Just as there are no MPs who are mere backbenchers – they are instead always “senior backbenchers” – so journalistic convention demands that any member of an ethnic minority who speaks out must immediately be anointed as a “leader”.
So it is that the Daily Telegraph today tells its readers that “David Miliband, the foreign secretary, has been accused by leaders of the British Jewish community of using antisemitism as a ‘political football’.”
According to the Telegraph, “leading figures in the Jewish community” are mounting a “concerted fightback” against Miliband, so incensed are they by his raising the issue of anti-Jewish sentiment in his denunciations of the Conservative party over its new allies in the European parliament. In case you missed it, these include the ultra-nationalists of Latvia’s For Fatherland and Freedom party – the prime movers behind annual parades that celebrate the veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS — and Poland’s Michal Kaminski, the man whose political journey began in a neo-Nazi organisation and who now leads the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
The unsuspecting Telegraph reader might assume that those involved in this “fightback” – signatories to a letter to the paper – are all impeccably neutral Jewish luminaries, stalwarts in their community with no party political axe to grind whatsoever.
Alas, that is not the case. In fact, the signatories are either known supporters and activists of the Conservative party or those whose involvement in the Jewish community is so low-profile that it stretches the word “leader” to breaking point.
A quick look at the top of the list establishes the first point. Lord Young is a former Conservative cabinet minister. Flo Kaufmann is a donor to the Tory party: you can check the evidence of her generosity online. Next up is Howard Leigh, currently senior treasurer of the Conservative party followed by philanthropist Benjamin Perl, who came to prominence in the 1990s because of his close backing of John Major.
I ran the rest of the 20-odd names past a couple of Jewish communal professionals. Each name brought one of two responses. Either the individuals were known as supporters of Conservative Friends of Israel: in other words, they are Tories (the clue is in the name). Or they were not known at all. The people I was consulting work day and night in Britain’s Jewish community. Yet, when confronted with the names of these “leading figures”, the reaction was: “No idea” or “I’m sorry, that’s not ringing a bell at all.”
So, a more accurate headline on the Telegraph story would have been: “David Miliband accused by Tory supporters and assorted nobodies of using antisemitism as ‘political football’.” Wouldn’t have had quite the same punch, would it?
What about the substance? The letter-writers say the attacks on Kaminski and the Latvian party are “baseless” and “unsubstantiated”. But the reverse is true. The evidence is very substantial. On Kaminski, look no further than his very recent remarks on the horrific 1941 pogrom at Jedwabne, in which Polish villagers burned 300 or more Jewish women and children to death. Those comments have been rather brilliantly deconstructed by David Aaronovitch who noted the absurdity of “demanding that a foreign secretary, descended from Polish Jews, should apologise for possibly offending the sensibilities of a foreign politician who vehemently opposed there being an apology for the massacre of Polish Jews.”
Whatever they say in public, the Tories themselves clearly see that Kaminski’s views are potentially toxic, to the extent that Conservative party press officers have now taken over the management of the Polish politician’s media appearances, handpicking and then sitting in on his interviews, doubtless making sure he doesn’t once again make the mistake of saying what he actually thinks.
The Telegraph signatories follow the Tory party lead and cite recent statements by the chief rabbi of Poland in their defence. They say he has “now spoken up on behalf of Michal Kaminski and has made it clear that far from being an antisemite, Mr Kaminski is an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and a friend of Israel.”
But Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich has not spoken up on behalf of Michal Kaminski. His position is far more complex than that. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Schudrich restated that Kaminski had once been a member of a “nasty, fascist-leaning, antisemitic party” and that he found Kaminski’s opposition to the official apology for Jedwabne “distasteful and wrong”.
Asked whether the Polish politician was an antisemite, Schudrich could not say. “I can’t judge what is in a person’s heart. All I can do is look at what Mr Kaminski said on this or that occasion. People can make their own judgment.” Hardly the ringing endorsement the Tories who wrote to the Telegraph claim.
They again follow the central office line by noting that Kaminski is a friend of Israel. But, as the foreign editor of the Jewish Chronicle has argued persuasively , that doesn’t say much – not in an era when Nick Griffin insists he too is a supporter of Israel. Indeed, “I’m a supporter of Israel” is fast becoming the 21st-century version of “Some of my best friends are Jewish” – a convenient first line of defence for someone fending off charges of antisemitism.
As for the Latvians, you’d think that parades celebrating SS veterans who fought for Hitler and against Britain and its allies would speak for themselves. Or you might note that the leader of For Fatherland and Freedom describes those SS veterans as “tragic heroes”. But those hungry for more evidence should listen to Allan Little’s compelling despatch from Riga on the BBC’s Today programme, which reported that the party has long been at the leading edge of Latvian ultra-nationalism, fostering an atmosphere of “ethnic intolerance” and appealing to “much that is dark and dangerous in popular sentiment”.
The Telegraph letter-writers, claiming to speak for “many people in the Jewish community”, accuse Miliband of being “politically motivated”. If ever that charge fitted the accuser more than the accused, then this is it. This is little more than a political stunt – and a pretty feeble one at that.
See also on Comment is Free:
Tony Lerman, 29 October, Holocaust day of reckoning won’t come
‘We can never close the book on the Holocaust or Srebrenica. Their horrors live on in the politics of our time’
Jonathan Freedland, 20 October ‘I knew the day of Holocaust ‘debate’ would come. Just not in my lifetime‘