The Labour party seems to be in the headlines not for challenging the manifestly unjust policies of austerity which have lead us to rising homelessness, vastly increased use of food banks, rampant child poverty and a yawning gap between rich and poor. Rather the media is full of stories about antisemitism in the rank and file of the party.
At a point in our history when social injustice has (arguably) been weaponised by the ruling elite, who have convinced us that the greatest dangers to our national security are 1. immigrants, 2. the feckless benefits scrounger, 3. house prices, the radical left can be painted as racist and therefore tainted and irrelevant.
Perhaps the left does indeed have a real problem with antisemitism. Check out this timeline of Labour’s troubles. At very least, it seems to be a crisis that has not been well ‘managed’- which is in itself a crime in an age of the political spin doctor. Is there more than this however? Is there an underlying antipathy towards Jewish people lurking beneath the surface of the otherwise painfully politically correct rank and file of the party? How we love to call out hypocrisy in others after all, so it is delicious to be able to reveal the prejudices of those who proclaim themselves to be engaged in a fight against racism.
Corbyn is a case in point. He has been long regarded as the champion of the underdog, the patron saint of small people and lost causes. He has stood on platforms wherever people have been oppressed, and waved flags on a thousand ant-racism marches. Yet one of his own party’s grandees, Margaret Hodge, screamed abuse at him in the House of Commons, calling him out for being antisemitic. I am listening to ‘Woman’s hour’ BBC radio 4 right now, and here is Margaret Hodge being interviewed about her family background, describing the horrors that her family went through during the holocaust, and how she has been getting an increasing amount of abuse because of her Jewish background on twitter. Hodge was allowed to lay out her case against Corbyn, and how he has ‘lost the trust of the Jewish community’. There is no balancing opinion being offered. Hodge was particularly weak when asked about the rights of Palestinian people to protest. It would be difficult to hear an interview like this and not wonder about media bias. She finished by describing how ‘middle England is offended’ by the way the the party is insisting on focussing on the right of Palestinians and being racist towards Israel. Perhaps she is right. She said it on Woman’s hour after all.
I am not a member of the Labour Party, although I have been in the past. This is more because I am not a natural joiner these days, rather I am more comfortable in the role of observer. However, for all his limitations, I have listened intently to the politics of Corbyn, and felt my hopes soar. We desperately need a channel through which an alternative set of ideas about what is a good way to manage our political, economic and environmental relationships to the world and to each other. There is also much that is being done in our name, under the dodgy alibi of ‘democracy’, that should be resisted, and this requires a strong opposition. History tells us that social change that helps the poor has always required a strong movement of working people. Following in the footsteps of my big sister, I almost did join the Party a couple of years ago.
So, because of all of this, I have done my very best to try to understand this issue. I care about racism and antisemitism. Striving towards equality and social justice has been part of my whole life and career. I confess however that after all the reading, discussions and questioning I have engaged in, I remain to a certain extent confused. I have read a number of examples of racism where members of the party, such as Ken Livingstone, have used extremely ill chosen words. As the video below makes clear, it seems however that the words might well reveal something more ugly.
Perhaps we have to return to definitions. There has been a huge outcry about Labour not adopting the International Human Rights Association definition of anti-semitism in full. This was part of the Hodge row with Corbyn. It might not be common knowledge however that this definition is in itself controversial, in that it is regarded as imperfect and imprecise. This debate here makes clear the breadth of views on it.
The four ‘examples’ that Labour left out are also interesting, in that they shine a light on some of the heat of this debate.
- Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country
- Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour
- Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations
- Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis
The first thing to say that these are examples, not part of the actual definition. All of these issues are covered elsewhere. Secondly, perhaps we should ask this; how might these ‘examples’ of antisemitism read from the perspective of someone living in the Gaza Strip? We might know the answer to this, because in an open letter to The Guardian leading members of the Palestinian community in the UK said this;
The reality of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession belongs to the public space: Palestinian people have the right to impart information about these present and past injustices, as every British citizen has the right to hear this information, along with the ideas and arguments that emerge directly from it.
Accordingly, any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights. First, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, who remain protected by international laws and conventions; and second, the rights of all those British citizens who stand by our side, in the solidarity of a common humanity.
There is something fundamental here about the right to give and take offence, and how power is used to make and suppress protest. In international terms, Israel is now seen by many as the oppressor. THEY are the neighbourhood bullies, not the victim of international politics. THEY have the big guns and the powerful allies. The violence they can perpetrate is on an industrial scale, often aimed at soft targets. Small wonder that we might baulk at the idea that we should limit the degree to which we hold them accountable, no matter what provocation in the form of terrorism is aimed their way.
Perhaps there is more to this issue than just ‘siding with one side or the other’ though. I find myself returning to my training as a social scientist, and old definitions of racism, which we often used to divide into two kinds; overt racism and institutional racism.
The overt kind is easier to see for what it is. There are those who will still tell you that black people are less intelligent, or who would treat people differently because of their religion or the colour of their skin. Within left wing politics, in my experience, this is a rare thing in total contrast to right wing politics of course- this example being a case in point.
That is not to let the left wing off the hook entirely however. I am told that one of the things that might underpin antisemitism is a particular kind of conspiracy theory, in which some kind of shadowy Cabal, like the Illuminati, exists that controls world affairs. Where this become antisemitic is that this Cabal is regarded to be dominated by Jews. This kind of nonsense is remarkably pervasive, despite a total lack of evidence.
Turning to the other kind of racism however, the institutional kind, which was defined by Sir William Macpherson in the 1999 Lawrence report (UK) as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
Might the Labour party be regarded as institutionally antisemitic? Certainly Jewish leaders have levelled this accusation.
My past way of trying to understand this kind of racism has been to listen to the voices of those oppressed by it. There seems little doubt that Jewish people feel oppressed, and that they regard Corbyn as being responsible, either through commission or omission for creating a hostile environment for Jews within the party. It would clearly be a mistake however to suggest that this is a consensus view, as made clear by this article. Some have gone further, such as Jewsforjeremy or jewishvoiceforlabour both of whom regard much of the criticism as mere gaslighting.
So, after all of this reading, where am I up to? Don’t get me wrong, I claim no deep insight. I am an outsider after all, just trying to make sense of the avalanche of crap that comes down to us through all of the media and social media outlets all day long. For what it is worth, here are my thoughts;
- The Labour party is a conglomeration, made up a wide body of views. It is also in a process of change. Blairite loyalist are being squeezed out by a new grass root politics. This has led to a poisonous atmosphere in which abuse has flown around on both sides. We have to see the antisemitism row in this context.
- There seems little doubt that Corbyn has not handled this well. But the reason he seems to offer the hope of a new politics is precisely because he is not interested in sound bite slick spin manipulation. He is perhaps naive in this, and certainly vulnerable. He wants to have a debate and thinks that things can be resolved by reasoned argument. He has been proven wrong.
- Antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiments are not the same. We have to resist oppression of the individual because of their ethnic background. We also have to resist oppression by a nation state. We have every right to hold them MORE accountable because they are supposedly our allies. They are supposedly a liberal democracy.
- Jewish hate crime is on the rise. But so is hate crime generally. We must hold our society to account for ALL racism. Brexit was about racism, of a kind that was fostered by our politics. We should fear these politics.
- We should listen to Jewish people in the UK
- We should listen to Palestinian people in Palestine.
Final words I will leave to Jewish critic of Israel, Noam Chomski, who incidentally is banned from entering Israel;
Thank you for this very thoughtful and helpful post – like you, I am not a Labour Party member but do want to support what Corbyn is trying to do to British politics. And like you, I’m saddened by the current crisis engulfing Labour – I agree with all that you have said, and hope that many more people will come round to looking at the situation in a similar way.
(Just a small point – in your 7th paragraph, “International Human Rights Association” should perhaps read “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance”?)
With very best wishes,
Cheers Chin- and thanks for the correction!
Brilliant analysis Chris. We are Labour members – indeed I am local branch secretary – We have the Jewish Society coming to speak to us and educate the party members of our constituency in September. Some of what you said will be very helpful. Agree that it has been handled badly. Also there was never a problem Ken Livingstone couldn’t make worse just by speaking. I am in the strange position of liking both Blair and Corbyn and hope the mess can be sorted out soon. Once Labout has sorted that they can move onto Brexit and then the rest of the county’s woes – our best hope is a Labour Government so hope this all gets sorted quickly. Your article should be published – and talking of published – congratulations on your poetry book launch this month. Mark & DeeDee xxx
Cheers Mark- as you know, I was never a fan of Blair, but these days, in comparison to what we have, he is like Jesus. Unless you are Iraqi that is!