Labour’s problem with anti-semitism matters for our democracy

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 8th 2018

It is truly a summer of madness; think of the challenges facing the UK, Europe and the world. What has been convulsing the British Labour Party all through this trying, testing times? Namely, the issue of anti-semitism.

This hasn’t come from nowhere. Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of Labour for three years, and for this entire period this issue has been a running sore. There was Ken Livingstone and his remarks on ‘when Hitler was supporting Zionism’, there was the Shami Chakrabarti review into anti-semitism in the party, the Tower Hamlets mural and most recently, the controversy over Labour’s NEC’s adoption in part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) guidelines without four of the examples.

There followed the revelations of Pete Willsman’s comments at the NEC which adopted the IHRA guidelines, and closer to home, Fife Labour councillor Mary Lockhart complaining that all of this was whipped up by ‘a Mossad assisted campaign’ trying to stop a Corbyn government, while a Dundee councillor George McIrvine shared a Facebook post stating: ‘There are only nine countries left in the world without a central Rothschild bank … Isn’t it funny we are always at war with these countries.’ Lockhart was suspended; McIrvine investigated; and there are no Rothschild-controlled central banks anywhere.

Anti-semitism on the left did not begin with Corbyn. George Orwell wrote in a 1945 essay ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’: ‘The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-semitism appeal to me?’’, an introspective question missing from Labour contemporary debates.

For anyone who thinks this has all been concocted by Murdoch or even Mossad, here are a selection of Labour anti-semitic comments: Hitler ‘would have had a solution to the Israel problem’ and some Jews ‘need executing’ (Damien Enticott, Bognor Regis councillor); Zionist Jews are ‘a disgrace to humanity’ (Salim Mulla, Blackburn councillor); ‘What have the Jews done good in this world? (Nasreen Khan, Bradford Council candidate); sharing a David Duke Facebook video: ‘CNN Goldman Sachs and the Zio Matrix (Zafar Iqbal, Brighton councillor); Hitler ‘was the greatest man in history’ (Aysegul Gurbuz, Luton councillor).

Finally, two Jewish Labour Haringey councillors who resigned, citing years of abuse ‘about Jews having big noses, controlling the media and being wealthy’, saw one told by a Momentum activist: ‘At least [you] will have more time to count your money’. It is a depressing read, made worse from the fact there are so many examples to choose from elected and senior Labour figures. No one can realistically say there isn’t a problem.

This is not about the finer points of how Labour selectively adopted the IHRA guidelines. Nor is it about the byzantine rules which govern Labour’s administrative processes. It is strange that after Livingstone’s outburst in April 2016, he was suspended from the party, but that for the next two years the party did not conclude its investigations, with Livingstone saving the leadership embarrassment by resigning in May 2018. Meanwhile, Labour MPs Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin faced instant investigations for comments critical of Corbyn and the party over anti-semitism (the Hodge one dropped this Monday).

A significant factor is how a section of the left defines and understands racism, victims, and ideas of oppressors and oppressed. In this the Palestinian people are oppressed, while the state of Israel are oppressors. The Israeli lobby is seen as all-powerful in the US and elsewhere, and as synonymous with the Jewish lobby and Jewish people. There is an arms race of language by some to describe how disgusted they are by the Israeli illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, settlement building, and denial of human rights, with for some, anti-Zionism tipping over into anti-semitism.

The left idea of oppression is meant to have at centre-stage that disadvantaged minorities should be heard. Yet, for too many this does not extent to Jewish people because they supposedly are judged not to suffer the right form of systematic oppression in the way other groups such as Muslims and black people do. Thus, despite the Holocaust, for too many on the left too many Jews in the UK are just too successful, assimilated and represented in the professions and elites.

The omissions in Labour’s processes tell a wider point. Labour’s NEC adopted a selective version of the IHRA without engaging in consultation with any Jewish groups. The ineptitude is staggering. As Jonathan Freedland recently observed on BBC ‘Newsnight’, imagine the same train of events, but that Labour’s NEC had adopted a set of rules relevant to black people, but without speaking to any black groups? It would rightly be castigated, but somehow with Jewish people this is acceptable to some.

What this kind of political arrogance falls into is two-fold. It is a form of Jewsplaining, which treats Jewish people differently from other minorities, and seems willfully ignorant of the discrimination and prejudice Jewish people have faced through the centuries. Informing this is a dogmatic definition of racism, which sees it as solely about colonialism and imperialism, and hence white privilege, ignoring racism in Europe and elsewhere which doesn’t fit into this. This reduces Jewish people to how they stand on the actions of the state of Israel, and whether they are ‘good Jews’ or ‘bad Jews’.

Within Labour there are numerous different strands. There is the politics of Jeremy Corbyn the individual: seen by many as a good man, and standing up for his principles. Corbyn made his reputation by a mix of stubbornness and adherence to a set of placards and slogans which have a simplicity and lack of ambiguity – anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity, anti-Trident. These are good for the days of being an oppositional left in Tony Blair’s heyday, but don’t have any real depth, and aren’t much use when you are the leader of a party.

More than this there are tensions between the different strands of the Corbynista coalition. Hence, one group which could be called the Corbyn cultists see every issue as one to rally in defence of the embattled leader with the hashtag #WeareCorbyn and portray him as surrounded by enemies, whether scheming Blairites or even allies such as John McDonnell who have chosen to have an independent mind. In contrast, there is an emerging Corbynista tendency, seen in the likes of Jon Lansman, founder of the grass roots Momentum group, who see the fortunes of Corbyn the person and the wider project as separate. It was Lansman who instantly dropped Pete Willsman from the Corbyn slate for the NEC after his outburst, earning the enmity of the cultists.

There is, as well as the above, a new generational divide emerging in the party. Some of the Bennite and far left strands who have come to the fore in the party have survived with their political views intact through the 1980s, New Labour and since (this is less true of Lansman who has had a similar journey). They have endured decades in the wilderness, preaching only to each other, and have in the process, ended up embracing a dogmatic view of the world which harks back to a previous era in many of its stances and policies.

Some of the younger Corbynista supporters who were attracted by the promise of a new politics, pluralism and standing against the groupthink of the New Labour era have been horrified by what they have seen. They have had a veil lifted on a politics which promised the above, but is in fact the direct opposite, and in fact, shares much of the same self-certainty as the New Labour era. This has surfaced in various comments with Tom Miller who set up Open Labour saying the party needs ‘open debate on topics like Europe: Labour’s democracy is especially important when the topics are hardest.’

Underneath all of this is the fundamental problem with one strand of what passes to be on the left. This is of the left as an elect, a faith, a religious calling, and because of all of these, ultimately, as a dogma, which believes it has stumbled upon the ultimate truth.

In this the left see themselves as the ‘good guys’, incapable of prejudice and discrimination. How else can one understand the comments of Pete Willsman, who has sat on Labour’s disciplinary meetings: ‘where is your evidence of severe and widespread anti-semitism in this party?, answering himself: ‘I’m amazed. I have certainly never seen any’. In such an account of the world, as exemplars of anti-racist politics, Willsman and others are incapable of racism and prejudice, and worse, define racism as always being other: articulated by their enemies, whether fascist, reactionary, conservative or populist. Racism in this account is always about someone else.

For those who think all of this is a diversion or a conspiracy dragged up by the forces of reaction, there is the inconvenient truth that too many people in Labour and the left have said too many unacceptable comments about Jewish people. And it does not answer this to talk about the historic anti-semitism which has existed on the right and in the Tories, or the widespread problem with Islamophobia on the right which is as virulent a prejudice with only this week former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson again playing the Islamic card making insensitive comments about women wearing the burka.

What matters is that this is the most testing time in British politics in a couple of generations, and Her Majesty’s Opposition – the Labour Party – are posted missing, failing to deal with the poison of anti-semitism, while the leadership seems to believe that it is more than enough that they are the good guys and that the badies are elsewhere, outside of Labour.

It is not good enough, and in a world where like it or not identity politics have become the new gospel and aren’t going away, Labour have to get this right, for there are going to be many more similar and difficult challenges coming along in the near-future. If Labour and the wider left don’t understand the serious stakes at play here, then we may never get to discuss and change what many of us judge to be the more serious issues facing society.