At UK House of Lords Debate on Antisemitism, Baroness Tonge Blames Israel for Jew-Hatred
Two very different sentiments were expressed at a debate on antisemitism in the British House of Lords on Thursday, with a former UK chief rabbi saying the event showed the support the country’s Jews enjoyed, while a baroness blamed antisemitic violence on Israel.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, the ex-UK chief rabbi, thanked the “many speakers who have conveyed to the Jewish communities here and elsewhere that we are not alone — that we have friends. At this time, that is very important.”
Citing the rise of antisemitism around the world, Sacks said, “That is where we are today. Within living memory of the Holocaust, antisemitism has returned, exactly as it did in the 19th century, just when people had begun to feel that they had finally vanquished the hatreds of the past.”
“Today, there is hardly a country in the world, certainly not a single one in Europe, where Jews feel safe,” he added.
“It is hard to emphasize how serious that is, not just for Jews but for our shared humanity,” Sacks asserted, “and not just for what it represents now, but for the danger that it signals for the future.”
Alluding to the UK Labour party, which under far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn has been wracked by antisemitism scandals, Sacks said, “A society, or for that matter a political party, that tolerates antisemitism — that tolerates any hate — has forfeited all moral credibility. You cannot build a future on the malign myths of the past. You cannot sustain freedom on the basis of hostility and hate.”
From the other end of the spectrum came Baroness Jenny Tonge, long known as a fervent critic of Israel, who compared herself to the biblical prophet Daniel, saying, “I just trust I will be spared, as he was, at the end of the debate.”
She then claimed that the problem of antisemitism had been overstated in comparison with anti-Muslim sentiments, saying, “I have seen the statistics and accept that there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents over the last three years, but I also note … that there has been a much greater rise in Islamophobic incidents over the same period and that they are more frequent and severe.”
Tonge went on to blame Israel for antisemitic violence, stating, “There was a surge in violent antisemitic activity during and after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 — a vicious and deadly attack on Gaza by the Israeli armed forces, in which thousands of Gazans were killed and injured. The killing and maiming continue, of course, with further attacks on Gaza and at the Friday protests.”
“These events are not quickly forgotten,” she continued, “and I suggest that some if not many people who commit antisemitic acts do not distinguish between ordinary Jewish people — I know that noble Lords hate that phrase — and the Zionist Israeli government of what is now called the Jewish State of Israel. It is too difficult a distinction for many people to make.”
She also bemoaned the “filthy abuse” she said has been subjected to because of her criticism of Israel, adding, “I think that the people of Palestine have suffered a terrible injustice over the last 100 years at the hands of the Zionist movement — I apologize if noble lords do not like that phrase — and presently by the Israeli government. On that I shall not be silenced.”
Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, a Labour party member, echoed Tonge, saying, “The line between legitimate criticism of Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza as against real anti-Jewish prejudice has become blurred,” and he criticized the government-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which includes racism directed against Israel.
“Equally strongly, I reject accusations that my party is institutionally racist,” he stated. “I accept that there is a problem in my party — as, indeed, in all parties — but what is happening is that many in my party are deeply concerned and confused by [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s attitude to the settlements and calls for annexation.”
“There is a particular problem in Labour-supporting ethnic minority communities, who join with Palestinians in feeling targeted as fellow Muslims, and a small minority of whom are clearly antisemitic,” he admitted. “The treatment of the Palestinians is being used by racists across Europe to foster prejudice against Jews.”
He then also appeared to blame Israel for the problem, saying, “It is all very frightening, and Israel needs to reflect.”
Lord Jonathan Harris of Haringey, another Labour member, took the opposite point of view. Alluding to a complaint currently pending before Britain’s official human rights agency, he said, “With a deep sense of shame, I want to talk about the party I have been a member of for almost 50 years. Labour has a proud history of combating racism and discrimination, and of opposing fascism and antisemitism. It is therefore profoundly shocking for those of us brought up in that tradition to find our party now the subject of a formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”
“Too often those who have complained about antisemitism have been dismissed as being apologists for, or even in the pay of, the Israeli government or Mossad, or we are told that the cases are few and far between,” he noted. “Any antisemite in the Labour Party is one too many.”
Labour’s failure to deal with antisemitism, he charged, was “a political one; it is a failure of leadership.”
“We on these Benches must take on the task of cleansing our party of antisemitism and those who condone and foster it,” he concluded.
Two lords also referred to a recent appearance the Cambridge Union by the antisemitic prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, who made an anti-Jewish joke to laughter from the audience at the prestigious institution.
Baroness Sarah Ludford said, “I was truly outraged not only that the Malaysian Prime Minister made the remarks he made at the meeting in Cambridge, but that they were apparently followed by a round of laughter. I find that incredible.”
Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, who initiated the debate, said, “I have a quote: ‘I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.’ These are the words of the prime minister of Malaysia at the Cambridge Union a few days ago, and the audience laughed.”
“Is this what we expect of a visiting Commonwealth head of government — that he should think this is appropriate, and lawful?” she asked.
“I will use an analogy to force home the point: ‘I have some black friends, very good friends. They are not like the other blacks, that’s why they are my friends.’ This is unacceptable,” she pointed out.