Simon Johnson: The Tebbit Test and Dual Loyalties

This article first appeared in the Jewish Telegraph of 1st June 2018


In the 1980s, Norman (now Lord) Tebbit articulated a combative test of nationality and loyalty for those Brits who had originated in the Sub Continent – Who would they support at cricket; England or their opponents?

This subtly racist, entirely derogatory statement has rather stuck in the national memory, being used to fling accusations of dual loyalty at any Brits whose family origins are from the Caribbean or the Sub Continent.

For the Jewish community, this was wearily familiar, as we have, over the centuries, become accustomed to the dual loyalty accusation as one of a number of cards played by antisemites.

But, this dual loyalty accusation became topical in the last month. It was used against two German International footballers of Turkish origin- Mesut Ozil of Arsenal and Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City. They had been photographed presenting the Turkish President Erdogan, on his visit to London, with signed shirts. Gundogan’s bore the message “With great respect for my President”.

One week later, they had to both pose for photographs with President Steinmeier of Germany to dispel the claims of divided loyalties and the abuse that they had received since the original pictures. The players were forced to affirm their loyalty to Germany during their meeting. Gundogan was forced to grovel and say “Germany is today clearly my country and my team”.

I thought of this and the accusation of dual loyalty as I watched the Eurovision Song Contest earlier in May. I had been tipped off a couple of weeks before that the Israeli entry- “Toy” by Netta Barzilai was well fancied to win. I had watched the semi finals and seen the song and the exultant reaction that it generated amongst the audience. I was convinced that it had a great chance of winning.

So I, like many of our community, settled down after Shabbos to watch. I knew that there was a perfectly good UK entry in the contest, but my heart was with the Israeli entry. Even a cruel “stage invasion” during the UK act failed to stir my sympathy to reconsider and support the UK entry.

I saw Netta perform. All of our family became increasingly excited as the votes came in and Israel crept towards the top of the leaderboard. When the hosts announced the final tally and Israel won, there were cheers and dancing and laughter. We were not the only ones. A quite frum group of friends from our area, whose names will be protected to shield the frummest member of the group, were filmed listening to the vote on the radio and also cheering, dancing and toasting the Israeli victory.

Was this dual loyalty? Absolutely not. I thought it would be great for Israel, in its 70th year, to win the Eurovision. It would provide a giant two fingers to the cultural boycott movement. In fact, I got a chuckle at the thought of the Boycotteers frothing into their Babychams with anger that their call for a boycott against the Israeli entry had backfired so spectacularly. One tweet from Gal Gadot had undermined weeks of planning in dark basements by the Boycott movement.

So, on that one, I was proud to fail the Tebbit test.

Normally though, I have no such issues. When England played Israel in the Qualifiers for the 2008 UEFA European Championship, there was no hesitation. I was an England fan. I cheered each of England’s three goals at Wembley.  The game at Ramat Gan was a cheerless goalless draw. In fact, those teams could still be playing NOW and they still would not have scored.

I have though described my singing both national anthems on the pitch before the game as amongst the proudest and most emotional moments of my career.

This relationship with Israel is, for most of us, nothing to do with dual loyalty. We have an affinity with both. One is our country. The other is our heritage and our heart. We can be loyal to both with no problem, interchangeably and without detriment. We are law abiding, proud British citizens who are also Jews with great affinity to the only Jewish state.

Our loyalty to our country is taught to us by the Rabbis’ of the Mishna of Pirkei Avos. Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government (lit., monarchy), for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”

That is why, in shul every Shabbos and Yom Tov, we say the Prayer for the Royal Family as well as a Prayer for the State of Israel. One would not be said without the other.

Last week, at our celebration of Israel at 70 at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales, the audience enthusiastically sang the National Anthem and the Hatikvah. We are used to doing that. At weddings and barmitzvahs, it is commonplace.

This is why I think the Tebbit test is inherently racist. It assumes that all Brits must suppress their culture and heritage in order to become British citizens.

It is the type of insult hurled at Jews over the ages. That we are only loyal to ourselves and our co-religionists. Or that we favour Israel over Britain. That we protect our own at the expense of the general population.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Our Jewish community has shown how we can be both British and Zionist. We have proved we can be proud British citizens and yet also have Israel at our heart.

Supporting Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest is in no way a betrayal of my country. 

It is time that we put the Tebbit test back in the historical dustbin, never to resurface.