How, then, does Britain treat its Jews? It’s a question that I, and many others in the community, once believed had been settled to the point of irrelevance. But when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, we realised that maybe the story wasn’t quite so simple.
Things are clearer now. Last week the Equalities and Human Rights Commission finally released its report into anti-Semitism in the Labour party. It unsurprisingly damned Labour. Perhaps more surprising – though entirely in keeping with his personality – was Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction. The prevalence of anti-Semitism in the party was, he said ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons.’ That Corbyn rejected charges of anti-Semitism by resorting to conspiratorial tropes should be ironic, but being relentlessly po-faced, he doesn’t really get irony. Then again, according to him, neither do I.
Keir Starmer was having none of it, though. Just a short time later, something genuinely unprecedented happened: Labour suspended Corbyn. As a British Jew, I saw, within the space of minutes, the worst and best of my country, just as I have these past five years.
These twin impulses, these two sides of Britain, have been on my mind as I read Rosie Whitehouse’s The People on the Beach, Journeys to Freedom After the Holocaust. It is an important and profound book on the nature of historical memory, and a fascinating exploration of Britain and the Jews. It could not be more relevant.
The book tells the story of a group of Holocaust survivors who, having emerged from the death camps, want to make their way to Palestine for of life free of endless persecution and violence. They will have to fight for that, of course. But in the interim they have a bigger problem: the Royal Navy. Fearful of upsetting Palestine’s Arab population, the British government has in its 1939 White Paper limited Jewish immigration to the country. This is despite knowing about the persecution of Jews in Germany.
What follows is a gripping story of human drama and historical seriousness. The survivors manage to get hold of a ship; and as soon as they are on the high seas, they do what all the Aliyah Bet (the codename given to illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine) ships did: they change its name. And they choose to rename it the Wedgwood, after the British Lord, Josiah Wedgwood. They do this because Wedgwood, a wealthy Christian aristocrat who had died in 1943, was a committed Zionist who utterly opposed the White Paper.
Dodging the Royal Navy on a ship named after a Brit, travelling to a land promised by a British state that now seeks to prevent their arrival there, the survivors also receive aid from another quarter: soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade. And here again is the story of Britain and the Jews in microcosm.
Jewish battalions had been formed in Palestine when the war broke out in 1939, with over 120,000 Jews going on to volunteer to fight with the British. But London remained perennially fearful of Arab opinion and it was only in 1944 that Churchill, yet another British philosemite, won the political battle to form a Jewish Brigade. It was to be deployed on the front line under the command of a Canadian-born Jew, Brigadier Ernest Benjamin.
The Times deemed the formation of a Jewish Brigade merely a ‘symbolic recognition’. But that was kind of the point. Soon after its establishment, Benjamin reminded his officers that they were ‘the first official Jewish fighting force since the fall of Judea to the Roman legions'. And it was Britain that made it happen.
Churchill is not the only prominent politician who features. Whitehouse also recounts the story of two American army rabbis, Herbert Friedmann and Philip Bernstein, who travelled to London to meet with the Labour minister, Ernest Bevin, to put the Jewish case to him. After berating them for a while, Bevin concluded, in his West Country accent ‘You Jews are the cause of all the troubles in the world; no wonder everybody hates you.’
This is not an isolated incident, nor is the tradition distant. Some years ago, then Labour father of the house Tam Dalyell accused Tony Blair of being ‘being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers.’ But he was only able to say that because Labour was stuffed to the gills with Jews or people of Jewish ancestry. This is the country where Disraeli was castigated for being a Jew throughout his life, but it is also the country that made him Prime Minister, twice, and two centuries ago, to boot.
This is the country of the anti-Semitic writer GK Chesterton but also of the incomparably greater writer, the philosemitic George Eliot. It’s the country of Jeremy Corbyn but also of Keir Starmer. And, here in Britain, as we have just found out once more, it is almost always the latter who wins out.