There is something dreamlike in the turmoil in and around the Labour Party about anti-semitism. Episodes occur — Pete Wilsman on the seventy rabbis are pulled out of the memory hole; the meeting Jeremy Corbyn hosted back in 2010...
There are demands for confession, retraction and contrition. Corbyn goes through the motions of responding to the latest revelations, disinterred memory of old events. For sure, his opponents in the party and the Tory press are out to get him.
One of two things then: either they’re telling the truth on this matter or they aren’t. Either there is a problem of anti-semitism in the party or there isn’t. Either his critics are lying or exaggerating, and should then be stood up to and faced down. Or they are telling the truth; in which case Corbyn should energetically set about digging out Labour Party anti-semitism by the roots.
Corbyn agrees there is a problem. He responds under pressure, moves in the direction his critics are pointing to, but it is as if he cannot understand what the fuss is about. He apologises, retracts, insists that he meant no anti-semitism or to be offensive; was not responsible for and did not agree with what other people said, uncontradicted, in his presence. But everything is low energy, insufficient, ineffectual, can be seen or portrayed as evasive, as lacking conviction. John McDonnell has gently distanced himself from Corbyn.
Corbyn can’t get a grip on the situation. His article in the Guardian (3 August) is the latest case in point. Much good sentiment and promises. A principled stand on the right to criticise Israel. And then he defines the situation as one in which the Palestinians have been victims of racism. Losers in a prolonged national conflict, yes. Victims of wrong, yes. And the distinction between racism and Nationalism is habitually blurred. But the false definition of Israel as racist (followed by identification of Israel with South Africa) is one of the main roots of “left” anti-semitism.
The truth, I think, is that Corbyn really does not “get it”, or “get” enough of it. In the thirty-five years he has been an MP, and earlier, he has lived in a world in which what other people defined as anti-semitism was commonplace among much of the ostensible left. Labour Party anti-semitism is in large part an infection from the ostensible left. Corbyn and the people around him and much of the left have been desensitised to anti-semitism because it has long been the norm on the ostensible left. He says he is for two states in Israel-Palestine. Some of his political friends do not support a two-state solution. The intense rhetoric against Israel, its demonisation, the comments on events, is always at a higher volume, is more intense, more all-encompassing, more hysterical, more ‘hate Israel’ than is compatible with a two-state solution.
That of course means recognising not only that the Palestinians have a right to their own state, but also that Israel is a legitimate state and has a right to defend itself. The full scale implications of the continual stream of hatred spewed out does not match with the belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself. It matches the view that Israel is not a legitimate state and that it has no right of self-defence. The kitsch revolutionary left is saturated with it and it is infectious.
This crisis about anti-semitism in the Labour Party was a long time germinating. Take the Morning Star, the paper with which Corbyn seems to agree — he hasn’t said otherwise — and for which he used to write a column until 2015. Recently it published an article loudly proclaiming that anti-semitism in places like Britain will stop if and only if Israel stops ill-treating the Palestinians. It is a nearly plain statement that anti-semitism, and the specially “left” anti-semitism, is justified. That is what many of the “left” anti-semites think. Under criticism the paper apologised for printing it and retracted, for what that was worth.
The Morning Star of course, as the Daily Worker during the full scale anti-semitic campaign of Stalin in the years before 1953, fed into the labour movement much that has now become the commonplace wisdom of the ostensible left. For instance the equation of Zionism and Nazism.
The Labour Left, the Corbyn surge, will inevitably undergo a political process of sifting, differentiating different political positions. The process of sifting and sorting out on this question is long, long overdue.
It is seriously to be doubted that there are many supporters of the left among the leaders of the Jewish community or the editors of the three newspapers that cater to the Jewish community. On a certain level their general politics will feed into the anti-Corbyn agitation. But they are not in this being right-wing zealots or hypocrites. And there will be some amongst them who play close attention to the left, and its incipient pogromist agitation against Israel and those who support it. They are not fools. They know that the “Corbyn surge” has put into power in the Labour Party people who are “absolute anti-Zionists”, people who are radical anti-Israel zealots and supporters of Arab or Islamic conquest of Israel and the forcible abolition of the Jewish state.
And that there are people, including Jeremy Corbyn, who have peacefully co-existed with such people, and shared platforms and publications with them, instead of denouncing and stigmatising them for the anti-semites they are. That for this left, though its sympathy and solidarity is the “good reason”, hostility to Israel — any Israel, with any policy on the Palestinians — is a great deal more powerful than support for the Palestinians. That it is autonomous, self-justifying, self-sustaining. That it finds or merges in with earlier strains of anti-semitism, of which there are many.
The horrible truth that has to be faced is that large parts of the ostensible— for all practical purposes — is anti-semitic, hostile to Israel’s very existence, denying any Israeli right to self-defence. That it endorses and circulates malice-ridden accounts of the history of Zionism and Israel and that from that comes emotion-ridden hostility to Jews who defend Israel and refuse to see it as racism and imperialism incarnate. That is, most Jews alive. That it is a left that allies with Palestinian (Hamas) and other clerical fascists and with groups of people in Arab and Muslim-majority countries who circulate old Nazi anti-semitic filth. That itself circulates the old Stalinist anti-semitic filth. That it consists of people who are not abashed, shamed or inhibited to find themselves running in a pack in full cry after the very people on which the worst racist atrocity in recorded history was inflicted.
In their perception of the left here, Jewish people – whether they are of the left or the right in their general politics – are not mistaken to distrust and be fearful of that group that now leads the Labour Party. They know that the tendency of the ostensible left to use Nazi images and comparisons — preposterous in themselves — to express opposition and criticism to Israel is specifically and pointedly anti-Jewish, a form of jeering and thick-skinned baiting of all Jewish people in their recent tragic history. On one level episodes like the scandal–mongering around the Wilsman affair blows it out of all proportion. He is an irascible old man. His remarks at the Labour Party National Executive, are the words of someone stung in his Labour Party patriotism and simple-mindedly blustering and harrumphing. But what he said illustrates the scale and depth of the problem of left anti-semitism in the party. He hasn’t noticed! But is inability to recognise left anti-semitism or give it proper weight in itself anti-semitism?
The serious question is can Corbyn deal with anti-semitism in the Labour Party? Is not asking him to strike at his long-time friends and associates — including his right hand man Seamus Milne — too much like asking him to lift himself up by his bootstraps?
Corbyn is for two states. If he takes that seriously he should want to sort out the “destroy Israel” people in the Labour Party. He should insist that advocates of the destruction of Israel have no place in the Labour Party; that comparisons of Israel when it does things we don’t like, to the Nazis is not acceptable; that it is pointedly, and deliberately, offensively anti-semitic. It is necessary to preserve the right to criticise Israel as severely as events dictate. But denial of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself is not criticising Israeli actions. It is possible to make specific criticisms or condemn Israeli actions without resorting to obscene and preposterous equations.
Corbyn should sort out the anti-semites.
And by the way: isn’t it time someone started a “Labour’s Critical Labour Friends of Israel” campaign to deal with left anti-semitism and to assert and exercise the right of those who are not anti-semites, and who do not advocate the destruction of Israel to criticise Israel where and when necessary?
Read next: Labour's confusion on anti-Zionism
Further reading on left antisemitism here.
Discussion piece on this article arguing why the AWL needs to be clearer on when Israel is guilty of racism and recognise Corbyn is shifting the debate on Israel-Palestine.