Labour is embroiled in a battle against left-wing anti-semites who are tearing the party apart and destroying its credibility. That, at least, is the narrative you could be forgiven for believing if you have followed the latest anti-Labour media campaign led by the likes of Jonathan Freedland, Nick Cohen and editorialisers at The Guardian and Independent.
The current “row” began last month in Oxford University Labour Club when its chair, Alex Chalmers, resigned, complaining that some members had expressed support for Hamas and that “many have some kind of a problem with Jews”. Chalmers didn’t define how many “many” represented.
The OULC had also voted to support Israeli Apartheid Week, leading more than 30 of its former executives to sign a letter of condemnation, calling the campaign “a one-sided narrative seeking to dismantle the only Jewish-majority member state of the United Nations”. Louise Ellman MP, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, called comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa “a grotesque smear” from which the Labour Party should disassociate itself, while Lord Levy, a close chum of Tony Blair, has threatened to quit the party if the “anti-Jewish lobby” wasn’t “brought to heel”.
Labour Students, the national party body, launched an enquiry into OULC, but its report has yet to be published, leading to complaints of a cover-up – especially as Momentum activists and Jeremy Corbyn supporters Max Shanly and James Elliott were alleged to have been implicated in harassment of Jewish students, charges they deny. Instead the party launched a new enquiry headed by Baroness Jan Royall.
The controversy has been exacerbated by the suspension from the party of a former parliamentary candidate, Vicky Kirby, after a series of tweets, including comments such as “What do you know abt [sic] Jews? They’ve got big noses and support Spurs lol”. And a member of the tiny Socialist Fight group, Gerry Downing, has been expelled from the party – after being first expelled and then reinstated last year – following tweets and website posts implicitly expressing sympathy for the 9/11 attackers and ISIS and criticising the “Jewish-Zionist Bourgeoisie”.
It’s a sorry tale of racist imbecility, for sure – proof that anti-Semitism, inexplicably, but intolerably, is still a problem in the 21st century. But the current row has gone beyond the necessary weeding out of a tiny minority of poisonous idiots and is being assiduously exploited by an equally unpleasant collection of opportunists with their own agendas, anti-left and pro-Israel, more interested in undermining Jeremy Corbyn than fighting racism – or the Tories.
It has been common in recent years, as Israel’s actions became ever more indefensible, for its supporters to resort to charges of anti-semitism in the face of criticism for which they have no counter-argument. Now those charges are being cynically combined with attacks on the left in a polemical onslaught that is of convenience to both supporters of Israel and neo-conservatives in the Labour Party.
In the vanguard has been Jonathan Freedland, one of the “liberal” media’s staunchest friends of Israel and most vocal opponents of Corbynism. In an extraordinary display of dialectical gymnastics, in the once-liberal Guardian, Freedland adopted the latest pro-Israel wheeze, suggesting that the term “Zionism” is just shorthand for “Jew” and anti-Zionism was therefore just anti-semitism re-named. He wrote: “To state the obvious, criticism of Israel and Zionism is not necessarily anti-Jewish,” yet Freedland had some caveats. Writing of the identification of Jews worldwide with Israel, he suggested that these “ties of family and history” needed “to be remembered by those who insist that there’s no connection between Israel and Jews, that it’s perfectly possible to loathe everything about Israel … without showing any hostility to Jews.”
I have left out a phrase where those ellipses are in that quote. What’s missing are the words “the world’s only Jewish country”, and it is those words which are at the core of Freedland’s argument. Israel is a Jewish country; therefore criticism of Israel is criticism of Jews; therefore it is anti-Semitism. If Jews (those Jews who agree with Freedland, that is) perceive criticism of Israel as anti-semitism, then that’s what it must be. And in Freedland’s universe, Israel’s Arab and Muslim population does not exist. There is certainly no place for the disenfranchised population of Gaza and the colonised West Bank.
Freedland’s article is full of phrasing that offers the pretense of tolerance of Israel’s critics but is in fact designed to damn them: “while most anti-Israel activists are acting in good faith, some are motivated more darkly”; and “Zionism, as commonly used in angry left rhetoric, is .. used as a codeword… hinting at the age-old, antisemitic notion of a shadowy, global power, operating behind the scenes”. That Israel’s government does indeed work assiduously behind the scenes on media proprietors, editors, journalists, politicians and academics, is not acknowledged.
Freedland wonders why the left’s “passion”, it’s willingness to “take to the streets, to tweet night and day – is not stirred by, say, Russia, whose bombing of Syria killed at least 1,700 civilians; or the Assad regime itself… what exactly is it about the world’s only Jewish country that convinces its… opponents it represents a malignancy greater than any other on the planet?”
“Which,” Freedland then immediately continues, “brings us to Jeremy Corbyn.”
“Nobody accuses him of being an anti-Semite” Freedland writes, while going on to implicitly do exactly that….
It is not just Jonathan Feedland who has been on the attack. Nick Cohen invoked the spectre of “the conspiratorial world-view” supposedly “shared for decades” by Labour’s current leaders and others on the left who apparently believe Jews to be “demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations”. Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Labour Movement accused Corbyn of being “impotent” in his failure to tackle a resurgence of anti-Semitism, claiming the growth in Labour’s membership has brought in a “pocket of people that harbour these problematic views”. That argument has been echoed by anti-Corbyn MPs such as John Mann, Wes Streeting and Tristram Hunt, who have been quick to jump on the anti-Semitism bandwagon.
The President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, also made his presence felt, claiming the country’s Jews “can’t trust Labour” and that the anti-Semitism ‘“scandal’ was “poisoning relations and damaging Sadiq Khan’s hopes of winning support from London’s 180,000 Jews”. He added that the BoD – notorious for its own slavish support for Israeli policy – had believed “for a long time that there is a real problem of anti-Semitism on the far left which eclipses the anti-Semitism we have always seen coming from the right.”
So, who are these anti-Semitic leftist hordes goose-stepping their way to control of the Labour Party? It is significant that the only names specifically mentioned in any of the recent media coverage are Kirby and Downing, and the only organisation into which there has been any specific probe is Oxford University Labour Club (which encompasses allegations against Shanly and Elliott). Of the many articles and opinion pieces I looked at while writing this article, I could find no reference to any other named individual, nor any quotes attributed to anyone on the left or in the Labour Party that constituted what could be described as genuine anti-semitism.
It is a fact that anti-Semitic attacks in the UK rose to the highest recorded level in 2014, and Israel’s attack on Gaza was cited as one reason for that spike. However, attacks against British Muslims have also been on the rise in recent years, and peaked following the Paris massacre. Racism in general is a problem exacerbated by social and economic conditions since the 2008 crash, is reflected in the sporadic successes of the BNP and still contributes to the popularity of UKIP and hostility towards the EU. Jews are not the only, or even the primary victims of this social dysfunction, and where anti-semitism is growing rapidly in Europe, it is in the wake of the rise of populist right-wing parties.
Is anti-Semitism, then, really prevalent on the left, where anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist impulses have, it’s true, sometimes translated into support for “victims’ of the West, and its globalising allies, even when those victims demonstrate unsavoury characteristics. Can support for the plight of the Palestinians really justify sharing a platform with representatives of Hamas, for instance, which continues to for eradication of Israel? Can we sympathise with opponents of Western imperialism who still regard The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion as a textbook. Do we turn a blind eye to Putin’s murderous intent while hurling abuse in at “the only democratic country in the Middle East”?
There is another direction from which to look at the issues, of course. Israel is part of a “Western” bloc that is steeped in it’s own hypocrisies. Campaigners for freedom and democracy that prop up murderous, autocratic regimes. Humanitarian interventionists who only intervene when their own economic or geopolitical interests are at stake. Critics of torture, extra-judicial killing and imprisonment without trial who train torturers, send drones to bomb hospitals and abandon due process when it suits them. Israel is, in effect, part of ‘our family’, and it is the dysfunction within that family it is our first duty to challenge. It should not be surprising then, that campaigning against our own governments and their friends takes priority, especially when they fall so far short of the ideals we are told we should champion. That Israel itself has supported some poisonous, murderous regimes for self-interested reasons is often forgotten.
There are many problems with Israel which need to be addressed. We should not be afraid of recognising that, whatever the suffering of the Jews as a people, the way in which the state was brought about was a mistake, and such a mistake should never be made again. But having brought it about, we must make the best of a bad job, and one way of doing so is to ensure justice for all the people who live in the state of Israel, in the countries surrounding it, and in the territories outside its 1948 borders that it has illegally occupied for almost 50 years.
We should not be cowed by those like Louise Ellman and their accusations of “grotesque smears”. The parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa are many and obvious: unacknowledged possession of nuclear weapons; assassination of opponents; violent incursions into neighbouring states; illegal occupation of land outside its borders; violent suppression of internal opposition; unequal judicial treatment of citizens of different races; the creation of “bantustans” where people of one race enjoy full citizenship while those of another are denied citizenship and voting rights; and so on.
It is not anti-Semitic to argue that Israel is now an apartheid state. It is not anti-Semitic to campaign against Israeli actions. And it is not anti-Semitic to criticise those who back Israeli policies, whether we call them “Zionists”, “Zionist extremists”, “Israeli government supporters”, or any other epithet. The problem is that they are Jews, and that is an unavoidable fact. Because that is their identity, criticising them lays anyone open to charges of anti-semitism. It is a problem Israel’s apologists, like Freedland and Cohen, have recognised and are exploiting. That they can now combine such smears with attempts to undermine the left in the Labour Party is a delicious bonus, like having a second birthday.
In France, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been banned and criticism of Israel and support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) is becoming criminalised as “hate’” crime. In Britain, the Government has instructed councils not to support boycott or divestment. Southampton University has just banned, for the second time, a conference on “International Law and the State of Israel” under heavy pressure from the pro-Israel lobby (including the Board of Deputies). The exaggerated, ever-widening smear of anti-Semitism is part of this growing attempt to silence Israel’s critics, and we must not be cowed by those who would use such accusations of racism to shield that country from scrutiny and condemnation.