Antisemitism: on putting our house in order

In the past couple of days, we’ve heard about a Labour MP sharing posts which effectively called for transferring Israeli Jews out of Israel and talked about ‘the Jews rallying’ to vote in an online poll on Gaza. We have also had a former Labour Mayor of London say, among other things, that ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism’ and ‘real antisemites don’t just hate the Jews in Israel; they hate the ones in Golders Green too.’ Over a longer period, we have also had former Labour councillors who linked ISIS to Israeli intelligence, a former CLP chair who talked about Jewish people’s big noses and Israel behaving ‘like Hitler’, and more besides. We have seen the Co-Chair of Oxford University Labour Club resign over his experience of antisemitism within the group. We have also seen Jewish Labour MPs targeted, at least in part, as Jews by some activists.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that these incidents point to a serious problem in parts of the Labour Party. A party committed to equality should want to crack down on this, take a long hard look at its own practices and put its house in order. However, the Labour Party has temporarily suspended, readmitted and then resuspended people like this in more than one case recently. In both the cases linked to, a Google or Twitter search could have uncovered plenty of relevant information. The Compliance Unit (which looks into these issues) may very well be under-resourced: if so, we need to consider its resourcing, not talk about abolishing it.

Labour’s response

In the past few days, our leadership has dragged its feet in responding to the revelations about Naz Shah’s posts and Ken Livingstone’s comments. Statements which should have immediately provoked suspension pending investigation weren’t dealt with until an outcry from MPs, the media and activists forced the pace. You might talk about time to consider, but you don’t need over four hours to clock that saying ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism’ crosses a line. It shouldn’t take more than 24 hours, and a direct attack at Prime Minister’s Questions, for an MP to be suspended for talking about ‘the Jews rallying’ to respond to an online poll.

The leader of the Labour Party, furthermore, seems incapable of speaking about the problem openly or with proper recognition of its gravity. In this, he apparently reflects far too many of his supporters, who often seem more interested in talking about media or ‘Blairite’ conspiracies against the leadership than weighing up the problem and tackling it. When an MP and the former Mayor of London are found to make serious antisemitic remarks, you act promptly; you condemn antisemitism without equivocation (and you don’t insist on bracketing it with all other forms of racism – you don’t need to qualify or justify a focus on prejudice against Jews); you certainly don’t speak as though you think the problem is a conspiracy against your leadership. And when someone (even if it’s your brother) thinks it’s appropriate to respond to worries about antisemitism by saying ‘Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine,’ you make sure to dissociate yourself from such sentiments. Difficult? Perhaps, but if you’re a candidate for Prime Minister, and you want to run the whole country, it comes with the territory.

Laying into the media or the ‘Blairites’ is beside the point, and it’s alarming that so many people have done so in preference to addressing the problem. (In any event, much of the media hue and cry is thanks to our own failure to get onto the front foot.) When you hear about any form of prejudice within your ranks, you don’t shoot the messenger: you read their message carefully and get to the bottom of it. It says a great deal that, even now, the new inquiry (very welcome in itself) will focus on general racism rather than antisemitism specifically. It says a great deal that, on the available evidence, the leadership had to be pushed into going so far – and two Shadow Cabinet members felt they might have to resign to get action to be taken.

Sorry, but this is basic stuff. It’s Anti-Discrimination 101 to take allegations seriously and investigate them fully and promptly when they’re made. Charities, private sector employers and trade unions throughout the UK have policies to deal with incidents of discrimination or prejudice: it simply is not good enough that the leadership of Britain’s main left-wing party has to be pushed by the media, its MPs and its activists into following these basic principles. The vast majority of Labour members and activists hate antisemitism – of course they do – but the number of incidents (with more being identified as I write) and the initially inept and then delayed response to them suggest an institutional problem with tackling it when it arises. We also have a leadership which has done little, if anything, to give confidence that such a problem will even be acknowledged, let alone addressed.

A hierarchy of prejudice

The whole debacle illustrates a broader problem. The left has generally recognised that specific accusations, slanders and types of language tap into prejudices against particular groups: as a gay man, I’m particularly sensitive to any hints of associating homosexuality with paedophilia, for instance. As with homophobia, so with antisemitism: antisemitic tropes are insidious and many-headed. But too often, too many on the left seem to have a blind spot in this area when it comes to Jews.

So we need to clarify: it is antisemitic to deploy particular tropes. For instance, the linking of the belief in the Jewish people’s right to a state with the man responsible for the Holocaust is intrinsically offensive, as well as historically spurious, and forms part of a broader antisemitic tendency to try and link Israel and Nazism. Attempting to make that link is a well-established delegitimising tactic. The left should be the champion of anti-discrimination and has a responsibility to educate itself. It would do so for other groups who experience oppression: Jews should be no different.

The problem lies disproportionately, but not exclusively, on the hard left: a long-standing ‘anti-imperialist’ worldview, rooted in hostility to US power and Western states in general, with Israel at the forefront, has intertwined with a whole series of unpleasant, insidious antisemitic tropes in far too many cases. To be clear: this isn’t to say activism opposing Israeli policy and presence in the Occupied Territories is in any way invalid. Of course it’s not, and most people manage to keep on the right side of the line. But too many people, too often, use language linking that activism with claims about the ‘Zionist media’, citing the Holocaust as a stick with which to beat Israel, calling universities ‘Zionist outposts’ on the basis of the size of their Jewish Societies and so on. And the minority who speak and think like this have been given a platform, accepted by people from the majority who don’t, for far too long.

This blind spot has had dangerous, deeply damaging consequences. It means we’ve got out of the habit on the left (not just the far left) of drawing the line, standing firmly on one side of it and calling the people on the other side out. It means people who mean well have too often for comfort tapped into some delegitimising tropes themselves (uniquely requiring Jewish cultural festivals not to receive state sponsorship from Israel, for example). And partly as a result, we’ve let attitudes which shouldn’t be given a moment’s house-room seep into the main left-wing party in Britain, and into other parts of the left.

Enough is enough. The Labour leadership, and the left more broadly, need to act. If Jeremy Corbyn is willing, he can do more than almost anyone else to draw a line: to distinguish between trenchant criticism of the Israeli government and prejudice in code; to use the word ‘Israel’ without immediate, axiomatic condemnation; to condemn antisemitism without bracketing or qualification. Labour members should demand that he does so.

If you want to show solidarity with Jewish members of the Labour Party, you can join the Jewish Labour Movement as an affiliate.

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