The charge of widespread antisemitism on the left of the Labour Party is damaging the necessary fight against racism in all its forms. Don Flynn explains how this is happening
The renewed charge of antisemitic racism, directed against Labour just as April polls put the party ahead in the public popularity stakes, has the feel of a doomsday weapon about it – intended to put an end to any strand of leftist activism that has placed distance between itself and Blairite acquiescence to the established mainstream.
Stripping away the obvious glorying in the opportunity to have a go at Labour in its new left-wing configuration, there are issues which certainly need to be addressed in this area. The huge increase in membership over the last few years – making the party by far the biggest in Europe – has opened up the problem of getting discipline and principle into its ranks. Broad-based social democratic parties have not been strong on the question of political education, with the presumption being that efforts to change the minds and behaviour of people smacks a bit too much of Leninism. The slapdash, ‘big tent’ legacy the party has been left with has put it in a poor position to deal with some, possibly many, new members who, to put it kindly, are a ‘work in progress’ when it comes to reliability on crucial issues like the battle against racism and antisemitism. Improving the party’s capacity to deliver on the political education members need is a critical task for Labour, as well as taking stern disciplinary action against those who show themselves to be resolute racists and antisemites.
The problem for democratic socialists in the party is that the right has made this chronic failing an opportunity to attack Corbyn and the group of senior MPs who form his staunchest supporters, making them the problem rather than the deeper problems of the racism and prejudice that are entrenched in the traditions of British culture. In its most recent attack on the party, the Sunday Times claimed that its analysis of postings on twenty ‘pro-Corbyn’ Facebook groups had “found routine attacks on Jewish people, including Holocaust denial”. Labour’s response is that none of these groups have official status with the party. As such the way in which the group is administered and the comments allowed on their sites cannot be considered as representative of views held by senior party members or any significant current of opinion within its ranks.
Yet while these charges are batted backwards and forwards by critics and defenders of Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership it seems to be having little impact on the views held by the majority of voters. A Populus survey conducted in 2018 found that only 5% of respondents acknowledged the issue as a significant news story which had had an impact on the way they were thinking about political affairs. Amongst Jews levels of concern registered much more highly. Eighty-three percent felt that antisemitic statements were insufficiently challenged by the party’s leaders, MPs or rank-and-file members. Support for Labour was down to around 13% of Jewish voters, giving credibility to the argument put most vigorously by the Campaign Against Antisemitism that the party was seen as being irredeemably hostile to Jews.
The catalyst for this negative assessment of the Labour Party is the criticism of the actions of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian people, made across decades by Jeremy Corbyn and others with whom he is considered politically close. In principle what has been said over the years differs very little from the condemnation of other states and the repressive policies they pursue which is common enough on the left. From this perspective Israel figures on a list of countries which, at various times, has included South Africa and Chile. Smaller scale research and action groups, operating with similar, broadly leftist perspectives have taken up the cause of victims of repression in numerous other countries, with numerous examples across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and including even the United States (Black Lives Matter) and the UK. The point here is that internationalist currents within the left – those operating with the concept of imperialism as a key part of their analysis of the contemporary world – have continuously engaged with the duty of solidarity with all people contending in their daily lives with the unadorned realities of exploitation and oppression. The Palestine/Israel conflict is just one more example of the way in which imperialist interests are working out across the globe.
Supporters of the political ideology that sustains the actions of the Israeli state against the Palestinian people – Zionism – offer an alternative reading of history which centres on the claim that their cause should be exempted from the criticism normally meted out to repressive states on the grounds that it has its origins in the striving of a people who were (and are) themselves oppressed and in need of a space providing safety and the opportunity to exercise self-determination. Further, lined up against this assertion of Jewish rights are people who unquestionably merit the ascription of racist antisemites, seeking to deny the Jewish people not only a place in which they are secure, but even their basic right to existence.
In their attempts to argue the rights and wrongs of these issues, the internationalist currents associated with the Corbyn leadership on the left have periodically wandered in quagmires that have provided some basis for the viewpoint put forward by Zionist critics to the effect that criticism of Israel is always at risk of becoming straightforwardly criticism of Jewish hopes and aspirations, and therefore becomes quintessentially antisemitic. The border between ‘legitimate criticism’ and anti-Jewism becomes a zone amenable to intensive policing, looking for the slips and elisions in the language used by critics of Israeli state actions which are held to be revealing of underlying antisemitism. When this level of scrutiny is underway, the concentration on the content of verbal utterances entirely displaces consideration of context, and rhetoric which belongs to the traditions of anti-imperialism and anti-racism are presented as aphorisms that equate to hardline antisemitism.
Jon Pullman’s film on the way in which one leading anti-racist campaigner has been dealt with under this process shows how the system works out. The Political Lynching of Jackie Walker is a case study of the way in which discussion about the conflicts in Palestine/Israel has become subject to a degree of examination which, in the case of Jackie Walker herself, led to widespread vilification and eventually expulsion from the Labour Party. Nor is it any defence, as Walker attempted to marshal to her aid, that the alleged mis-speaker is herself Jewish. Right-wing, revisionist Zionism offers up the purported psychological phenomenon of the ‘self-hating Jew’ to account for the fact that a significant portion of their co-ethnics occupy positions which place them firmly on the side of critics of Israel. From this perspective Zionism is seen as being so intrinsically linked to Jewish identity that any departure from faithful support for the Israeli state can only be seen as repudiation of the fact of being a Jew.
The effect of setting up discussion in this way has been to lay minefields and tripwires across the terrain in order to keep participants well within the bounds of ‘acceptable’ criticism, which inevitably falls far short of locating the dispute within the frame of a critique of colonialism and imperialism. In this the issue is sealed off from the themes which can be explored in other scrutiny of the actions of repressive regimes. The deadly work of the Saudi Arabian regime in pummelling the people of Yemen to the point of mass starvation can still legitimately be set out as a part of a wider scheme to secure the hegemony of the United States across the Middle East. Daring analysts of the Latin American scene can explain how Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil has to be understood as a part of the rolling back of the advances made by the democratic left in recent decades, all under the direction of Washington’s foreign policy gurus. Researchers into the policies pursued by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are just about allowed to unpick the linkages between domestic repression and aspirations towards regional and global power, but criticism of Israel is expected to stay silent on the specificities which uniquely describe the state and which help make plain its standing in the global rollcall of oppression.
Though the charge against Israel’s critics in the Labour Party frequently links the terms ‘racist’ and ‘antisemitic’, there is in fact little interest on the part of those who pursue the charge to link it with other egregious examples of discrimination. If, as is clearly the case, antisemitism is on the rise, how does this relate to the shocking increase in other racisms, directed against people of colour, refugees and immigrants? Does the fact of this upsurge tell us anything about the character of a capitalist system that is adjusting to the failings of its globalised, neoliberal mode and its efforts to find a new basis for rule over the masses, akin to the ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics of previous times? If this is the case, what are the implications for strategies which appear to aim for a defence of the Jewish people which mark of the dangers they face by presenting antisemitism as a unique manifestation of racist prejudice that belongs peculiarly to the left?
Corbyn and other internationalists within the Labour Party and on the left in general have a different response. If racism is to be taken on and defeated, the underlying reasons for its pernicious existence have to be taken on and undermined. Some of this undoubtedly relates to irrational prejudices that go back to the dawn of human history, with antisemitism having its deepest origins in the tensions that existed within the Romano-Hellene world at the time of the ascendency of Christianity. But if this forms the long-duration cultural backdrop, it is essential to face up to the fact that antisemitism has gained its current vitality from the immediate political and economic crisis of global capitalism, which is generating populist and nationalist responses to the problem of social control. From this perspective the need to mount a fight against racism in all its forms is the salient issue, with antisemitism featuring as one type alongside others in the morphology of prejudice; all with the same objective of undermining solidarity between society’s underclasses. The constant attack on Corbyn and his supporters for his expressions of support for the Palestinian people is a prime example of how divide-and-rule works, with the outcome of sustaining the prop that racism provides to the capitalist system, rather than defeating it.