Mann and the canary

Mann and the canary

For the Times of Israel posted July 27 2019

“When it comes to fighting antisemitism”, says the British Labour MP John Mann, “it’s not enough for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish community, when they [antisemites] are throwing the stones of hatred, of bitterness, of bile. We have to stand in front of [Jews] in this fight. This must not be only the responsibility of the Jewish community.”

Mann, a tall, fit and burly politician with a well-founded reputation for plain speaking, knows what he is talking about. For the last 15 years he has headed the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, stepping down from his chairmanship only this week. He co-founded, with Canada’s former Justice Minister Irwin Kotler, the International Coalition for Combatting Antisemitism. Both bodies have consistently produced deeply researched reports into the nature and level of antisemitism, making recommendations to governments.

Perhaps the single act which brought him to national consciousness was his 2016 confrontation with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who had just made dubious remarks on a radio program about Hitler’s early relations with Zionism. Not mincing his words, Mann rounded on Livingstone in a building crammed with TV studios and called him “a Nazi apologist”, and much more besides. It put him definitively out of kilter with many colleagues in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle, but Mann did not care.

On Tuesday July 23, in one of her very last acts as prime minister, Theresa May appointed Mann as the government’s adviser on antisemitism. He joins Lord Ahmad as adviser on freedom of religion and belief, and Lord Pickles as the special envoy on post-Holocaust issues. None of the three posts is paid.

In his office — a more spacious part of the parliamentary estate than many backbench MPs enjoy — Mann is relaxed and confident as he talks about the background to his appointment, a newly-created role which he hopes the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, will continue.

But how is that Mann, 59, whose northern mining constituency of Bassetlaw is almost certainly home to few or no Jews, became such a vehement defender of the Jewish community?

The answer, as Mann himself told a Community Security Trust (CST) dinner in February, lies in his own family background. He is Labour through and through, a child of Labour activist parents and even meeting his wife through the Labour Party.

But it was the actions of his great-grandparents, in Leeds in 1906, which set the scene for the Mann family. “My great grandparents formed the Labour Party with Jewish workers in Leeds in 1906, and at every stage in their history, in their involvement in the Labour Party, stood alongside the Jewish community and defended the Jewish community”, Mann told the CST audience.

And he went on: “When my family was in trouble, when my family was thrown out of work for forming the Labour Party in Leeds, the Jewish community, the Jewish workers, the Jewish Labour Movement, they stood and backed alongside my family”.

So John Mann is someone who likes to honor debts. His reasoning is very simple: his great-grandparents supported Jews and the Jews supported them right back. Mann, who has been an MP since 2001, is still, metaphorically, repaying that debt in what he feels is a matter of moral principle.

He added: “You cannot imagine how much hurt, how much shame, how much anger we have in what is defiling, what has been, not just my life, but my families’ existence. And many families’ existence down the generations.

“That’s what’s at stake here. We’re not going to give in. We’re not going to hand over to these antisemites and those that stand by and encourage them and are silent”.

For 15 years as chair of the APPG against Antisemitism, Mann has been warning of the evils of antisemitism, which he describes as “the worst of racisms”. The genesis of his new role, he says, is from a series of discussions that Jewish community leaders had had with Downing Street.

“They wanted some sort of liaison person between the community and government”, says Mann. In Germany the role is filled by a civil servant, while in America President Trump has just appointed a new special envoy. Downing Street, says Mann, responded to the British Jewish request and asked him to take up the post.

Though nominally the new job is a “point of contact between the Jewish community and government”, Mann is likely to step it up a notch. He is keen on practical consequences and points to the generous government provision of security finance for Jewish community institutions — including Jewish schools — as a direct result of the work and recommendations made by the parliamentary committee which he chaired. The new job — which is open-ended and not for a fixed time period — will, he hope, result in even more practical actions.

His first target — and it is typical of Mann to hit the ground running — will be Jewish teenagers in the 16-19 age bracket. “I have one overriding objective, and this what I will say to government: that Jewish teenagers feel secure and safe living here, that there is no impingement on their ability to be themselves and want to do well in this country, and to remain in this country, positively. That’s the objective. But I don’t believe at the moment that it is the case”.

Jewish teens, says Mann, should be able to feel that they can prosper — not necessarily financially, but socially and culturally. “A top priority will be to find out if my feeling on that is in fact accurate. So my first big piece of work will be to go and talk to those 16-19-year-olds, to get their perspective on how they see their position in our society.”

Such information, he believes, “will be absolutely pivotal” in framing what advice he will subsequently give to the government. “If the teens tell me they don’t feel safe here, that is a problem”. He’s not talking about teens who want to make Israel their home for positive reasons; he thinks he will be told of negative reasons, of fear and discomfort.

In 2006, says Mann, the APPG identified three strands of antisemitism: “traditional right antisemitism, which was just as virulent, despite all the education that’s been around — and that remains the case today. So the far right remains a problem for the Jewish community, and young Jews — from neo-fascists to terrorism.

“Then there was Muslim antisemitism, which the committee said had not been a problem in the past because there were very few Muslims in Britain. Now there is a significant presence and therefore Muslim antisemitism is a bigger problem — and that is a fact. We have seen Islamists committing murderous attacks on Jewish communities in France, Belgium, Austria, Copenhagen…”

Such attacks had not so far taken place in Britain, observes Mann, “because in my view the UK is better prepared, through the work of the CST — and I’m proud that our committee [the APPG] has played an important role in strengthening governmental support for the Jewish community”.

The third serious problem, identified in 2006, was far left antisemitism, thought dormant but now once again on the rise. Mann, no friend of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, says he is the catalyst for some of the Jewish race hate, but warns that if Corbyn disappeared tomorrow, much of the antisemitism would still remain. “The problem is deeper than Corbyn. Antisemites within the Labour Party have been emboldened, and extremists have been attracted to the Labour Party”.

To his great anger and disappointment, Mann has seen and charted an overlap between the three strands of antisemitism, with alt-right and far left groups using the same antisemitic imagery, sometimes joined by Islamists. On some occasions, he says, it’s impossible to tell which of the three strands is driving the abuse.

“I’m not Jewish, but it hasn’t stopped people throwing vile antisemitic stuff at me, including violent threats. And some of the worst stuff, where police have been involved, I have no idea whether it is emanating from the right, the left, or Islamists”.

Mann says that the increased use of the Internet and social media is one of the biggest things to have exacerbated antisemitism, and warns that both the Jewish community and government have to become a lot smarter and more savvy in dealing with online abuse.

Of one thing, as he takes up his new role, he is sure: “I represent a community that was comprised of coal miners. Coal miners who. when this country needed it, spent their lives underground digging coal. And what the coal miners in the colleries in my area did to warn against the impending doom was to take a small bird in a cage down the pit with them. A yellow canary.

“The Jewish community is the canary in the cage for humanity and for the safety and future of my grandchildren. That’s why we have, whether we like it or not, no choice”.

  • 27 July, 2019