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Labour and antisemitism: let’s keep the problem in perspective

New_Statesman ANTISEM COVERAnybody else remember the New Statesman’s ‘Kosher conspiracy’ cover from 2002? Given that this influential British political weekly has recently waxed sanctimonious over a supposed surge in antisemitism in the Corbyn-led Labour Party, it’s worth recollecting that its own track record on this score isn’t completely spotless.

The illustration – a Star of David piercing a Union Jack – promoted an article suggesting that Zionists hold undue influence over media coverage of the Middle East. And no, adding a question mark didn’t get NS off the hook. The then-editor apologised for his decision to publish it.

Anyone who has been in politics for any length of time will be well aware of multiple occasions on which the left has, with various degrees of justification, faced condemnation for alleged antipathy to Jews.

Labour-led Dundee council’s decision to fly the Palestinian flag, whispers about the activities of Lord Levy in the New Labour cash-for-honours years, various outbursts over the decades by Ken Livingstone, cartoons in the 1980s left press depicting Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin in an SS uniform; we’ve been here many times before.

Those who know their labour history may recollect the controversy over the Passfield white paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1930, which cost Labour much support among British Jews.

Or let us consider the analysis of the Boer War emanating from the Independent Labour Party and the TUC, which blamed the conflict – and imperialism in general – on the wicked ways of Jewish capitalists.

In short, there never was a pre-Corbyn ‘golden age’ in which Labour did not stand accused of at least sporadic antisemitism. If there is any evidence whatsoever that the situation is qualitatively different now than it was when Labour was led by Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown or Miliband, then I haven’t seen it produced.

Fast forward to the present day, and Labour is of course entirely right to throw the book at anyone making social media wisecracks about big-nosed Jews supporting Tottenham Hotspur, circulating paranoid ramblings about the evil machinations of a transnational Jewish bourgeoisie, or proven to have joined rousing renditions of songs such as Rockets Over Tel Aviv.

Let us even accept that there may well be thousands of Labour Party members have at some point indulged in asinine antisemitic banter or misguided rhetoric. After all, no mass organisation with 400,000 members can possibly be immune from some of the ugly prejudices that still scar British society.

One survey, published just over a year ago, found that almost half the population clings to one or more anti-Jewish stereotype. That such attitudes find resonance among a small number of Labour supporters is saddening, but as unsurprising as it is ineradicable.

But it is the words ‘small number’ that need to be emphasised in that last sentence. Claims that Labour has become ‘increasingly antisemitic’ since its shift to the left last year, and even now has ‘a problem with Jews, remain unsubstantiated, no matter how many times they are reiterated by opponents of the new leadership.

As things stand, two activists including a former parliamentary candidate have been suspended after publishing antisemitic Tweets. A third activist who published antisemitic material on a website has also been expelled, albeit on other grounds.

At least two of three did not initially join under Corbyn. And in any case, it is hardly the leader of the opposition’s job to individually vet individual membership applications.

In addition, an unspecified number of students, perhaps a few dozen, are under investigation for allegedly making antisemitic statements at a Oxford University Labour ClubSerious complaints deserve serious consideration; I’m with those who want to see the results inquiry published in their entirety.

But as Jon Lansman has remarked in The Jewish Chronicle, the two young men at the centre of the furore are well known in Labour left circles, and the suggestion of racism on their part is difficult to credit.

Yet even if the OULC findings are as damning as the anti-Corbynistas clearly hope they will be, the full extent of documented antisemitism will stretch to fewer than one Labour Party member in 10,000.

It is also worth making a distinction between antisemitism in the strong sense, a theoretical artifice built around the idea of a shadow Jewish world government, and the weaker sense of simply making anti-Jewish remarks.

Intemperate and/or plain offensive comments by students or local members unaware of the complexities of the Israel/Palestine debate are not in the same league as essentially duplicating the arguments advanced in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

If some Labour Party members do cross red lines, that is more likely to flow from lack of understanding of the issues, motivated more by anger at the injustices faced daily by Palestinians and the frequently brutal actions of the Israeli government than adherence to the nutty ideas contained in that notorious Czarist forgery.

In particular, there needs to be an educational effort to end the conflation of what the state of Israel does and the moral responsibilities of the Jewish community in Britain.

But anybody who prioritises serious debate over gratuitous Corbyn-bashing would do well to explain these things patiently, rather than seeing antisemitism where actually there is ignorance.

One Comment

  1. Jon Lansman says:

    I have deleted all comments on this article and will publish no more. Some comments were just offensive, others in my opinion antisemitic. I have no objection to serious critiques of Zionism nor to opposition to Israel government policy — I am myself a strong critic of the policies of the Israeli government, its occupation of the West Bank and unilateral annexation of Palestinian land as regular readers of this site will know, but it not acceptable to use the term “Zionist” as a term of abuse. One comment included libelous statements about named individuals. Unfortunately, in view of the nature of these comments, comments are now closed on this article. I apologise to commenters whose comments were critical of these things but felt that I could not delete part of a comment thread without deleting all of it.

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