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.

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