If a candidate for high office were to say that they understood that Jewish communal values stressed “the importance of the family and always taking steps to protect the family unit,” would you consider those words offensive? If they went on to also note that the community was known for believing in “the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business,” would you consider that to be praise or merely condescension and “stereotyping?”
A community that took pride in their achievements might think it was a bit of a generalization and clearly part of an effort to curry favor. But it would also understand that such a statement was also an attempt to give Jews their due and to acknowledge that Jewish success was earned rather than, as anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists would have it, the result of manipulation or shadowy plots.
So, it may have been something of a surprise to British prime ministerial candidate Liz Truss that the reaction from many left-wing Jews, as well as the secular chattering classes, was to accuse her of anti-Semitism when she uttered those words.
But just as offensive to some British observers was Truss’s vow to “change woke civil-service culture that strays into anti-Semitism”—a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that the Foreign Office that she currently leads is well known to be a bastion of contempt for Israel and hatred for Jews.
Many on the left, and especially Labour’s cheering section in the British mainstream media, resented the way the Tories bashed former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn for his own open anti-Semitism. Its stand in favor of completing Brexit—Britain’s departure from the European Union—was the biggest factor in the Conservatives’ election victory in 2019. Nevertheless, Labour’s normalization of anti-Semitism and hate for Israel not only generated enormous pushback from the British Jewish community, but also hurt it at the ballot box.
Truss, who is the first woman to serve as Britain’s Foreign Secretary, is competing in a two-person race to decide the leadership of the Conservative Party against Rishi Sunak. His resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer—the United Kingdom’s Finance Ministry—led to outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation and necessitated the leadership election, which will culminate in a nationwide primary in which members of the party will vote. Since the Tories hold a large majority in Parliament, which they won in the last British election in 2019, whoever wins this contest will automatically become prime minister.
Part of the problem for Truss was that she preceded her praise for Jewish devotion to family and work ethic by saying, “so many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values, too.”
That was a bridge too far for left-wing Jews and supporters of the Labour Party, which hopes to unseat the Conservatives at the next general election.
Jewish values are not, of course, inherently political or the property of the Tories any more than they are Labour, whose Socialist agenda is claimed by some Jews to be rooted in the Torah and its admonitions to take care of the poor. The same can be said in an American context in which it is clear that Judaism isn’t a Republican religious doctrine or a Democratic one. That doesn’t stop many Jews from seeing the Democrats’ social-justice agenda as a stand-in for their religious beliefs. As the old and somewhat unfair joke goes, most Reform Jews think their religion consists of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in.
But it is hardly offensive or even untrue to say that Judaism prioritizes the family and seeks to strengthen it in ways that contrast strongly with modern secular culture, which has done so much to tear down the basic unit of civilization. The same can be said of most faith traditions.
Nor is it offensive to note that a community that was forged in the immigrant experience in the 19th and 20th centuries—much like that of American Jewry—prided itself in the ability of its members to work hard and get ahead. Perhaps in the woke milieu of the 21st century, when ideas about the work ethic are labeled as vestiges of racism and “white privilege,” praising Jews for their achievements is politically incorrect. But Truss or any leader that seeks to push back against such toxic ideologies should be speaking out in favor of families and extolling traditions that prize hard work.
Of greatest interest for those watching the Tory leadership contest from afar was Truss’s willingness to speak out against the woke anti-Semitism in the British bureaucracy. She has also mentioned possibly moving the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though whether she will defy establishment opinion by going that far remains to be seen.
During her short tenure at the foreign office which she took over in September, Truss has earned a reputation as a friend of Israel, especially when it came to supporting it in international forums like the United Nations. To her credit, she denounced the U.N. Human Rights Council in her JC interview, saying that it had been, “used to peddle a particular agenda which frankly have strong elements of anti-Semitism.”
More to the point, she said that the career civil servants that run the Foreign Ministry had opposed her efforts to stand up against this campaign of hate against Israel. In Britain, even more than in the United States, the government is run by the civil service who—as the 1980s classic television comedy “Yes, Minister” showed—tend to lead the politicians around by the nose. The “deep state,” as many American conservatives refer to the U.S. version in the federal bureaucracy, is no myth. So, it is a measure of her willingness to act on her convictions with respect to supporting Israel that she has had to “overrule” the civil service at the United Nations when she was told that doing so would “isolate” Britain.
Speaking of the Foreign Office’s long tradition of support for the Arabs against Zionism, “every organization has its culture, but it’s not fixed, it can be changed.”
Supporters of Israel may not be entirely happy with everything a Truss government does in the Middle East. Despite her promise to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and saying that the use of military force is still on the table, Britain is certain to support a nuclear deal with Tehran if President Joe Biden is able to succeed in getting it to agree to a new and weaker pact.
But Truss’s willingness to speak not just about the U.N.’s anti-Semitism but to continue to push for legislation to outlaw BDS discrimination against Israel makes the Jewish state’s foes unhappy.
For all of the philo-Semitism of some British leaders throughout the last century, such as those who promulgated the Balfour Declaration, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher (Truss’s primary role model), anti-Semitism has always been far more of a factor in British life than in the United States.
British Jews understood the stakes involved when an anti-Semite like Corbyn was a serious threat to become Britain’s prime minister in the last decade. He was replaced by Keir Starmer, who doesn’t share Corbyn’s hateful attitudes toward Jews and Israel. But the left wing of the Labour Party, which continues to support Corbyn and everything he stood for, is still a potent force in British politics. As is the case in the United States, Jew-hatred is being enabled by woke ideology that is also becoming an increasingly powerful force in that country’s media and popular culture. If, as polls currently indicate, Truss becomes Britain’s third female prime minister next month, one can only hope that she will stick to her determination to continue to stand up against anti-Semitism in the face of such formidable opposition.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.