recent Holy Warriors, an epoch-spanning play by David Eldridge, the history of Islam in the Holy Land is traced back to Saladin, who solemnly declares: “The good Muslim venerates and respects the Holy Places of all religions.”  The first Jew we meet anywhere near Israel is Chaim Weizmann, several centuries later, just before Menachem Begin and a wild-haired David Ben-Gurion rabidly plot the bombing of the King David Hotel. My goyishe companion and I exchanged glances, cringing.

Holy Warriors was typical, not exceptional. There’s no reason why every British artist should get on board with an ethno-religious basis for a nation state, but I’m rarely invited to plays condemning the partition of India (Howard Brenton’s Drawing The Line, which blamed only the British, is a rare exception.) Meanwhile, attitudes towards Israel between Jews and non-Jews become even more polarized: as one liberal Jewish theater-maker commented to me this week, there’s nothing like experiencing local anti-Semitism to convince the most ardent anti-Zionist of the need for a homeland.

Of course, moralist simplicity around Israel isn’t just an arts-world problem. Nor is the Labour Party the only faction in Westminster to have been accused of stoking anti-Semitic rhetoric. When Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, became the party’s first (secular) Jewish leader, the right-wing Daily Mail splashed on his communist father’s Jewish social circle under the headline: “the man who hated Britain.” (The Labour MP John Mann, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, condemned the coverage as “a classic age-old anti-Semitic smear about disloyal Jews”; Mann has this week been Ken Livingstone’s most prominent critic within the Labour Party.) Other sections of the media seemed remarkably amused by Miliband’s discomfort at eating a messy bacon sandwich.

Meanwhile, Tory mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith (scion of a secular Jewish father and an aristocratic Anglo-Irish mother) has been accused by many, including myself, of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice ahead of today’s contest against Labour’s Sadiq Khan. (Goldmsith’s campaign did not respond to requests to comment). Labour’s tarnished anti-racist credentials have not only hamstrung its election efforts; it has irreparably weakened its power to expose racism in its opponents.

Yet both theaterland and the Labour left (too often the same thing) pride themselves on their ability to hold the rest of Britain to the moral spotlight. If either is to do that in the future, each needs to start seriously re-examining the narratives they tell around race, religion and Israel. The former, at least, have one advantage. They’re already in the business of empathy.