Antisemitism overstated?

Submitted by AWL on 1 December, 2020 - 8:21 Author: Rhodri Evans
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Phil Pope (web comment):

Do you think the scale of antisemitism in Labour was understated, overstated, or defined precisely as it is? Do you think there is more or less antisemitism in Labour than in other political parties or in society at large. As you have quoted the CST (which you generously describe as a community charity) you might want to refer to their research.

Rhodri Evans replies:

Antisemitism in Labour — “understated, overstated, or defined precisely as it is?”, asks Phil Pope.

The current blow-up in the Labour Party started with Jeremy Corbyn choosing (when he could just have kept quiet) to respond to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report by saying that he did not accept “all its findings” and his opponents had “dramatically overstated” the issue.

The EHRC report, whatever about Alasdair Henderson (who worked on it) being a right-winger, made no estimate of “how big” antisemitism has been in Labour. Taking a selection of complaints, it found that accredited Labour representatives (National Executive members, councillors) had made antisemitic statements without adequate redress, and more generally that there was no reliable process for complaints.

That’s not overstating. Instructively, no-one in Labour has been ready to advocate challenging the findings in court, the only real way to do so.

But the EHRC report should be discredited by other people having “overstated”? Why?

Corbyn’s basis for claiming overstatement was a poll in which, taking out numerous “don’t knows”, people made an average 34% guess for the percentage of Labour members facing complaints of antisemitism. The real figure, said Corbyn, was 0.3%.

As a maths teacher, I’m sure the 34% figure tells us mostly about how my comrades in the trade and myself fail on teaching about percentages and about “Fermi problems”. (Making good large-number estimates on scrappy information. No wonder about that, because Fermi problems aren’t in English maths school syllabuses, whereas a heap of soon-forgotten clutter is. But that’s another story...)

If people had been asked to choose between 2, or 20, or... up through 200,000 to 2,000,000, for the number complained against, I’d guess an average answer closer to 2,000 (around 0.3%) than to 200,000 (around 34%).

Corbyn’s response said “even one antisemite is too many”, as if it might have been three or four. That was understatement. So was his message that antisemitism exists in Labour only because Labour is a large organisation in an imperfect society.

Fuss about nothing?

Phil refers to a report by Daniel Staetsky available on the CST website which found that the proportion of people describing themselves as “very left-wing” who held many antisemitic views (on the level of “Jews think themselves better than others”, or “have different interests from the rest of the people in Britain”) was only slightly higher than the proportion among slightly-left or centre people holding them, and much smaller than among “very right-wing” people.

So it’s all a fuss about nothing? But as Staetsky rightly says: “One might assume that those on the far left of the political spectrum would be more likely to hold anti-racist ideas than the population as a whole...”

And Staetsky specifically doesn’t consider antisemitism of the form that tags Jews who have a reflex (if critical) identification with Israel by default as “Zionists”, and equated that with “praetorians of the right and of racism”. We have made progress in pushing back that sort of antisemitism, especially among younger people in the left, but we don’t think we overstate its prevalence among the older “1980s returners” types.

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