Lessons for the US from the UK Labour Party antisemitism crisis
It is, of course, extremely tempting to draw lessons from the recent UK elections for US politics. Social and political trends are rarely ever confined to one country and we can’t treat political systems in isolation. The resurgence of the left within the US Democratic Party — and the Bernie Sanders campaign in particular — certainly seems to bear significant resemblances in the resurgence of the left of the UK Labour Party. And inevitably, growing controversies over antisemitism on the left of the Democratic Party seem to have close resonances with those within Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Alongside these similarities are differences that should not be ignored, including: The electoral systems in the two countries are radically different, Brexit has upended political certainties in the UK but has no exact analogue in the US, the Christian right is a major power in the US and insignificant in the UK, socialism has been a much more powerful force in the UK than the US in the post-war period, and so on. The personalities are also different. Despite surface similarities Bernie Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn. And however much Boris Johnson has a propensity for lying and racism, he hasn’t (yet) sunk to the depths that Donald Trump has.
I do worry though that the rash of articles and tweets comparing the US and UK — and in particular the warnings of the Democrats developing a Labour-like antisemitism problem — might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If simplistic lessons are drawn between the two situations then the American politics of antisemitism on the left might become a strange sort of parody of the UK politics of antisemitism on the left.
There are at least three different sites where this conflation could happen.
The first is among the left of the Democratic Party. I have seen the UK Labour antisemitism crisis being treated by left activists as a kind of warning: In the UK, baseless and cynical accusations of antisemitism were used by the right and by Labour centrists to discredit a lifelong anti-racist. Corbyn and the Party gave too much credit to these accusations and did not resist them strongly enough. The lesson is therefore that the US left has to pushback against these false accusations of antisemitism and not give an inch.
What this reading ignores is that recognition that there was an antisemitism problem in Labour was not confined to Corbyn’s right-wing and centrist opponents. No less a figure than Jon Lansman, Jewish founder of the grassroots Corbynite group Momentum, acknowledged that there was a problem — sometimes receiving antisemitic abuse for his pains — and he and other senior Labour figures did try and work to overhaul the Party’s disciplinary procedures. There were also Jews grassroots Labour supporters who, while they were strong supporters during the election, nonetheless did share to some extent the perception that there was a genuine case to answer.
To draw the lesson that the US Democratic left should give no quarter to antisemitism accusations, therefore rests on a reading of the Labour case that isn’t even shared by all of the UK Jewish left. Further, it risks replicating the Labour conflagration by refusing to recognise that, to its detractors, the Labour Party did indeed seem to give no quarter to antisemitism claims. This would be an ironic fate given that, from my own reading at least, the US Democratic left does have less of a case to answer than the Labour Party did (although far from no case at all).
The second space where the wrong lessons might be drawn, is on the US Republican right. The danger is that a perception that the antisemitism issue had real political traction, might lead to an even greater growth in accusations of antisemitism on the left as a political strategy. If antisemitism is seen as having destroyed Corbyn, then why can’t it destroy whoever is the Democrat candidate for President in 2020 (Sanders in particular)?
Yet the contribution that the antisemitism crisis made to Labour’s defeat is far from clear. The Jewish vote in Britain is barely significant except in a handful of areas and the Christian right in the UK is also of negligible political important. Most analyses of the election result agree that it was the loss of many of Labour’s post-industrial working class heartlands that was key. It is hard to believe that antisemitism played much of a role in this other than contributing to the perception that Corbyn was a weak leader who could not control his party.
But if accusations of antisemitism take on totemic importance on the US right, then it might well become a wedge issue that makes inroads into the Democrat vote, given the strength of Christian philosemitism. This self-fulfilling prophecy will not be a repeat of the UK case, even if its protagonists believe it to be.
The third and final space where I worry that the wrong lessons might be drawn, is among ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions in the US. The fear that the Democrats might end up choosing a Corbyn and seeing a growth in antisemitism, may also become a self-fulling prophecy. Excessive scrutiny to absolutely ever incident of possible antisemitism on the US left might whip up emotions to the extent that UK-like nadirs of distrust may be plumbed. However, it is worth pointing out that in the UK, there were extensive attempts to work within the Labour Party for years until relations finally broke down in 2019. To start out in a 2019-like place of endemic suspicion risks producing precisely the situation it claims to want to avoid.
Further, the degree of attention that UK Jewry has paid to antisemitism in Labour meant that antisemitism and other racisms on the right received less attention than they should have done. While I believe this was a mistake, it is also true that antisemitism on the UK right has not reached the level seen in the US. No Jew in the UK has died in a white supremacist shooting. The Conservative Party has not yet descended to the point where white supremacist literature is a major inspiration to key figures in 10 Downing Street, as is the case in the White House.
The tendency for many UK Jews to pay too little attention to antisemitism on the right was a mistake, but not a deadly one. For US Jews to do this would be disastrous and would rest on a mis-reading of the relative strengths of left and right-wing antisemitism in the UK and US.
Another key difference here is that most — but by no means all — of the key figures in the Labour Party accused of antisemitism were white. That meant that it was possible to go after Jeremy Corbyn or Chris Williamson without risking reinforcing white supremacist narratives. In the US, this is more of a minefield with the likes of Ilham Omar and Linda Sarsour also the targets of far-right demonisation. For US Jewish leaders and organisations to model their actions against antisemitism along UK lines would be to ignore complex racial issues that, while they certainly exist in the UK, are perhaps less severe.
To conclude, the wider relevance for the Corbynite experiment is likely to continue to be fiercely debated in the US and worldwide in the weeks to come. If this is to be a useful process it has to be based on a robust knowledge of the peculiarities of the UK case. If not, then I fear these discussions will simply end up in making existing situations worse, not least with regard to antisemitism in the US.