During the Question Time Leaders Special on 21 November 2019, Jo Swinson slipped from defending the Liberal Democrats revoke position to shoehorning the debate towards her disgust at anti-semitism in the Labour party. Whilst being disingenuous is nothing new to the political class, this precise framing of solidarity with Jews rings hollow. Feeling the pinch of the audience’s scrutiny, Swinson used it as a short-cut to the moral high ground.
The difficulty with insincerity is that it is felt. It cannot be debunked by fact-checking. It is also ubiquitous in our political climate, where people question whether Donald Trump (a previously registered Democrat) really believes in Republican values or that Boris Johnson, once a Brexit sceptic, really wants to leave. Both have been deemed “phoney populists”, an accusation that implies their use of political issues for personal gain, irrespective of their beliefs. Phoney solidarity can be taken as a particular instance of faux-populism, where the struggle of a minority is co-opted for the purposes of mass appeal.
There is currently a competition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in seeing how passionately you can sound like you care about Jews (by the sole virtue of not being the Labour Party). Swinson describes Corbyn’s ‘dereliction of duty’ in ‘failing to root anti-semitism out of his party’, whilst Johnson similarly calls out his ‘complete failure of leadership over anti-semitism’.
If these concerns were serious then they would translate to pledges, but they haven’t: The Conservative Party manifesto doesn’t make a single mention of anti-semitism, and two out of the three references to anti-semitism in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto are in relation to Labour. What this boils down to is the neoliberal notion that the combination of saying you care about an oppressed group and refrain from using slur terms, is somehow equivalent to fighting for their rights.
The product of the pervasive coverage of phoney instances of solidarity, is its mirroring in public response. I have experienced it first-hand when canvassing, where non-Jewish Labour-sceptics quickly drop their ‘concern’ for anti-semitism in the Labour Party upon hearing that I am Jewish. What proceeds is not a discussion about the instances of anti-semitism that concern them, but rather a complete change in subject. This demonstrates a root lack of concern or engagement in the first place. It simply takes too little to undermine their purported worries for me to believe that they really cared.
When people claim that they won’t vote Labour because of anti-semitism, they are failing to acknowledge the oppression caused to other minorities by the alternatives. In other words, which minority you express solidarity with becomes party political, creating a false dichotomy between standing against islamophobia or anti-semitism. This is to say, phoney solidarity feigns away from actual solidarity by fuelling divisions between marginalised groups. This also overlooks the fact that being Jewish can be an intersectional identity. It’s very possible, and even likely, to both be a Jew, a woman, PoC, disabled and/or LGBTQ. How should people who experience intersecting Jewish identities ‘vote with their conscience’ as Rabbi Mervis pleaded?
When claims of solidarity are empty or insincere, they distract away from the actual anti-semitism that takes place. Anti-semitism is a problem, and presently poses unique challenges to the left and Labour. When phoney solidarity dominates, Jewish oppression becomes a punchline and Corbyn, a symbol of its perpetuation. This creates the illusion of it being an irredeemable problem.
There are, however, many legitimate ways of trying to represent Jewish communities and the fight against anti-semitism, such as: improving rights for religious expression, disempowering the far right and protecting local communities. But the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives faux-empathy and ‘shock’ functionally benefits their interests in disillusioning their usual opponents and securing more votes. Until action is accompanied with outrage, we should not trust their crocodile tears.
Oscar Leyens is a writer, activist and baker
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