At first pass you can have some sympathy with Labour’s leaders as they are engulfed by accusations of anti-Semitism, just a week before important elections in Scotland, Wales and London. It is, of course, impossible to have sympathy with Ken Livingstone, the senior Labour adviser and former London mayor who was suspended yesterday after making one set of ill-judged remarks too many. But on closer inspection the sympathy evaporates; it is yet another sign that the party made a colossal mistake by choosing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.
But the first thing I want to say is that the issue is not quite as straightforward as some make out. The wisdom currently doing the rounds is that collective references to “the Jews” is almost always anti-Semitic, that criticism of Zionism is usually code for the same thing, but criticising the actions of the Israeli state is fair game. The first of these is clearly true, and the second probably is too – though I think Zionism poses some challenging questions over the rights of Arabic-heritage Palestinians (who, I remember a veteran British diplomat telling me, are rarely true Arabs).
But the third proposition, that criticism of the Israeli government is fair game, is more problematic. Try it. To do so, if you are considered to matter in political discourse, is to invite a concerted attack from supporters of the Israeli state, who will try to associate you with supporting terrorism or being closet anti-Semite, and who can never admit that the Israeli state does wrong, ever. I have to admit that I often self-censor, and do not comment on what is going on in Israel. I broke this rule last year, and got myself into hot water – though I was probably a bit less restrained that I should have been.
One problem with criticising Israel is that many Israelis clearly are racist, and their influence seems to be growing – though just how much such attitudes infect government policy I cannot say. But many aren’t. And Israel supporters in this country generally aren’t racist either, understanding all too well the difficulties of being a minority in a liberal democracy. This makes it very easy to give offence, even when making legitimate points. The whole things reminds me a little of how it felt to be British in my youth. Criticising the British Empire and its history was considered by many to be unpatriotic, even though racism clearly ran through it, and many wrong things were perpetrated. We were told to gloss over this and look at the positives. Many people of Jewish heritage seem to feel something of the same way about Israel – for reasons that are perfectly easy to understand.
So it’s a minefield. But it is a very well-marked one. There is no excuse for professional politicians to blunder into it unknowingly. When talking about Israel you must be very, very careful. It is one of the most basic rules of politics. This is what the Labour leadership under Mr Corbyn does not seem to have appreciated, Mr Corbyn having lived in a leftist cocoon for most of his political life. Mr Livingstone has made a career from egregiously insulting people and getting away with it. They have learnt that once they get into the political big-time, the normal rules apply to them too.
But there seems to be a wider problem on the left. Many on the far left have found it convenient to make common cause with radical Muslim activists. This seems to start with the principle that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and hatred of America is a strong organising principle on the left. Looking for common ground, they find criticising Israel is one place to find it. They see no reason to challenge the often casual racism of these Muslim activists, and become, at best, careless, and at worst infected with conspiracy theories. It’s the same sort of stupidity that sees many apologizing for Vladimir Putin’s attacks on Ukraine, or defending the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
This sort of lazy thinking has to be stamped on if Labour are to make progress in mainstream politics. The party’s Mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, seems to have grasped this, notwithstanding his own engagement with Muslim radicals – which, be it understood, is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.
Alas Mr Corbyn does not seem to have grasped the seriousness of the situation, or else does not have the skills to deal with it. Mr Livingstone loves to live dangerously, and is not a good friend to have. The Labour leadership need to get one step ahead, and come out unequivocally against anti-Semitism (and without the weasel rider that they are against all racism) and take some positive steps to heal the wounds with the Jewish community (as, to her credit, suspended MP Naz Shah apparently has). But that would require a sort of political vision of which they are incapable.