Oldest hatred

The dangers of making nationality dependent on race or religion

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 21.04.18

India resonated at both the private and public levels during Tuesday's highly emotional three-hour debate on anti-Semitism in the British House of Commons. The personal anecdotes made me wonder whether it was racist of us as schoolboys in Calcutta to fling rulers at Justin Aaron, the only Jewish boy in our class until one of the Nahoum brothers briefly joined us, and order him to turn them into serpents like his biblical namesake. Someone even composed a verse, "Justin Aaron, king of the Jews/ Sold his wife for a pair of shoes". There was a second verse about demanding his wife back when the shoes wore out, but the words escape me after all these years.

It's the public dimension of the debate that should have been noted by the leaders of the 52 other Commonwealth countries who assembled at Buckingham Palace two days later to consider challenges of the future. Similar skeletons rattle in almost all their cupboards, especially India's. The difference is that some of the discrimination of which Jewish MPs in London complain can seem like parlour pinpricks compared to what our Muslims and Dalits may experience. The difference between societal and official attitudes highlights a second and much more important distinction: while the majority in both countries instinctively resents and suspects minority groups, the weight of British law and the precepts and practice of British governance, following the example set by the monarch herself, argues for impeccable impartiality.

It wasn't always so. But Britain can't any longer be accused of forgetting that the danger of mishandling demographic diversity is the most explosive threat that any multicultural nation can face. The apology that the Caribbean prime ministers wrung from Theresa May for the monstrous injustice of trying to deport descendants of the 492 West Indians who arrived in 1948 on a ship called the Empire Windrush drew attention to the damage she had done as home secretary to non-white immigration. The solemnity of the ceremonies marking the 25th death anniversary of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old Black student who was murdered because of his colour, was a reminder that the inquiry commission under Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, a retired high court judge, had branded London's police 'institutionally racist'. An actor's presentation of the "Rivers of Blood" speech by the right-wing Tory politician, Enoch Powell, on its 50th anniversary demonstrated that some countries do slap down populist politicians seeking to fatten on the public's historical prejudice.

Just as Hindu India is suspicious of Muslims - the unstated bedrock of the Bharatiya Janata Party's following - Britain is traditionally anti-foreigner. The ordeal endured by the Windrush generation can be traced back to the original selective laws restricting Commonwealth immigration. R.A. Butler, sometimes called the best prime minister Britain never had, noted in a memorandum that while the 1961 immigration law was colour blind, it was "intended to operate on coloured people almost exclusively". Similarly, Edward Heath introduced the "working holidaymaker rules" in 1973 to benefit "mostly those who are white members of the Commonwealth, from Australia, Canada and New Zealand". The Labour Opposition at the time denounced the rules as "cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation".

Inevitably, May's aim in 2012 to "create... a really hostile environment for illegal migration" ensured the atmosphere was hostile for all Afro-Asian-Caribbean visitors. It still is. European Union citizens fear they too will be affected. It bears recalling in this context that I first heard her name from an immigration officer at Heathrow who muttered as he grappled with a faulty finger-printing machine that he would have let us through without further ado if it hadn't been for "what Theresa May might say". I think he said "that Theresa May".

The anti-Semitism debate took place in a historic context. As a teenager in Manchester I learnt that Palatine Road and the leafy suburb of Didsbury where rich Jews retired were "Palestine Road" and "Yidsbury". The joke in London before the Second World War was "Give us back Golders Green and we'll give you Palestine". A policeman courting a middle-class girl in one of Howard Spring's novels of Manchester life is deeply conscious of her social superiority until he tumbles to her Jewish identity. Roles are instantly reversed. From being the humble petitioner, he becomes a representative of the master race.

Friction occurs only when a wider discontent is involved. Diane Abbot, shadow home secretary and the first Black to be elected to the Commons, quoted the percipient Rabbi Herschel Gluck, chairman of the Arab-Jewish Forum and founder-chairman of the Muslim-Jewish Forum, in Tuesday's debate to make the point. "Minorities, and especially the Jewish community in Europe, are the weather vane of discontent and a wider feeling of insecurity as people look for easy and quick answers to their problems." Britain's Community Security Trust, formed in 1994 to protect Jews, claims a record 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents last year. They included 145 assaults as well as damage to property, desecration of holy places, verbal abuse and tweets. A dead bird was sent through the post to one MP. Another was threatened with rape. Luciana Berger's impassioned speech said such incidents had become more "commonplace, conspicuous and corrosive". Another Jewish MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, who had lost relatives in the Holocaust, told the House, "I have never felt so nervous and frightened as I feel today at being a Jew."

Sajid Javid, a banker turned Conservative politician and one of May's ministers, warned the "world's oldest hatred" was on the rise in Britain and worldwide. As someone of subcontinental origin, albeit from the Pakistani side of the border, he should have known that anti-Semitism faces stiff competition in claiming the cachet of the "world's oldest hatred". Dalits see no gain in losing the protection of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for the dubious privilege of BJP's leaders flattering the dead B.R. Ambedkar for living votes and spending a night or two (under orders) among Dalits, no doubt having taken the precaution of sending ahead their bedding and mobile air coolers.

Many parliamentarians blamed Jeremy Corbyn who is charged with defending "a grotesque racist mural depicting caricatures of Jewish stereotypes". The leader of the Opposition and prime minister-in-waiting (#JC4PM) is also blamed for not implementing the report of a 2016 internal inquiry by Shami Chakrabarti into anti-Semitism in Labour, although the report itself was said to be something of a whitewash. Ken Livingstone, London's mayor from 2000 to 2008, who was suspended from the Labour Party in 2016 for his comments about Hitler and Zionism is another target of anger.

Powell became so popular because, like millions of his countrymen, he believed West Indian immigrants could never become British. "The West Indian... does not by being born in England become an Englishman... he is a West Indian or an Asian still." Is that true? Or is it majoritarianism run amok? I have known West Indians who have lost all Caribbean connections and whose only identity is drawn from Britain. That applies even more to Jews who make up just 0.5 per cent of Britain's population.

Two of my oldest friends in Britain, both now dead, were British-born Jews I had known for more than 60 years. They emphatically gave the lie to the title of a New Statesman article "You're Jewish? You can't be English". As other Jewish friends who observe no sectarian food taboos and have no particular interest in Israel anxiously try to identify and compare the elements that comprise the Jewish and English labels, I can hear the refrain echoed at home, "You're Muslim? You can't be Indian" or "You're Dalit? You can't be Indian". It's dangerous to make nationality dependent on race or religion.