The Left Needs a Reckoning with Anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism, admitted Jeremy Corbyn, in his apology to the Jewish community after a protest in March of this year in Westminster square protesting anti-semitism in the British Labour party, “has surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years, and too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples.
In recent years, particularly since Jeremy Corbyn took the helm as leader in 2015, the Labour party has been embroiled in a series of bitter and furious controversies over the anti-semitism, which Luciana Berger MP claimed at the #EnoughIsEnough protest has become more “commonplace, conspicuous and corrosive”. This recent controversy was ignited since it came to light that Jeremy Corbyn in a Facebook comment from 2012, had defended a blatantly anti-Semitic mural in London that the local government wanted removed.
This is by no means the first time allegations of anti-semitism have rocked the Labour party. In 2016, Naz Shah MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, two prominent members of the Labour party were suspended from the party for what were condemned as anti-Semitic remarks. Ms Shah had suggested in a social media post that Israel be ‘relocated’ to the United States, while Mr Livingstone in attempting to defend her absurdly claimed that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist.
In addition, Labour activist Jackie Walker was suspended from the party for echoing black nationalist anti-semitic claims that the Jews were “financiers of the sugar and slave trade” and she was removed as vice chair of Momentum for insensitively and incorrectly suggesting that Holocaust Memorial Day only commemorates Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Other examples include the party was forced to open an investigation into the Oxford University Labour Club, and in March to suspend some councillors and activists accused of anti-Semitism.
However, some view these scandals and controversies not as emblematic of anti-semitism in the Labour party, but as the ‘weaponisation’ of such claims by the enemies of the party to smear and discredit it. Labour MP Diane Abbott has repeatedly said it is a “smear” to claim that there is a problem of anti-semitism in the Labour party. Christine Shawcroft who resigned as chair of Labour’s disputes panel after questioning the suspension of a Holocaust denier said in a Facebook post that the issue was “stirred up” to attack Jeremy Corbyn. Ken Loach has also made similar comments. Moreover, according to a recent poll, nearly eight out of ten Labour members believe Labour’s problem with anti-semitism is exaggerated to smear Corbyn.
It is true that some opponents of the Labour party from the political right — as well as internal critics of Jeremy Corbyn within Labour itself — have exploited this issue for personal and factional gain. And it is also true that there is an obvious hypocrisy, from the right who magically become oh so concerned with racism only when they can use it as a big stick to beat the left in particular if they can drag Muslims into it as well. Never mind that the Tory party too has its own problem with members making racially insensitive comments. Boris Johnson, for instance, said in the wake of the Ken Livingstone scandal that the Left had a “virus of Anti-Semitism”. Before this he had been exposed for his own racialism for dismissing former US president Barack Obama’s support for Britain’s membership of the European Union as the animus of a ‘part-Kenyan president’ with an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.
In saying this, we should not allow the cynicism and hypocrisy of political adversaries to distract us from tackling the very real and increasingly pervasive problem of anti-semitism, not just in the British Labour party, or even the British left, but across the political left throughout Western world. In the United States, Tamika Mallory, one of the organisers of the Women’s march attended a speech Farrakhan gave before the Nation of Islam in February. During the speech, Farrakhan made several anti-Semitic comments, including saying that “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and “White folks are going down…And Satan is going down… and by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.” In June of last year, a LGBT flag donning the Star of David was banned from a pride march in Chicago because it allegedly made a few people “unsafe” and the expelled marchers were supposedly Zionists.
The issue is not whether Jeremy Corbyn is himself an anti-semite — I don’t think he is — , or whether the Labour party is jam packed full of raging anti-semites. The issue is that too many leftists are too willing to accommodate or turn a blind eye to bigoted attitudes towards Jews and abdicate their responsibility as anti-racists in standing up to it.
This acquiescence to anti-semitism on the left is rooted in the changing character of the left in recent decades. This isn’t to say that the left has always has a clean record on anti-semitism. There is a proud history of left wing solidarity with Jews against anti-semitism and the deep involvement of many Jews in the socialist movement in this struggle. However, there too is a considerable history of anti-semitism from certain left wing traditions— , just as there is on other forms of racism, sexism and homophobia. In saying this though, the left has historically had a strong tradition of universalism and belief in equality that gave it a solid foundation to challenge anti-semitism.
However, in recent decades this universalist perspective has incrementally been eroded. Instead of fighting oppression and inequality in the name of universal rights and values, many self-proclaimed leftists and progressives have embraced identity politics, viewing the world as divided into distinct and separate cultures and peoples each with its own values, ideas, beliefs and interests. If identity is the primary feature of political life then individuals are much likely to be judged by the group they ‘belong’ to than by their values and principles.
It should come as no surprise that in the context of anti-semitism identity politics has made it much easier to target Jews as Jews and impose collective guilt on them for the crimes of the Israeli state. As a result, a crucial moral distinction between criticising the crimes of the Israeli state and the idea of Zionism and hatred against Jewish people withers away. Unfortunately many people who claim to be for Palestinian liberation are unable to make these necessary distinctions. Most leftists thankfully resist this when reactionaries impose collective guilt on Muslims for terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Jihadist militants but some leftists are susceptible to this very same fallacy when it comes to Jews vis a vis the crimes of the Israeli state.
In addition to the rise of identity politics has come the overthrow of proper social and political critique with conspiratorial thinking and a pseudo-radical anti-establishment posturing. Instead of analysing how capitalism functions as a system of relations, we get this ‘theory’ of a world that is secretly controlled by shadowy cliques with an evil agenda. It doesn’t take much for this thought process to descend into classical anti-semitic tropes about Jews as the secret agents of power in the world who control the banks and are responsible for the wars and disease that plague our world.
You notice this in foreign affairs too, where you will see people who will irrationally blame “(((Zionists)))” for what they see as causing instability globally. “They”, or Israel if they want to be clever about it, are blamed for masterminding political crises around the world like the Maidan revolution in Ukraine of 2014 and the Syrian revolution of 2011, which to them was nothing more than a Wahhabi insurrection instigated by Israel alongside the United States and Saudi Arabia (An axis of evil if there was one to these people)for geopolitical dominance. This is a throwback to the old anti-semitic trope that Jews are the cause of instability and chaos across societies.
This is why anti-semitism is such a plague. It is not just a form of prejudice. In fact, it is very different to other forms of racism. Anti-semitism is a worldview, a political ideology. It is as the Jewish Marxist Moishe Pastone described it “a primitive critique of the world, of capitalist modernity”. An alternative anti-elitist, populist ideology that gives pseudo explanations for real problems and truly imagines itself as ”punching up” to a powerful and oppressive class, in this case Jews, who they see as the cause behind the injustices of capital. Hence distorting any real analysis that can be given for how the world works.
Whether we want to face up to this brutal truth or not, Anti-semitism is the racism that dare not speak its name on much of the Left. Anti-semitism has for so long been the weapon of the right and the forces of reaction that it might be hard for some to imagine a leftist can also be an anti-semite. For many leftists the only person that could be anti-semitic is a Neo- Nazi skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his forehead waving a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as he spouts his hatred. This is the fatal flaw of so much of the discussion on anti-semitism by leftists. Leftists are very good at recognising coded language, racist tropes and dog whistling rhetoric when it comes to other minorities, so much so that right wingers will often accuse leftists of “looking for racism” when its not there. But when it comes to Jews then its leftists who will accuse Jews of “looking for anti-semitism” when its not there. Leftists encourage people to listen to the victims of racism. Instead leftists goysplain anti-semitism to Jews. Jews are not stupid, they know what anti-semitism is, they don’t need to be told condescendingly by “good” leftists as to whether their distress from racism is real or not.
But perhaps another reason there is this blindness to anti-semitism is because in present day Britain anti-semitism lacks the element of economic dispossession or direct institutionalised state oppression as say anti-black racism does. In the post Second World War era, British Jews have been, for the most part, incorporated into mainstream British identity — or really British “white” identity.
What I mean by this is that being Jewish alone (there are obviously multiple other factors to consider) is not likely to put you at more risk of incarceration, poor housing and health outcomes, police brutality or subject to forms of control like deportation or surveillance that other minorities have to endure.
This is possibly why some leftists can be so blind to antisemitism and often treat it as an irritant or an annoyance rather than as a toxic hatred that urgently needs challenging. Nevertheless, the anti-racist left needs to be better equipped in grappling with this virulent form of racism, even if it is not a causal factor for class composition.
Anti-semitism is the godfather of racism to echo Christopher Hitchens. It is not just a problem for Jewish people. It is a problem for all of us. For the reasons I have described earlier in this piece it should be regarded as the common enemy of humanity and civilisation and should be opposed unequivocally. And it is especially important that my fellow “black and minority ethnics” to oppose anti-semitism and express solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters enduring this hatred directed towards them. Not just out of humanistic reasons but also out of self interest. Jews are the proverbial canaries in the mine in regards to societal and cultural shifts to open bigotry and racism. When people hate The Other they feel they can openly express anti-Semitism before they are openly racist, homophobic. Don’t you think for a moment this will end with Jews.
The Left will not be able eliminate racism from society and achieve equality for marginalised groups until there is a reckoning with anti-semitism. Not just for its political future. But because it is the right thing to do to be held accountable to its own values of anti-racism and equality.