Labour need to talk about anti-Semitism?

This question is not prompted by any evidence of a correlation between Labour Party membership and anti-Semitism. Nor – despite a perceptible growth in racist attitudes more generally – do surveys show an increase in British anti-Semitism. But what has grown, and grown at an alarming rate, are accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, and now hardly a day goes by without the Labour leadership being questioned publically on what they are doing about the party’s ‘anti-Semitism’ problem.

Of course, any anti-Semitism is too much, especially when it results in abuse, but a 2017 survey by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research concluded that levels of anti-Semitism in Britain are among the lowest in the world. A YouGov survey commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism found Labour supporters less likely than Conservatives to agree with anti-Semitic statements, and while both groups showed a significant fall in anti-Semitic attitudes over the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 (which coincide with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party), this fall was greatest among Labour supporters. Another survey found little variation across the political spectrum except for an increase in anti-Semitic views on the far right. This should come as no surprise as right-wing politics tends to blame society’s ills on ‘others’ rather than question the established system.

An unlikely background, then, to have produced a ‘Labour Party anti-Semitism’ crisis, but it is no accident that the rising cacophony of accusations has coincided with the party’s return to a more left-wing politics. For those making the accusations, including Labour’s own right wing and the mainstream media, a left-wing Labour Party poses a very serious threat. What we are witnessing is a classic smear campaign with potentially world-changing consequences.

Socialists have always attempted to champion the oppressed, and not that long ago it was Israel that was commonly perceived as fitting that role. Many early Zionists believed they were creating a socialist state, despite the fundamental contradiction of Israel’s settler-colonialist basis. Labour Zionists made links with the British Labour Party, and most Labour Party members accepted the portrayal of Israel as a plucky David surrounded by the Goliaths of the Arab states. Israel still has strong residual support within the party, but as Israeli governments have become more unashamedly brutal in their defiance of UN resolutions, their denial of Palestinian rights, and their enforcement of Jewish dominance, many on the left –including Corbyn himself – have recognised Israeli oppression of Palestinians and identified with the Palestinian cause.

This has allowed a tactical alliance to develop between anti-Socialists and Zionists against the Labour left. Zionism seeks legitimacy by branding its political opponents as anti-Semitic, and accusations of anti-Semitism have become the weapon of choice for those looking to wound the Labour leadership and portray socialists as unelectable. These accusations generally rely on a deliberate conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and on guilt by association; but, repeated often enough, they acquire a semblance of truth. And, instead of asking questions, mainstream journalists have joined the attack, diligently reporting every accusation, and especially delighting in those that come from within the party.

The Tories don’t hesitate to refer to Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ problem at every opportunity, and welcome this distraction from their own very real political failings. And the Blairites have developed a new McCarthyism with which to purge socialists from their party, ejecting even Jewish party members as anti-Semites if they have criticised Israel. Despite its vaunted left sympathies, the SNP watches Labour’s self-destruction from the wings.

People who make baseless allegations of anti-Semitism are playing a dangerous game. In seriously wounding the left, they also weaken Britain’s ability to counter actual racism and anti-Semitism in society at large. The resistance of neo-liberal governments to the sharing of economic wealth, coupled with their dedication to eradicating socialist ideas, has created ideal conditions for the growth of new right-wing populisms and ethnic nationalisms. These both appeal to the elites who benefit from the status quo, and to those who are looking for reasons as to why their lives and interests have been left behind. We are in desperate need of a strong counter-narrative that can help people to see how growing inequality, thwarted hopes, and deprivation are products of a structural system deliberately imposed by neo-liberal politicians. But, whenever the Labour Party tries to make that argument, it finds itself ambushed by another accusation of anti-Semitism, and criticisms of the neo-liberal agenda are left unreported and unheard.

The toxic political climate also impedes serious analysis of how and how much anti-Semitism may have increased since the foundation of Israel. Condemnation of the Israeli state can sometimes spill over into condemnation of all Jews, but this cannot be addressed without drawing a proper distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. A great many Jews are horrified at what is being done in their name – and increasing numbers are coming to recognise that the problem is not restricted to the acts of a particularly right-wing and hard-line Israeli government, and is, in fact, intrinsic in the concept of an exclusive ethno-religious ‘Jewish state’. However, Zionism insists that it represents all Jews and is central to Jewish identity, and every time that Israel portrays itself as the home of world Jewry, or Jewish community organisations leap to Israel’s defence, it becomes harder to insist on the fundamental distinction between the ‘Jewish state’ and Jews as a people. When MPs follow suit and decry anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic, they compound this problem.

At the same time, false allegations of anti-Semitism are distracting attention from the real thing. The anti-Semitism wolf has been called so many times that, when genuine anti-Semitism is pointed out, people can be reluctant to recognise it. Smear campaigns may be as old as politics, but social media has added a thick layer of manure to boost their growth. Besides its role in spreading rumours, the internet can prove a very effective tool in their creation. Would-be smearers have become expert at trawling through online histories to unearth any piece of evidence that may support their claim, however indirectly. This might be a carelessly worded comment, or a post that has been shared without thorough proof reading. It could even be something shared by a ‘friend’, or in a group to which someone has been added. Politicians have generally learnt to be careful in their own posts, but their past history may still be there to be mined, and friends and supporters may be much more careless. There is no shortage of material on the web to trip up the unsuspecting.

Some of this material is genuinely worrying, and it is important to understand why it is being shared. People who have learnt to be suspicious of reporting from mainstream sources, such as the BBC, may not be equally critical of sources that claim to debunk the mainstream narrative. All sorts of stories can take a hold, and appear to be corroborated when they are only being repeated. Common sources of anti-establishment counter-narratives include far-right groups that spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, so we have seen the depressing phenomenon of people who consider themselves left-wing anti-racists sharing anti-Semitic memes and articles created by the far right. Holocaust denial used to be limited to fascist groups, but is now alarmingly common among people who are suspicious of any mainstream histories, and particularly of a history that has been used to argue for the Zionist state. Less obviously worrying, but much more pervasive, is the spread of memes depicting the nineteenth-century anti-Semitic trope of a Rothschild conspiracy for world domination. Besides their anti-Semitism, these memes distract from the real cause of world problems. Rather than point at the impact of finance capital, they put all blame on one symbolic greedy Jewish banker. Responding to such posts can be a depressing experience – any piece of counter evidence may be dismissed as false – but on other occasions people can be glad to have become better informed. Simply dismissing the poster as anti-Semitic could serve to alienate them further. People who are politically engaged tend to have a large number of Facebook ‘friends’ who may post some surprising things. How many of us could survive being judged by all the posts put up by our ‘friends’, and who would want to live in a society where that sort of scrutiny was deemed acceptable?

Smears are easy to make and very difficult to get rid of, so what can the Labour leadership do? While any instances of genuine anti-Semitism require firm, fair and proportionate action, it should not have allowed itself to be pushed into any measures or statements that could be taken to suggest that anti-Semitism is a specifically Labour problem. The danger in responding to this sort of attack is that you are pushed constantly onto the back foot, defending your actions and unable to change the agenda. Some specific accusations do require a swift and brief rebuttal, but attempts to mollify the accusers by responding in detail to the charges and not calling them out as a politically motivated smear campaign, only invites further attacks. Carefully nuanced arguments can easily be partially quoted and given a very different twist – as in the Standard’s commentary about Corbyn’s article in its own paper on 24 April 2018. Corbyn’s dogged reasonableness served him well on the back benches, but can make him too ready to concede points that should not be conceded.

More positively, the attack on the Labour leadership through the calculated misuse of charges of anti-Semitism has prompted the founding of Jewish Voice for Labour. This is an organisation of progressive Jewish party members who ‘oppose attempts to widen the definition of anti-Semitism beyond its meaning of hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews’. While the Labour leadership still needs to take on the party bureaucracies that are seeking to undermine them, Jewish Voice for Labour is well-placed to assume a bigger role in facing down this witch hunt, especially in countering attacks from outside the party. This would free others to concentrate on promoting the socialist policies that are so desperately needed.

We all (both in and outwith Labour) need to talk about anti-Semitism so that we know what it is and what it is not. We need to recognise and stop it for the sake of those it attacks, and also because if our comrades are in any way seduced by it their other actions will be tarnished and their understanding confused. And we need to be alert to how false accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to attack the left and cut across hopes for a fairer society in which it would be harder for any racisms to put down root.

Sarah Glynn is a Jewish anti-Zionist. She is not a member of any political party.

References, see especially pages 5 and 7