Julia Bard dissects the issues in the recent anti-semitism furore in the Labour Party and finds the issue is being instrumentalised for other political purposes
“The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.” (Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol)
As far as we know, between 20 and 30 people who are alleged to have expressed antisemitic ideas have been suspended from the Labour Party. Some have not been given a reason or even been told directly that they have been suspended. All these allegations relate to comments rather than actions. A few are actually anti-Semitic. Others are offensive or carelessly expressed. Some are critical of Israel or Zionism but not antisemitic at all. Most of them predate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The latest round of accusations started in April with the revelation that in 2014, at the height of the Gaza War, Bradford MP Naz Shah had posted on Facebook a joke that was doing the rounds about relocating Israel to the USA. This one was splashed all over the media and Naz Shah responded quickly, making an exemplary apology and resigning as parliamentary assistant to John McDonnell.
Many Jewish people supported her, including Bradford’s rabbi and David Aaronovitch, who tweeted, “When somebody does something wrong or stupid, and then apologises fully, it seems perverse not to welcome their apology.” Several Jewish groups were successfully challenging the right-wing, Zionist narrative when Ken Livingstone jumped in to claim that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. He was promptly suspended and refused to apologise on the grounds that he was “not sorry for telling the truth”. This reignited the whole issue, which blazed on throughout the local/mayoral elections. The timing was not accidental. Jeremy Corbyn responded constructively by setting up an Inquiry into antisemitism in the Party chaired by Shami Chakrabarti. Many Jewish groups and individuals submitted statements and evidence, challenging the claim that “antisemitism is rife in the Labour Party” and teasing out the arguments about zionism, antizionism, antisemitism and other forms of racism. While recognising that the Labour Party has a task to fulfil in becoming “a welcoming environment” for Black and Ethnic Minority members, the report refutes the allegation that the Labour Party is overrun with antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism. Chakrabarti and her team have shown a sophisticated, nuanced understanding, made positive and useful recommendations based on universalism and human rights, and has been specific about the need to establish open and just disciplinary processes, and to end the trawling of ancient social media accounts for ammunition to attack members. It is important to acknowledge that anti-semitism does come from more than one direction. It would be miraculous if the left, including the Labour Party, were immune to an ideology with such long and persistent roots. But I am not aware of any Jewish people who go to meetings in trepidation about being attacked for being Jewish nor of any socialists who daub swastikas on Jewish gravestones.
The conflation of anti-semitism with anti-zionism and the use of the accusation of anti-semitism to stifle debate have a long and dishonourable history as a device to discredit campaigns for justice for the Palestinians in particular, and Jewish involvement in left wing and anti-racist activism in general. So is there any substance in the claim that criticism of Israel or Zionism is anti-semitic? The short answer is, no. How could it be racist to criticise the actions of a state? The leadership of the mainstream Jewish community argues otherwise, claiming that Zionism is central to Jewish identity and, therefore, to challenge Zionism is to attack Jews per se. If this were true, it would be a manifestation of anti-semitism. But Zionism is not, and never has been, “central to Jewish identity”. It is a political ideology which emerged in 1897 as one of a number of nationalist movements. It has been contested since its inception and it is entirely legitimate to express all kinds of views about it, whether you are Jewish or non-Jewish. To claim that Jewish (or any other) identity rests on any single pillar – whether it is Zionism or religion or Jewish culture – is to contort a complex, shifting, historical concept into a simple set of imperatives. A political ideology, which is by its nature open to question, can’t be an essential component of Jewish identity; therefore, criticism of Zionism cannot be assumed to be anti-semitic, though there are instances of anti-Zionism being close to or used as a cover for anti-semitism and we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge them. In the Labour Party, anti-semitism is being instrumentalised, without apparent concern for its victims, in two ways. Firstly, it is being used as a weapon to undermine the left-wing leadership of the Labour Party.
Secondly, it is being invoked to silence criticism of Israel’s draconian and illegal actions, which include collective punishments, demolition of Palestinian homes, imprisoning Palestinian children, strangling the Palestinian economy, cutting off water supplies, uprooting orchards, discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel and more. One of the groups dredging up ancient tweets and posts is the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), formerly known as Poale Zion (Workers of Zion). The JLM claims to represent all Jewish Party members and has made a bid to be responsible for education about anti-semitism within the Party. However, along with its affiliation to the Labour Party, it is affiliated to the World Zionist Organization and open only to those who sign up to its programme. This excludes all non- and anti-zionist Jewish members and probably a few progressive Zionists as well. Since it derives its conception of anti-semitism from its Zionist/Israel-centred perspective, it cannot prioritise the interests of Jews in Britain or in the British Labour Party over what it believes to be the Israeli state’s interests.There are two reasons why fears are being whipped up now. The first is that this is an attempt by an unholy alliance of Blairites, Tories and the Zionist establishment to unseat Jeremy Corbyn. The other is the result of political shifts within (and beyond) the Jewish community. The Israeli government’s rising violence, intransigence and racism are undermining support for Israel and Zionism amongst diaspora Jews. The community is polarising. On one side is an increasingly aggressive right wing, which brooks no critique or even discussion of Israel’s behaviour and policies. On the other, more people are coalescing around left positions; some, particularly young Jews, are articulate in their critique of Israel and support for the Palestinians. Challenging the Israeli Embassy’s narrative, they define themselves as members of a diaspora community alongside other minorities, and do not place Israel or Zionism at the centre of their identity or politics.
These assertive young Jews, bizarrely, would be defined as anti-semites according to the Labour Party Compliance Unit. Many Israeli dissident groups would also have crossed that line by campaigning against the occupation, refusing army service, rebuilding Palestinian homes, recording human rights abuses and more. Indeed, recently an army general and the Mayor of Tel Aviv have made critiques of the occupation that could have got them suspended from the British Labour Party. Israelis are not the same as the Israeli government, and both the Jewish community here and Israeli society are heterogeneous and conflicted, so we need to identify and make common cause with the most progressive elements in both. An example of this is the response of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has welcomed the fact that there will be no state-sponsored Israeli acts in this year’s Edinburgh Festival, while making a clear distinction between these and non-branded Israeli shows. There are also Zionists who are alarmed at the cynical misuse of anti-semitism and Holocaust history to attack and silence opponents. Some are principled anti-racists, who work tirelessly to support refugees and protect victims of racism. They are allies in our insistence on the right to speak and debate freely. Zionism, anti-zionism and anti-semitism are complicated sets of ideas with a long history and we need to be nuanced in our understanding of them. The alternative is to degenerate into ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ politics, which fails to recognise that political affiliations can change and simply mirrors the stance of those who don’t dare to argue politically. We need to ensure that people are confident enough in their understanding to analyse, investigate and speak freely about Israel-Palestine, not to be afraid of false accusations designed to taint any opposition, but to defend the historic opportunity that a socialist leadership of the Labour Party has opened up, to campaign for peace with justice and an end to the human rights abuses that underpin the occupation of Palestine.