Labour’s antisemitism row – what are the messages for the wider world?

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I haven't commented yet on the struggles of the British Labour Party with antisemitism. It is a battle between two tribes: Labour's left and the mainstream Jewish community, and it is very hard for outsiders like me to make much sense of it. And yet it is an important issue and there are implications for us all.

Of the two tribes my sympathies are much more with the Jewish community. Their case was nicely put by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. The Holocaust remains historically recent, and it followed a creeping growth in antisemitism in European and American society that was widely tolerated, just as some Jews worry is happening now. Sensitivity is understandable.

The hard left, from which the Labour leadership is now drawn, does not seem to understand that sensitivity. They can't utter the word "antisemitism" without quickly adding "all forms of racism". I am reminded of Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who couldn't say "human rights" without tagging on the word "responsibilities". The corrosiveness of that practice is easy to see - it suggested that even basic rights are conditional. The whole idea of the post war notion of human rights is that they are unconditional, and therefore harder for the powerful to undermine. But what's wrong with the "and all forms of racism" tag when placed alongside "antisemitism"? One issue (to the ultra-sensitive) is that it suggests that those making the accusations of antisemitism may be themselves racist. It also suggests that there is nothing different or special about antisemitism to other forms of racism.

But that isn't true on at least two counts. The first is that most racism in the developed world is directed by the politically strong against groups that are physically and culturally distinct. But Jewish people are present in all levels of society, including what Labour call "the few", and many, if not most, Jews are highly assimilated into British society. Antisemitism thus depends on making distinctions that are even more arbitrary than other forms of racism, and the invention of conspiracy theories. Directing hatred against a group who are very much part of the mainstream is particularly insidious. It promotes the idea that institutions have been infiltrated and therefore cannot be trusted. And that encourages people to undermine those institutions, such as the rule of law, designed to protect the weak against the powerful. This may not make it worse than other forms of racism, but it makes it particularly difficult to fight.

The second difference is the state of Israel, a Jewish homeland that most mainstream Jews defend on some or other level. Much of the feeling on the hard left is based on a vehement hatred of that country. That has complex roots; it starts with anti-Americanism, and draws strength from pro-Palestine Arab and Muslim activists, who ally with the hard left, and who see no reason to hide their antisemitism. This has become part of the hard left counterculture, along with support for the socialist regimes in Venezuela and Cuba, and apologism for Russia.

It doesn't help is that defenders of the Israeli government often charge critics with antisemitism unfairly. There is much that it is fair to criticise the Israeli government for, especially now that the current regime is happy to push on the boundaries of racism itself. This is at the heart of the recent controversy in the Labour Party, when the party adopted an internationally recognised definition of antisemitism, but could not accept some of the examples given in the protocol in relation to criticism of Israel. As Mr Freedland says, though, the problem isn't in the precise detail of this, but in the lack of engagement with Jewish groups before they adopted the policy. Some kind of open discussion on how to criticise the Israeli government without tripping into antisemitism would have been wise. But openness is not something the hard left values.

What are the wider lessons? Firstly it shows a lack of political judgement on the part of the Labour leadership, and the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in particular. He likes to say that he is for dialogue with groups with unsavoury views (such as the IRA or Hamas) in the name of promoting peace. And yet he seems very selective in the sort of groups that he actually engages with, and it is very hard to see how the cause of peace is being helped. This does pose questions about his fitness to be Prime Minister.

The second wider issue is that the rest of us, who are neither Jews, nor of the hard left, need to redouble our guard against antisemitism. Jews are being made to feel uncomfortable in our midst. The hard left is only part of the problem; unfortunately many Muslims from Africa and the Middle East are importing antisemitism along with other racial stereotypes. They haven't understood the implications. People from other minority racial and cultural groups should aspire to what Jewish people have achieved. But if antisemitism persists they will never be safe, even after they have achieved recognition and assimilation. So we must engage with all of society to help stamp out the conspiracy theories and prejudices that lie behind antisemitism, and in this way help the battle against Islamophobia and other insidious forms of racism that on the rise again.

And how do we react to Israel? With a great deal of care. My worry is that the current government of Israel is playing a dangerous game. It is supporting populist regimes in places like Hungary, and promoting an Islamophobic agenda.  Still, there are plenty of worse things going on in the world. Consider the Syrian civil war and the actions of Iran and Russia. Look at China's oppression of the Uighur and other non-Han peoples in Xingjiang. And the attack on Rohingya people in Myanmar. And the threats against Israel from neighbours and elsewhere are real enough too. It isn't hard to why many Jewish people feel that criticising Israel often tips over into antisemitism, even if I think that too many of them are too uncritical.

The deeper message is this: antisemitism is like the gas that kills the canary in a coal mine. It is a warning of worse to come. But fight it on the basis of tolerance and inclusion (and not on the basis of Jewish exceptionalism), and we will be fighting the whole evil of racism.

3 thoughts on “Labour’s antisemitism row – what are the messages for the wider world?”

  1. Don’t cry wolf
    Words have a weight a value and just as” bad money drives out good” words when overused can become less important, irrelevant and eventually meaningless
    Corbyn is named and vilified as a racist anti-Semite. What words will now be used to describe Oswald Mosley, Tommy Robinson, leaders of the National Front or any person who actively promulgates hatred of those of another race or religion- No one has suggested so far ( I think) that Corbyn has done this
    Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers — Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph — take the unprecedented step of speaking as one by publishing the same front page, that “there would be an existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government
    That because the party that was, until recently, the natural home for our community has seen its values and integrity eroded by Corbynite contempt for Jews and Israel., and That stain and shame of antisemitism has coursed through Her Majesty’s Opposition since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015.
    They should be challenged to justify these remarks. The fact is, I think, that Labour is not anti-Semitic, that there is no history of any anti-Semitism in Labours past, or in what you now term the Hard Left. What there is, is strong condemnation of Israeli action in Gaza, and an understanding that Trumps action in moving the embassy has caused Palestinian dismay and the end of any hope for any solution to their plight
    These canards are being spread and publicised via papers like the Daily Mail whose history of support for the Fascist Parties in the 30’s is well known, and by Boris Johnson in articles in the Telegraph,
    Conservatives are ramping this story up because they cannot counter Labour’s economic arguments . Some in in the Labour Party can see it as a way of blackening Corbyns name, -many have never come to terms to his leadership- (It must have been a member of the NEC who leaked Peter Willsman comments about antisemitism ) and other groups see it as a way of diverting criticism of Israel’s actions in making Arabs second class citizens

    You argue that Corbyn shows a lack of political judgement, and His lack of response ,when the news broke earlier in the year that in 2012 he had not condemned the cartoon painted on a wall by Kalen Ockerman(, which many, and I too ,could see as in fact it was anti-Semitic,) was in hindsight lamentable It could well be that he had never actually seen the cartoon Himself. I cannot recall any censure of Corbyn at that time, some 6 years ago Of course then he was an unimportant backbencher, this cartoon and story was considered unimportant and unreported.
    My view is that the stirring of this anti-Semitic brew will cause as much harm in the long run to the Jewish people as it will to the Labour party itself. People stirring it should use a long spoon.

    1. Thanks Charles. Perhaps I have left out one side of the story – which is that the Labour antisemitism story is certainly being fuelled by people who wish Labour and Mr Corbyn ill regardless, including within the Jewish community. There is an opportunist element about it. We really don’t need to take advice from the Mail or the Telegraph. Those within Labour who think that this is a manufactured row whose aim is simply to damage the party do have some facts to work with.

      And if that was all there was, I would not have written the post. But a lot of the criticism is coming from elsewhere. It was Jonathan Freedman’s article in the Guardian that pushed me into breaking cover. And in particular his claim that Jeremy Corbyn (who, incidentally, neither I nor he is not calling an antisemite) and his advisers did not attempt to engage with mainstream Jewish groups on the issue of the code. That chimed with the impression I got from an interview with John McDonnell earlier, who seemed much more conciliatory and “with-it” than Mr Corbyn. Or take an article this morning from Helen Lewis in the New Statesman. This is basic politics, and Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t look very good at at it.

      I don’t think that the Labour Party as a whole is at all antisemitic. But there are fringe groups within it that are (as indeed there are in the Tories, and even in the Lib Dems, or certainly before its collapse in support). This fringe has become more vocal, and has been putting unacceptable pressure on anybody that does not share their particular take on Israel and Palestine by claiming that they are part of a Jewish conspiracy, that they should emigrate, etc. Jeremy Corbyn shares those views on Israel and Palestine, which is fine (so do I, to a large extent) but does not seem to know how to deal with the problem.He is at last allowing disciplinary action against the obvious antisemitic stuff, but that followed a period of denial and some bizarre interventions from those within Labour’s disciplinary system, who should have been keeping quiet until the processes were complete. What he needs to do is to persuade as much as he can of the Jewish community that his criticism of Israel is valid and that the British government needs to do more. Instead his slow and reactive response to the disciplinary issues is allowing his enemies to make the running. John McDonnell would be handling it much more skilfully I’m sure.

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