How 2020 revealed an antisemitism problem in the UK

2020 in review: Conspiracies, Corbyn, “cancelled” grime stars. During a year in which ugly prejudices were revealed, Sam Wolfson asks: “Was 2020 a good year for the Jews?”

An important part of Christmas festivities in the Wolfson household (yes, we celebrate Christmas: fressing, smoked salmon, and commemorating the birth of a nice Jewish boy – how can you say that it’s not a Jewish holiday?) is an annual review of was it a good year for the Jews?” Jessie Ware gets a good review on Pitchfork? It’s a good year. Another Hollywood sex pest gets outed and their names starts with a Wein” or ends with an “-offman”? Naht so much.

This year, oy vey, where to start? The world’s sniffliest people come face to face with a global pandemic. Can already see who’s going to win that battle and spoiler: this time it’s Goliath. I mean, Passover was cancelled, by a plague. You can’t say God doesn’t appreciate irony.

Then on top of everything else… we’ve got to spend all year hearing about antisemitism. Obviously antisemitism itself is very bad, but arguing with aunties over whether Jeremy Corbyn wants to end racism in all forms or turn Hendon into an internment camp can feel just as exhausting.

Some are even blaming the virus on Jews themselves. According to the Community Security Trust (CST), online antisemitic hate speech has risen during the lockdowns, with many posters claiming that coronavirus is a Jewish conspiracy. A conspiracy-to-achieve-what is the bit I can’t understand: avoid quite so many cousins’ bat mitzvahs? In reality Jews are some of the worst affected by coronavirus: Jews account for around 0.3 per cent of the UK population but about 2.5 per cent of the coronavirus death toll.

The worst Jew-hating keyboard warrior this year, however, was Wiley, the godfather of both grime and tardiness. Over the summer he went on a tweeting spree in which he likened Jews to the KKK and claimed that Jews own everything” and run the earth” (we actually prefer not to run anywhere). When a Black Jewish writer tried to correct him on Twitter, Wiley responded by telling her you’re not really black”.

It’s horrible when your heroes let you down like that, Wiley now added to a payos-long list of musicians about whom you have to read Fader thinkpieces to see if you can separate the man (it always is) from the music.

What was especially upsetting about the incident was not only that Wiley revealed ugly prejudices. When the incident was discussed on Instagram accounts like UKGossipTV and GRMDaily, many readers and artists chimed in to say that Wiley had been cancelled” for speaking the truth and that the fallout from his comments proved that Jews had shadowy power. The Voice, Britain’s leading Black newspaper, published a since deleted article in which the author doubled-down on Wiley’s unrepentant use of antisemitic tropes.

It shows that there is an issue with antisemitism in this country that runs much deeper than International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definitions. Stubborn ideas about Jews controlling the media or the music industry persist. And they’re particularly uncomfortable in the UK, where there simply aren’t a disproportionate number of Jews working in British rap music, proving the suggestion that Black artists are putting money in the pockets of Jewish execs isn’t just un-PC but drawn from old stereotypes.

It feels like while we’ve been arguing about microaggressions, some fairly macro-racist views have been festering, unchecked.

Perhaps that’s because the Facebook algorithm, as well as YouTube recommendations, was found by one analysis to actively promote” posts that deny the Holocaust. Videos by fringe groups are being served to millions of people in order to generate more clicks. It’s not surprising, then, that a survey this year found that most Americans don’t know how many Jews died in the Holocaust.

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing Labour party antisemitism scandals. They’re a bit like that old Jewish joke about the man on the train shouting: Oy, am I thirsty! You can’t believe how thirsty I am.” Eventually he annoys his fellow passengers so much that a gruff, angry man says: Enough already, you’re thirsty – here, have some of my water”. So the man glugs down the whole bottle, politely thanks the stranger and then, at the top of his voice, starts shouting again: Oy, was I thirsty!”

Corbyn’s been gone for almost a year now, but still all you can hear is: Oy, was he an antisemite!”

Keir Starmer (who knows his way round a bracha: his wife is Jewish and his children were raised in the faith) attempted to put an end to the antisemitism scandal that has embroiled his party. He took a zero tolerance approach to anything with the faintest whiff of antisemitic intent. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, this didn’t instantly fix all the party’s long-standing factional problems.

Starmer had to deal with two reports. The first, internal report, which he attempted to bury before it was leaked to the press, said that Labour purposefully mishandled antisemitism complaints in order to make Corbyn’s leadership look bad. The second, external report by the Equality and Human Rights commission found Labour’s antisemitism problem to be considerable and laid the blame squarely with Corbyn – something JC himself wasn’t best pleased about, saying in a statement that the scale of the problem was… dramatically overstated for political reasons”.

In turn, Starmer expelled Corbyn from the party and removed the whip (his membership has since been reinstated although whip has not).

It was often suggested that these two reports provided two completely different versions of reality, allowing people to believe whatever they wanted based on their political preference. It feels more likely that they are both presenting a fairly close version of the facts: that antisemitism was left to fester in parts of the party and the leadership failed to act, and that failure was than seized upon and occasionally exaggerated by some opponents – as any political actor would be likely to do.

We know that, among the public at least, there is an incorrect idea that Labour is overrun with antisemites. A survey commissioned for the book Bad News For Labour (Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief) asked people what percentage of the party members had antisemitism complaints made against them. The average guess was 34 per cent; the actual answer is less than 0.1 per cent.

That is still shockingly, distressingly, high for a party of half a million members that supposedly prides itself on antiracism. But it’s undeniably also perceived to be worse than it is. There’s no contradiction in believing that Labour’s antisemitism must be opposed and that it’s not as extensive as people have been led to believe.

Sadly America didn’t choose to elect its first Jewish president this year, even though for a moment it seemed like they might. Still, we can be happy that almost three-quarters of US Jews chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump, despite Trump’s attempts to paint his wrecking ball attitude to the Middle East peace process and general disdain for the world’s Muslim populations as somehow being pro-Jewish.

On election night the Israeli communication minister wrote that it feels a big disappointment that 72 per cent of the American Jews do not have gratitude and chose Joe Biden”. Trump said that there were good people among the neo-Nazis who marched through the streets shouting Jews will not replace us”, and refused to specifically mention Jews in White House messaging on Holocaust Memorial Day. The fact that he was the preferred choice of the Israeli government, but not American Jews, suggests which group is more acutely pained by antisemitic rhetoric.

This year, Jewish Christmas will be a bit different at the Wolfsons – my father is unwell and my mother is even more anxious about the virus than she was when, as a child, I’d get invited to a go-karting-based birthday party. We’ll be sitting in the back garden, freezing our bits off and perhaps we won’t get time for the full rundown of good year/​bad year.

Suffice to say it was a bad year for the Jews but it was also a bad year for everyone. Still: next year, in Jerusalem, or Jamaica, or Johannesburg. Wherever there’s a travel corridor and some April sunshine.


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