The following piece was contributed by Matthew Aaron Richmond @mattyrichy. This is a serious piece of journalistic analysis so, if you came here to laugh and were disappointed, all we have to say is that this is our website and if you don’t like it you can get out.
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For over three years now, Britain’s Labour Party has been engulfed by bitter rows about antisemitism. Previously a marginal issue of interest to a only small section of the party membership and a handful of higher-profile figures, it has become one of the main challenges facing the Party leadership and its supporters as they seek to chart a path towards government. The issue of antisemitism has taken on such significance in large part because it has become the theatre in which diverse other struggles are played out – between different factions within the Party; between dominant media and the Labour left; between groups with opposing and deeply held views on Israel-Palestine. For those who have dug in on either side of the argument, these different issues have come to be seen as inseparable: whether or not one gives credence to claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party is seen as being indicative of broader political values and allegiances. However, while such polarisation may be useful for some, it can only do damage to the Labour Party, to British Jews and, for that matter, to the Palestinian cause. It must be resisted.
As I shall argue, the underlying problem driving the polarisation is that antisemitism is often more subtle and open to interpretation than the loudest voices on both sides would have us believe. Whether or not one interprets particular statements as being antisemitic depends on personal experience and political views, but also, to a significant degree, on whether one trusts the intentions of the speaker. As trust has collapsed between the Labour left and a majority of British Jews, legitimate and sincerely held views on each side have been viewed with increasing cynicism by the other. Among a small but noisy minority of Labour supporters, this has translated into a belief that merely acknowledging the existence of antisemitism in the Party amounts to ceding ground, or even colluding with, a highly orchestrated Zionist smear campaign designed to wreck the left. In other words, the conflict has reconstituted itself along battle lines that seem tailor-made for proving that the original, exaggerated allegations of antisemitism were correct. It is an open wound that will continue to fester.
In what follows, I trace the evolution of the conflict and its current contours. I will propose that while the Labour leadership and broader left cannot stop their opponents from continuing to make spurious accusations, they can challenge the toxic way some supporters are responding to these and seek to rebuild the trust of British Jews and the wider public on this issue.
At first, it seemed clear that it was all just a smear. I had seen them accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being a sexist, a racist, a terrorist sympathiser and a Soviet spy. None of the accusations had stuck. But then came the charge of antisemitism, and that one did. The evidence for the Labour leader himself being antisemitic was rather thin. He had made a brief Facebook comment in 2012 opposing the removal of a mural that, to those of us familiar with the theme, appeared to contain antisemitic imagery. However, it contained no unequivocal references to Jews and it was also perfectly plausible that Corbyn had not understood it in this way. Here we are deep into the territory of subjective interpretation. Hardly a smoking gun. He apologised for not having studied the image more closely, which he acknowledged did contain antisemitic tropes.
There were then a string of further “exposés”, each considerably less convincing than the last. In a video from 2013, showing Corbyn arguing with some pro-Israel British Jews at an event, he remarked that the Palestinian speaker they had attacked had a better sense of “English irony” than they did. He seemed to be saying that the hecklers were English, but some interpreted it as him saying they weren’t. It was then revealed that in 2011 Corbyn had written a celebratory preface to a new edition of the 1902 book ‘Imperialism: A Study’, by the political economist John Hobson. The book, widely regarded as a classic text on imperialism, contains an antisemitic reference to Jews controlling international finance, though this is marginal to the theory presented. Corbyn’s crime this time was not anything he actually wrote, but rather of not having mentioned this single line in a 400-page book. It is worth noting that the book is also littered with racist references to Africans and Asians that Corbyn did not mention, though this did not draw the attention of his critics.
These and other stories tended to appear in particular ways: always framing past incidents as current news; being published in successive waves; often coinciding with elections or challenges to Corbyn’s leadership. The way they reverberated through a blatantly anti-Corbyn media ecosystem, from The Daily Mail via The Times to The Guardian and back again, looked highly suspicious to anyone who was paying close attention and not already predisposed to disliking the Labour leader.
Also notable has been the way Corbyn’s attackers have flagrantly failed to observe their own rules on what constitutes antisemitism. I remember very few of those who claimed Corbyn’s “English irony” comment was a “double loyalty” trope, complaining about a far more blatant example in 2013 when the Daily Mail described the late Jewish Marxist scholar Ralph Miliband as “The Man Who Hated Britain”. The same talking heads who condemn the use of Nazi analogies by Corbyn supporters when they criticise Israel recently feigned outrage when Corbyn sacked a shadow minister for comparing him to “Hitler in his bunker”. All of this begs the question of how the Labour left are supposed to police antisemitism on their own side when their opponents so obviously fail to do so. How to even know what to police when the goalposts constantly move depending on who is speaking?
Meanwhile, those who attack Labour for antisemitism tend to fall silent when racism against other minorities rears its head. A miniscule proportion of Labour members have been investigated for making allegedly antisemitic statements, whereas in a recent poll it was revealed that close to half of Conservative members would not want a Muslim Prime Minister and that more than two-thirds believe the Islamophobic conspiracy theory that parts of the UK are under Sharia law. Corbyn was described by Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers as representing an “existential threat to British Jews”, a line now parroted by many of his critics. I have not heard these voices call the current Prime Minister, a man who joked about niqab-wearing Muslim women looking like “letter boxes”, which led to a 375% spike in attacks on Muslims in the following week, is an existential threat to British Muslims. To highlight such a contradiction, we are told, is “whataboutery”, trying to change the subject.
It was clear to me that the attacks on Corbyn were smears. And yet as the row between Corbyn’s defenders and attackers escalated the conflict began to take on new, more troubling dynamics. At worst, Corbyn had not been careful enough with his language (something he has subsequently admitted) and some of his past associations in his commendable advocacy for Palestinian rights. By contrast, some of those who identified as his supporters deliberately began ramping up their use of arguments that could conceivably be understood as antisemitic, now in full knowledge that they would be interpreted in this way. The primary objective was now fighting the “witch hunt” itself, as they call it. This is what many regard as a highly coordinated campaign to destroy the left, involving Labour Party rebels, the media and the Israeli government, and counting on the support of large numbers of British Jews. It has become an increasingly poisonous dispute that has played out both on social media and within Labour Party disciplinary processes.
Again, in most instances, the cases against Labour members accused of antisemitism are not open-and-shut. There are very few involving explicit racial slurs or Holocaust denial, for example. Few, if any, of those Labour members accused of making antisemitic statements would identify as antisemites and most would argue that the statements in question were not antisemitic or at least not intended as such. Primarily, these revolve around the older question of what language and arguments might legitimately used to criticise Israel, as well as the new claims relating to the “witch hunt” itself. In essence, a loud minority of Labour supporters have come to the conclusion that because antisemitism has cynically been used by some to attack Corbyn, that any claim of antisemitism must, by definition, be a smear. By logical extension, anyone accusing a leftist of antisemitism must be part of the conspiracy, or otherwise is caving in to it, whether out of cowardice or gullibility.
This dynamic came to a head with the case of Chris Williamson, a Labour MP who is currently suspended for a series of allegedly antisemitic pronouncements, and who has become a cause célèbre for this part of the Labour left. Among other acts, Williamson had promoted a petition calling for the overturning of a ban on Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli-British musician with a history of making explicitly antisemitic statements. Williamson later apologised, stating that he had not known who Atzmon was, begging the question of why he had defended him in the first place. Williamson also wrongly denied that an expelled former Labour member, Scott Nelson, had Tweeted about the “Jewish blood” of the companies Tesco and Marks & Spencer, which he said exploited British workers. When confronted with evidence that he had indeed said this, he immediately called for Nelson to be forgiven. Williamson’s suspension eventually came after a speech in which he claimed that Labour had been “too apologetic” in its response to antisemitism accusations, which many took as evidence that he didn’t take the issue of antisemitism seriously.
Williamson no doubt believed at the time that he was simply standing up for the latest victims of the “witch hunt”. He and supporters are now sure that, as a consequence of this, he has fallen victim to it himself. Even if some of his defenders might acknowledge that lines were crossed in his defences of Atzmon and Nelson, these are understood as anomalous – meriting apologies perhaps, but no deeper reflection on why such mistakes were made. Meanwhile, any expression of concern about antisemitism on their side is likely to induce eye-rolling and cries of “where is the evidence?!” Memes circulate on Twitter quoting Jewish figures who have endorsed the notion of the “witch hunt” (Norman Finklestein and Noam Chomsky being the favourites), accompanied by some variation of “look, a Jewish person who agrees!” Regular appeals are made to the principle of free speech, implying that antisemitism accusations are nothing more than a thinly veiled form of censorship.
In sum, a binary form of thinking has taken over the way a hyper-partisan segment of the Labour left (not to be confused with either its mainstream or it most radical wing) is engaging with the issue of antisemitism. Binary thinking is, of course, something that agonistic politics encourages in us: we draw lines between our own side and our adversaries and construct the strongest arguments we can by marshalling the evidence and citing the most authoritative voices in support of our position. This can start in a perfectly legitimate place – advocating for Palestinians or defending Corbyn from clearly calculated attempts to discredit him. However, once entrenched it can undergo a process of slippage, whereby battle-hardened partisans end up contesting entirely different issues. Labour’s antisemitism conflict is now being fought on terrain that will continue to produce headaches for the Party, one in which paranoid conspiratorial claims of Zionist infiltration are thrown around almost at random. In response to the original, exaggerated claims of antisemitism on the left, attitudes that might reasonably be interpreted as antisemitic have proliferated as a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.
It is important to note that the kind of binary thinking displayed by Williamson and his supporters has its place. It is useful, for example, when the far right are in the streets, unashamedly identifying as racists and attacking vulnerable minorities. When this occurs, they must be met with forceful, uncompromising and unapologetic anti-racism. Williamson’s supporters continue to claim they are concerned about “real antisemitism”, as opposed to the fake claims of the smear campaign, but there is little evidence they would see anything less than Nazis goose-stepping through central London as meeting this threshold. In fact, racism doesn’t usually appear in this form. Most people who regularly reproduce racial thinking and racist tropes do not identify as racists, go to far-right rallies or use widely recognised racial slurs. Rather, they tend to use linguistic constructions that serve to mask or soften racist ideas, often to the point that they themselves may not realise they’re doing this.
There is some irony in the “witch hunt” brigade’s failure to understand this. On the left, we generally feel we are quite good at spotting racist tropes. We tend to recognise clichés such as “I’m not a racist, but…” or cries of “political correctness gone mad!” as signalling that racist views are about to be expressed. When we see guffawing Conservative commentators calling Diane Abbott stupid and incompetent, and streams of ordinary people piling in to abuse her, we interpret this as coded racism. However, only a minority of her attackers will ever actually use racist language and most would argue that they just disagree with her politically or find her personally unlikeable. When we call them racists they might legitimately ask, “where is the evidence?!”, cite a black person who agrees with them, or accuse us of suppressing their free speech.
I am not suggesting that coded or unconscious antisemitism in the Labour Party is in any way comparable to the systematic and deliberate use of dog-whistle racism by senior Conservatives. My point is that identifying racism almost always involves some process of interpretation and there is rarely definitive “evidence”, in the form of universally recognised racist terms or stereotypes, that we can point to settle rival interpretations. Demanding evidence is not the winning argument that many Williamson supporters seem to think it is, and in fact it shows a bad misunderstanding of the problem. While influential figures have clearly weaponised antisemitism for political gain, many Jews may, sincerely and in good faith, have interpreted the statements in question as genuinely being antisemitic. We may argue that they are wrong in their interpretations, but that does not mean they are knowingly part of a smear campaign.
This leaves a serious problem. If racism usually does not announce itself in the form of uniformed despots with peculiar moustaches or skinheads yelling racist football chants, but rather as the subtle reproduction of insidious ideas, how are we supposed to agree on what is or isn’t racist? On what grounds do we decide whether someone’s words are “being twisted” or whether they themselves must take some of the blame for the way they have expressed themselves? Labour’s antisemitism crisis exists in this grey area. It is only here that we can understand its causes and that we might have any possibility of addressing it.
So how to confront this problem of identifying racism? Some argue that we should simply hand over the right to define it to those who suffer directly from it. There is, of course, something in this. The targets of racism have lived experience that can make them well-placed to identify subtleties likely to be missed by those who do not. On the other hand, minority groups are neither “neutral” participants in these debates, nor are they monolithic. For example, many Jews may believe that Corbyn’s “English irony” comment was antisemitic, whereas I suspect most non-Jews would not. This may simply be because Jews can see antisemitic tropes more clearly than non-Jews. However, can we entirely rule out the possibility of some being over-attuned to racism and attributing it in cases where it may not in fact be present?
This problem is further highlighted by the fact that there are often disagreements over such questions within minority groups themselves. Some Jews have vocally supported Corbyn, and even Williamson, over the antisemitism controversies. Many of Williamson’s non-Jewish supporters seem to interpret the existence of a relatively small number of Jews who support their position as proof that they must be right (and presumably, therefore, that all other Jews must be lying). But why on earth should all members of a minority group be expected to agree with each other? This proves nothing except that minorities are internally diverse, something that should simply be taken as a given.
If allowing the targets of racism exclusive rights to define it does not really solve our problem, another possible option is to try and codify the kinds of language or ideas that may plausibly be construed as racist. If certain words or arguments are widely used as euphemisms for racist views, why don’t we simply ban them? This is what Labour’s National Executive Committee attempted to do last year when it adopted an amended version of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. However, this simply has simply reproduced the original problem on a larger scale. Language is inherently ambiguous, and the more euphemistic it gets, the harder it is to clearly attribute meaning. So when we ban certain ambiguous terms, we are also banning all the other legitimate ways in which they might be used.
Calling Israel a “racist endeavour” could be attached to fantasies about driving all Jews “into the sea”, or it could simply reflect the belief that for all the peoples of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to enjoy basic human rights the fundamental nature of the Israeli state would have to change. Someone arguing the latter could plausibly be accused of really meaning the former, especially if they do not express themselves effectively. We can urge people to be as clear and specific as possible to try and avoid ambiguity, but attempting to ban such terms ultimately solves nothing, while creating entirely new problems.
A final option, proposed by some, is to elevate “free speech” as the fundamental principle for dealing with racism. As long as someone is not using unambiguously racist terms, they should be allowed to say whatever they want. This is usually accompanied by the assumptions that racist views in themselves are not a problem unless they cause physical harm and/or that they will, in any case, “die in the sunlight” of open debate. However, the harm principle (Mill’s “crying fire in a crowded theatre”), fundamentally misunderstands how the relationship between language and violence occurs. When normalised, racist language can quickly concretise into violent immigration and policing regimes. Inciting violence, meanwhile, can be indirect, delayed and stochastic, as Boris Johnson’s “letter box” comments against Muslim women demonstrates (which he incidentally claimed as a defence of “liberal values”). While we should not be actively seeking to constrain free speech, we should also recognise that in itself it does nothing to solve problems of racism and that appeals to free speech can often amount to thinly veiled demands for the right to dehumanise others.
If racism is often harder to pin down than many seem to believe, and if subjective definition, codification and free speech are all flawed solutions for identifying and combating it, how to move beyond the impasse of Labour’s endless antisemitism rows? How to operate in the grey area? While clarifying process within the Party, speeding up complaints procedures and even expulsions may have their place, I would like to argue that the problem is essentially cultural in nature and therefore will require cultural solutions. That means trying to get to the root of how communication and trust between the Party and large parts of Britain’s Jewish population have broken down and how they might be eventually be repaired.
A good starting point is simply to acknowledge that racism is often not self-evidently “out there” for all to see, but is identified via negotiation between subjects who bring different experiences and frames of reference to the table. Furthermore, their interpretations are heavily influenced by trust. We are likely to interpret an ambiguous statement very differently if it comes from someone we trust than from someone we don’t. While many political and media figures have certainly been cynical in pushing antisemitism accusations, this doesn’t mean that most Jewish people who have believed them are complicit in the smear. They have, under heavy encouragement, come to see Jeremy Corbyn and many around him as untrustworthy on the matter of antisemitism, to the point that every positive effort now made to address the problem is likely to be viewed cynically. Understood in this way, the apparent hypocrisy of interpreting the same “tropes” differently coming from Corbyn as from others starts to make more sense.
This is the first way in which we can try and shift the culture around antisemitism controversies, especially on social media. Simply accepting that most ordinary Jewish people, and even some of those with larger profiles, are sincere in their concerns about antisemitism would be an improvement at this stage. When we believe people are wrong but sincere, we try to convince them. When we think they are lying we seek to expose them. Too many Labour supporters approach the issue as though it were the latter. So, as a rule of thumb: if you are regularly accusing Jewish people (or anyone) you disagree with on the internet of being spies operating on behalf of a foreign power, PLEASE STOP. They may be wrong in their beliefs, but you can grant them the courtesy of presuming they are not aware of this. Accusing them of being Zionist spies is very unlikely to convince them that you are engaging in good faith or have an argument that deserves to be listened to.
A second issue is to acknowledge the particular way in which Jewishness is constituted in Britain and how that may have fuelled the negative cycle of growing distrust. As someone who grew up in the UK but with Jewish American family, I am often struck by the differences between the Jewish communities in the two countries. American Jews are visible and noisy contributors to American culture and are easily identifiable to most non-Jews. This can have the downside of provoking more explicit forms of antisemitism, but it also means that there are many positive identifications with the community. British Jews are present and have had important influence over many spheres of British life, but as a community they have tended not to proudly and openly identify themselves in the same way. I often suspect that most British people would not recognise a Jew unless they were wearing a yarmulke and payot or beating up a Palestinian teenager on the six o’clock news.
A lot of the disorientation many Corbyn supporters seem to have experienced as the antisemitism controversies have unfolded is that while they bore no particular ill will towards British Jews, they were almost entirely ignorant of the community, its culture, internal differences and widespread concerns until they were suddenly being accused of antisemitism. (I am reminded of Will Ferrell portraying George W. Bush, declaring: “I don’t hate black people, I don’t even think about them!”) While the accusation of some deeply felt “Jew hate” against most Corbyn supporters is clearly wide of the mark, I do think there is a lack of ability and willingness to understand why Jewish people would be concerned about antisemitism at all. This is, I believe, a product of the relative invisibility of Jewish people in British life, which is itself likely to be a legacy of historical antisemitism in Britain.
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that even if the left is able to challenge conspiratorial thinking and create a better understanding among non-Jews about the concerns of Jewish people, the issue of Israeli-Palestine will continue to drive ill-feeling. Without delving into the conflict itself, it is clear that whereas most British Jews have positive or ambivalent feelings towards Israel, a majority of British leftists view most of the last fifty years of Israeli policy, if not the state itself, in highly negative terms. This emotive issue will continue to fuel disagreements and inevitably generate future conflict that at times will come accompanied by accusations of antisemitism. If we accept this as inevitable, the question becomes: what is the most effective way for the left to manage that conflict without undermining the quest for Palestinian rights?
The kind of binary thinking I have described seems to regard any effort to acknowledge and challenge antisemitism as entailing the abandonment of the Palestinian cause. I would argue the exact opposite is true. Under Netanyahu’s extremist government, with its violent expansionism, naked racism and international alliances with far-right and antisemitic governments, a generational transition appears to be underway in the attitudes of diaspora Jews towards Israel. This is most clearly visible in the US, where leftist and anti-Occupation Jewish activism led by young people has blossomed in recent years, reigniting traditions of Jewish radicalism and effectively challenging the acquiescence of self-identifying “liberals” in Israel’s continued rightward drift. These movements have gained credibility and strength in part because they understand what antisemitism is and take it seriously, allowing them to both educate non-Jewish activists about how to express themselves effectively and to defend them from attacks.
In other words, progress in shifting attitudes on Israel-Palestine will depend upon building trust between Jews and the left; something that, in the UK, is currently in very short supply. Labour’s antisemitism rows have been a massive setback to this process, but it is not too late. There are early signs that many young British Jews, like their American counterparts, are becoming dissatisfied with the status quo in both Britain and in Israel and wish to take a lead in challenging it. Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, may be on the cusp of government, with ambitious plans to bring about radical social transformation in Britain and also help to renew international efforts to push for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the Party cannot show moral leadership and drive a process of cultural change, challenging unhealthy and counterproductive habits among parts of the membership, it may not get the chance to do either.