In January 2015, an Islamist terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly shot dead four Jewish men at a kosher supermarket in Paris before security forces stormed the building, killing him and freeing the remaining hostages. These men were murdered solely for being Jewish.
In March 2016, six ISIS terrorists were detained in Turkey, associated with a threat to target Jewish schools, nurseries and youth clubs in Europe.
It is entirely reasonable therefore for Jews to be apprehensive of their safety, and in particular for Jewish parents to be concerned about security of the schools where their children are educated.
This is the context by which we should judge recent comments by Jackie Walker, Vice chair of Momentum, and a Labour Party member.
The crassness of her comments at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference questioning why one speaker had raised the issue of enhanced security at Jewish schools is staggering. It is certainly true that anti-Semitism is not the same thing as anti-Zionism; and that a critique of the political project of Zionism, as well as the specific actions of the Israeli state, is compatible with robust rejection of all forms of anti-Judaic prejudice. However, it is also true that the political and social roots of Zionism arise from the oppression, and persecution of Jews. Seemingly, the anti-Zionism of Jackie Walker has extended into seeking to belittle the experience of Jews facing hatred.
Her comments about the Holocaust were equally offensive. Speaking at the event discussing antisemitism at the Labour Party conference, Walker asked: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust Day was open to all peoples who’ve experienced Holocaust?”
Now, as Joe Mulhall has written, factually Walker is ill-informed because Holocaust Memorial day already does just that:
Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemorates the Holocaust, victims of Nazi persecution and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Even the most cursory of glance at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website would reveal this information on the home page.
But it was not only ignorant, but deeply offensive. Not dissimilar to bursting into a funeral and demanding that the grieving congregation should think about all dead people, not just their own recently departed friend or relative.
The genocide against the Jews was historically unique, as of course are all instances of genocide. There are times and places where it is appropriate to discuss the historical comparitors, there are times and places where it is not. The Holocaust by the Nazis against the Jews was of intense ferocity, and it both drew on the deep well of anti-Jewish sentiment in European Christian culture, but also merged this with the modern industrial ruthlessness of European colonialist attitudes to their non-European subject peoples.
Let us be clear, there is not a current and live danger of racist hate crimes against Armenians, Hutus, Herero people or Native Americans on the streets of Britain today. The distinguishing feature that the Nazi anti-Semitism exploited centuries of prejudice, some of it woven into the very cloth of our culture, means that anti-Judaic stereotypes still abound, even among those in left and progressive politics. The rise of anti-Semitism, and concern by Jews for their own safety are live and real issues.
Jackie Walker had already caused controversy over her claims about Jewish funding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many on the left defended her. However, her comments were at least ill advised, if we consider that the majority of the slave trade was funded by Christians, and particularly in the early period from the 1680 to 1750s it was often by Quakers.
In Madge Dresser’s excellent work “Slavery Obscured, the Slave Trade in Bristol”, she observes that the later involvement of Quakers in the abolitionist movement obscures “the significant involvement of Quakers in the slave trade and the wider slave economy. Eight of the 20 largest contributors to Bristol’s new Quaker Meeting House built in Quakers Friars in 1747, were by 1755 members of the newly formed Society of Merchants Trading to Africa” – slavers. Dresser lists a number of prominent Quaker slavers, and traders dependent upon the exploitation of slave labour. But in Bristol, the crucible of the slave trade, Jews there were none. Indeed, in 1784 when a Tory candidate was standing for election in Bristol on an abolitionist ticket, he was popularly mocked for his association with stock caricatures of Jews. Crude popular stereotypes that had been used earlier in the century in the political campaign against the naturalisation of Jews were resurrected, conflating circumcision with emasculation, and presenting it as a threat to national virility. These anti-Jewish sentiments were coming from the pro-slavery camp, not the abolitionists.
For Walker to disproportionately stress the involvement of Jews in the slave trade is highly unfortunate, as it intersects with stereotypes of Shylock type ruthlessness. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that her discussion of the role of Jews in the slave trade was not related to the issue of the historical record, and was more related to her attitudes to contemporary Israel.
I don’t know whether Jackie Walker is anti-Semitic. But clearly she has shown lack of judgement in making statements that could legitimately be interpreted as anti-Semitic. What is more at a critical time for the Labour Party she should have had the self-awareness to be open to educating herself about what would and would not be offensive and could be open to interpretation as anti-Semitic.
Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of TSSA is correct. Walker’s position is untenable and she should go, and go now.