It was anti-Semitic. No it wasn’t. It suggested anti-Semitism. But it was more about British provincialism. So the debate went amongst astonished Jewish pundits for nearly a fortnight following a Daily Mail hit piece on Labour leader’s Ed Miliband’s late father, Ralph Miliband, the late Marxist sociologist.
Penned by a Jewish journalist, The Man Who Hated Britain indulged many of the tropes typical of anti-Jewish racism: suspicion of foreigners (Miliband Sr. was born in Belgium); red-baiting; accusations of disloyalty.
The fact that the article was published by a paper well-known for favouring both Adolf Hitler (in the 1930s) and more recently neo-fascists like Marine Le Pen, did little to set minds at ease.
But anti-Semitism? How could such an outburst be qualified as such, when the language used was anti-Communist? And why now?
Jews are rarely taken to task in the United Kingdom these days, at least publicly, in this sort of way. Most often, the impulse is attributed to the left, in its criticisms of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
Couldn’t this be written-off as an anachronistic misstep by a Tory-sympathising tabloid known for taking the piss out of progressives?
And what about the Tories themselves, a growing number of whom hail from minority backgrounds?
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, for example, might be considered a token and a sellout by many in the Pakistani community. Still, her presence in Conservative party leadership circles is not insignificant either. It still says something about integration.
What was The Daily Fail, as many British journalists are fond of calling it, actually up to?
Racist and xenophobic discourse
Racism, in right-wing rhetoric, is at an all-time high.
Spurred on by the recent electoral successes of the populist UK Independence Party, its xenophobic talk about illegal immigration, and its paranoia of Britain surrendering its sovereignty to the EU, the ruling Conservatives have attempted to capitalise on UKIP’s momentum, by co-opting its language, and repurposing it towards its own ends.
The discourse is not exactly foreign to the Tories.
In early 2011, David Cameron proclaimed at a conference in Munich, of all places, that British multiculturalism was a failure, and that new approaches to managing diversity were urgently required.
As Prime Minister, he was going to reinvent that wheel. Several months before The Daily Mail piece, his government went so far as to send out vans bearing adverts telling ‘illegal’ immigrants to “go home, or face arrest.”
Why shouldn’t The Daily Mail do the same, by attacking Labour’s Jewish leader, Ed Miliband, for having a Marxist father?
The political environment, at least in Conservative circles, undoubtedly encouraged it.
Compared to state-sponsored efforts, the Mail piece at least required interpretation.
Debating whether the newspaper actually published an anti-Semitic article is less about the transgression, than it is about whether or not Jews are exempt from right-wing criticisms of multiculturalism in Britain.
The consensus, of course, is that they shouldn’t be. The head of the country’s largest political party, after all, is Jewish. His brother had been a senior member of the previous government, serving as its foreign secretary.
Jews have even led the Conservative Party.
In entertainment circles, they’re even better represented. From Simon Schama to Sacha Baron Cohen to Nigella Lawson, they’re amongst the best integrated minorities in the UK.
Then what’s the point of highlighting their difference? Because their ethnicity and culture is somehow conflated with that of the left.
Britain’s Jews exemplify what successful new immigrants will likely become, one supposes, is the unconscious fear – minorities with a certain degree of political and cultural power.
Hence the decision to attack the Labour leader’s father, for his politics, as though it were somehow in conflict with British identity, albeit opposed to it.
Historical materialism is just a vehicle for advancing Jewish interests, not that, necessarily, of working persons, writ large.
It’s no different than saying immigrants steal jobs from more deserving locals.
The emphasis upon ideology is simply cover for denying that such attacks are in any way racist. The element of deniability is what fuels debate about its reality.
Nothing better sums up this logic than Mail editor Paul Dacre’s defense of the article in The Guardian. Published in Comment is Free, on 12 October, Dacre demonstrated characteristic cluelessness, concerning the alleged cultural neutrality of Levy’s article.
Stating that The Daily Mail is unfairly singled out by “the metropolitan classes” who “despise our readers with their dreams of a decent education, health service they can trust, their belief in the family, patriotism,” the op-ed treads familiar, albeit symptomatic ground.
Though couched in the language of class conflict, the historic casting of Jews as hateful, metropolitan persons, clashing with honest, rank and file ‘European’ working persons, reappears here.
Dacre does himself little favour, in this regard, by defending Levy’s article’s charge that Ralph Miliband “denigrated British traditions and institutions such as the royal family, the church and the army.”
Making Miliband’s politics out to be inimicable to “Britishness” is another way of asserting his foreignness, not just his ideological differences with conservatives.
To not understand how that extends, historically, to his Jewishness, not just his politics, is a cop-out.
But it’s one that Jews, at least, feel unnerved by. Enough to wonder, quite rightly, whether the line was crossed, and if so, how.
Because of this history, there’s every reason to believe the line was crossed, setting a precedent for more assertive, albeit open expressions of anti-Semitism, in the not-so-distant future.
Should this be a surprise? Not in the current political climate, where there are no effective breaks being placed on racist, albeit discriminatory discourses.
Just look at the breadth of those being targeted by Britain’s political echelon: Roma, Muslims, eastern European labourers.
It was just a matter of time before Jews got included in the mix.
The fact that the head of the opposition can be problematised this way, however much in code, is simply too tempting.
Particularly for a tabloid with The Mail’s politics.