Barring an electoral upset of unimaginable proportions, Tony Blair will be the next Prime Minister of this country. But is it — to put it at its most crudely — good for the Jews? Many Jews have answered this question already both by flocking to his banner and no doubt by contributing to Labour’s campaign coffers. Respectable Jewish organisations who for years found it difficult to invite a Labour speaker are now falling over themselves to attract a leading New Labour figure to tell them about the rosy possibilities for New Britain. Such adulation is more a search for the meaning of belonging than support for the normal vested interests of economic enhancement.
For decades, Labour was the natural party of British Jews. Jews were represented disproportionately in Labour both inside and outside Parliament. All this began to change in the 1960s and Mrs Thatcher’s arrival legitimised the cult of the individual and provided the vehicle for a general transference of allegiance to the political Right. It reflected the changing face of Anglo-Jewry. The emergence of a broad entrepreneurial business sector of the community displaced the aristocratic anglicised Cousinhood. It marked a Jewish coming of age in a relatively prosperous post-war Britain — from sympathy for communism to embracing capitalism. This transition also accentuated divisions within Anglo-Jewry. As Danny Miller points out in his article in this issue ‘there is a constant conflict of values and mutual disparagement between those who strive for “cultural capital” based on education and those who strive for “financial capital” based on business success.’ Whereas the polarisation between left and right, between religious and secular, old and young are often cited, this division has remained buried and unspoken. Few have been able to straddle the gap. The relationship between both sides deteriorated considerably during the Thatcher years especially as decision making came to be the prerogative of an efficient management structure rather than that of democratically elected figures engaged in cantankerous debate. What started off as a relationship of constructive tension in the 1970s became one of self-righteous fracture by the 1990s.
A central bone of contention was purely ideological. Many Jews argued that the false idols of Thatcherism were located at the altar of individualism, deregulation and libertarianism — all alien creeds to previous generations. This philosophy, however, produced a profound resonance for those Jews who had literally pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made good. After all hadn’t Mrs Thatcher herself come from a similar background in Grantham? Abraham Joshua Heschel’s dictum that ‘the glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free and my capacity to be free, but also in the realisation of my fellow man’s right to be free and his capacity to be free’ was interpreted that all could do well in business if only they applied themselves. Yet as many pointed out at the time, the problem was not one of dedicated idleness, but one of ability. Not everyone could succeed in the new uncontrolled world of free enterprise. And those who were left behind were asked to fend for themselves through the benefits of a trickle-down economy.
Through elevating the profit motive above the prophet motive, many Jews were often oblivious of what was happening outside. As the process of a brutal atomisation accelerated outside, Jewish communities began to fall apart. Internal disarray, external disintegration. Social units were being dismantled, including the family, in the rush to remove each and every barrier — the ultimate ‘freeing-up’ process.
In 1996, the wreckage, both human and societal, is in clear focus and discussion about how-to- repair and roll back will be a prominent issue in the election campaign. The central question of Jewish discontinuity should thus be seen in the context of this wider debacle. Those who supported Mrs Thatcher so vociferously effectively voted for a spiritual deregulation of mainstream Anglo-Jewry. It promoted Jewish individualism over Jewish community. It essentially removed the fence around the Torah. It gave power to a greedy media to entertain rather than to educate. It propagated a tabloid mentality with no boundaries. All figures of authority were fair targets except the media tycoons. For those Jews who believed in interacting with the society in which they lived, it meant that their children were being exposed to a moral chaos. And if all are moulded by the time and the society in which they live, this meant a challenge to Jewish values and the real possibility of chasing false gods. It is ironic that those who once kissed the hem of Mrs Thatcher’s skirt now try to repair the damage which her philosophy has caused to the process of Jewish continuity.
Tony Blair is seen as the panacea to all these evils because he articulates widespread insecurities — a soothsayer mouthing historic Jewish fears. He also speaks for middle England which is more representative of Anglo-Jewry today than the East End. He talks of rights and duties, law and order, community and collectivism, colleagues rather than comrades, ideas not ideology, consensus rather than division, all of which soothe the Jewish psyche. And, of course, he is a God-fearing Christian that loves Israel rather than a fire-breathing evangelical who wishes to convert us all.
The big idea is to create ‘a society which acknowledges mutual rights and duties, not to hold back the individual, but as a necessary part of individual fulfilment’. A hybrid learning curve which emanates from the mistakes of Marxist collectivism and Thatcherite individualism.
There is, however, a profound unease especially amongst those who never prostrated themselves before Mrs Thatcher. Mr Blair’s policies exhibit a liberal traditionalism which is so broad and inoffensive that it seems to be situated totally outside the realm of ideology. He makes no distinction in his politics between democratic socialism and social democracy. He finds ‘many of the angry debates between Catholic and Protestant completely baffling’ in his Christianity.
If there is no ideology but only an improved management style, can this really be called genuine radical change? Is this a step towards tikun olam — repairing the world or an Elmer Gantry type campaign- preaching which produces nothing more than a hollow enthusiasm? It is this almost bizarre opposition of ideas and ideology that is disconcerting. For New Labour, ideology is encrusted with the past whereas ideas are continually being coated with the veneer of a bright future. Judaism as an interpretive ideology would not warm to this approach, but the struggle for Jewish continuity would see obvious parallels. A broad educational process of renewal, seemingly devoid of ideology, brimming with seductive ideas which eschew controversy. Judaism Direct!
The 1990s are a post-ideological vacuous age and Mr Blair has undoubtedly caught the spirit of the times. Last year he told the Clause IV conference that ‘Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile’ and that Labour was not a protest movement. This sense of pragmatism will be attractive to many in Anglo-Jewry. For those who also believe that Jewishness should embody dissent and that Judaism is an interpretive ideology, Mr Blair’s vision remains staid and uninspiring. Even so, the proof of the pudding will clearly be in the eating. Some anxiously expect Mr Blair in government to deliver a new Jerusalem. While we wait and see, many cling to the age-old idea that it is the values of the old Jerusalem that should be the yardstick for its construction.
Judaism Today Winter 1996-1997