One of the curious things about modern politics is that the Jewish Question is never far from the surface. That this is true in places without Jews like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia is not surprising. But consider the state of British politics.
The upcoming election for the mayor of London pits the affable Tory incumbent, Boris Johnson, against a former mayor, Labor firebrand Ken Livingstone. An outspoken socialist who spent decades as a party activist, council member, member of parliament and then mayor from 2000 to 2008, Livingstone is famous for championing of public transport over private automobiles, as well as for securing cheap oil for London buses from Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
All mayors of major cities have foreign policies but Livingstone’s animosity towards Israel and the Bush administration is unusually pronounced. In 2003 he called Bush “'the greatest threat to life on this planet” and in 2005 he effectively blamed the London bombings on the US war in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Livingstone’s calling a Jewish reporter “a concentration camp guard” and recent remarks that Jews are too rich to vote for him in the upcoming election have raised a few eyebrows but have not put him out of the race (although recent questions about tax-dodging and having secretly paid a mother of an unacknowledged child from public funds might yet.)
These slaps at Jews have been matched by his public embrace of radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and mayoral patronage of the equally radical Islamic Forum of Europe, which received a million pounds to build a new headquarters.
In return, the Islamic Forum of Europe brought out voters on Livingstone’s behalf through its "Muslims 4 Ken” group in 2008 and there is every reason to think they will do so again. His recent campaign promise to “educate the mass of Londoners” in Islam in order “help to cement our city as a beacon that demonstrates the meaning of the words of the Prophet” makes Livingstone’s intentions clear.
The pandering at the heart of George Galloway’s stunning return to parliament was even more blatant. A campaign leaflet made his pitch bluntly: “God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not… Let me point out to all the Muslim brothers and sisters what I stand for. I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if the other candidate (Labor candidate Imran Hussain) in this election can say that truthfully. I, George Galloway, have fought for the Muslims at home and abroad, all my life, and paid a price for it. I, George Galloway, hold Pakistan’s highest civil awards.”
Livingstone’s campaign and Galloway’s reelection demonstrates several things about the state of politics and society in modern Britain. First, it is possible to be elected to parliament solely on the basis of religious appeals in Muslim majority districts. But these appeals also have a very real material side, namely the patronage that will flow into community, read religious, organizations.
Second, there are essentially no limits to inflammatory rhetoric, especially when directed at the United States, Israel or Jews. The British establishment and electorate have long tolerated or downplayed Galloway’s rhetorical and practical support for dictators ranging from Saddam to Qaddafi to Assad, his incitement against Israel and Jews, along with his breaking of international sanctions on Iraq, from which he took money as part of the UN "oil for food" scandal, and his theatrical convoy supplying money to Hamas.
Galloway’s first loyalty is very much to himself, but his business dealings make it questionable whether he has any broader British interests or values at heart. He was employed by two foreign powers, Pakistan and Iran, the latter as a host for a program shown on Press TV, the English-language network owned by Iran that was later banned from British airwaves for showing an interview with an Iranian journalist who had been threatened with death if he did not cooperate.
Whether or not Galloway actually believes what he told a Malaysian audience earlier this year, that “Starbucks every year gives a large cheque to Israel, and maintains a Starbucks coffee shop in every illegal settlement in the occupied Palestinian lands” is immaterial. Such is the nature of multicultural politics, simultaneously local and international.
Livingstone and Galloway are distinctively boorish but their eagerness to lash out against Jews and Israel is shared with other leftist politicians and parties around the world. Israeli injustices take their breath away, and local Jewish communities and individual Jews irritate them endlessly.
Galloway’s parliamentary colleague Jeremy Corbyn, a member of both the Labor party and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, is obsessed with Israel, as is Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, who famously opined that Israeli doctors should disprove allegations of having stolen organs from Haitian earthquake victims.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and would be premier of an independent Scottish statelet, was made apoplectic over allegations that Israel cloned British passports for covert operations, and over the Gaza flotilla incident. Livingstone’s soul mate and business partner Hugo Chavez has denounced the Catholic leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, as “Jewish and gay,” and Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the German Social Democratic Party and a likely candidate for chancellor, recently denounced Israel’s “apartheid regime.”
Such dark obsessions are not unique to the left; Hungary’s right wing Jobbik party expresses almost precisely the same themes as Galloway, Corbyn and Tonge except from a radical nationalist rather than socialist internationalist perspective. But anti-Semitism is still somehow expected from the Right and not from the Left, where it is largely explained away, often as “legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Why this is so remains a puzzle. Given the resurgence of far left-wing politics in Europe, such as the surprising popularity of French Socialist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the question is pressing.
Perhaps the centrality of the Jewish Question is not simply a matter of British or Continental culture as such, the intertwining of history and religion manifest in the present, or even the perennial problem of minorities in a liberal democratic society. Instead it has to do with deeper parallel obsessions of both the Left and the Right, about the persistence of Jews in defiance of both the will of the volk and the inevitable progress of history, the unique evil of the Jews’ only nation-state, and about stereotypes of Jewish wealth, power, conspiracy and brutality that neither side can or is willing to dispense with.
The difference is, however, that while such attitudes are usually confined to the extreme Right, they now are spreading quickly through wide swaths of the Left. Perhaps they were really there all along.