With one exception, I have tried to stay away from the anti-semitism in the Labour Party. It has become a fraught topic where even a single word can be taken out of context and assumption of bad faith is immediate as accusations are thrown about freely. Nevertheless, I will write down some thoughts.
I am quite sure Corbyn is not an anti-semite. A tour of East London Jewish landmarks I once went on was led by a man called David Rosenberg who spends his spare time researching London’s Jewish history and showing people around what still survives of it. He knows Corbyn personally, he said, thinks highly of him and describes him as one of the ‘least racist people in Parliament’.
It is unlikely that Rosenberg is a closet anti-semite, deviously seeking to mislead the public about Corbyn —his would then be an odd pastime indeed. He is also less likely to be mistaken in his assessment than the critics who, to my knowledge, do not have this kind of personal connection. What is true is that Corbyn and Rosenberg are both anti-Zionists — but, as I see it, for them this harks back to the days when Zionism was merely one of the many competing movements among British Jews. The argument that ‘for Corbyn, being anti-Zionist means being anti-semitic’ crumbles on those grounds alone even before we get to the more modern arguments about the differences between the two.
So far so good. The bad news is that left-wing anti-semitism is very real, has always existed and has never been adequately dealt with by Labour, indeed by any left-wing party. After being ignored for many years, the issue hit the headlines in 2016 and, instead of feeling aggrieved, the party should have adjusted to the new political climate by taking swift action. For example, an external, impartial, organisation could have been brought in (at least temporarily) to handle both disciplinary cases and diversity training. This did not happen, prevented by a mistrust of outsiders and a sense of disbelief that ‘people who fought racism all their lives’ were not beyond reproach for that reason alone. A publicity drive emphasising the tropes and stereotypes to avoid and explaining why they were offensive, likewise, should have also been undertaken immediately and a request for every party member to go through their past social media and apologise for any clear past instance of them being anti-semitic should have been made.
Instead, the party entrusted things to its oblique and arcane disciplinary process. The past few days have seen many claims and counter-claims about how that went and until the EHRC investigates the final verdict has to wait — however several things already seem likely. The great inconsistency in how various cases were assessed as well as rumours of people being ‘protected’, suggest a party in which personal connections matter a great deal. Christine Shawcroft’s downfall over her defense of Alan Bull is probably the most egregious known example. These connections might not have been to the leader’s office, merely to someone able to influence disciplinary proceedings, but, even then, such interference is a very serious problem.
Lack of opacity and the length of time it took to decide each case were the other big issues. In spite of confidentiality, justice needs to be seen to be done. People submitted complaints and did not hear anything for months, leaving them feeling they were not being listened to. Likewise, some of the people suspended also met with a wall of silence. It seems that procedures to inform either party in the complaint of the likely time frames or of the progress of the case were not in place. As a result of this, officials were, allegedly, able to sit on cases for a very long time.
I do not think, on current evidence, that this amounts to institutional racism as defined by MacPherson: the party was/is equally likely to fail you regardless of race or indeed of the nature of complaint. Nor am I a fan of ‘zero tolerance’, as expelling members into the wider society does nothing to make the said society less racist: in many cases a warning and diversity training are a better course of action for first-time offenders, giving them a chance to reform. But every decision needs to be clearly justified, its reasoning laid out in full, as much as confidentiality and data protection issues would allow.
It hardly needs saying that the other main parties are no better when it comes to enforcing member discipline— the Tories’ recent struggles over Islamophobia mirror Labour’s problems over anti-semitism with a surprising number of parallels. They, like Labour, are built around personal and often familial ties— witness the widespread nepotism all around Westminster. Perhaps more significantly, any political party has an instinctive desire to hush things up rather than take the political damage of an actual resolution. Unfortunately, for Labour several issues made the consequences particularly severe.
When the first cases of anti-semitism hit the headlines, the reaction from Corbyn’s critics was vastly hyperbolic, and this surprised nobody. Hyperbolic attacks, on just about every big issue, coming from both within the party and outside were an almost daily occurrence. This felt like merely the latest in a long list — and got the same response. To this day, too many tend to hear ‘I am against democratic socialism’ whenever anyone brings up the anti-semitism problem in Labour. This led to the voicing of genuine grievances being treated with hostility. No doubt, among the hostile crowd there may well have been genuine anti-semites, acting out of dislike for Jews. There would have been others who were committed anti-racists, yet had a tendency to slip into anti-semitic tropes. However, for most, the motivation was surprise that this issue suddenly became a red line. Gary Younge brilliantly highlighted this: many of the people who now insist antisemitism and Brexit are red lines, to be given priority over everything else, took the opposite position during the Iraq war, asking members opposed to it to stick with Labour in spite of it, to focus on what was progressive and good. Members wondered why they couldn’t now, in the same way, focus on fixing the glaring economic injustices in the British society (which to them meant lending support to Jeremy Corbyn) and sort out the disciplinary problems in due course.
Unsurprisingly, this led to an even more severe reaction, with talk of tribalism, cults, a party full of racists, a party comfortable with racism and so on. Those on the other side of the divide tend to hear ‘I am against Jews’ when somebody points out that the democratic socialism comes first whilst fixing the culture within the party is important but of a lower priority. People who itched to explain Corbyn’s appeal by something else than the obvious ‘popularity of his economic policies’ leapt onto the bandwagon and spun even more theories about ‘the intolerant Left’, about how conspiracy theories were inherent to ‘their belief’. This only served to reinforce the case of those who claimed this was all a politically motivated attack on a party with a transformative economic agenda and a proud record of fighting racism.They feel the Left is tolerant, is accepting of dissenting opinions, as long as it is not feeling unfairly maligned.
I, personally, accept that Labour screwed up. The bare facts of what happened, the clearly anti-semitic incidents that occurred in meetings and on social media are not disputable. However, the hyperbolic interpretation repeatedly placed on these facts seeks to massively inflame tensions — where reasonable criticism might help to build bridges, deliberately over-the-top attacks do the opposite. One example is the talk of an ‘existential threat to the UK Jewish community’ from Labour — even right-wing figures admit it does not stand up to scrutiny. The people engaged in such over-the-top hyperbole are doing nothing to make British society less racist — even should they succeed in ousting Corbyn. And it is doubtful if they can do even that — the wider electorate are either not interested or, like myself, do not see this as a red line at a time when austerity is biting and the far right is on the march. Electoral concerns are, of course, secondary here: given the history of Jewish socialism and the close ties of that whole community to the Left, a decisive parting of the way between the two is a tragedy for that reason alone.
Yet another example of hyperbole is the creation of a narrative about the ‘anti-semitic Left’, through which every word and every action by its leading figures is explained. The Left dislikes finance, the narrative goes, because it dislikes Jews. The Left sees the world in terms of class, in terms of elites and rigged systems because it believes in conspiracies which ultimately also come back to Jews. There is a very tiny fringe who do believe in conspiracies, quite small in number — yet they are presented as being pivotal. The others, supposedly, are just like them, but hide their extreme beliefs.
In fact, leading figures on the Left go to some pains to stress that there is nothing conspiratorial about acknowledging the existence of vested interests and privilege — see Owen Jones’ ‘Establishment’ for a relatively short discourse. There is a systemic problem created by people following and defending their self-interest, the ‘British elite’ being not a secret cabal but an alliance of interests. (Besides, its members are overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and not Jewish.) When we claim the system is ‘rigged’, there is no clandestine group who might have rigged it, but merely a set of design flaws to be solved — such as dealing with tax avoidance or ensuring better equality of opportunity — and powerful people who stand in the way of such resolutions as they stand to lose personally from them. When the Left do point fingers at individuals forming clandestine organisations, this is fact based — for example, consider Jane Mayer’s brilliant expose of right-wing billionaires organising their resources to better promote their ideology or Carole Cadwalladr’s work exposing the funding behind the Leave campaigns.
Yet, this does not stop Socialist criticisms of structural problems being constantly labelled anti-semitic — the latest effort being by Anthony Wallersteiner, of Stowe School, who likened criticism of private schools and the elite to anti-Semitic abuse. You’ve heard it kids —statistics is now an officially anti-Semitic science. Pointing out the existence of educational inequality is supposedly a conspiracy theory. Wallersteiner was slated for his comments, but they are just a more extreme example of the tendency to use accusations of anti-semitism to attack critiques of nepotism, cronyism and vested interests. I have heard criticisms of the bankers, even the use of the word ‘neo-liberalism’ associated to anti-semitism, ‘because they both fit into a conspiratorial mindset’.
How are such grotesque interpretations of reality possible? The answer is: through constant assumption of bad faith and of hidden, sinister motives. By assuming at the outset one’s opponent to be an anti-semite concealing their true beliefs, having taken as a starting point the narrative of ‘the Left being naturally anti-semitic’, it is possible to claim to have used one’s Sherlock-like powers of deduction to suss them out, force their mask to slip, typically because of a single word they’ve used or a remark they made. (In reality, this is nothing more than a lesson on the meaning of confirmation bias.) In the process, one has to construct increasingly convoluted logical chains to explain why the word or remark in question really ‘betrays anti-semitic intent’.
Even people not obviously connected to Labour are automatically assumed to harbour such bad intentions. Recently, the journalist Iain McWhirter decided to tweet, quite mundanely, about the anti-semitism ‘smears’ against Labour. At which point I was surprised to discover that the very word ‘smear’ is, according to some, anti-semitic. Because 87% of Jews think Labour is anti-semitic, the story goes, to suggest that there is a ‘smear’ against Labour is paramount of accusing them all of a dishonest conspiracy. The fallacy here is clear — the word ‘smear’ pre-supposes a relatively small number of bad-faith actors who manage to mislead, not a massive, dishonest conspiracy in which hundreds of thousands are involved. Nor is there a requirement for the bad-faith actors to co-ordinate, a necessary condition for a conspiracy. Labour are used to being smeared — who can forget the Sun in 1992 or the smears about Ed Milliband’s father — and the use of the word smear has to be seen in that context.
Being able to tell people, groups of people, that they are wrong is a fundamental part of the democratic debate. Denying that it is possible for groups of people to be misled goes against both common sense and just about everything we know about propaganda and the way it works. Of course, the facts are the facts, no one denies the existence of a genuine problem with anti-semitism but it is the specific interpretation, one that lacks any sense of proportion, placed on those facts that is the main component of the ‘smear’.
This is a typical ‘attack against a term’. You take a term that you feel is crucial to your opponent’s argument and try to pin negative connotations onto it — ‘only a racist would use this word’ in this case. If you succeed, your opponents stop being able to use the term in question, meaning they cannot put their thoughts across as clearly or succinctly. And even if you only succeed partially, your opponent next time would watch every word, think of every possible meaning, fearful of another barrage of emotive accusations.
It is also a result of the assumption that anyone who chooses to defend Labour, anyone who accepts anything bar the most hyperbolic description of its anti-semitism problem, is a racist anti-semite hiding behind a respectable veneer. This means, given the numbers of people prepared to defend Corbyn and vote for Labour, that one has to allege bad faith and hidden intentions on quite an alarming scale. Therefore this, quite legitimately, can itself be called a conspiracy theory: one alleging a conspiracy of conspiracy theorists, no less.
This neatly fits into the already existing (mostly right-wing) narratives about the Left being covert Communists, Stalinists or Islamists, a fifth column constantly trying to see how much of its hidden agenda we could accomplish whilst ‘staying acceptable to the electorate’. So there is a symmetry there: on one extreme we have the people who mistakenly believe that the Rothschilds control the world, on the other those who think a large part of the Left to be an evil, anti-Semitic/Communist/Islamist plot hiding their true intentions.
With the populist Right on the march, we need to try resolve our differences to stop giving them easy ammunition. This entails being able to criticise each other constructively and an end to rhetoric that is unhelpful, alarmist and hyperbolic.
PS: I have managed to write a blog post on anti-semitism mentioning Israel precisely once. However, enough cases of anti-semitism in Labour are in no way borderline and in no way justifiable by the need to hold Israel to account for to not be a significant omission. Left-wing anti-semitism hurts the Palestinian solidarity movement by hardening attitudes inside Israel and any true supporter of the Palestinian cause needs to fight it for that reason alone.
PPS: A perfect example of the hyperbole materialised in the wake of Glyn Secker’s speech at a pro-Palestine rally (of which you can see the text here). It was a horrible speech, full of anti-semitic tropes and almost designed to rile and offend. Yet, the Jewish Chronicle proceeded to attack it for what it didn’t say, choosing the misinterpret it in order to make it seem far more than it was. Criticism needs to be accurate, else it just helps reinforce both sides’ point of view.