Labour antisemitism and the problem of political hobbyism
It’s hard to overstate the importance of “anti-imperialism” to the modern post-Leninist left. Their highest priority is to spread the word, and all kinds of moral gymnastics can be forgiven if they help to open public eyes to this not-so-obvious cause of all of the world’s problems.
It’s a touchstone. The most important argument to win. Their problem is that it’s also a tough argument to get across. For this reason, Israel is a godsend. It provides a useful, simple, parable that helps make the case for something that is a foundational belief to a political sect.
It’s important to remember, at this point, that the abuse of such narratives for political ends is hardly the exclusive preserve of the left. It’s a staple of electoral politics.
However, it’s also hard to overstate the importance of what Eitan Hersh describes as political hobbyism [pdf] in understanding the Corbynite insurgency. In the social media age, political hobbyists form an increasingly important electoral-political asset, and wherever polarisation happens, we can find cybernat-type political movements that no longer have a materialist grounding in an economic struggle, but instead treat political discourse as a tribal pastime.
For partisan minds looking for a songsheet to sing from, Israel offers a thing that is as essential as oxygen. It’s a state that gets support from the “imperialist powers”. It is didactically useful. A complex situation with lots of light and shade can be simplified into a simpler tale of colonial white western capitalist brutality and expropriation against innocent brown people.
Unlike its neighbours, Israel is a democracy with a civil society. It offers a global running commentary on all of its own failings (of which there are plenty). Israeli state brutality can expect to be broadcast all across the world in a way that incidents that are hugely more brutal, taking place in other parts of the Middle East’s proxy wars – in Syria, Iran or Yemen – wouldn’t be. Each time this happens, it’s a teachable moment. Never mind the proxy-wars that have always raged within medium-range missile-distance from Tel Aviv, or any other factors, come to that. All of that shade can be painted over in simple monochrome because, once you’ve done that, you’ve got yourself a “narrative”.
When pressed, some (not all) of our standard bearers – the urbane theorists among them – accept that they are being opportunistic. But these are also people who see the world through a very political-partisan lens. The over-riding point here is, they argue, that the hidden wiring of the world all leads back to capitalist imperialism as a root of all evil.
So there’s no contest. In a political world where disinformation from all sides usually achieves what it sets out to achieve, the question “do we take the option to use useful narratives of our own?” is a no brainer for them.
The kindest thing you can say about this position is that it makes Jews an unavoidable bit of collateral damage in what they take to be a bigger battle. Corbyn’s team know how all of this works. They draw their agency from it and they are surfing it as happily as economically-liberal Tory eurosceptics have drawn their agency from working class xenophobia over the years.
These hobbyists can’t be expected to understand all of the subtleties here. If they weren’t “anti-Zionist” beforehand, defending Corbyn’s hopey-changey message turns them on to it. Crude antisemitism has been boosted and new people who have never focused much on the minefield of Israel/Palestine have now blundered into it in a simplistic and tribal way.
Instead of sticking safely to “the line”, focusing on the didact-friendly racism and imperialism they see when they look at Israel, they may instead react to queries about antisemitism aggressively, clumsily painting themselves into corners and fighting back with actual antisemitic go-to arguments about powerful elites and “the Jewish lobby”.
Anyone who doesn’t uncritically jump on this disproportionate attack on Israel must be assumed to be the enemy, and this is possible because these hobbyists – unlike their more pointy-headed political leadership – don’t even know that there is a difference between a useful political narrative and the more complex and multipolar reality.
Zionists, the British critical supporters of even the most basic version of Zionism (“Zios”), and ultimately the entire population of Israel that isn’t in open insurrection – all are fair game to these armchair agents of historical materialism.
From this perspective, these enemies are all complicit in the actions of the political leadership of Israel, and they can generally be assumed to be complicit due to personal bad faith. Any critic is quickly accused of getting political funding from Israel. A tribal defensive loyalty to useful narratives and a faith in the bad-faith of all political opponents are the key features of the political hobbyists.
The irony here is that this narrative thrives on a largely unfounded suspicion that Israel is operating in centre-left politics in exactly the way that the Soviet Union, and latterly the modern Russian state have demonstrably been operating inside parts of the left for many decades. And in the middle of all of this, a blustering anti-semitism emerges. A few ambitious nutcases go the whole hog, get themselves #woke, buying into the whole package – the holocaust denial, the Illuminati, The Protocols, and so on. A much larger group (the “you can be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic”, and the “Palestinians are semites too, so I’m not antisemitic” crowd) act as the low-rent backing choir to this unsophisticated structured parable against bourgeois democracy.
For them, when people squeal about antisemitism are doing it for only one reason; anti-jezz political partisanship. If critics are actually Jewish, it’s treated in the way Everton supporters listen to Liverpool fans on a radio phone in. The kindest interpretation of Christine Shawcroft’s attitude was that she reflexively took the side of an accused antisemite because she only understands antisemitism as an anachronism that is kept alive purely to disrupt a useful narrative. For them, common-or-garden Jewish people are more of an avatar than any kind of human factor in any of this.
Going wider still, we come to the biggest eye-opener of all. This is the much larger group again who don’t really notice a lot of this on a day-to-day basis. They don’t engage in it and don’t really care much about it. They don’t know too many Jews and they’re certainly not conscious of antisemitism operating in the brazen way that authentic knuckle-dragger British racism always has done before.
They just want Labour to beat the Tories, and they’re starry-eyed enough to disassociate Jezza from all of this, while treating it as a dangerous distraction from the main course of British political partisanship.
Recent polling in The Times suggests that only 19% Labour members are seriously bothered by this “new antisemitism” with the rest of Labour members sitting on a spectrum between pragmatic accomplices and berserkers. Perhaps the most frustrating part of all of it is that Corbyn has always been at home in the nastiest part of this cult. We’re seeing the very fabric of his old political circles is dyed in this poison. This is a man who was paid to present programmes by the holocaust-denying Iranian state.
The antisemitism is, indeed a shocking problem, but in many ways, it’s firstly a symptom of a polarised political landscape that is built on flimsy, unsustainable and dangerous myths. The is not so much a problem for the left, but a problem for the whole active political sphere. Political activity has always been seen as the essential accelerant democracy needs. Today, if anything, it is a retardant.
Those of us who, decades ago, had a ringside seat watching that poisonous narrative being crafted by the very people who now run Labour also know that, once pseudo-leftism implodes, (and it will implode) that the penny will drop for most of Labour people.
Will there be a centre-left that is continuous to the one led by Atlee, Wilson or Blair when it’s all finished? Who knows. I’m not optimistic, and if I’m right, this will be a huge and lingering tragedy for the British people.
Footnote: there is a very similar essay to be written on how the legitimate democratic concerns about neoliberalism are translated into a conspiracism that is also ends up leaning heavily on this layered attitude towards antisemitism (see the Brick Lane mural). Also, Iraq plays a similar role to Israel as well. In clumsy hands, Iraq also supports the anti-imperialist anti-interventionist case very well (though how long this will be true once it’s mirror-image, the non-interventionist disaster of Syria, becomes as widely understood).