The accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party have continued unabated. Rob Ferguson unpicks the relationship between real instances of antisemitism and politically motivated attacks.
On 24 April, as Socialist Review went to press, Jeremy Corbyn and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) held a much publicised “crunch” meeting. A Labour spokesperson described it as “positive and constructive, serious and good humoured”. The BoD had a different take, describing the meeting as “a disappointing missed opportunity” and demanded “strong actions in order to bring about a deep cultural change in [Corbyn’s] supporters’ attitudes to Jews.”
The BoD called on Corbyn to concede a set of specific demands, including full implementation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “guidelines” or examples of antisemitism [see below].
The meeting came after two years of sustained allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn and Labour, reaching a ferocious intensity over the past month. BoD president Jonathan Arkush told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that Corbyn had “fostered a culture in which people feel free to come out with rank antisemitism…the political sea, or perhaps I should call it a sewer, in which he swims, is totally polluted by antisemitism”.
The BoD itself called a protest in late March against what it claimed was rampant antisemitism in Labour, under the slogan “Enough is Enough”. More than 20 Labour MPs joined what was a mainly right wing Tory-led protest that included in its ranks sectarian bigots Ian Paisley Junior and Sammy Wilson from the Democratic Unionist Party and Norman Tebbit.
A week later, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) called a demonstration outside Labour headquarters, claiming Corbyn had “spent his political career seeking out and giving his backing to Holocaust deniers, genocidal antisemitic terrorist groups and a litany of Jew haters”. At the demonstration, speakers compared Corbyn and Labour with Hitler and the Nazis.
However, the wave of accusations that culminated in the meeting with the BoD began from within the ranks of Labour itself, shortly after Corbyn was elected Labour leader in late 2015. John Mann MP, a leading figure in the early assault on Corbyn, recently declared: “Antisemitism remains the one acceptable prejudice in the Labour Party…they’re glorying in it”.
In responding to the onslaught on Corbyn and the Labour left, two key considerations need to be kept in view. First, the attack is clearly politically motivated and selective, and second, there are evidenced examples of intolerable antisemitism within Labour as well as problematic formulations that touch on antisemitic stereotypes or just outright abuse.
There are therefore two dangers to avoid: the pressure to evade confronting the political motivations behind the attack, and the temptation to dismiss real instances of antisemitism.
We are facing a rising threat on both sides of the Atlantic from far-right and fascist organisations for whom antisemitism is a key weapon in their ideological armoury.
Therefore to cynically misdirect charges of antisemitism at those who are committed to oppose it or to seize on real examples to falsely generalise claims of antisemitism is not only politically dishonest but also dangerous, and must be challenged. At the same time the left must challenge antisemitism whenever it arises on the left.
The accusations against Corbyn and the left fall into four categories. First, there is real antisemitic abuse and threats, some of it evidenced in the public domain. Second, there are formulations that can be problematic and contentious, such as those that echo old antisemitic stereotypes of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Third, there are examples of abuse or abusive terminology, particularly on social media. When such issues emerge in debates over Israel they can undermine the principled positions that need to be made in support of a free Palestine and anti-Zionism.
Finally, however, there is the cynical conflation of anti-Zionism, or support for Palestinian rights, with antisemitism. It is this spurious leap that underpins and frames the attack. A particularly obnoxious form this takes is the demonising of the “left wing Jew”, evident in attacks on Jewish Voice for Labour, the Jewish Socialist Group and Jewdas. This itself has echoes of a core antisemitic stereotype that differentiated between the patriotic, “national” Jew and the radical “Bolshevik” Jew opposed to war and nationalism.
The false conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism also provides cover for the real antisemites. Far-right and fascist parties often profess support for Israel while at the same attacking “Jewish” finance, blaming Jews for promoting a Muslim “invasion” and calling for bans on kosher food, the wearing of the kippah and male circumcision.
In order to address how the left should respond, it is important to understand the context in which this attack is taking place. The ruptures within Labour are not happening in isolation. They have an international dimension.
Accusations of antisemitism directed at anti-Zionists and supporters of the Palestinian struggle are not new. They arose in the wake the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a response to the growth of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and to rising support for the Palestinian struggle from a “new left” emerging from the radicalising struggles of the 1960s.
However, charges of a “new antisemitism” against the left and Muslim communities spread like a forest fire after the second intifada in 2000 which was followed by the victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian struggle became a key symbol of resistance in the international movement against war after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in 2011 the cry of “Free Palestine!” echoed across the Arab spring. Support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) grew internationally and threatened to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the experience of rising state-sponsored Islamophobia also had a radicalising impact on Muslim populations in the west. At the time of writing, 300 French “dignitaries and celebrities”, including figures once on the left, have signed a statement published in Figaro, condemning the “ethnic purging” of French Jews, blaming Muslim migration. Islamophobes, the fascist Front National and supporters of Israel all now claim that Muslims and the left pose the greatest danger to French Jews.
Yet research shows there is no relationship between antisemitic incidents and migration, and that the largest component of antisemitism in France is from the right. In the UK, a survey in 2017 by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found the presence of antisemitism among those who identify as “very right wing” is two to four times higher than among the general population. Antisemitic incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust emanated mostly from the far-right.
This brings us to the witch hunt against the left in Britain. In late 2015, against all expectations, Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. Very quickly, accusations of antisemitism emerged against him and the left. The attacks abated after the shock election result of 2017, only to renew with full force early this year.
The Labour right and the British establishment shuddered at the prospect of a potential prime minister who had been a leading figure in the anti-war movement, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and committed to dismantling austerity. This has given the allegations of a “new antisemitism” a specific character in Britain. However, if successful the attack can extend to the anti-war movement, the left as a whole and to the Muslim community.
Antisemitism is not simply an abstract prejudice that infects the minds of random individuals. Antisemitism was forged as a reactionary ideology during the rise of capitalism in the late 19th century. The antisemite portrayed every failing of the system — social discontent, economic crisis, and military defeats — as the work of an “alien” hostile force: the Jew.
We are now witnessing the return of this foul, right wing ideology. In the recent elections in Hungary, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, conducted a virulently antisemitic campaign aimed at Jewish financier George Soros. Orban and other right wing governments have sought to rehabilitate wartime leaders who were allies of the Nazis.
The likes of Orbán are tolerated and supported by the centre right, who look to them as allies amid a European crisis. The British Conservatives lead the pack. Foreign minister Boris Johnson, who sees Orbán as an ally in EU negotiations over Brexit, profusely welcomed his election win: “Congratulations to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán on winning the elections... We look forward to working with our Hungarian friends to further develop our close partnership.”
The Tory Party has also aligned itself with other parties in the Conservative and Reform Group in the European Parliament who, like Orbán, promote antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism. Conservative commentators and newspapers have also picked up on the anti-Soros theme, depicting him as a conspiratorial force behind attacks on Brexit.
Theresa May, of course, rushed to hold the hand of Donald Trump, whose election campaign was replete with dog-whistle antisemitism and who claimed the Jew-hating white supremacists at Charlottesville included “some fine people”.
It thus beggars belief that Labour MPs should use the cynical manoeuvre of an early day motion by the Conservatives to raise examples of antisemitism in Labour without once challenging the Tory benches. The BoD and the Jewish Leadership Council, whose leading figures are Tory supporters, also keep a deafening silence over Tory alliances with European antisemites.
Antisemitism, like all racism, is a reactionary ideology. However, racism by its nature can permeate all sections of society including the left and the labour movement. Socialists have always been at the forefront of challenging such reactionary ideas. It is vital that this is not lost sight of.
Antisemitic stereotypes that invoke the Rothschilds or Soros, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, “blood libel”, Jewish financial or political power are unacceptable as part of any left discourse. Bracketing Zionism together with Nazism risks equating victims with perpetrators. We need to keep in mind that the majority of Jews express an affinity to Israel in the context of a historical experience of genocide that left its mark on every European Jewish family.
Arguments by many of Israel’s supporters have been marked by disgusting abuse and outright racism and Islamophobia. The left cannot afford to respond in kind. Baroness Shami Chakrabarti rightly condemned the use of terms such as “zio” and “Zio-Nazi” in her inquiry into antisemitism within Labour in 2016. They are inevitably seen to apply to the majority of Jews who support or express affinity with Israel. “Zio”, whatever its origin, is now the favoured substitute for “yid” by white supremacists such as David Duke and the neo-Nazis of Stormfront.
Care too should be taken in reference to a “Zionist lobby”. Not only can this evoke or open the door to notions of Jewish “power” and conspiracies, but it gets the relationship between Israel and the major imperialist powers upside down. It is not Israel that manipulates the world’s major military imperialisms against their own best interests; it is the latter that use Israel as their watchdog in the Middle East.
Where genuine examples of antisemitism arise we need to be uncompromising. If an individual case reflects confusion or ignorance, it may be this can be challenged so as to win individuals to a different view. Where individuals insist on such attitudes they need to be subject to discipline and/or expulsion from labour movement organisations.
However, such an approach has been made impossible by the witch hunt. False accusations have been made against individuals, including longstanding campaigners against antisemitism and racism. Even where there have been grounds for disciplinary processes, there has been no semblance of transparency, fairness or due process.
One of the BoD’s most hypocritical claims is that cases have been delayed, and that the recommendations in Chakrabarti’s report have not been implemented. In fact not only did the BoD bitterly oppose Chakrabarti, but the Labour right did everything it could to obstruct her.
The charges of antisemitism against Labour are part of a wider offensive against the left. Concessions will only serve to fuel further attacks. That is why the new general secretary of Labour, Jennie Formby’s call on all constituency Labour Parties not to criticise “any individual or organisation who has expressed concern about antisemitism” is a serious error. It has encouraged vicious targeting of individuals and groups at local level, who now feel they cannot respond.
False accusations have been made with no apologies; individuals have been subject to suspension and expulsion without due process. Left wing and anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Jews have been subject to the most offensive attacks, including by non-Jewish MPs. Many have been called “antisemites” or even “kapos” (the Jews forced by the Nazis to usher others into the gas chambers). Black and Muslim members who often identify with the oppression of the Palestinians have been disproportionately targeted, with dangerously divisive consequences.
However, the attack poses other threats. It helps to give the most die-hard enemies of the left, Jews and Muslims a get out of jail free card. The disastrous divisions elsewhere on the continent must not be repeated here.
It is therefore important that the witch hunt is opposed within the Labour Party, in trade unions and the social movements.
That should go hand in hand with implacable opposition to antisemitism and all forms of racism. This should begin with the fight against Tory racism and Islamophobia that fuels the rise of far-right and fascist organisations. At the same time we should challenge any form of antisemitism or racism within the ranks of the left.
A 'working definition' that does not work
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism has obscure origins and was never fully adopted. The opening definition is weak and poorly worded: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The Conservative government has adopted the definition because the guidelines conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel.
As the Jewish Socialist Group write: “The IHRA definition of antisemitism is being used to muzzle free speech on Israel/Palestine and on Zionism as a political ideology, which like any other political ideology can be supported or rejected and should be open to question.”
The Labour Party and many authorities and institutions have adopted the definition but not the examples used in the guidelines. The two key examples are:
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour,” and “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
The first of these effectively defines anti-Zionism as antisemitic. However Jews have been and are still both Zionist and anti-Zionist. This clause has absolutely no connection to antisemitism.
The second example is utterly disingenuous and hypocritical. It is perfectly legitimate to argue that Israel is a settler-colonial state and should be subject to sanction. One is free to agree or disagree, but it is not antisemitic. It is the supporters of Israel who want to treat Israel as a special case.
Finally, the conflation between criticism of Israel and antisemitism allows real antisemites off the hook. IHRA signatories include governments such as Hungary and Poland, which are at the forefront of promoting antisemitism and revisionist histories of the Holocaust in their own countries.