There are lots of positives in Jeremy Corbyn’s article “I will root antisemites out of Labour – they do not speak for me”, which has just been published in the Guardian (3 August).
Corbyn condemns attempts to belittle concerns expressed by the Jewish community. He acknowledges that Labour has “a real problem” in that trust between the Party and the Jewish community is at a “low ebb”. He pledges that Labour will take steps to resolve that problem.
A Labour government will defend all aspects of Jewish life. Antisemitism will be driven out of the Labour Party for good. Education and training will provide party members with a “deeper understanding” of antisemitism.
Further consultation will take place with Jewish community groups about Labour’s Code of Conduct on Antisemitism, widely criticised for not have included all International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance examples of antisemitism word-for-word.
But then Corbyn writes: “In the 1970s some on the left mistakenly argued that ‘Zionism is racism’. That was wrong, but to assert that ‘anti-Zionism is racism’ now is wrong too.”
This is, at best, confusing on a number of levels.
It is true that in the 1970s some on the left argued that Zionism was a form of racism. It was a canard propagated internationally by the Soviet Union, then in the midst of the most virulently antisemitic state-organised campaign the world had seen since Nazi Germany.
But some on the left have continued to argue that Zionism is a form or racism (or fascism) ever since, and still do so. If it was “mistaken” (a rather charitable expression) to hold that view in the 1970s, it is surely equally “mistaken” to do so today.
So why, so to speak, kick that issue back into the 1970s?
Then there is the statement: “To assert that ‘anti-Zionism is racism’ now is wrong too.”
True, anti-Zionism is not necessarily racism, just as criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. But the form in which antisemitism expresses itself today is primarily in the guise and language of anti-Zionism and hostility to the realisation of the Zionist project, i.e. the existence of the state of Israel.
Ironically, Corbyn’s own article contains a hyperlink to an article by Dave Hirsh (author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism”) which makes exactly that point:
“(Those who equate) Zionism=Nazism=racism=apartheid license people to relate to Jews who do not identify themselves as anti-Zionists as racists, Nazis, or defenders of apartheid. To relate to Jews in this way is dangerous. The danger is that it will lead to the emergence of an antisemitic movement.”
Most contemporary forms of ‘anti-Zionism’ also incorporate, albeit to differing degrees, traditional antisemitic tropes – rich Jews/Zionists, powerful Jews/Zionists, manipulative Jews/Zionists, etc., etc.
This brand of ‘anti-Zionism’ is not an all-round antisemitic worldview in which Zionists/Jews are blamed for all the world’s evils. But it is an ‘anti-Zionism’ which involves – to use an expresion of Dave Hirsh – anti-semitic ways of thinking.
Instead of confronting that particular form of antisemitism – the actually existing one in the Labour Party (and in the trade union movement as well) – Corbyn’s article retreats into the comfort zone of incontrovertible examples of antisemitism:
“Labour staff have seen examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers [didn’t someone once paint a mural with that theme?], conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel, and even one individual who appeared to belive that Hitler had been misunderstood.”
Corbyn gives a commitment in his article to “root out antisemitism in our party” and to “drive antisemitism out of the party for good.”
But the first stage in achieving that doubtlessly genuine held goal involves, to use Corbyn’s own words, “fostering a deeper understanding” of (the) antisemitism” contained in certain forms of ‘anti-Zionism’, as opposed to giving anti-Zionism an unqualified clean bill of health.