The Labour Party is once again engulfed in the anti-Semitism scandal that has managed to reproduce itself continuously since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. This comes in spite of the fact the vast majority of the cases go back to the tenure of Ed Miliband, himself a man of Belgian Jewish ancestry.
In those days, the Labour Party was a meek, pathetic excuse for a centre-left party. We might do better to wonder why and reflect on how regime change can suddenly end the silence on such a topic. So it’s worth examining this saga.
I. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has the curious characteristic of not being a definition of anti-Semitism. It might be best understood as a starting point for framing the issue and dealing with it head-on. In that regard, the NEC is right to draw up its own version based on the IHRA model.
II. A lot of Corbyn’s most fervent supporters are his worst enemies when it comes to the anti-Semitism scandal. Ken Livingstone brought the leadership into disrepute with his inability to keep quiet. Jackie Walker’s loose lips reignited the furore not long after, and now we have a member of the NEC on tape ranting about pro-Trump Jews. This is not good.
III. So there is a problem. However, the party as a whole has never been a perfect anti-racist organisation. Just to name one example, in the late 1990s Labour MP Jack Straw claimed that the Roma shit on people’s doorsteps. He later went on to claim that Pakistani men view English girls as “white meat”. It may not be much of a surprise to find out that the Jewish people don’t get special treatment in a party low on ‘political correctness’.
VI. If we agree that there is a problem with anti-Semitism, how can we go about challenging it? Certainly not by waging a civil war against the Labour leadership. The majority of these incidents predate the Corbyn era. Therefore it’s unlikely that a return to the status quo will immediately end all anti-Semitism within the party.
V. If the Blairites and the Brownites were sincere about fighting anti-Jewish racism, or any kind of racism, we might have heard more about this before Corbyn became leader. The Naz Shah scandal took place under Ed Miliband, but not a peep about it. Likewise, Margaret Hodge has barely raised her voice about racism in 24 years of parliamentary service. But we’re meant to believe she’s suddenly become a dedicated anti-racist.
VI. How do we confront anti-Semitism in the party? A definition and a code of conduct is a good start, but it’s not the end either. The NEC could do with adding some clear examples of anti-Jewish racism. How about calling Jewish critics of Israel ‘kapos’ or ‘traitors’? What about bringing up George Soros in conversations about refugees?
VII. Why not put in place key commitments? A Corbyn government should actively oppose and try to isolate the Orban government of Hungary, which is largely behind the campaign against the ‘influence’ of George Soros in allegedly trying to flood Europe with refugees. This is a racist slur, and it’s being popularised within the EU. But we’re not meant to care about that because the Tories and Netanyahu are happy to work with Orban.
VIII. It’s not all about Israel. The European and American right have strong pro-Zionist elements alongside a deep history of anti-Semitism. The European anti-Semite favours a Jewish state as an answer to Jewish statelessness, but not as a means of emancipating Jewry. Rather, the idea is to perfect their segregation and leverage it as an instrument of imperial power.
IX. The left should do its utmost to speak clearly about Israel and Zionism. A lot of the problems around this are rhetorical, and taking slogans too literally. This can leave open the door to accusations of anti-Semitism, but it can also leave the door open to real anti-Semites embracing left activists. And this must not be allowed to happen. We have to slam the door shut.
X. Lastly, when the left criticises Israel it’s precisely the historically European model of the nation-state, its violence and colonial history of ethnic cleansing, that the left is attacking. Likewise, the specific tradition we take issue with is post-1948 Zionist settlement and not necessarily all the preceding debates on a Jewish homeland. If we can’t criticise this, and Jews who do find themselves vilified, we’re in very dark times indeed.
Photograph courtesy of mrgarentham. Published under a Creative Commons license.