2016 was a watershed year in which naked racism emerged from the shadows to take centre stage in public life in the West. That June, the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union succeeded, and some five months later Donald Trump won the US presidency. Both campaigns were fought on openly xenophobic platforms – in the UK immigrants from other EU countries were held responsible for what were, in fact, the effects of successive governments’ choice to sacrifice the country’s industrial base to the demands of global capitalism, together with the decision of the two most recent governments to respond to the banking crisis of 2008 with an austerity programme whose effects were felt most keenly by the most disadvantaged groups in the country. Real difficulties with accessing services whose budgets had been slashed were used as a basis for whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, which fuelled the call to “take back control of our borders and our money” from the EU. In the US, Trump openly demonised Muslims and Mexicans and strategies to “keep them out” were high on his programme to “Make America Great” again.
Racism and xenophobia run counter to a political consensus that has prevailed in the West since World War 2, and where such trends do exist, they have been confined to the fringes of politics, yielding only occasional electoral success that, in the UK at least, has usually been short-lived. Now, however, the forces of intolerance of others produced notable mainstream success, which was repeated in other European countries, raising concerns as to whether we are witnessing an upsurge in intolerance of out-groups that might parallel those prevailing in Europe during the 1930s, when the Nazi party was on the rise. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote there was an increase in attacks on immigrant groups in the UK – indeed, two Polish workers were killed within days of the vote. Over the intervening years this growing intolerance towards minority ethnic and religious groups has continued, with a rise in recorded hate crimes against them.
These trends also continue to produce ripples in the political domain, affecting both major political parties. There have been numerous complaints of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, whilst the Labour Party has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, which it has failed to adequately address and which the Equalities and Human Rights Commission are now investigating. The Labour Party’s attempts to deal with its anti-Semitism problem appears to involve a dialogue of the deaf – it feels accused of being racist, asserts that it is not, and blames malign third parties (e.g. Blairites opposed to the current leadership) for the problem. Jewish members who feel marginalised or excluded feel that they are being told that there is no room for their Jewishness in today’s Labour Party – officially an anti-racist party –and that this problem is itself denied. In the light of PCCA’s work on the aftermath of the
Holocaust, where the question of anti-Semitism featured prominently, what is needed in this situation is emotional work in the presence of the other.
Those involved in politics, however, do not think this way. Instead, they seem content to slip into polarised positions in which someone is seen as an enemy. For instance, some members of the Labour Party deeply concerned about the anti-Semitism issue see it as symptomatic of a larger problem within the current leadership, namely, its obsession with the class struggle. In this line of thinking, the leadership is ideologically wedded to hatred for wealthy, privileged elites, and it is within this group that Jews – courtesy of anti-Semitic stereotypes – find themselves. In this view, therefore, the problem lies not with the public display of ethnic hatred within the party but with the narrow left-wing ideology of the current leadership.
Among those subjected to anti-Semitic abuse the party’s failure to act effectively against these acts of racism might lead to a conclusion that it is impossible for them to feel at home there. This can be deeply distressing, particularly if in other respects the party represents their ideological and political positions. The discussion then moves on to whether Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader, is a racist – a charge that he denies. Again, the focus shifts from the public display of ethnic hatred, now onto the personal attitudes and beliefs of the leader.
We could regard such situations as part and parcel of normal political life – issues gain prominence, generate heated debate and are eventually resolved. However, this one is arising at a time when racism and intolerance of the other in our world generally is on the increase, bringing warnings that we may be on a slippery slope that may take us in the direction of a major atrocity. The crippling of mainstream political parties at a time like this may well be the mechanism by which extremist ones come in from the fringes to take centre stage – in the UK, the newly-formed Brexit Party won the largest number of seats in the recent EU elections. Whilst mainstream parties grapple with complexity – how does one balance the democratic will of the people embodied in the referendum result against the best interests of the country? – populist parties operate within either-or, good-bad binaries. In relation to Brexit the call to “just get it done”, without any further thought and debate, grow louder by the day.
There is therefore some urgency to seeing whether the Nazareth approach can bring any help to this dire situation. However, the search for a meaningful dialogue on this matter with players in the political realm has thus far proved elusive.
M Fakhry Davids
London, July 2019