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The radicalism of fools: the rise of the new anti-Semitism

No self-respecting person on the left should endorse anti-establishment positions that are in reality just cloaked anti-Semitism.


Mixed signals: fans do the quenelle outside a Nantes venue where Dieudonné was due to give a show on 9 January that was banned by the supreme court. Arnaud Journois/photoshot.

At the end of December, a couple of days before the five remaining members of the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were reunited on Graham Norton’s BBC sofa, I was reminded of one of the comedy team’s funniest sketches. Entitled “World Forum”, it featured a TV quiz in which various revolutionaries were questioned about important issues – such as who won the FA Cup final in 1949 and which football club was nicknamed the Hammers.

I was reminded of it because I was at the home of the Hammers, Upton Park in east London – reporting on a six-goal thriller between West Ham United and West Brom­wich Albion – when a colleague from another national paper suddenly asked me to define the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Having written a book about Jewish involvement in football, I’m used to inquiries about Tottenham Hotspur’s much-vaunted connections to the community, rabbinical attitudes to playing on the Sabbath and the relatively low number of Jewish players in the professional game. But this was the first time I’d been called on to comment on such a weighty ideological matter. It seemed about as surreal a question as the Python quizmaster’s to one of the icons of the radical left: “Now then, Che, Coventry City last won the FA Cup in what year?”

Then I saw on a TV replay – the match had been broadcast live around the world – the reason for this bizarre inquiry. The French striker Nicolas Anelka had celebrated the first of his two goals for West Brom with his right arm extended towards the ground, palm open, and the other arm bent across his chest, palm touching his right upper arm. It was, apparently, a reverse Nazi salute, invented by the Parisian comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Although missed by most of us journalists at the game, it had been picked up by the cameras and was condemned by shocked tweeters watching it in France. Many of them referred to this “quenelle”, as Dieudonné had named it, as an anti-Semitic gesture; a few preferred the label “anti-Zionist”. Before I could explain the obvious distinction to my colleague, Albion’s caretaker manager, Keith Downing, breezed in to the press room. Besides the obligatory questions about tactics, injuries and controversial refereeing decisions, he was asked about the political significance of Anelka’s salute. “Absolute rubbish,” he snapped. It was an innocuous gesture, “dedicated to a friend [of Anelka’s] who happens to be a comedian”.

When Dieudonné, the friend in question, had initially joked in 2002 about Judaism being “a scam . . . it’s one of the worst, because it’s the first”, he was portrayed as some kind of Pythonesque absurdist. But after it became clear that he meant exactly what he’d said and when, in subsequent one-man shows, he felt compelled to insult the memory of Shoah victims, give a platform to Holocaust deniers and promote all kinds of Jew-hatred, his repulsive brand of humour provoked outrage. Not, it has to be said, universal outrage. On the far right, as would be expected, he was feted as a truth-teller. Less expected, perhaps, has been his growing attraction to the kinds of people who stick, or once stuck, Che posters on their bedroom walls. Despite several convictions for racism – and even though most recently, in a riposte to a critic, he declared: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself, ‘Gas chambers . . . too bad’” – his attacks on Jewish capitalism and riffs about ripping out Holocaust chapters from history books have been hailed as taboo-breaking by those professing themselves to be radical, anti-establishment leftists.

Which raises a troubling question: is anti-Semitism now the radicalism of fools?

In the late 19th century, the German Marxist August Bebel observed that anti-Jewish prejudice was “the socialism of fools”. From Marx’s plea for the withering away of Jewishness to the popular euphemistic references to “rootless cosmopolitans” in the Stalin era, the left has had, to put it mildly, a problematic relationship with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. The French left’s relationship has been more difficult than most. During the revolution of 1789, Jews were attacked for clinging selfishly to their religious identity. Even an ardent Dreyfusard such as the socialist leader Jean Jaurès could still insist that “the Jewish race was consumed by a sort of fever for profit”. What is new today is the appeal of this race-hate discourse to a fashionable, anti-globalisation, up-yours, them-and-us (“them” frequently being Jewish financiers and Holocaust memorialisers) coalition of radical Islamists, hip middle-class white Parisians, alienated black youth and Jewish-world-domination conspiracy theorists.

“Look at the composition of Dieudonné’s audiences,” says Philippe Auclair, an author who is the England correspondent of France Football. “There are people from the far right, but also from the far left. People on the margins. There are Green extremists and radical Muslims. To them, the English FA’s action against Anelka [the organisation has finally got round to charging him] is probably proof that American Zionists control the FA. Some of the people tweeting me, for example, have pointed out that the FA’s previous chairman was called Bernstein.”

David Bernstein’s predecessor as chairman at the FA, David Triesman, also happens to be Jewish. “There are some people on the so-called progressive left,” says Triesman, now Labour’s main foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, “who have taken on board anti-Semitic slurs based on the notion of Jewish power and money.”

Triesman and Bernstein, who both pioneered anti-racist initiatives at the FA, pointed out to me that anti-Semitism had virtually disappeared from football stadiums. In fact, last year, despite protracted debate about Tottenham’s use of the term “Yid Army”, the community’s connection to the game became an official cause for celebration. In October, as part of the governing body’s 150th-birthday festivities, the Jewish Museum in London launched its “Four Four Jew” exhibition. The guest speaker was the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who spoke about the depth and variety of the Anglo-Jewish contribution to soccer. As a fan, reporter and author of a book on the subject, I can confirm that anti-Semitism has almost vanished from the game’s discourse. But can the same be said of left-liberal discourse? Do British radicals, like their counterparts across the Channel, have a Jewish problem?

While acting as an adviser on “Four Four Jew”, Triesman was disturbed to discover that several leading Jewish figures in football had declined to take part. “They didn’t want to be seen in that context because they thought they’d be pilloried, in certain parts of the media, in an anti-Semitic way,” he told me. “They were worried that people would say Jews had too much power in football. Elements of the far left genuinely look at the world and believe a huge amount of power is concentrated into the hands of the Jewish people. It’s not a different view from that taken by the far-right movements of the 1930s.”

It is striking that, weeks after the “reverse Nazi” sign was performed in the East End of London – an area once inhabited by Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution from eastern Europe – the “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism” line adopted by most football writers has not been replicated by the liberal commentariat. “Perhaps there’s a reluctance because he’s a Muslim,” Auclair says of Anelka’s gesture. “If he had been a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant there would have been a stink. There would have been outrage by liberals and progressives.”

Unbelievably, some liberals and progressives have defended Anelka. Nabila Ramdani, a French journalist of Algerian descent who writes for the Guardian, sees the Rolls-Royce-driving, hamburger-chain-advertising, multimillionaire enfant terrible as a victim of France’s political class – “because he is the kind of Frenchman many disapprove of – one who is Muslim, black and from a deprived housing estate”. In a column for the National, she wrote: “There is no doubt that Dieudonné has some repulsive views, but until its Premiership debut, the quenelle meant next to nothing at all.” She also noted that “anybody – from schoolchildren to celebrities and politicians – could and did perform [it] during those goofing around moments which are nowadays invariably caught on smartphone cameras”. Although she noted that some of these revolting photographs were taken outside Holocaust memorials, she assumed that Anelka himself would condemn such obscenities.

This worrying phenomenon has not, as yet, entered the British cultural mainstream. True, the humorist David Mitchell, who describes himself as a leftish liberal, offended some Jewish sensibilities in 2009 when he quipped on a radio programme: “There’s actually no truth in the rumour that the last entry in Anne Frank’s diary reads: ‘Today is my birthday, Dad bought me a drum kit.’” But Mitchell, quite reasonably, claimed this was “a joke about people who are hiding, not wanting to make a noise . . . that’s not the same as finding the Holocaust funny”.

In fact, his fellow comedian Russell Brand, our very own idiosyncratic, taboo-breaking anti-hero, last year poked fun at Hugo Boss’s sordid past making uniforms for Nazi Germany – in stark contrast to Dieudonné, who prefers to poke fun at Jews who exaggerate their suffering in the Holocaust. I can remember feeling uncomfortable, as a youngster who played at being a punk, about the prevalence of the swastika in punk fashion, but accepted it to be more the product of a misguided, anarchistic desire to shock than an expression of racism.

Yet it is not so long ago that the Labour MP Tam Dalyell was accusing Tony Blair of being in the pocket of Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and a “cabal of Jewish advisers” (Mandelson and Straw have Jewish ancestry but neither is Jewish). In the 2012 London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone suggested that “rich Jews” wouldn’t vote for him. Only last year, the Labour peer Nazir Ahmed claimed his jail sentence for dangerous driving was the result of a Jewish plot and the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward tweeted, “What a shame there isn’t a powerful, well funded Board of Deputies for #Roma” (a reference to the Board of Deputies of British Jews).

“There are left-of-centre people in parlia­ment,” Triesman says, “who are incapable of understanding that you can be in the progressive movement and be Jewish. They can’t accept anything you say on Israel. They think that if you criticise Israel it’s a fiction, that almost anybody who’s Jewish can’t criticise Israel in good faith. Some of the rhetoric around the Israeli boycott movement from the Trotskyite left is anti-Semitic.” Which brings us back to the question asked by my football reporting colleague at Upton Park: what is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist . . . a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.

“The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and . . . have now taken over a country.”

As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “This is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of a conspiracy theory that believes the Jews pull all the strings.”

“We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “We have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”

As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column for the Guardian and a monthly commentary for the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.

“On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism.

“The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”

Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus, £9.99)

Update, 14 August: A previous version of this story wrongly stated that Nabila Ramdani omitted to mention in her column for The National that the quenelle had been performed outside synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Auschwitz, and the Jewish school where three children and a teacher had been murdered. In fact, she had said in the column: ‘There is absolutely no question that Anelka would condemn the revolting pictures of idiots performing quenelles outside Holocaust memorials, or other sites marking attacks on Jews’.  We apologise to Ms Ramdani for this inaccuracy.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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