Billy Bragg for Jewish News March 19 2021
In one of JW3’s most unusual encounters, the dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Raphael Zarum, went head-to-virtual-head with the rock singer and political activist Billy Bragg — and the two men found much more in common than might be expected.
In a sparky conversation on Thursday night, Billy Bragg, described as “a public intellectual” by Rabbi Zarum, laid out his personal philosophy. “The idea of freedom has been tarnished by what I would call ‘licence’”, he said. “People believe that being free gives them the right to say whatever they want to say, to whoever they want to say it to — with no comeback.That, to me, is not a definition of freedom. That’s a definition of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed”.
The singer’s central theme, which he returned to repeatedly during the hour-long web event, was that of “accountability”. He rejected the term of “responsibility” for actions, arguing that people face the consequences of what they said and wrote, particularly on social media. “You have the right to express your opinion — well, then so does everybody else”, he said. “Freedom has to be reciprocal.”
Bragg told Rabbi Zarum that he “cringed” every time he walked past the statue of George Orwell outside the BBC in London, with its accompanying quote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. Though he was a great Orwell admirer, Bragg said, he believed the logical extension of that phrase was “allowing people to deny the Holocaust — I don’t think that’s a definition of liberty at all, I think that’s a definition of licence”.
During the Corbyn era, Billy Bragg drew fire from the Jewish community for his support from the former Labour leader. But, he said, his concern was more to do with “what was going on in the Labour Party” than with Corbyn himself, whom he had worked with “for many years, and whom I trust. I tried to engage with those elements of the Labour Party who, in their defence of Corbyn, were clearly stirring up division with the Jewish community”.
The singer continued: “I engaged with some comrades who I had worked with during the miners’ strike. But Chris Williamson, [the former Labour MP] spoke to me after I criticised him, about how disappointed he was that someone who had had such solidarity in anti-racism [would criticise him]. I believe that they thought they couldn’t be antisemitic because they were left-wing, that morally they were in a situation where they could comment on the issue, but without taking on board the sensitivities of the Jewish community. I don’t think that’s right. I said, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t made absolutely antisemitic statements: the fact that you are stirring this up, that you’re pushing this line… the terrible thing was that they imagined this was a way of defending Corbyn. In fact it was making the entire situation worse”.
He described “the great curse of social media” as “intention is always trumped by perception. In my case that’s what happened to me. I was trying to make a case for the Jewish community and the Labour Party working together. Some people believed it implied that I was saying that the Jewish community had to tone down their criticism. That wasn’t my intention. I apologised then, and I apologise now.”
Outside politics, Rabbi Zarum said that he had been greatly surprised by Billy Bragg’s pointing to the second most searched area on the internet — genealogy. The singer is an enthusiastic researcher of his and his partner’s family histories, and spoke of the importance of retaining “a sense of belonging” in whatever was one’s chosen tribe.
His overall passion, however, remains music and the powerful sense of “communion” that is brought by people singing together — a belief echoed by Rabbi Zarum, who said being unable to sing in synagogue during the pandemic had left him with a feeling he was unable to pray properly.
Seeking the last word, Billy Bragg observed: “No-one is going to ask you to tour America reading out your Tweets. It’s still worth learning to play an instrument and getting out on the road”. But he groaned with laughter when the JW3 host for the evening, Mekella Broomberg, noted: “I actually have a friend who has toured reading out her Tweets. They are really good Tweets”. Head in hands, the singer joked: “It’s the end of days!”