Labour’s antisemitism row is scaring me (but, perhaps, not for the reasons you might expect)

I’ve found the last 2–3 weeks, in which the Labour Party’s stance on antisemitism has become a major political issue, to be excruciating. The issues at stake are not new ones — the issue of antisemitism and the left has been heavily contested for years now — but the degree of scrutiny, and the sheer intensity of the controversy, are new.

I am someone who researches and writes about British Jewry and its relationship to Israel and antisemitism. I am someone who is deeply involved in Jewish communal life in the UK. I am someone who identifies with ‘the left’. For all these reasons, it was inevitable that I would become deeply immersed in the controversy over the Labour Party and antisemitism. To some extent, the controversy was predictable and maybe it was even necessary for this vexed issue to come to a head.

But what has taken me aback is the degree to which this controversy has scared me. While I am don’t consider myself to be an especially brave person, I have written about antisemitism, Israel/Palestine and the left for years without it unnerving me to this degree.

This brief essay is an attempt to work out just what it is that is scaring me. First of all though, I should probably note what I don’t mean by being scared: I don’t think this is ‘1938 all over again’, I don’t feel ‘unwelcome’ in the UK, I don’t think that Jews are facing some kind of pogrom, I don’t feel any less embedded in British society. I don’t even feel that the Labour Party has become ‘institutionally antisemitic.’

In some ways, if I did feel that way, it would be easier. One of the emotions that has been overwhelming me over the last few weeks has been envy towards those who are so certain about what is going on — those who think that the Labour Party is completely ridden with antisemitism and those who think that such accusations are completely false. Oh to be an accuser or a denier! Both sides have a home, a place of support. But if, like me, you think there is a problem but define that problem in non-standard ways, I’m not sure where you stand.

So what scares me is the controversy itself and where it will take us, as much the ‘real issues’ behind it. Whether or not the Labour Party ‘actually’ has an antisemitism problem, it certainly has an antisemitism controversy problem — and it’s the fallout from this that scares me….

I’m scared that, should Corbyn fall (or even if he doesn’t), the Zionists/Jews will be blamed

Even if you think that the examples of Labour antisemitism that have been highlighted in the last few weeks are exaggerated, one-off incidents or simply not antisemitism at all, the controversy over these incidents may well lead to antisemitism. One narrative that has attained considerable traction is that antisemitism is being ‘used’ by the Labour right and the Tories as a way to destroy Corbyn’s leadership. Leaving aside whether this is actually true or not, this narrative could have dangerous consequences, particularly if Corbyn falls or is weakened by the controversy.

One of the defining tropes of those on the Corbynite left who reflect the antisemitism accusations, is that Jews and Zionists, Judaism and Zionism, are not the same thing. That is of course true, but the ‘inconvenient’ truth remains that most Jews are Zionists to some degree or other. Indeed, many Jewish interventions in the controversy have asserted the indivisibility of the two. It may well be that one result of the controversy is to make Zionist Jews emphasise their Zionism even more. That inevitably means that, should the narrative take hold that ‘Zionists tried to destroy Corbyn’, it will have deeply unpleasant consequences for many Jews.

I’m scared that the barriers against Holocaust denial are being eroded

The controversy over Ken Livingstone’s ‘Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad’ comment has had terrible consequences. While even many Corbynites objected to Livingstone’s comments, a narrative has grown up online that is extremely dangerous: that Livingstone was only pointing out the historical fact of Zionist-Nazi collaboration and that the attacks on him were attempts to hide the truth. This is, of course, nonsense. No one denies the incidents happened, only that they do not mean that Hitler shared the Zionist’s goals.

My fear is that, if the narrative takes hold that there is a history of the Nazi period and the Holocaust that is being ‘hidden’ from scrutiny, it may create a terrible momentum that could ultimately lead to Holocaust denial. I don’t think that Holocaust denial will ever become mainstream on the left, but I do think it could become much more common than it is now. That is an appalling prospect.

I’m scared at the way Jews are being set against each other

I’ve spent years trying to develop a more civil intra-Jewish debate. I’ve always been appalled at the ways that non or anti-Zionist Jews have often been treated as pariahs. Any progress in this area is rapidly being undone. Jews of different stripes are being used to prove or deny accusations of antisemitism. All too often, the message is ‘don’t listen to those Jews, listen to these ones!’ And all too often, Jews play along: ‘I’m the real Jew here!’

This is a dirty game, and we shouldn’t play it. It’s paving the way for a new and bizarre form of antisemitism, in which praise for some Jews is combined with denunciation of other Jews. The real challenges of accepting the fact of Jewish diversity are being avoided.

I’m scared that this controversy will suppress Jewish progressive politics

Far from being politically homogeneous, British Jews hold to a wide variety of political positions. The Labour antisemitism controversy is forcing many left-of-centre Jews to make a dreadful choice: you can become part of the left, but only if you reject Zionism. Liberal Zionists are being ‘squeezed’ from the right and the left. In the last few years there has been slow and steady progress in enabling Zionist Jewish critics of Israel to find their public voice. I’m scared that this antisemitism controversy will push many of them back ‘in the closet.’ It’s depressing to note that, just a couple of short weeks ago, there was a broad coalition across the Jewish community to push for more child refugees to enter the country — and now many of those who supported this move are condemned as Zionist enemies of the left.

I’m scared for myself: that I may become politically and Jewishly homeless

People reading this piece might conclude that the writer is a left-of-centre liberal Zionist. But my relationship to Zionism is much more ambivalent. I am critical of many aspects of political Zionism and I do not believe that anti-Zionism is always antisemitism. That puts me in a minority amongst the Jewish community. But I am also a passionate advocate of Jewish pluralism and peoplehood. I try and make my home across the community. I refuse to abandon ‘the Zionists’ to endless abuse. Again, this puts me in a minority on the Israel-critical left.

I’m scared that the pressures on me to choose between a concern for all Jews and a commitment to left-wing politics that includes robust criticism of Israeli government (together with careful and nuanced critique of certain elements of the Zionist project), will only increase.

Where this leaves me, I don’t know.