Undigested thoughts on Labour's antisemitism problem

These thoughts are are the most undigested I've ever put in a blogpost, but I just wanted to get them down. They're based on an email I dictated into my phone while walking this morning, so blame Apple's auto-correct for any typos. Actually, why not blame Apple for any errors of judgement on my part too. 

The start is responding to Asa Winstanley in Electronic Intifada, but it could just as equally be responding to Jamie Stern-Weiner in OpenDemocracy, Graham on Twitter, the Jewish Socialist Group or half my left-wing friends. 

Basically, I have two problems with this sort of response. First, I find the whole idea of an all-powerful "Lobby" making accusations of antisemitism and manipulating the party smacks of conspiracy theory thinking, reminiscent of right wing fantasies about "Eurabia", "creeping sharia" or "white genocide", and specifically reminiscent of old antisemitic fantasies of secret Jewish tentacular power.

Second, it requires a highly selective sampling of the recent antisemitism allegations in Labour. Some of the allegations can be dismissed or at least aren't that serious. Others, however, are harder to dispense with in this way. The list of allegations is just so long that it is unsustainable to say they don't add up to something worrying and significant. I think, as Owen Jones says, we need to really take this seriously and try to understand it.

I'm tired of seeing Labour councillors and local Momentum branches retweeting active Holocaust deniers. I'm sick of hearing that the accusation of antisemitism is used to "shut down criticism of Israel" - as if joking about deporting Jews or saying that Hitler's early work was good "before he went mad" is simply "criticism of Israel". 

Sure, not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism - but some is. When a Ken Livingstone social media acolyte who dismisses antisemitism then calls George Soros (who has basically only ever criticised Israel) a "Zionist" you know that "Zionist" means something other than what it used to mean for that person. When John Mann (who has never, to my knowledge, actually expressed a view about Israel and is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel) is routinely called a "Zionist" because he cares about antisemitism, then something is wrong.  

The response that it is a question of "crying antisemitism" is a dangerous one, and we see it too when the right talk about the "Islamophobia industry" or about black people "playing the racism card" or women "playing the sexism card". Leftists (e.g. OpenDemocracy) would not consider giving the time of day to this kind dismissal of other racisms, and shouldn't here. (Imagine if they defended UKIP on the basis that it's just a few rotten apples that are actually racist.) 

I'm not saying everyone who ever utters an antisemitic comment should be sent to the gulag or silenced - or even necessarily kicked out of the party. (I think Naz Shah's apology, for example, is heartfelt and serious and she should be welcomed back to the party.) But I think there needs to be a really serious, difficult process of working out where things went wrong and actually stamping this shit out.

However, I do feel that a kind of hysteria has developed around this. A few untruths, half-truths and exaggerations have diluted the authority of those calling out antisemitism. Baroness Neuberger's bizarre allegation that Militant were antisemitic would be one example; Boris Johnson's description of antisemitism as a "virus" in the party is also absurd. 

And all too often people calling out Naz Shah for her antisemitism on social media would, quite quickly, descend into making racist generalisations about Muslims,  thus forfeiting their right to lecture anyone about racism against Jews.

And clearly the agenda of Andrew Gilligan or Guido Fawkes (those doing the muck raking) is deeply distasteful. It sickens me to hear Cameron and Johnson lecture Labour about this - not least while Lynton Crosby runs Goldsmith's dirty, dog whistle racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and Tory Brexiteers drop ominous warnings about "uncontrolled immigration".

And I'm sure there are some Labour "moderates" fanning these flames out of resentment at Corbyn. (Although the widely circulating idea that they have orchestrated this to undermine Labour's election chances next week is frankly absurd - unless you think that Ken Livingstone's motor mouth is secretly under their control.)

It's also clearly true that some of the strongest antisemitism allegations relate to people who joined long before the Corbyn win (e.g. Gerry Downing) and/ or to members who have nothing at all to do with his movement (e.g. Khadim Hussain). However, there does seem to be some overlap between the pro-Corbyn keyboard warriors and the most vociferous defenders of antisemitism. (If you look at the Twitter scene around Scott Nelson for example.) It's important to distinguish this milieu from the people who are actually active offline in Momentum - and clearly it serves the interests of both Tories and Labour "moderates" to blur that distinction - but it does disturb me, given the numerical dominance of the Corbynites in the new Labour Party.

So, I would strongly defend Labour from those who say that this stuff is "rife" in the party. It's not, contra Boris, a "virus" in the party. Most party members are appalled by it. But I do think that Labour, and the left as a whole, does have some kind of a problem with antisemitism. And it needs - we need - to face up to it.

On Corbyn: Corbyn and the Holocaust deniers
On Ken: Ken's antisemitism
On left antisemitism: Nonsense about the Jewish lobby


A "virus" seems quite an appropriate way of formulating the problem. A virus can be dormant, or manifest its presence in weak symptoms that are easy to ignore or dismiss. It is important not to do so, in order to prevent the full-blown disease that is bound to ensue if this virus is left untended. Sometimes the cure can be as simple as consuming large doses of vitamin C. If you reject the very likelihood of a virus infection, you may end up escorting the afflicted body on its way to the morgue.

All of which to say that I think you are not yet paying enough attention to the problem.

Another thing: You can't compare antisemitism with "Islamophobia". The latter sure exists in some form but it is unlikely to flourish the way antisemitism does, for some very obvious reasons:

There are 1.5B Muslims in the world + large swathes of the West's Left are always alert and ready to pounce on any mention of Islam or Muslim in some negative connotations. Muslims do not have the history Jews have when it comes to phobia materializing into mass physical harm. Quite the contrary. Much of Islamic rage comes from its historical triumphs and achievements not being recognized enough.

So please. Let's not compare the hazards of Islamophobia with the very real menace of antisemitism. It is enough to look at the present agonies of your Labour Party to realize how little caring there is for Jewish concerns.

Let me remind you of Orwell's example:

"Intelligent woman, on being offered a book dealing with antisemitism and German atrocities: “Don't show it me, please don't show it to me. It'll only make me hate the Jews more than ever.”

As Arendt wrote somewhere: "If you understand the common acts of human cruelty you will get a sense of how ... [under] similar conditions, something similar could happen again. ..."

bob said…
CC, a very persuasive point on "virus" and superb quotes at the end.

On the Islamophobia comparison: i'm not sure I'm saying there akin to each other exactly. I'm simply saying there's something similar about (a) the paranoid fantasy of alien power in the idea of the Jewish lobby or the idea of, say, creeping sharia, (b) the gambit of denial in the "crying X" or "playing the X card" allegations. Most of today's liberals and leftists can recognise the paranoid fantasy as such when it's about Muslims, and recognise the racism in the denial when it's about Muslims – but cannot recognise it when it's about Jews. This selective blindness is, I think, the essence of Labour's antisemitism problem.
bob said…
*they're akin, rather
Nick said…
I'm not a committed leftist like you, but I think this is a great piece, exactly because you don't claim to just know everything. I personally think you are a bit liberal with benefit of the doubt for Labour, but better that than the other way round.
Yes, I understand what you are saying but there are many readers who will not get the limited analogy you are making.

I suspect that it is not "selective blindness" that causes progressives' (not "liberals" by any means)failure to recognize the racism when it's about Jews. It's more of a deliberate shrug of indifference. They don't recognize Jewish suffering as suffering but as a privilege.
Rob Smith said…
A lot of the antisemitism is careless words, and Israel's apologists blur the line between anti-zionism and antisemitism.
Sarah AB said…
A really interesting post. I was saying yesterday to someone that it can't be denied that some of Corbyn's opponents within Labour will be using this to attack him. However it is also true - though Naz Shah, for example, made her comments and got elected before JC was leader - that one reason Corbyn's opponents oppose him is because they are worried about this and related issues, so it's less that they are weaponising this in an unprincipled way, more that they are pouncing on further evidence of a problem they feel perceive to be very serious. I would find it difficult to articulate quickly my views on the relationship between antizionism and antisemitism but I think the people leading the enquiry look as though they won't think a/z = a/s but *will* be very alert to the intersection. I'd be interested to know if anyone has further info about one of the points in the EI article - that one of the worst allegations in the Oxford Labour case has no foundation.
quisquose said…
Is it Israel's apologists that blur the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, or anti-Semites?

I think it's both, but rather suspect it's more of the latter than the former.

How else am I to understand the peculiar emphasis on the actions of government of Israel that we should be critical of, compared to those of many others that go unquestioned?
"Israel's apologists"

Because, you see, Israel has to apologize for its existence. Reminds you of something? And then the same person whines that "the line between anti-zionism and antisemitism." is "blurred".

There may be a certain line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism but, to put it bluntly, antisemites do not get to mark that line.
KB Player said…
Good piece. Livingstone's crap and those supporting him through thick and thin - waving the F***** Harvara whatsit & pasting links to Wikipedia articles on Simon Schama's timeline - have made me sick.

Shah's apology sounded sincere and I don't like firing everyone and anyone who says things that are out of turn. It could have been settled, if Livingstone hadn't opened his stupid ignorant gob.
Rob Smith said…
Contentious Centrist

The phrase Israel's apologists is nothing new, the suggestion that Israel apologise for it's existence is yours not mine. If you object to those two words please be so kind as to suggest an alternative phrase for those people that seek to mitigate Israel's numerous, and well documented, human rights abuses.

I would agree with you Sir that anti-semites do not get to mark the line between between anti-semitism and anti-zionism, but I would add nor do those folk that mitigate Israel's numerous human rights abuses.
Apparently, in your worldview, Robert Smith, Israel is indefensible because anyone who defends Israel and what it has to do in order to defend its citizens from a genocidal enemy, are "apologists" for "Israel's numerous human rights abuses." I don't see in your comment or suggestion anything that helps me or anyone with a decent position to advocate for Israel and still be considered a human being.

You see how the line is so easily blurred between your anti-Zionism and your antisemitism that lies there under the veneer of "human rights"?

The only thing that stands between Palestinian longing for the mass murder/total expulsion of Jews and the achievement of their openly-declared goal is the fact that Israel won't let them acquire the means to do so, and Israel's will to do whatever it takes to ensure its people live secure (that, too, is a human right, you know). So you call that "mitigating for human rights abuses". Your worldview demotes Jews from being humans, because, in your mind, they deserve being punished by Palestinians, even when that punishment involves some dead Israelis.

Feel free to correct this impression. Explain to your readers how it is possible to contain Palestinian genocidal rage without resorting to military and policing
means that interfere with their ability to roam freely on Israel's streets.

And if you say "occupation" please explain how this fits in with your explanation:

Rob Smith said…

I haven't actually said "Israel is indefensible", and I certainly haven't suggested an apologist for Israel can't be "considered a human being". And what have I said to warrant "your worldview demotes Jews from being humans, because, in your mind, they deserve being punished by Palestinians, even when that punishment involves some dead Israelis" ? I object to that statement, and I object you attributing that position to me. You are not able to read my mind. I have never said or written anything about punishing Jewish people, or anything of the kind.

On top of that you have obliquely accused me of anti-semitism , but I challenge you show me what are the actual words I am supposed to have used to justify your accusation ? If you can find them I will delete them and apologise. But I don't think you can, for one thing I doubt that Bob would allow his blog to be used for such a vile purpose. No, your accusation relies on something else entirely. My critical stance on Israel.

And that is the point that I made in the first place. When Israel is criticised , loud enough and long enough, one tends to see it countered with an accusation of anti-semitism. It works even when there is no anti-semitism, not least because it forces the critic to go over old ground.

It's a deplorable tactic to thwart legitimate criticism of a country's human rights record and chill freedom of speech. It is probably Blairites raising the spectre of anti-semitism in this febrile atmosphere because criticism of Israel tends to come from the left.
"but I challenge you show me what are the actual words I am supposed to have used to justify your accusation?"

That's simple enough:

"Israel's apologists blur the line between anti-zionism and antisemitism."

Try to work your mind around the terms and argument you use in this ostensibly off-the-cuff comment. It is suffused with slander, suspicion and bad faith, components of a certain disdainful attitude towards the Jewish state that is never manifested against any other democracy, like UK, or France, or Greece.
Rob Smith said…
That sentence doesn't even mention Jewish people. I'm not going to give way to you on 'a certain disdainful attitude' . Let me put it another way, I find that criticisms of Israel often incur accusations of anti-semitism. I'm sure you know what I mean, since you have been fast and loose with your accusations of anti-semitism. Israel isnt the only country that gets my ire from time to time, so I reject your assertion about not comparing it to other countries. Comparisons aren't always helpful or appropriate. Every time I hear of a child killed by the IDF it saddens me , I don't go yes but how many kids did the British Greeks or French kill in a given time.
"That sentence doesn't even mention Jewish people."

You mean this sentence?

"Israel's apologists blur the line between anti-zionism and antisemitism." ?

Let's see what your sentence is offering:

1. that "Israel's apologists" are not mostly Jewish.
2. that there is no defense that can be provided of Israel which is not an "apologetics". Apologists are defensive people who make excuses for what is universally acknowledged as inexcusable. Your primary assumption is that there can be no logical ethical justification for Israel. Israel, in its entirety, in its essence, in its very identity and being, is inexcusable.
3. that Israel's defenders are deliberately and cunningly blurring criticism of Israel's very identity (Zionism) with antisemitism (slandering of Jews qua Jews).

In order for this statement to be clean of any antisemitic intent you need to explain:

1. Who are most likely to be offended by the proposition that the Jewish state is indefensible?

2.Why is defense of Israel always, unrelievedly inexcusable?

3. In what way is this de-facto total and unmitigated criminalization of Israel, A JEWISH STATE, not of the same malevolence as criminilaztion of Jews qua Jews?

In support of #3, let me point out your choice of example of Israel's criminality: "Every time I hear of a child killed by the IDF". What I hear is this: The young Jewish men and women, or those other Israelis who are not Jewish but do the bidding of Jews, who serve in Israel's army, are murderers of non-Jewish children.

From this one derives the following conclusions:

1. that Israeli soldiers are child-murderers
2. if soldiers are child-murderers, that means they are not soldiers but just murderers.
3. A people whose soldiers are an army of murderers is never a legitimate people.
4. An a-priori criminal people cannot be justifiably defended or have any legitimate claims for self-defense. Deliberate murderers do not defend themselves; they are murderers.

Never mind the leap that takes place in your mind from a discussion about anti-zionism/antisemitism to the classical blood libel.

I can only assume that your mind is turned against Jews qua Jews. Whether this mindset is triggered by talk of Israel is irrelevant. The fact is that the only way you can discuss Israel is in term of total criminality, and that criminality you explain as Israelis being child-murderers. The first horror you latch onto for example, happens, just happens, to be, a modernized accusation of the blood-libel. There is a vicious mindset in this which suggests an incontinent need to twist the knife in the Jewish heart.

AS for your final sanctimonious self-cleansing: You spend an inordinate amount of time looking at Israel's "crimes", and spreading your accusations that Israeli soldiers are actually child-murderers, and Israel is an entity undeserving of any consideration of fairness or charity or compassion ("Israel's apologists").

This you may fantasize constitutes anti-Zionism. You are extremely careful not to mention the word "Jew". Yet there is no bona-fide Jew who who would meet your standard of decency. Most Jews like and support Israel, most Jews know that Israel acts in self-defense, most Jews know that IDF soldiers DO NOT MURDER Palestinian kids. Ergo, the only conclusion is that as far as you are concerned, most Jews are complicit in mega-crimes.

Your absence of antisemitism is about as credible as if you assured us that when you walk in a heavy rain, you manage to walk in-between the drops and remain dry.

I hope this is satisfactory. No doubt you spend just as much time and outrage capital in stalking other nations, like the Brits, or the Germans. I will be most interested to read the mountainous piles of words you have written about those pure nations.
I can't help noting how it takes so many words to dispel the venom of one short calumny. Which message is more easily digested? The short lie or the laborious explanation as to why it is a lie?

This has always been the weapon of the slanderous propagandeer. The lie is always so much more attractive, less resistible. Short message. Directed at a known and disliked target, sure to find favour with certain wretched groups of resenters. The pure genius of know-nothing radical losers. You find these linguistic achievements in KKK dens and Nation of Islam rallies.

Popular Posts