Notes From the Margins…

Are You or Have You Ever Been an Antisemite?

  • March 06, 2019
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I’m not a Labour party member, but it’s impossible to ignore the ‘antisemitism crisis’ that has ground its dismal way through British politics for the last three and a half years.

Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015,  this crisis has grown and grown, acquiring new dimensions and components along the way.  Where Corbyn was once accused of failing to deal with antisemitism, he is now accused of being the cause of it.  Where the Labour party once had a problem with antisemitism, it’s has become ‘institutionally antisemitic.’

Journalists now traul through Corbyn’s facebook posts,  meetings and appearances to discover that – hey presto! – a politician with an antiracist record that few British politicians can equal turns out to have been an antisemite all along.

Other leftwing activists have been similarly indicted, and those who know them or associate with them have been indicted by association.   We have now reached the point when leftwing activists like Michael Rosen can be dismissed by Dan Hodges as ‘Corbyn’s useful Jewish idiot’; when Nick Cohen can write in the Spectator that ‘ the far left has completed the project of Oswald Mosley and the National Front and made anti-Semitism mainstream’ – within the Labour party.

On Monday  the Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh told Radio 4’s John Humphries that ‘some people in the Labour party’ are incapable of taking antisemitism seriously, because ‘  it’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital.’

Such claims are not only historically inane; they are also extraordinarily destructive and irresponsible.   There’s no doubt that there is an ugly streak of antisemitism on the left which at times has found its way into support for the Palestinian cause.

This is not to suggest that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic, despite the suggestions of some of Corbyn’s critics to the contrary.  But leftwing criticism of the Israeli state has sometimes been infused with hostility towards Jews per se.  At its most extreme, leftwing antisemitism may take the form of the vicious hatespeak and death threats directed at Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger – though such abuse was not uniquely ‘leftwing’, nor was it supported by any organisation of the left.

Such tendencies may also take the form of antisemitic ‘tropes’, about ‘zionazis’, the Rothschilds, international banking conspiracies, undue Jewish influence over domestic politics etc, which may reflect unconscious bias or something more sinister and unpleasant.

Both ‘tropes’ and overt expressions of antisemitism have rightly disgusted and offended many British Jews.   At the same time it’s striking that such attitudes have acquired their political salience only insofar as they are identified as a Labour party problem, or more particularly as a Corbyn problem.

There is no doubt that this problem has  been wilfully exaggerated  by opponents of  the left and the Corbyn project, both inside and outside the party, who include leading  Jewish organisations – almost all of which are strongly supportive of Israel, the Tory government -, rightwing Labour MPs, the Daily Mail, Guido Fawkes, left-hating journalists like Nick Cohen and the far-right troll/provocateur Katie Hopkins.

There is also evidence that the Israeli government has contributed to this process, though even  to make such an observation in the current climate runs the risk of being depicted as antisemitic oneself.  Many of those who now attack ‘Labour antisemitism’  have never raised their voices about any other kind of racism.  Some, like Katie Hopkins,  actively promote racist hatred towards every other racial or ethnic group except Jews.

Few members of this consensus  have raised their voices to condemn  Theresa May’s hostile environment, anti-Muslim bigotry or the ‘take our country back’ hate crimes that have been unfolding on a weekly or even daily basis since the referendum.  To point this out is not ‘whataboutery’, but  it does raise the question of why one form of racism has acquired such unprecedented prominence when so many others are ignored or minimised.

This prominence is clearly not related to the actual scale of the problem. According to Labour’s own figures,  reported complaints of antisemitism amount to 0.1 percent of Labour party members.  Whatever the outcome of these investigations, these figures clearly suggest that  a problem exists,  and Labour’s response to it has at times been tone-deaf and extraordinarily inept.

The appointment of Laura Murray, the daughter of one of Corbyn’s leading aides, general secretary Jennie Formby’s complaints unit, is such a politically-stupid decision that it smacks of contempt and outright trolling.

But Corbyn’s team cannot take all the blame for a crisis that was exaggerated from the start.  It was perfectly legitimate for Labour to question the IHRA’s  antisemitism guidelines, and it also seems entirely fair that accusations of antisemitism should be investigated and subject to different penalties, depending on the offence.

It would be difficult for any political party  to respond effectively to a McCarthyite consensus that is clearly willing to destroy the reputations of veteran Labour party members and anti-racists on the basis of the wording of a FB post or a ‘trope’, and which seems intent on taking Corbyn’s political head, even if it takes the destruction of the Labour party to achieve this.

For some this outcome is the whole point.  But the repercussions of this crisis are not  limited to the Labour party itself.    For more than a decade now, Gaza has been locked up in an Israeli-imposed cage because its population had the temerity to vote for a government that Israel and the ‘international community’ did not like.  Last spring, Israeli soldiers shot dead nearly two hundred demonstrators and wounded hundreds more, with barely a breath of protest from those who are now accusing Corbyn and the left of antisemitism.  As is so often the case, these victims were too often reduced to ‘Hamas’ or ‘terrorist.’

It is increasingly clear that Israel thinks it has a carte blanche, and that this largesse is  exacerbating its worst tendencies.   Until a few years ago BDS was gaining ground and there was a real possibility of putting international pressure on Israel.  Now that momentum has been lost, and the Palestinians are once again slipping into invisibility.

Israel and its supporters will undoubtedly relish this outcome.   But there are other factors at play here.  Across the western world the far-right and its newer populist variants are gaining ground.  Even though most far-right formations in Europe and America now support Israel – or claim to – Jew-hatred remains a leitmotif for fascists, Nazis, white supremacists and populists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Antisemitism attacks are increasing, but so are attacks on other minority groups.   It is incumbent on all of us to prevent this slide into barbarism.   There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the moral panic about Labour’s antisemitism crisis is intended to contribute to this process.

On the contrary, by prioritising one form of racism over another and exaggerating and manipulating it in order to defame their political opponents, Corybyn’s accusers are more likely to undermine the unity and clarity required to hold back the far-right forces that threaten all of us – and which in this country are growing in strength and confidence as a result of the Brexit debacle.

We should call out racists and bigots wherever we find them, but it is depressingly clear that some of those who are now seeking to destroy the Labour left are only interested in  calling out the ones that suit them.

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  1. Nik

    19th Mar 2019 - 5:10 pm

    Whoa, just realized that the good old Infernal Machine has been back for a while. Shame on me for not checking sooner!

    As always great analysis and the only thing left for me to say is that I am happy you are back and point out that you missed an s in Roth(+s)childs and a fullstop at the end of the text! 🙂

    • Matt

      19th Mar 2019 - 5:16 pm

      Thanks Nik. Yes, it creaked back into life at the beginning of the year. Nice to hear from you and thanks for pointing out the typos. Sometimes I think there will be a typo on my tombstone…

      • Nik

        19th Mar 2019 - 6:01 pm

        No worries, you are not alone with that problem. I seem to be able to spot every typo in the world but my own which is even more annoying!

  2. Paul M Seligman

    21st Mar 2019 - 4:13 pm

    I only realised that this blog was back when I read a complimentary reference in this, which is well worth a read:

    • Matt

      21st Mar 2019 - 4:32 pm

      Hi Paul. Nice to hear from you. I hope you’re well. I’ve missed you spotting my typos! I read Bob’s piece earlier today and thought it was very good.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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