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5 April 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:45am

There is no clever answer to Labour’s anti-Semitism issue

The Labour leadership’s real test will be how it addresses the deeper political culture that allows anti-Semitism to thrive.

By Michael Chessum

If the backlash around Corbyn’s attendance at a Passover Seder organised by the left-wing Jewish group Jewdas has demonstrated anything, it is that there most certainly is an anti-Semitism problem in British politics, and one which is not confined to the left.

Having spent weeks warning of Labour’s creeping anti-Semitism, the Tory press queued up to declare that those involved with Jewdas were not “mainstream” enough to be real Jews, and were, in fact, a dangerous red cabal that practiced rituals involving holding beetroots aloft and singing in Yiddish.

The left cannot allow the distasteful way in which this latest episode has been handled by sections of the political establishment – including many centrist Labour MPs – to become an excuse for complacency. Anti-Semitism is very much real in the Labour Party. But raise the issue at a grassroots level, and some members will still say that they have never witnessed anti-Semitism in Labour, that it is less of an issue than other prejudices in the party, that it is merely a stick with which to beat Corbyn.

So perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of that time Ken Livingstone repeatedly said that Hitler was a Zionist “before he went mad” – or, in fact, most public interventions from Livingstone in recent years. Or when Jeremy Corbyn was accused of supporting a blatantly anti-Semitic mural, and many unthinkingly defended it. Or when Labour MP Tam Dalyell complained of a Jewish “cabal” influencing British foreign policy.

Only today, we had another reminder. When young Jewish members like Joshua Garfield resign from local Momentum committees stating that they have “witnessed more anti-Semitism in the past week than […] in eight years of membership”, and that they feel “sometimes unsafe, and most certainly untrusted as a Jewish member”, it does not invalidate the left’s politics. But it most certainly requires us to take this situation seriously.

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The real test for the Labour leadership in the coming months and years will not be how it handles high profile incidents – many, though not all, of which have already been dealt with quite firmly – but how it addresses the deeper political culture that allows anti-Semitism to thrive. There is no clever answer to Labour’s anti-Semitism issue. Had Corbyn “played it smart” and not attended Jewdas’s Seder, he would have been reinforcing the problem, not ameliorating it.

If you are looking for examples of the problem in Labour’s grassroots, they are not difficult to find. Denial that there is a problem can itself spill over into its own special kind of anti-Semitism.

 “These attempts to make us look anti-Semitic are just part of a global Zionist conspiracy,” retort a terrifyingly high number of staggeringly un-self-aware people in the Labour movement. No, really – 2,000 of them put their names to a statement on Facebook declaring just that.

It’s quite obviously true that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticising Israel, but it is also true that, when discussing unrelated accusations of anti-Semitism, some activists will unaccountably and often instinctively bring up Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. This trope finds its mirror image in the notion that, to be an “acceptable” Jew, you must support the state of Israel and its government’s policies.

It ought to be uncontroversial that there is a strain of anti-Semitism specific to the left. Early German social democrat August Bebel called it “the socialism of fools”, and Stalinism deployed it regularly. Just two decades on from the Holocaust, the Communist regime in Poland persecuted its Jewish population as a collective punishment for the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Soviet regime fabricated plots by Jewish assassins.

The strange irony of all of this is that Jewdas is at the forefront of combatting left-wing anti-Semitism. Its materials include a how-to guide for criticising Israel without being anti-Semitic. On the wider activist left, and especially among younger activists in Momentum, there is a growing willingness to combat anti-Semitism in the party – but inevitably a deepening polarisation on the question as well.

Many commentators have, quite rightly, attributed Labour’s anti-Semitism problem to a lack of political education. In a mass party with many new members, notions of “the establishment” and “the media” can easily become tropes and conspiracy theories unless they share a serious intellectual framework for understanding and changing the world. But there is something else going on as well.

In today’s Labour Party, anti-Semitism has become dangerously instrumentalised. On one side, leading centrists seize on anything they can find to throw at Corbyn. On the other, proud anti-racists warn comrades not to discuss the anti-Semitism question because it might be divisive, or else deny that it is a problem at all. Neither side would – nor should – dream of treating any other form of racism in this way.

The anti-Semitism debate is difficult because it contains multiple uncomfortable truths. There is, after all, a plot to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. But there is also a deep culture of anti-Semitism specific to the left, hiding itself in all manner of very legitimate political causes, such as anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism.

It might seem easier for both left and right to tell themselves simple stories about each other’s intentions. It is Corbyn’s job to ensure that what should be a matter of deep principle is not reduced to a political calculation.

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