What we say and the way we say it? Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

As a member of the left of the Labour Party I find the anti-Semitism scandal to be really, really chilling. A sort of McCarthyism in overdrive. Rational debate is simply not possible. I personally find the accusations of antisemitism extremely distressing. The historical reality of the Holocaust has had a profound influence on my politics. I have a set of beautiful photos of Ann Frank on my office wall that I look at every day so that I never forget the horror that human beings and political systems are capable of. The persecution of the Jewish people in Europe has informed everything I do politically and made me determined to fight fascism, racism and state oppression wherever I see it.

Ironically and tragically that includes trying to draw attention to the way the Israeli government and army has treated the Palestinians and the racist rhetoric of the fascist religious right in Israel, which is as obnoxious as anything coming out of the racist right in Europe or the USA.

Israel as a nation was formed by western colonial invasion as Europeans took control of the country through military violence. These European invaders then expropriated all the land and assets of the indigenous people’s for themselves. This is a history that has been repeated all over the globe for 500 years. The tragedy here is that the people of a third world country (the Palestinians) were forced to pay a horrific price for the sins of Europe. Despite the lies of Netanyahu the Palestinians were not the cause of the Holocaust, they were in fact as much victims of European colonial racism as the Jews themselves.

Myself and people like me are accused of ignoring, minimising or denying antisemitism in the LP, yet our accusers seem perfectly capable of ignoring the historical reality of the founding of Israel and the brutality of the Israeli army towards the Palestinians and the explicit racism of the Israeli religious far right, who openly call for the murder of ‘Arab’ children.

And this religious racism is currently being reflected in the Israeli parliament who have just passed a law that means only Jews can be full citizens of the state of Israel and which legalises the appropriation of land legally owned by Palestinian Arabs.

If anyone in the West spoke of ’Jews’ in the way the fascist right in Israel speak of ‘Arabs’ or if a parliament of one of our allies passed a law saying only one religious group could be full citizens, they would quite rightly be vilified and sanctioned. Indeed, if all that is happening in Israel was happening in any country in the world other than Israel I am sure the right of the LP would be expressing appropriate moral outrage and no doubt calling for military intervention!

Yet if I or anyone like me dares to try and draw attention to the words and actions of the Israeli army, government and the Israeli religious far right, we are smeared and traduced as being antisemetic!

And it’s actually much worse than that because unless you accept absolutely the proposition that the left of the LP is inherently anti-Semitic (i.e. accept that you yourself are anti-Semitic) then that is taken as prima facia evidence that you are in fact anti-Semitic. Even to ask the question whether it is okay to criticise Israel or support the Palestinians is to confirm your antisemitism.

Some even say that if a Jewish person perceives what you say or the way you say it as being anti-Semitic then it is de facto anti-Semitic. There is no possibility here for misunderstanding on either side for irony or for complex debate. If a member of the Jewish community says they think you are anti-Semetic then you are anti-Semetic. End of.

Some go further and say that in fact only Jewish people are capable of and should be allowed to decide what is and isn’t anti-Semitic. Others say that the idea of the ‘Jewish people’ is itself an anti-Semitic trope implying a conspiratorial unity of vision amongst what is in fact a diverse group of people with many different views (my own view). So one can be accused of antisemitism by one group for referring to the ‘Jews’ as a group but accused of antisemitism by another group for refusing to accept the assertions of the ‘Jewish community’ as a group. Or sometimes both groups will accuse you of both things simultaneously. Yet much of what is described as anti-Semetic can only be so described if you assume the motivation of the writer/speaker as being anti-Semetic in the first place.

The few supposed examples of anti-Semitism in the LP that I have seen are not in and of themselves anti-Semetic i.e. they do not directly express a hatred of Jews for being Jews. They are usually clumsy attempts to use Nazi or Biblical references rhetorically in political debates that are not referring to the Jewish community or Israel/Palestine. I have seen one example of straightforward anti-Semitism during the last three years and the member has been suspended and will no doubt be expelled.

Yet some of the moral outrage about this from the opponents of Corbyn seems genuine, especially amongst some groups and individuals in the Jewish community. I say ‘some’ because clearly some in the PLP and the pro-Israel lobby are cynically using this to try and depose Corbyn. Yet others do appear to genuinely morally outraged and to believe that the left is systematically and virulently anti-Semetic. But why? There is very little evidence of actual anti-Semitism in the LP. Indeed, several times Jewish comrades on FB have claimed that the evidence that there IS a problem on anti-Semitism in the LP is the fact that people claim there is. The Jewish Chronicle says it is so, so it must be so.

Maybe what is going on is that the Jewish community have become so watchful of ‘hidden’ anti-Semitism in the public discourse that they are jumping to conclusions. Since WW2 blatant anti-Semitism has been quite rightly excluded from mainstream political discourse. Knowing that anti-Semitism however still exists in the mainstream, many in the Jewish community searched to identify ‘hidden’ anti-Semitism in the public discourse. Thus to these people criticism of Israel is regarded as de facto anti-Semitism not because they think criticising Israel is wrong or not allowed but because they are reading the ‘hidden’ anti-Semetic motive of the critics of Israel. List have been produced of Corbyn’s anti-Semetic statements and actions. His attendance at meetings of anti-Semetic groups etc. Yet when I look at this list all I see is Corbyn’s involvement in supporting the Palestinian cause. It seems to me his critics ARE conflating support for the Palestinians with anti-Semitism.

The development of Identity Politics has also made it clear that prejudice can be ‘hidden’ even from the prejudiced themselves and that racism or sexism can be expressed in the common usages of language even when the speaker had no overt racist or sexist intent. Thus people can be accused of being racist, sexist or even anti-Semitic when they themselves had no such intent. This is indeed why so many people are angry about ‘political correctness’ because understandably people don’t like being called racist, sexist or anti-Semetic just because of the way they talk. These are terms of extreme moral approbation and if somebody is having a normal conversation or even a political debate they don’t like being morally condemned because of their use of what they regard as content free words and phrases. To suddenly find oneself accused of the most heinous moral crime not because of what you say but because of the way you say it, strikes many as deeply unjust and an unacceptable.

No one on the left has EVER claimed that there is literally no Antisemitism in the LP. No one. Everything I have ever seen or read defending Corbyn and the left of the LP starts with a statement accepting that there will be some antisemitism in the LP and that it must be dealt with. The LP now has 500,000 members and to expect literally zero incidence of antisemitism would be a form of denial. BUT are you Corbyn critics really trying to suggest that this is what this furore is about? That this has all blown up because the left deny any incidence of antisemitism in the LP at all and that if they acknowledged that some anti-Semitism exists all this would go away? I mean really? Seriously?

The narrative that is closer to the truth is that antisemitism in the LP is probably at lower levels than in any other political party in the UK and the LP should be held up as an example to others. Yet people like Hodge and others on the right of the LP shamefully continue to unjustly smear those in the LP who disagree with them politically with the most heinous of moral accusations, antisemitism.

This entire nightmare is underpinned by the idea that antisemitism is virulent and  widespread in ‘the left’. There is almost no evidence for this unless that is you believe that supporting the Palestinian cause and criticising Israel is de facto antisemitism? In which case there is lots of evidence because many on the left find the plight of the Palestinians and the actions of the Israeli state to be a tragedy of injustice and oppression happening before our eyes and we are determined to try to call the Israeli government and the religious-right forces of oppression in Israel to account.

Calling someone anti-Semetic is a really serious business. To accuse someone of being anti-Semetic carries the same moral weight of calling someone a paedophile. Racism including Anti-Semitism has been the cause of more human suffering than any other idea in human history; colonialism, imperialism, slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide and holocaust all result from labelling one group as superior or inferior to others. Racism must be opposed wherever it raises its ugly head but unjustly accusing good people of being racist or anti-Semetic in order to discredit political enemies is not fighting racism it tragically undermines the real fight against bigots and racists.


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio http://www.agitpopradio.org.uk He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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3 Responses to What we say and the way we say it? Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

  1. This piece is excellent – it sums of the grim effects of this affair to date, and the terrible risks it poses to socialism within the Labour Party. The theme of anti-Semitism is being used by neoliberals and the right-wing media in an attempt to silence genuinely radical voices and nudge labour to the right.

  2. Sorry, I meant to add a further comment. The media’s misuse of the issue means it is now stifling debate on other very important issues – climate change and automation, for example. On yesterday morning’s Today programme there was an interesting discussion on the theme of automation and employment (involving Yvette Cooper MP and Prof Noel Sharkey). The point of the item was somewhat lost when Martha Kearney pressed Cooper to endorse Tom Watson’s “vortex of eternal shame” comments. Just one small example of the way this is working, but I think it’s important.

  3. Alfie Game says:

    A very good piece, thank you. I have only seen one anti-Semitic incident in my local LP in 40-odd years and that was called out and dealt with instantly. Although accepting the long historical perspective you set out in your third paragraph, we can’t really ignore the role of the Holocaust in catalysing the establishment and international recognition of Israel as a state. It clearly is not anti-Semitic to criticise the departure of Israel from the inclusive and secular vision of its founders, its illegal behaviour wrt the occupied territories or more specifically to deplore the current Israeli government for its horrific policies towards the Palestinians. But to use analogies with the Nazis and the Holocaust to describe those policies, or deny the right of Israel to exist, is anti-Semitic as it serves to diminish or dismiss the scale, horror and particular wickedness of the treatment of the Jewish people, and their rights. Consequently it was probably unwise and insensitive for LP to edit that particular example in the IHRA working definition. I know that it puts Jeremy in a position of defending some of the platforms he has shared in the past but he has convincingly rebutted similar criticism wrt the Irish republicans and the need to maintain dialogue.

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