What is the scale of the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, real or imagined? I am not a Labour member so I don’t directly know what happens in Labour meetings around the country, though I obviously read reports and speak to friends who are members. What is the evidence that there is a significant problem with anti-Semitism? Yesterday’s Sunday Times is typical of the anti-Labour hysteria under the headline “Corbyn’s hate machine”, as if he was directing self-selected ‘Corbyn supporting’ sites himself. According to the Sunday Times they investigated over 20 pro-Corbyn sites with a membership of 400,000. They found 2,000 posts in two months which they considered to be “racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist and abusive messages”. Consider the two numbers. How many posts and comments would there be in groups comprising 400,000 members over that time-scale? Let’s conservatively suggest that each member posted just once a week, an improbably low level of activity. There would be 3.2 million posts in eight weeks. The number in reality is probably much higher. As anyone who has been subject to abuse on Facebook knows (and that is most of us) the figures for abuse, in this context, are tiny. You can read here 1 the comments of one of the administrators of one of these groups which has 24,000 members. They are run by volunteers who cannot have absolute control over a group on a 24/7 basis. She explains the efforts she and others make to try to keep out people who make such comments. Anybody who uses Facebook knows that discussion on an individual post can be voluminous. Only the latest posts are visible. You have to dig back to find an entire discussion. Some people spend long hours reading this stuff, most of us prefer the real world. It is easy to miss previous comments. The Sunday Times offers no breakdown of the different categories amongst these 2,000. Read on below or download a PDF here antisemitism1
The abuse being meted out is by no means one sided. However,the media is not interested in investigating abuse directed at members of Jewish groups which support Labour. There is plenty of it. For instance, I just had a look at the Facebook page of Jewish Voices for Labour. Jewish posters who are definitely not Labour supporters question whether the JVL members are real Jews. Some posters appear to believe that you have to be “observant” to be a real Jew. JVL’s viewpoint is caricatured in this way:
“Since we’re “Jewish” and unconditionally support the policies of the State of Palestine and the racist Jeremy Corbyn; then the State of Palestine and Jeremy Corbyn cannot be racist.”
Leave aside the fact that there is not one state in Palestine and JVL members are hardly supporters of Hamas, obviously a non-religious Jew cannot be a real Jew according to this sectarian logic.
Part of the problem is that Jewish members even in the same local parties have completely different perceptions. Recently two Jewish members in Haringey said that they did not feel the party was “a safe space” for them. Eleven other Jewish members replied in a letter saying this was nonsense. There had, of course, been a political battle going on in that party over the housing policy of the Labour Group which has been very heated. The Labour group leader, on announcing she will be stand down, complained that much of the criticism of her was misogynist. Asked to provide evidence of this she could not.
Two years ago, two leaders of the Jewish Labour Movement, which supports Israel as a “Jewish State”, told Jewish News that they had never come across anti-Semitism in the Party. Yet just recently they supported the demonstration organised by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council. This demonstration was supported by, I believe, 13 Labour MPs, and Luciana Berger appears to have spoken on their behalf. I can understand why she in particular is so angry about all the abuse she has received, some of it anti-Semitic, and some of it threatening2. But why she and others believe that they can serve the cause of opposing anti-Semitism in alliance with Sajid Javid, Norman Tebbit and the DUP of all parties, is a mystery. Can they not understand why Labour members and others would consider their alliance with these people as a betrayal of their Party? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some of the people who are taking this public stance against the Labour Party, and Corbyn in particular, are the very same people who have collaborated with the Tory media to try and unseat Corbyn before. Berger herself was one of those who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in an attempt to force him out. John Mann for instance started writing swingeing attacks on Corbyn in the Mail from the early days after he was elected.
The Labour Party is “worse than the BNP”!
Even though the Labour leadership refuses to say it (for reasons which are not clear) this issue is being used by people with a political axe to grind. You only have to read articles attacking Corbyn. You can see why the word hyperbole was invented. “Labour Against Anti-Semitism” (run by ex-Labour Jewish volunteers, to quote their Facebook page) explains that he is “a venal cowardly, anti-Semitic enabling bully”. Corbyn as a bully is a new one. Dan Hodges3 says that Corbyn’s Labour isn’t as bad as the BNP, “its worse”, “its’ far, far worse”. The full quote from Mail (where else) is worth reproducing:
“Corbyn’s party isn’t as bad as the NF or the BP or the EDL. It’s worse. It’s far, far worse. None of these repugnant organisations have ever held any prospect of securing office. Labour does. And as a result it has now become the largest, most high profile racist organisation in the nation.”
This is hysterical bile from a man who has described himself as a “neo-Blairite” and takes his money from the right wing press, paid for attacking Labour.
What is anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism is hatred, prejudice, against Jews because they are Jews. It has long existed in British society, especially in its upper reaches. The casual anti-Semitism in the upper classes found its worst expression in the infamous Daily Mail headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” (of Oswald Mosley). As we know the Duke of Windsor visited Herr Hitler. Yet given Britain’s bloody Imperial past, and the national arrogance which infected the British workers movement, it has existed within the labour movement together with other expressions of racism.4 Socialists should oppose it, not only because it is reactionary, but because it has always been a means of dividing workers, and making them see foreign workers as their problem rather than the people who are exploiting them.
In the aftermath of the holocaust support for Israel was in part fuelled by guilt in the west for the failure of governments to oppose it. Today much of the sharpness of arguments is essentially related to the state of Israel and attitudes towards it, including Labour’s policy. In some respects it is the ferocious arguments between Jews that generates the most heat in the clash between supporters of the Israeli state and those who oppose its oppression and domination of Palestinians/Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories (of which more later).
The recent discussion over a new definition of anti-Semitism highlights some of the political problems. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “working definition”, which has been adopted by the British government and the Labour Party said:
“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestation of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals, and/or, their property, towards Jewish communities institutions and religious facilities.”
This is unexceptional. The problem is with the examples which “serve as illustrations” of anti-Semitism, which are listed after the definition proper.
“Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
This is problematic because it is used by apologists for the Israeli regime, be they Jews or not, to label boycotts or questioning the “Jewish” nature of the state as anti-Semitic. You are, apparently, only allowed to criticise Israel as much as you would other countries, though how this is measured I don’t know.
An even worse example is
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
In my opinion the Israeli state is inevitably a racist state precisely because it is an ethno-religious one (See Israel cannot be both a ‘Jewish state’ and a democratic one 5). Any state defined as the state of just one ethnicity inevitably discriminates against any other ethnic or religious group inside its territory. For all the talk about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East, it is no such thing. Having a vote does not in itself add up to a democratic system.
The media write about the Jewish community as if it was a single entity, devoid or class and political differences. Yet there are many Jewish communities with religious and other organisations competing with each other for influence. The Board of Deputies presents itself as the voice of the Jewish community. It is no such thing. I will write about it and Jonathan Arkush, its Chair, separately6. Suffice it to say here that he is a right wing Tory who has a political axe to grind. At the time of the General Election, before the deal with the DUP had been agreed, he was saying that such a deal would be in the interests of all Jewish people in Britain and Israel. Indeed he led a BoD delegation to visit the DUP in Belfast and found them to be very nice people, great supporters of Israel. However, he did find himself in difficulties and subject to criticism from amongst fellow Deputies when he wrote a letter to Trump welcoming his election. The arrogance of Arkush in particular, a Tory, telling Labour who it must expel is the ultimate arrogance. Corbyn, of course, is no dictator. He cannot personally expel anyone.
It appears to be the case, at least polls tell us that only something like a quarter of British Jews support Labour. This situation cannot be changed without a dialogue, which will not achieve anything if it is a dialogue of the deaf. Supporters of Corbyn need to take seriously the question of anti-Semitism despite the wild exaggerations of the media. Whilst much of what is reported to be anti-Semitism is not, real life occurrences need to be challenged. But attempts to close down debate on Israel by erroneously labelling opinions with which supporters of the Israeli state disagree, as anti-Semitism, must be resisted.
There has long been a very sharp political debate within Jewish communities which centres on contested views on Israel. Like rows in families these can be bitter; very bitter. Justin Schlossberg recounts that his name was placed on a list of ‘self-hating Jews’ by a right wing Jewish group for the crime of attending a demonstration against the occupation. Others have recounted how they have effectively been driven out of synagogues for criticising Israel too sharply.
The left, be they Labour members or not, has to recognise that they are in a minority in Jewish communities. If they are to change the balance of forces they have to conduct the debate with intelligence, and try to win people over (many of them are doing this I should say). This requires measured arguments which don’t indulge in hyperbole. For instance, it is wrong to place an equals sign between Israel and Nazi Germany. There are certainly plenty of fascists in Israel, and even in the government. The Israeli state operates a war machine against Palestinians/Arabs. It is a one-sided war. It has an overwhelming balance of military power in its favour7. Yet it has not exterminated Arabs as Hitler exterminated Jews. Hyperbole only pushes Jewish people into the arms of apologists for the Israeli state. Having said that, it is certainly true that large sections of the Israeli population do express sentiments which are reminiscent of Nazi attitudes towards Jews. This is a legitimate opinion which can be easily verified by reading the Israeli media. In response to an article from a leader of the Israeli Btselem on the recent killings in Gaza I have just read a comment by a disappointed Israeli saying that the IDF has let people down. It had the chance to kill 300,000 but it only killed 16. Other examples are these attitudes:
“Using their kids as cannon fodder is just their delayed method of birth control,” and
“If an entire nation is calling in the name of Allah to kill anyone that doesn’t share their religion…They just lost their birthright…And herewith, the right to exist.”
This level of hatred and racism is very common in the English language Israeli media, though it is not widely reported in the British media. It is one of the bitter ironies of historical experience that people who have been oppressed take on similar attitudes to those who oppressed them, towards some other people.
What should Labour do?
How much anti-Semitism, real or counterfeit, there is in the Labour Party can only be determined by transparent processes. We hear various figures being bandied about in the media about the number of cases, up to 1,000. Yet a complaint which hasn’t been investigated and judged, is alleged anti-Semitism. How many complaints have their been? How many have been upheld as justified, how many have been false complaints? We need to know.
One of the problems with the way the issue has been handled previously in the Labour Party is that under General Secretary McNicol attacks on supporters of Corbyn, including some Jewish members, have been handled in a factional and unjust fashion.
If incidents are judged to be genuine expressions of anti-Semitism then they should be dealt with. Equally, we know that some supporters of Israel consider Jews who oppose the “Jewish state” to be anti-Semitic. This is not true. There is a fundamental difference between those who would speak of Israel or the Jews being driven into the sea, or dismiss all Israeli Jews, and those who believe Israel should be a secular state, “a state of all its citizens”, and not the ethnic-religious one that it is. Nobody should be disciplined for a legitimate political opinion just because you disagree with it. On the other hand political opinions which are based on prejudice or hatred against Jews, because they are Jews, are completely unacceptable.
Finally, we turn to the Jewdas event. Corbyn was apparently visiting the wrong Jews. These are religious Jews who contrary to the lazy and slanderous journalism which declared them to be “extremists”, have in fact called for Ken Livingstone to be expelled from Labour. Ironically, whilst Jon Lansman appears reluctant to tell the BBC what he knows to be true, he was “exposed” speaking to, none other, than a meeting of Jewdas. The Evening Standard managed to get a recording of his speech in which Jon told them that “an awful lot of these cases that are brought to the attention of the compliance unit” are from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which he not unsurprisingly, described as very right wing, given that its patrons include people like Eric Pickles. Needless to say, the CAA has called for Lansman to be disciplined. The CAA, which somewhat improbably declares itself as an “apolitical charity” says it has “submitted a disciplinary complaint against Jeremy Corbyn for bringing the Party into disrepute”. Quite how it can do that as an “apolitical” unaffiliated charity, I do not know. To assist their campaign to have Corbyn and Lansman disciplined they have called a demonstration this Sunday 8th of April at 2 p.m. Needless to say they profess to speak for the whole “Jewish community”.
April 3rd 2018
PS. I have amended the text where it said that socialists have “always” opposed it, to “should”. A friend correctly pointed out that this wasn’t true, something I am obviously aware of, but the formulation rolled easily and unthinkingly off of the keyboard. Even socialists can say things unthinkingly which exhibit prejudices. There are examples of this in Marx himself. People who consider themselves socialists have supported all manner of things which have no socialist content. At one extreme we know of the famous South African slogan, “White Workers of the World Unite”. In the case of Israel would-be socialists could support military rule and domination over the Arab population.
2Three people were given custodial sentences for anti-Semitic abuse of Berger including death-threats but they were from the far-right. Berger Wrote in the Times yesterday that one person, “who I am told is a member of the Labour Party, emailed me to say I should kill myself”. Presumably she has reported it to Labour to check whether or not the person is a member. Obviously it should be investigated.
3In May 2012 although he was a long standing Labour Party member Hodges voted for Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral election, apparently because he was “a unifying figure” as compared to Ken Livingstone!
4See here a fascinating leaflet by Jewish workers in 1895 explaining to English workers that they have the same interests as them. http://libcom.org/files/A_Voice_From_The_Aliens_(reprint_of_1895_pamphlet).pdf It was a response to an anti-aliens resolution at the TUC Congress in Cardiff.
6The BoD describes itself as “the voice of the Jewish community”, an arrogant and sectarian notion. There is no more one Jewish community than there is one Muslim community. In response to the recent events in Gaza it regurgitated the views of the IDF.