Ed Miliband may well have been the victim of several implicitly anti-Semitic attacks, but when a friend asked whether a North London Jew (a category into which I fall) could ever become Prime Minister, I was taken aback.
The insinuation here was that THAT had been what was keeping Miliband out of Downing Street - it clearly had nothing to do with his lack of charisma, his constant vilification by the Murdoch press, or the perception that he had stabbed his brother in the back wielding a sword given to him by Len McCluskey. And whilst Simon Amstell is just satirising when he quips that his grandparents lamented his brother’s choice in a non-Jewish girlfriend for fear that ‘their children’s children wouldn’t be able to go to a Jewish school’, which posed the question: ‘then where would they learn paranoia?’, it’s a joke that resurfaced in my memory as I was asked for my opinion. Obviously we must retain our cynicism, but this should not be at the expense of reason and rationality: not every attack on Ed Miliband is a covert attempt to tarnish us Jews.
Attention was drawn to Ed’s background a week before the election, when a Conservative council candidate in Derby dismissed him as “the Jew”. But this particular candidate was probably just about the only person in the country that consciously cared about his background; most of Middle England that voted blue probably had no idea about his heritage. So why did Labour lose, if it wasn’t because Ed’s a Jew? Maybe it had something to do with Lynton Crosby’s ability to feed upon England’s fear of the SNP – a fear that was used to taint Labour, who looked likely to require the SNP’s support. Maybe it was because the Labour front bench was filled with people who were too closely associated with the financial instability under Brown. Or maybe it’s just because Ed Miliband comes across as a pointy-headed intellectual who can think, but can’t manage to successfully eat a bacon sandwich. It’s just God’s way of punishing him for eating non-kosher meat.
That’s not to say that politics and anti-Semitism are worlds apart; they DO coexist, and we must do our all to stamp it out. The Sun’s ‘save our bacon’ election front-page offered puerile references to pigs (a tactic that has long been used to slander Jews) whilst Michael Fallon’s ‘stab in the back’ rhetoric was a little too reminiscent of Nazi propaganda that labeled Jews as traitors. What’s difficult about these surreptitious forms of anti-Semitism is that they lie very much on the subconscious, for both writer and reader.
This does not, however, detract from the tendency to read too much into the attacks thrown at Ed. In November, the Independent published an article titled: ‘Is criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?’, as if to imply that any reference to Ed’s different, weird persona is symptomatic of something more sinister. But Ed Miliband IS weird. Even as a left-wing Jew I consider him a long way from normality - if he doesn’t represent me, I can’t think of many people that he does represent. This article does not amount to paranoia, but there are more severe cases. In a poll conducted by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism in the light of the tragic events in Paris in which several Jews were murdered, 56% of British Jews that responded believed that anti-Semitism now “echoes of the 1930s” (which is strange, because I don’t remember the coalition government passing any Nuremberg Laws and I probably won’t be sent to a concentration camp). I am not seeking to undermine the very real fears felt by Jews, but we need to be honest with ourselves: we exacerbate our own fears, creating an echo-chamber as we do so.
This over-cynicism manifests itself in quite a strange way: in the denial of our own privilege. One friend, in a tone full of sincerity, suggested that his route into politics might be aided by the fact he would be given special consideration from the fact that he’s a minority. I thought it was a joke. It became less funny when I realised that he was implicitly comparing Jews with underprivileged minorities that are under-represented in politics. Whilst we must be vigilant in the fight against anti-Semitism, we must not allow this to blind ourselves of our own privilege; 24 of 2010’s income of MPs were Jewish (amounting to 3.69% - much higher than our share of 0.4% of the UK’s population), including high-profile figures including John Bercow, Grant Shapps and Margaret Hodge. You might ask whether any of these Jews have a chance of becoming Prime Minister, and the answer would be no. But it’s not because they’re Jewish. It’s because Bercow is so contrary that his own party decided to rid him of his parliamentary vote, whilst the other two find themselves shrouded in controversy too often. Luciana Berger is one to watch for the future, having given notable performances in her role as the Shadow Minister for Public Health, but she lacks the parliamentary experience and high-profile name to make it to the top just yet.
So no, there probably won’t be a Jew leading our country for a while, and I don’t know how long we will have to wait. But it doesn’t really matter, because when a prospective Jewish candidate does emerge, they will be judged on their merit, charisma and experience. Yes, they may be the subject of criticism that is laden with anti-Semitic undertones – but we can be safe in the knowledge that it won’t really harm their prospects. Let’s hold back on the paranoia.