Liz Truss’s Jews

In all likelihood, Liz Truss will become leader of the Conservative Party and the UK’s next prime minister on September 5.

During the last few weeks, an increasingly fatigued British public has watched Truss and her rival for the leadership, Rishi Sunak, attempting to out-Thatcher the other in an unedifying road show around the British Isles. Both regard themselves as the rightful heir of the Iron Lady, though most polls and pundits give Truss victory in the vote by party members by a considerable margin.

Like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Truss has moved from liberal dissident to far-Right tribune over the course of several decades. Originally the president of the Liberal Democrats at Oxford University and a supporter of Britain Stronger in Europe, today she speaks of deeply held Conservative values and is an ardent Brexiteer. 

While all politicians do change their minds on important questions, she is posing as the radical insurgent to Sunak’s high and mighty party establishment. Undoubtedly, she is seen by many in the Conservative Party as the Boris Johnson continuity candidate, without the boom and bluster — and unpredictability — of her predecessor and his penchant for a veneer of schmoozy slogans.

Yet she will face a dire economic situation: inflation at 10.1 per cent, the highest for 40 years, fuel poverty, no resolution of all the problems arising from Brexit, the Northern Ireland conundrum, a multitude of strikes from increasingly angry, impoverished workers — and almost certainly the prospect of civil strife. Britain is sinking into a winter of discontent.

Truss recently spoke at a synagogue in Trafford in Manchester. In answering the many questions, she concurred with all the expectations of Jewish leadership in the UK.

No doubt provided with a tick list from underlings beforehand, she opposed antisemitism, wanted Jewish students to be safe in universities, had Jewish friends at school, criticised Palestinian Islamic Jihad, highlighted Arabists in the British Foreign Office and wanted to stop the ayatollahs of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

More important, she praised her “good friend” Yair Lapid with whom — when both were foreign secretaries — she had agreed a strategic plan for the next decade, “spanning cyber, tech, trade and defence”. They even wrote a joint article for the Daily Telegraph.

All well and good — and crucially ensuring that Truss was made aware of Jewish communal concerns. However, it was her stereotypical depiction of British Jews that caused annoyance from those members of the community who were neither captains of industry nor entrepreneurs, but often worked in the poorly paid public sector as teachers, social workers and as part of the backbone of the National Health Service during the Covid pandemic.

In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Truss, “a non-practicing member of the Church of England”, said: “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example, seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business. The British Jewish community is incredibly proud of this country and so are Conservatives.”

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s comments about Zionism, Truss’s perception of Jews was simplistic and superficial. In the Diaspora, there are Jewish communities within Jewish communities with different ways of perceiving the world and their Jewishness. Why then pick out only one to represent them all? Was this what the Jewish leadership wanted and reflected their own perception of both themselves and the wider community? Was Truss pandering to imagery rather than reality?

Truss’s remarks about what constituted Jewish values annoyed many Jews, including students. Joel Rosen, president of the Union of Jewish Students, commented: “Many Jewish students have found her remarks to be ill-judged and offensive. We hope she reflects on her words, withdraws these remarks, and reaches out to our community.”

A scathing article in The Guardian by the journalist, Simon Hattenstone, was titled “I’m woke, not business-minded and a left-winger. Am I not your sort of Jew?”

Hattenstone recalled the stereotyping of Jews in British history and the antisemitic inuendo in Shakespeare and Dickens. He lampooned other populist stereotypes: “Black people are great runners, Asian people are brilliant mathematicians and Yorkshire folk such as our Liz are careful with money.”

Truss had further implied in the interview that antisemitism was seeping into the civil service. Her claim that she would target “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism” was misleading. Many believed it was a means of laying the foundations for future cuts in the civil service.

It apparently refers to a policy decision that she took when foreign secretary regarding the United Nations Human Rights Council, whereby she had to “overrule” Foreign Office officials who had voiced doubts, claiming that it would lead Britain into diplomatic isolation.

It can be easily argued that the officials were wrong in their appraisal of the corrupt UN Human Rights Council, but were they also antisemitic? The head of one of the civil service unions, Dave Penman, representing almost half a million members, wrote to Truss: “The clear implication … is that antisemitism was a factor in the advice she received as Foreign Secretary. This is an extraordinary statement for any minister to make and one which she should recognise should not be made without evidence.”

Long-time Jewish civil servants were similarly aggrieved and saw Truss’s throwaway comments to essentially a Jewish audience as opportunist, bizarre and bewildering.

Before entering the House of Commons, Liz Truss worked for Shell and related that her boss was “an orthodox Jew” who left the office early on a Friday. She respected him as someone who could think outside the box — “an astute negotiator who could get the deal over the line”. While such pivotal figures are undoubtedly important in the wider context of defending Jewish interests in the Diaspora before the powers that be, they are not representative of all Jews.

Even so, in a strange way, Truss, in admiring her maverick one-time boss, has perceived the Jew to be the dissident of the nations and not the pariah of the nations. Ironically, more Jews Through the Looking-Glass than Jews in Wonderland.

Yet it will be recalled that Lenin also preferred only one type of Jew — Jews that had transcended their Jewishness, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, etc. As with Truss, there is a curious selectivity at play here.

This lack of comprehension about the width and breadth of Jewishness has sometimes been transformed into a weapon to attack Jews per se. In 1883, Moses Leib Lilienblum wrote a classic essay, entitled The Future of Our People, essentially about the placing of Jews in stereotypical boxes:   

“The opponents of nationalism see us as uncompromising nationalists, with a nationalist God and a nationalist Torah; the nationalists see us as cosmopolitans, whose homeland is wherever we happen to be well off. Religious gentiles say that we are devoid of any faith, and the freethinkers among them say that we are orthodox and believe in all kinds of nonsense; the liberals say we are conservative and the conservatives call us liberal. Some bureaucrats and writers see us as the root of anarchy, insurrection and revolt, and the anarchists say we are capitalists, the bearers of the biblical civilisation, which is, in their view, based on slavery and parasitism.”

A long quote from a longer article, but Lilienblum’s dissection remains fundamentally relevant today.

Yet coincidentally there is a fight back against this blurring of the wide range of Jewish representation. Keith Kahn-Harris’s latest book, What Does a Jew Look Like?, captures with photographs, the wide diversity of British Jews. It has received attention in the British and Israeli press. It cracks the mirror of the one-dimensional perception of Jews and demonstrates how they actually are. This book should be essential reading for Liz Truss when she enters Downing Street next month.

Plus61j 23 August 2022

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.