The Alice in Wonderland nature of the Labour Party anti-semitism controversy

The Alice in Wonderland nature of the Labour Party anti-semitism controversy
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
12 July 2018

Over the last few months the mainstream media coverage about anti-semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has reached Alice in Wonderland proportions.

How surreal, you ask? Here are a few examples.

Despite the Labour leader having a decades long record of anti-racist work and repeating ad nauseam that he condemns anti-semitism, in April 2018 Tory Home Secretary Sajid Javid “urged the Labour leader to ‘once and for all’ clarify his opposition to antisemitism”, the Guardian reported. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland tweeted that claiming any Jewish person or organisation is “exaggerating or ‘weaponising’ [charges of anti-semitism against Corbyn and Labour]… is itself anti-semitic”. Not to be outdone, Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, “said he would also like action to be taken against those who minimise reports of antisemitism”, including Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, according to the Guardian.

Frustratingly, some on the Left have been sucked into this ludicrous, often hysterical framing. Asked why anti-semitism was “endemic in the Labour Party” by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, the Corbyn supporting Co-Founder of Novara Media Aaron Bastani didn’t question whether it really was “endemic” but answered “I think there are a few explanations”. Similarly, on Frankie Boyle’s BBC show New World Order invited guest comedian David Baddiel mused “Who knows if Jeremy himself is anti-semitic?” Before this he quipped “He [Corbyn] does say there is no room in the Labour Party for anti-semites. And that might be because it’s full.”

Let me be crystal clear. The evidence shows there is a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left. However, the relentless hounding of Corbyn on anti-semitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-free assumptions: that it is widespread in the Labour Party; that it is worse in the Labour Party and the Left than on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has worsened under Corbyn.

Analysing polling data a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”

“Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party” a October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on anti-semitism found “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Analysing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”

Though the survey evidence is for Labour voters rather than members of the Labour Party, it still provides a valuable corrective to the dominant narrative, I think.

The warped nature of the debate is evidenced by the two high profile cases of supposed anti-semitism — activist Marc Wadsworth and former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Speaking at the June 2016 launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry report into allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, Wadsworth accused Ruth Smeeth MP of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph — something Smeeth and her supporters labelled anti-semitic. Wadsworth has said he wasn’t aware Smeeth was Jewish. But even if he was aware, how, exactly, is referring to her alleged links with a right-wing newspaper anti-semitic?

A couple of months earlier, Livingstone did a live radio interview about allegations Labour MP Naz Shah was anti-semitic. “Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. This was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, Livingstone noted, somewhat off topic.

After the interview Labour MP John Mann famously confronted Livingstone on television, calling him a “lying racist” and “Nazi apologist”, and accusing him of “rewriting history”.

Livingstone and Wadsworth have both been forced out of the party.

However, discussing the controversy in an Open Democracy interview, the American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein noted “Livingstone maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance. But he does know something about that dark chapter in history.”

The work of Francis Nicosia, the Raul Hilberg Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, confirms Livingstone’s comments, though insensitive and unhelpful (including for Corbyn), were broadly correct. “Throughout the 1930s, as part of the regime’s determination to force Jews to leave Germany, there was almost unanimous support in German government and Nazi party circles for promoting Zionism among German Jews”, the academic noted in his book Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, published by Cambridge University Press in 2008. Indeed, Nicosia notes a formal agreement — the Haavara Transfer Agreement — was signed between the Zionist movement and Nazi government in 1933, “facilitating Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine by allowing Jewish immigrants to Palestine to take a small portion of their assets with them.”

The Nazi government’s support for Zionism, of course, was not sincere but “temporary”, “largely superficial” and instrumental, Nicosia explains. And the relationship between Zionist organisations and the Nazis was obviously “not one of mutual respect and cooperation between equals” but something forced on the Jewish population by the most unfavourable of circumstances. With these caveats in mind, the historical fact, however inconvenient, remains: the Nazis, for their own interests, broadly supported Zionism in the 1930s.

When considering the controversy, it is important to understand two things. First, as I have already noted, there is a real problem of anti-semitism on the Left that needs to be addressed. Second, anti-semitism is being used by opponents of Corbyn inside and outside of the Labour Party to undermine his leadership. More broadly, anti-semitism is being weaponised in an attempt to neuter criticism of Israel, and to minimise the ability of a future Corbyn government to support Palestinian rights and criticise Israel. As Daniel Finn notes in his superb April 2018 Jacobin magazine article: “There is nobody in such close proximity to power in a major Western state with a comparable record for Palestinian rights.”

This contextual reading is validated by Tory-supporting Arkush’s recent assertion that Corbyn holds “anti-Semitic views”.

“He was a chairman of Stop the War, which is responsible for some of the worst anti-Israel discourse”, Arkush said, giving the game away.

The intense political pressure created by this media-driven shit-storm has put the Labour leadership in a very difficult position — made worse by Corbyn’s own stupid 2012 comments on Facebook about the removal of an anti-semitic mural. However, the leadership has arguably been too defensive, which though it might make short-term tactical sense, is likely storing up problems for the future.

Rather than capitulate, Project Corbyn needs to do three things. First, be clear there is a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, and deal with any accusations swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. Second, follow Owen Jones’s suggestion of carrying out a wide-ranging, class conscious political education programme to combat conspiratorial thinking. And third, it needs to stand up firmly and unapologetically to any bogus claims of anti-semitism being made for nakedly political purposes.

“It’s a test of the movement’s mettle”, Finn argues. “If we can’t hold the line in defense” on this “we certainly won’t be in any condition to resist the pressure that is still to come”, he writes. “Across a whole range of issues, from the Saudi war in Yemen to the privatization of the NHS, the ability to hold up under heavy fire will be essential. Things are going to get a lot harder. If we start retreating now, sooner or later there won’t be anything left to defend.”

It was welcome, therefore, to see Corbyn’s spokesperson give such a robust response to Arkush’s shameful allegations, stating his “attempt to conflate strong criticism of Israeli state policies with antisemitism is wrong and undermines the fight both against antisemitism and for justice for the Palestinians. It should be rejected outright.”

More of this, please.

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