Labour and the Jews

Like so many worthwhile endeavours, this was prompted by the Skwawkbox conspiracy blog, which recently set out to demonstrate that “under Jeremy” the Labour party has become less anti-Semitic, not more. The vibe was only slightly killed by readers warning that the data cited to vindicate Corbyn could not be trusted because the Jews were behind it.

The more serious methodological problems are (a) that the argument is based on surveys of the general public that say nothing about Labour party members or activists; and (b) that changes in the attitudes of Labour voters are not measured against changes in the wider community, so for all we know from this analysis, Labour voters could be less anti-Semitic than they were in the past, but still more anti-Semitic than other people (spoiler: they are not).

Shonky reasoning like this ceases to be funny when it has an impact in the real world. It has already been invoked by members of the Corbyn movement in Bristol West seeking to censure Thangam Debbonaire MP for being anti-racist. (Presumably inspired by the blog, although its effort to spin data about the public at large as a rebuttal to allegations against party members and activists is not unique: here is another, and here is one from Jeremy Corbyn’s own office.)

Labour voters

What do the surveys actually say? In addition to the two commissioned by the Campaign Against Antisemitism in 2014/15 and 2017 and “obtained” by Skwawkbox, let’s also look at a couple undertaken for Professor Tim Bale in 2014 and 2016. All of these polls were conducted by YouGov.

For a little more time-depth I will start with yet another poll, this one conducted by ICM for the Jewish Chronicle a decade earlier (fieldwork 16–18 January 2004, reported 23 January 2004). Chart 1 compares responses to this poll with responses to the most recent polls in which the same questions were asked.

Positive sentiment has risen strongly this century while negative stereotypes are in retreat. This is clearly a good-news story, yet it may also help to explain the Jewish community’s concern about recent developments, which appear to put years of progress at risk. History is littered with proofs that such gains are always reversible.

Unsurprisingly, the overall improvement has been matched, and often bettered, by Labour voters. The first pair of polls, conducted just eighteen months apart in 2014 and 2016, show no consistent direction, but they do indicate that by 2016 Labour voters were less likely than the population as a whole to agree with any of the four anti-Semitic prompts presented (Chart 2).

The second pair of polls, conducted thirty-two months apart in 2015 and 2017, tell a more cogent story (Chart 3). Having been as bad as or worse than the general population on three of the six prompts first time round, Labour voters are better, and better by wider margins, on all the second time (as well as on the “at least one stereotype” measure, for which no breakdown by party identification was provided in 2015).

The most recent confirmation of this trend comes from a Number Cruncher Politics poll completed in April this year (Chart 4). It shows that Labour voters are substantially more likely than the general electorate to believe more must be done to achieve equality for Jews (and women and blacks and Asians). They have pretty much caught up with Liberal Democrat voters, hitherto the most socially liberal segment of the electorate.

It would be lovely to think that legions of Labour anti-Semites had changed their minds about the Jews, perhaps after close study of Jeremy’s The Imagery of Diego Rivera (Havana: Ediciones para los Muchos, 2012). It is rather more likely, however, that the shift we’re seeing is a by-product of changes in the composition of Labour’s base, which has never been younger, better educated, or more middle-class, and which therefore increasingly displays the tolerance and social liberalism that typically correlate with those characteristics. Ragged-trousered suspicion of strangers has been moved along to make way for metropolitan laissez-faire. This transformation of the Labour constituency began long before 2015, but to the extent that Corbyn has accelerated the alienation of traditional working-class voters — the left-wing authoritarians and social conservatives — he may indeed be entitled to some credit for the change.

Anti-Semitism must be confronted wherever and whatever scale it occurs. Any suggestion that it is a problem distinctively or disproportionately associated with Labour supporters, however, would appear to be ill-founded.

Labour members

None of this is controversial. Jews worried about Labour’s drift know perfectly well that few Labour voters are anti-Semites; many of them are Labour voters themselves (or have been until now). It’s the anti-Semitic culture that appears to have taken hold in the party itself that causes alarm, along with the inescapable sense that the leadership has allowed it to flourish — whether from sloth, greed and pride or from some other combination of deadly sins.

There has been no attempt to directly gauge the anti-Semitism of party members (as far as I’m aware), so it is necessary to rely on proxies.

Let’s start with surveys asking members whether they regard anti-Semitism as a problem in the Labour party. The question has been put to them three times, with a poll in March this year and two separate polls in May 2016 — one for all members and one for members who joined after the 2015 general election (Chart 5). Notable here is the dramatic rise in the number saying anti-Semitism is a serious and genuine problem and the equally dramatic fall in the number saying it is neither. This is welcome.

Debate about the most recent survey, however, has centred on the meaning of the middle response, with those friendly to Labour zeroing in on the recognition that the problem is genuine and those less friendly preferring to focus on the belief that it is exaggerated.

It is idle to pretend that Labour’s political rivals have not tried to turn the issue to their own advantage. The Prime Minister’s decision to initiate a Commons debate on anti-Semitism wasn’t just another kooky idea that came to her while walking in Wales. It is natural for the Conservatives and other opponents to amplify Labour’s difficulties and colour them as luridly as possible. That’s how it works.

If people who feel the problem is exaggerated are saying no more than that, it’s hard to disagree with them. Were they saying that the whole controversy is a ruse — the work of some dark conspiracy — and that they are therefore justified in ignoring it, they would be very much part of the problem. People who believe this, however, presumably chose the third option in the survey — total denial. Those declining that option may have something more nuanced (or confused) in mind when they talk about exaggeration, and should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Another potential source of illumination is data on the relationship between how people think about Jews and how left or right they define themselves to be. The best I can find on this is for the general population and cannot be read directly across to the Labour membership (the Skwawkbox fallacy). It doesn’t give us hard and fast answers; it does, however, clarify the questions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Labour party has moved to the left since 2015 (and indeed since 2010, although acknowledgement of this is less forthcoming). The invaluable ESRC Party Members Project tells us that the first wave of Corbyn recruits were objectively a little more to the left than existing members (1.46 against 1.58 on a five-point scale, where lower is more left-wing). The subjective difference was 1.95 against 2.39 on an eleven-point scale, lower again meaning more left-wing. The gaps are small, but it probably matters that new members fancy themselves further to the left of old ones than they really are. (The subjective difference is about twice the objective difference when the numbers are rebased for comparison.) In the absence of anything more substantive, they must express their radicalism symbolically, and rumbling Rothschilds may be way one of doing that. (In fairness, the same study also found new members to be objectively somewhat less authoritarian and more socially liberal than old ones, which should dispose them to be more tolerant. Unfortunately, none of the six propositions used to test this expressly addressed attitudes to ethnic diversity, much less to Jews.)

Some in the Corbyn movement have found comfort in last year’s report by L. Daniel Staetsky for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on Antisemitism in Contemporary Great Britain. It concluded that “the prevalence of antisemitism on the far-right is considerably higher than on the left” (Chart 6).

Three points. The first and most obvious is that no amount of anti-Semitism elsewhere excuses anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

The second is that the far right has a higher proportion of anti-Semites. Because the tendency itself is tiny — half the size of the far left in the JPR sample — the number of far-right anti-Semites may actually be smaller. Apply the formulas in the report (p. 65, n. 37) to the adult population of Great Britain, and you get 231,000 extreme anti-Semites on the “very and fairly right” and 291,000 on the “very and fairly left”. These numbers should not be fetishised. Other evidence, such as the regular YouGov polls using the same seven-point left-right scale, suggest that the far right may be somewhat under-represented in the JPR sample. The far left is consistently the larger in the YouGov series, however, so the point about the absolute numbers being less flattering to the left than the percentages still stands.

The third is that, as sophisticated and exhaustive as the JPR study is, it must be weighed against other evidence. One particularly disturbing piece unearthed by Michael Colborne is replicated in Chart 7.

The proposition being agreed to here is not just some casually anti-Semitic cliché, which would be bad enough; these people are way out on the judenrein end of the spectrum. It is notable that they occur relatively less frequently in Britain across the centre-left to centre-right, but more frequently at the extremes. While anti-Semitism appears to be on the wane, there are still plenty of Jew-haters out there, and the JPR and the ESS numbers both suggest (with different degrees of conviction) that the further left or right you go, the more likely you are to meet one.

One final point that may have a bearing on why anti-Semitism has become more conspicuous in the Labour party. It is not so much about the incidence of Jew-hatred as about how it manifests itself. There is a widening gap between words and deeds. This can be seen in crime statistics (Chart 8).

The numbers in Scotland are low and volatile, but, as shown, the trend is rising there just as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom (Chart 9).

As in all areas of criminal activity, there are many incidents that do not reach the justice system, some of which are captured by the Community Security Trust (Chart 10).

What to make of this? It is possible that people are as anti-Semitic as ever and have just got better at disguising it when responding to surveys. It seems more likely, however, that there really has been a fall in what might be called the background level of anti-Semitism, but that this has left a residue of incorrigible Jew-haters — smaller in number, but also more extreme, more visible and, as the crime and incident statistics suggest, more willing to act out. The hallmarks of contemporary anti-Semitism may be reduced spread and increased intensity.

Who is to blame? In 2012 the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights asked 5,847 Jewish adults in eight countries to characterise those responsible for anti-Semitic comments, harassment, threats or violence they had experienced using one or more of four descriptors: left-wing, right-wing, Christian extremist and Muslim extremist (along with none of the above and don’t know). The study suggests that Jews experience considerably more verbal and physical abuse from the left than from the right, at least in Western Europe. (In Eastern Europe — represented in the FRA study by Hungary and Latvia — it is the other way round.)

The left-right split for threatening and violent incidents in five Western European countries can be seen in Chart 11, which is based on Dencik and Marosi (2016). (The remaining country, Belgium, is omitted because no perpetrators there were identified as left-wing or right-wing.)

In the UK, perpetrators perceived to be left-wing outnumber those perceived to be right-wing by two to one. In France, it is more than four to one. Between them these two countries are home to four-fifths of the Jewish population in the Western European group. The number of threatening and violent incidents is small (403 across eight countries) so these findings must be treated with caution. They are, however, consistent with the more robust data on anti-Semitic comments, of which thousands were reported. Chart 12 shows the left-right split.

More perpetrators are identified as left-wing than right-wing in all six countries. The predominance of the left is once again stark in the big two, France and the UK, as well as in Belgium and Sweden. British Jews are 73 per cent more likely to hear anti-Semitic comments from the left than from the right.

Israel

Attitudes to Jews in the Labour party (and elsewhere) are inextricably bound up with attitudes to Israel. Howard Jacobson has written of how the atmosphere changed for British Jews after the Six-Day War, when some on the left felt that the new conditions in the region gave them licence to denounce Israel as a colonial imposition. The pro-Palestinian Labour Middle East Council was established in 1969 by Christopher Mayhew, then MP for Woolwich East, and support within the party for Israel and the ideal of a Jewish homeland — once Labour orthodoxy — has been receding ever since.

Mayhew’s two-state advocacy was superseded in 1982 by the explicitly anti-Zionist Labour Committee on Palestine. It quickly begat the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, with which Jeremy Corbyn aligned himself during his first election campaign in 1983 and in which he remained active as sponsor, supporter, conference chair and speaker for years afterwards. The group subscribed to the Manichaean vision described by Dave Rich, in which “Israel is treated as symbolic of all Western domination, racism and colonialism, and the Palestinians have come to represent all victims of Western power and militarism.” Its primary aims were to “eradicate Zionism” in the Labour movement and to replace Israel with a new state of Palestine in West Asia.

The effect of all this activism can be seen today in elevated levels of anti-Israel sentiment across the left, not just on the fringe (Chart 13).

The mainstreaming of anti-Israel sentiment has almost certainly made the Labour party — or at least parts of it — an incubator for anti-Semitism. The correlation between the two has been observed repeatedly and is inarguable. Antisemitism in Contemporary Great Britain found that the proportion of the very left-wing holding at least one anti-Semitic attitude rose from 13 per cent among those unaggrieved by Israel, to 66 per cent among those most hostile. This is consistent with the findings of Kaplan and Small (2006), based on a sample of 5,004 people in ten European countries:

“Not only do we find that the extent of anti-Israel sentiment differentially predicts the likelihood of anti-Semitism among survey respondents, but the predictions are sharp. Those with extreme anti-Israel sentiment are roughly six times more likely to harbor anti-Semitic views than those who do not fault Israel on the measures studied, and among those respondents deeply critical of Israel, the fraction that harbors anti-Semitic views exceeds 50 percent. Furthermore, these results are robust even after controlling for numerous additional (and potentially confounding) factors both singularly and simultaneously.” (p. 550)

The proportion agreeing with multiple anti-Semitic statements rose from 9 per cent at the lowest level of their five-point anti-Israel index, to 12, 22, 35 and finally 56 per cent at the highest level. (More than forty years on the left have conditioned me to tense whenever Israel is mentioned. The chances of reaching the end of the discussion without someone unwittingly paraphrasing Mein Kampf are virtually nil.)

The extent to which hostility to Israel masks or serves as a more socially acceptable surrogate for hostility to Jews is still a matter of debate. Do anti-Semites re-invent themselves as critics of Israel, or does loathing for Israel lead people down the path of anti-Semitism? The answer is probably both. Cohen et al. (2009) found the usual correlation and concluded “that anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel exist in a cycle of mutual causation”.

It is not hard to highlight the failings of the Israeli state (which are many) without being anti-Semitic. The flip side of the JPR figures is that a third of Israel’s fiercest critics on the British left express no anti-Semitic sentiments at all. It is the other two-thirds, however, who seem to dominate — the obsessives, the ones who make Israel their Signature Issue. Their ranks include all too many who dress archaic prejudice in the radical garb of anti-imperialism. People advancing crackpot theories about Hitler’s Zionism or Jewish responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade are not defending Palestinians. They are betraying a worldview structured around Jew-hatred, which includes using Israel to stifle legitimate criticism of anti-Semitism.

Outlook

It is impossible to say how many of the two or three hundred thousand extreme anti-Semites on the British left are also members of the Corbyn movement, but there is clearly some overlap. In the JPR study, 74 per cent of those who identified as very left and 70 per cent of those who identified as fairly left also identified as Labour. Whether it is one in a hundred or one in ten, Jeremy has thousands of Jew-haters in his pocket.

Can any of them be saved? Paranoia and embattled otherness define the Corbyn movement. Everyone is out to get Jeremy: the CIA, the MSM, the 1 per cent. When a voice at the back adds the Jews, it may seem to fit, and certainly won’t be questioned. As members of the movement in Bristol West notoriously argued, it is “reasonable” for people without a proper grounding in Gramsci and Althusser to embrace anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Because capitalism.

Naz Shah, the rookie MP for Bradford West briefly suspended after problematic social media posts came to light, seems not to have understood she was even doing anti-Semitism. She conducted herself honourably throughout this episode, making an if-free apology and undertaking to learn more. Her sincerity is not in doubt. Her obliviousness, however, is telling. Dave Rich argues that “This isn’t about people with a visceral, conscious hatred of Jews: it’s about a particular way of thinking that has spread unchallenged and often unrecognized, and become normalized, across swathes of the left.” Political neophytes joining a movement that rewards and thrives on conspiracist thinking may take time to figure out that while some conspiracy theories merely ingratiate you with the gang, others make you the bad guy. Let’s hope that the best of them are on a journey.

Encouragingly, there is already some evidence that they are. Returning briefly to the member surveys discussed earlier, here is how recruits who joined in the first phase of the Corbyn era have shifted (Chart 14) (this point has also been made by Tim Bale, who is quicker than me). Once again, the ambiguity of the central option may encourage the niggardly to insist that the glass is half empty; with movement in the right direction on both the other options, I’m disposed to see it as half full.

As for the worst — both neophytes and old lags — what can one say? Whatever their numbers, they are rabid, noisy, and beyond reason. They also appear to enjoy the protection of the party leadership. Unless someone can persuade Corbyn that Israelis are actually just less glamorous Chagos Islanders — a people robbed of their homeland by imperialists who have every right to return — this is unlikely to change.

Acknowledgements

Tim Bale (Queen Mary University of London) and Alex Turk (ICM Unlimited) generously shared data. As mentioned in the text, the European Social Survey bit was swiped from Michael Colborne. Glen O’Hara (Oxford Brookes University) alerted me to the perceived perpetrator data from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The post was revised to include this on 1 May 2018.

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