Interview: Labour and the weaponising of antisemitism

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Tony Lerman

Tony Lerman is one of the authors of Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the party and public belief (Pluto, 2019). Rob Ferguson and Sophia Beach spoke to him about the Labour Party, antisemitism and the rise of the far right.

Rob: Bad News for Labour focuses on how news coverage of the debate over antisemitism in Labour has developed and, in particular, the disparity between actual numbers of allegations of antisemitism and the public perception of the level of antisemitism in Labour.

Tony: The central question that Greg Philo, who is the mastermind behind the book, wanted to get an answer to is whether there was a difference between what the public was feeling, what the stats were saying and what people inside the Labour Party and people attacking the Labour Party were saying. The first few chapters are based on work done by [market research agency] Survation. They started with focus groups and then moved onto surveys to substantiate the anecdotal evidence they were gathering. The result was quite astonishing. The general public thought that around a third of all Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism when the real figure is “a lot less than one percent”, as Philo cautiously puts it. So the disparity is quite stark, and that raises lots of questions about the media and about in whose interests it has been to exaggerate the problem. It reveals something else — the total confusion about antisemitism broadly in society, including among Jews. So it’s very important that these findings have come out and it really needs more exploration.

Rob: The title of the third chapter poses three questions: what could have been done; why wasn’t it; and how will it end? Could you address those questions?

The Labour Party should have been much better prepared. They needed a response unit that was always ready to answer whenever any accusation came out, so no space would have been left in the ether for further allegations. Labour simply didn’t get its act together, and even at the time of the Chakrabarti Report [in 2016] there was a failure to deal with the issues that came out of the report launch with the Marc Wadsworth affair. Things were allowed to run away with themselves.

In terms of why it wasn’t done, there was disbelief that this was happening at all. After all, Labour sees itself — quite rightly — as the party that has been a bulwark against racism. So there’s been a sense of “What’s going on? Why are we being accused?” That’s understandable, but in this ghastly world where people want to attack you, it’s not enough. There were also internal differences at the top of the party between Jeremy and others about what was the best way of dealing with this.

How will it end? Well, I don’t think it will ever end completely. This story has become so embedded, it’s become a mantra that most newspapers will just repeat, whether or not there’s truth in the accusations. The only way to quell it is if Labour wins the general election. It will be hard then for people to keep banging on about this when Labour is in power and focussing on actually doing things — the economy, education, industry, jobs and so on.
But the whole question of antisemitism is so much wider than just the Labour Party — and actually there isn’t enough of a real debate about why this has become an issue recently. We know that it is to do with Palestine and Israel, and that’s not really being discussed.

Sophia: Do you think these kinds of conflicts about antisemitism, and other kinds of racism and oppression within political parties, are to some extent inevitable?

In a way, yes, it is inevitable because of the changing external circumstances in the world — Brexit, the rise of racism, and so on. A lot of us have taken our eye off the ball in terms of racism. For a long time there was a sense that things were getting better and we went to sleep. Things may have got better, but they slip back so easily. The idea that you get rid of racism once and for all is nonsense. This is with us now, for a long time.

The antisemitism issue is crowding out more serious issues of racism that the Labour Party should be dealing with. When I speak to black friends in the Labour Party they feel that they can’t tell their own stories anymore because the space has been taken up by the antisemitism issue. But I think there is a chance of the climate changing if Labour does come to power.

Sophia: Do you think the party’s decision to stop Chris Williamson standing as a Labour candidate, and other cases ostensibly about antisemitism, will affect Labour’s chances in the election?

The question of Chris Williamson is disturbing because I haven’t seen anything that he’s said that can seriously be considered antisemitic. He retweeted Gilad Atzmon at some point. Ok, Atzmon is beyond the pale, but you can’t simply characterise him as a Jewish antisemite — it’s rather more complex than that.

People like Williamson and Ken Livingstone sometimes go over the top with their language, but these are people who have very strong feelings about politics, and we should be able to live with that and not immediately brand them antisemitic. They use strong language about the Israel/Palestine issue, and they interpret things in order to support their particular position.

Rob: What’s your view on the issues raised by the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into institutional antisemitism in the party?

The first thing to say is that the pressure on Labour and Corbyn to adopt that definition with no changes became so great that any arguments about the working definition itself, any criticisms of it as well as any good points, were just irrelevant. Some of the things that we said at the time were a problem with the definition — that it would limit free speech, especially for Palestinians — have actually come about.

Many serious scholars, such as David Feldman from the Pears Institute and others, critiqued this thing so thoroughly — literally pulled it apart. Peter Ulrich, who is based in the Berlin Tech University Antisemitism Department, has written a 50-page analysis of the IHRA definition on a very academic, technical level, which takes the whole thing apart, without even going into the politics of it. And other people have shown how faulty it is as a definition, yet it’s impossible to get this message across because so many people at a high political level in this country and other countries are treating it as if it is a holy writ that can’t be changed.

It is crucial to see this in a political context. You have to understand that this didn’t come out of some gathering of academics who were chosen independently to come up with this. There was always a political motivation behind it. And the people who had that political motivation never made a secret of it. There’s no accusation here of a conspiracy — both when it was started as the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s definition, and then when it was shifted to become the IHRA definition, the people behind it were very proud of what they were doing, and the Israeli government was involved and supported them.

It is part of the weaponisation of antisemitism that we’ve seen developing over the past 20 or 30 years.

Sophia: In your chapter you take this up very clearly as a question of free speech, but on campuses the far right is trying to use “free speech” as a tool to attack Muslims and others. What is your view about the interpretation of the Macpherson Report that says minorities or oppressed groups must have the right to define their own oppression?

One has to just keep banging on about this and showing people how totally misguided and misleading is this interpretation of Macpherson. It is pretty clear that he was saying the police have to listen to someone who says they have experienced racism and treat it seriously, and make the investigation on the basis that it could be true — not dismiss it out of hand. That’s what the whole Stephen Lawrence case was about.

You have to have some kind of objective yardstick. If someone gets prosecuted for racism it goes before a judge and a jury where you do have an objective yardstick. So the idea that a minority simply defines it for themselves doesn’t work. It can be difficult, partly because of the antisemitism issue where the Jewish voice has been saying only we Jews should be allowed to define what’s antisemitic, but the drawbacks of that apply just as much to antisemitism as they do to other forms of racism.

Clearly if people were interpreting Macpherson properly there wouldn’t be such a bad effect on free speech. What the interpretation does is give the far right an opportunity to say, “What people are saying about us, that’s equivalent to racism, we’re defining it that way”. People need to understand how counterproductive this interpretation is going to be for the future of fighting racism.

Rob: The book addresses the disciplinary measures David Miller faced for framing the state of Israel as a settler-colonial state. That brings us back to this conflation of criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism. What is your take on that?

Well my view is not so far from David’s view on the settler-colonial issue, and I have come to that view from a very different position. I was a very strong, active, young Zionist. I went to live in Israel and I didn’t see it as settler colonialism when I was there. But the more I’ve learned about it the more I’ve come to see that it does fit into that pattern. When Jewish settlement started, the philanthropists Baron de Hirsch and the Rothschilds, who gave money for the farms that Jews wanted to set up there, called them colonies.

It was done within the framework of the positive attitude to colonial enterprise at that time. And all of the attitudes of the early Zionists, and even those of the socialist Zionists, to the indigenous population were very patronising. Whereas the right wing Zionists said, ok, we understand that these people aren’t going to like us but we’ve got to go ahead because our demands are better, the socialists came along and said “We will drain the Arab swamp” — and I’m quoting directly from socialist Zionist sources at the time.

So people who say that criticising Zionism or the state of Israel is antisemitic simply don’t know their history. Anti-Zionism was the default position of most Jews right up until the Second World War and the Holocaust. If all anti-Zionism is antisemitic then you are saying that the majority of Jews in the 1920s and 30s who looked to other solutions were antisemites as well. We should be able to have debates about these questions without having to resort to accusations of antisemitism.

However, the people who are branding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign as antisemitic are winning. Look at France where Macron has said anti-Zionism is antisemitism, or Germany where there is a law against BDS. This is serious stuff in terms of how this narrative has become the dominant one.

Rob: The book concludes by addressing the rise of the far right internationally. What should be our response to the dual problem of accusations around antisemitism and its conflation with anti-Zionism, and the need for broader unity against the far right internationally?

In some ways I have more hope for dealing with the second, for persuading people that a united front is really the way we have to go, than clearing up the first one, the conflation, because that’s where the forces of reaction inside Israel and within the Jewish world more widely are having success. Dealing with that is going to be very difficult.

Sophia: In the book you quote Jewish philosopher Brian Klug: “When antisemitism is everywhere, it is nowhere, and when every anti-Zionist is an antisemite we no longer know how to recognise the real thing. The concept of antisemitism loses its significance.” How far can we connect the far right with the rise of a “new antisemitism” and its weaponisation?

This very dangerous development of figures such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and one could add Boris Johnson, has in some ways totally undermined the concept of the new antisemitism. One of the fundamental elements of the “new antisemitism”, argued by people such as the French Jewish intellectual Bernard Henri Levy, was that there will be no antisemitism in the 21st century except that relating to the state of Israel, because everything else will disappear. And how wrong he has proved to be, because we have all these people now, the far right, the populist right, the white supremacists, reviving the old antisemitism. It is still alive and well — it never went away, which was another reason not to accept the “new antisemitism” narrative. But the new antisemitism narrative is still powerful because it still feeds the anti-BDS movement and so on.

What disturbs me so deeply is that there is a long Jewish tradition of social concern and social justice, and we’ve seen already with this general election that within the Jewish community, the establishment, the Jewish Chronicle and so on, are exceptionalising the Jewish situation and saying this is what everyone really should be worrying about. I find that totally unacceptable.

Yes, there’s a problem of antisemitism and it’s coming up through the right and we need to deal with it, but are Jews discriminated against? Are they prevented from getting employment? I hesitate to use this yardstick, but when you look at other countries where Jews have died — in Pittsburgh last year 11 Jews were killed — we don’t have that here. All this talk about Jews fleeing and wanting to leave, ok I can understand there is fear, but where are they going to go? I really believe, objectively, this is one of the best countries you can be in as a Jew today.

We need to recognise other people’s experiences of racism as well — anti-black racism, Islamophobia, and so on, and work together to build a society and to fight against this in a united fashion, otherwise I fear not just for us but for all minorities and for the state of society more generally.

Rob: Can you tell us something about your own political journey?

I trained as a historian, and moved out of studying British industrial relations to Jewish affairs after I moved back from Israel in 1972, having lived there on a kibbutz for many years and served in the army. Having been a very committed Zionist, I had become disillusioned, particularly from my experiences in the army where I encountered racism against Arabs. That was the beginning for me of a long, slow journey.

After going to work for the Institute for Jewish Affairs, which is now the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, in 1979, and then working at the heart of the Jewish community for 30 years, I became more educated about diaspora Jewish life, about Zionism and what it really was, and changed very radically my views. I feel now there absolutely has to be equal rights for Arabs, for all people who live in the Israel-Palestine area. I don’t demonise my past, but my naivety in the past means I have a responsibility to act on what I now know.

Tony Lerman is one of the authors of Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the party and public belief (Pluto, 2019), available from Bookmarks Bookshop for £14.99. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
He is a visiting Senior Fellow of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna; an Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University.
He is associate editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice, of which he was the editor for many years.