Just before the start of the holiday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson posted a rousing Chanukah video message to British Jews and Jews the world over. A major issue in the recent elections had been the anti-Semitism of the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Traditionally, many British Jews had been Labour supporters, but were so galvanized by the threat of an anti-Semite at the head of British government that they withheld their support. British Jewry was remarkably united — they recognized a threat that was plain and real.
Typically, Corbyn and his defenders tried to say they were only anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. This has been an effective tactic to slip in the question of the where does the Jews’ allegiance truly lie. But it didn’t work this time. Denying the right of Jews’ national aspirations alone is no different than the other forms of denial of rights to Jews and more than enough of the electorate got that.
The conflicted loyalty argument has long been raised to silence Jewish aspirations. It was an American progressive of a century ago who offered a powerful and enduring rebuttal of that charge. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote:
Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state and of his city; for being loyal to his family, and to his profession or trade; for being loyal to his college or his lodge. Every Irish-American who contributed toward advancing home rule was a better man and a better American for the sacrifice he made.
Johnson’s Chanukah address came as a triumphant reassurance to the Jews of their place in the UK. He focused on the key point: “Britain would not be Britain without its Jewish community.”
England certainly has felt otherwise in the past. England had been the scene of Europe’s first blood libels. In 1290, Jews were expelled from all of England by King Edward I, two centuries before the far more well-known expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. Jews were not readmitted to England until the mid-1600s and even then, not officially.
Yet Stuart England’s greatest legal scholar, John Selden, imprisoned by King Charles I for insisting on Parliament’s rights under the Magna Carta, looked to Jewish oral law traditions as the true antecedent and the great foundation of English liberties preserved in England’s own common law oral tradition. Benjamin Disraeli revived the Tory Party and as Prime Minister, established the prestige of Britain worldwide. Winston Churchill was part of an influential group of Christian Zionists that also included Arthur Balfour, who on behalf of the British Crown, declared British support for establishing a Jewish national home once again in the Holy Land; Britain undertook the implementation of that as a treaty obligation at the end of World War I. And under Churchill, Britain alone refused to cease fighting the Nazi hordes and then built a grand alliance that brought Nazidom to ruin.
It was this Britain that Johnson was affirming as the real Britain, the one to whom Jews are indispensable. Johnson is an unabashed nationalist and a shallow onlooker might ask how do a nationalist like Johnson and a progressive like Brandeis wind up on the same side of a great issue like this?
The simple answer is that one need not be distracted by the outer label. Any and every philosophy is capable of becoming an excuse for evil. There is no reason to think that Brandeis would not be horrified by the hijacking of noble aims as cover for hate and amoral power grabbing. What is refreshing is that so many Labour voters felt the same way, recognized that their ideals had been hijacked as cover for anti-Semitism, and acted decisively to deny hatred political power.
In his championing of the cause of Britain’s Jews against an intersectional hatred of the radical left and radical Islamists, Johnson was reaffirming a concept that Selden in the 1600s had already identified as ancient. Good politics are built from the ground up on the foundations already present. A basic order is already present in the conscience of each individual, informed by the great religious traditions of a moral framework encompassing us all. Motivated by conscience, the citizen keeps his word, she builds her home and its peace on the religious values she holds dear; the nation in turn is built on these households; and the world in turn is built on nations that cherish liberty, seeking that all nations be free to do so as well.
Tyrants of our age often come with great ideas which they wish to impose by force from above. They are contemptuous of any realizations other than their own, and of any liberty other than their own. In every time they are outraged that Jews should continue to have loyalty to a tradition that teaches that each individual is made in the image of G‑d and is of infinite worth. They know that that idea spreads far beyond Jews, and is always a threat to their drive for unchecked power.
Johnson said in his Chanukah message, “Today, as Britain’s Jews seek to drive back the darkness of resurgent anti-Semitism, you have every decent person in this country fighting by your side.”
Britain showed there is a better and surer path towards human greatness and progress. Building on the faith and freedom established in the hearts of the people as expressed in a constitution and laws that guard liberty and freedom of religion, association, and speech, it has a greater and better vision of a world order than any totalitarian ideology. The grandly intolerant theoreticians fail and fail again and their failures are written in the indelible blood of their victims. It is free nations free of hatred who are building a free and united world.
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