Monday, 21 March 2016

Labour's Jewish Problem

Recently, there has been much talk of the Labour Party's "problem with Jews". This boils down to a belief that the advance of the left under Jeremy Corbyn means greater criticism of Israel, and that this will provide cover for anti-Jewish sentiment. This isn't a claim of institutional anti-semitism, which could be easily refuted, so much as an example of a prejudice ("lefties are prone to anti-semitism coz Palestine") validated by isolated incidents given media prominence. Despite the hype, prejudice against Jews, in the sense of casual bigotry and unthinking stereotypes, is a relatively minor problem in the UK (compared to other countries or compared to other forms of racism) and probably no more or less prevalent among "leftwingers" than society generally, as has been the case throughout the history of organised labour. Systematic anti-semitism, i.e. the belief that all social and economic questions should be seen through the lens of Jewish machinations, remains the preserve of the lunatic fringe and is not a feature of the Labour party (if anyone turns up a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Islington, do let me know).

Despite this, claims that anti-semitism is endemic to the left are increasingly common, as are hysterical over-reactions that suggest the problem is a sudden and recent development. For example, consider the words of Alex Chalmers, who recently quit the Oxford University Labour Club: "the antisemitic incidents I witnessed in OULC are less troubling than the culture which allowed such behaviour to become normalised. It is common to encounter antisemitic individuals in all walks of life, but the mass turning of a blind eye that has come to characterise vast parts of the Left is chilling". Leaving aside the oddity of imagining Oxford to be representative of society, the suggestion that anti-semitism has been normalised, that it is common "in all walks of life", and that it is a characteristic of "vast parts of the Left" doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. The implication that the Labour leadership is aware of the problem but unwilling to address it is demonstrably false (there have been suspensions and formal investigations), while the coverage given to Chalmers by the New Statesman suggests that the "blind eye" may not be as extensive as he thinks.

It is certainly true that some groupuscles to the left of Labour have stepped over the border from unthinking bigotry to systematic anti-semitism by imagining that Western politics can be explained through the lens of "Zionist conspiracies" (and no doubt some individuals who previously articulated these views have migrated back to Labour since the leadership election and will no doubt be expelled), but this shouldn't be taken as grounds to dismiss more reasoned critiques of Israeli policy or the "Jewish lobby" (i.e. Israeli soft-power), any more than the existence of David Icke means that we shouldn't wonder what the soi-disant elite get up to at Davos or at Bilderberg Group meetings. What I'm more interested in is why responsibility for a very real (albeit still relatively small) rise in anti-semitism in the UK since 2000 should be laid primarily at the door of the left. My motivation in this is not to defend the left en masse - my elective affinity does not entail any institutional loyalty - but to understand what this turn tells us about attitudes, both among British Jews and the left's opponents.

Jonathan Freedland has been one of the media commentators most active in promulgating the claim that "Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem". By and large he prefers to ignore the left, in traditional Blairite style, so his focus is very much the Labour Party and its new leader: "I suspect many in Labour and on the wider left dearly wish three things to be true of this problem. That these are just a few bad apples in an otherwise pristine barrel; that these incidents aren’t actually about racism at all but concern only opposition to Israel; and that none of this reflects negatively on Jeremy Corbyn" (I rather suspect that Freedland dearly wishes the opposite to be true in all three cases). The construction of this claim employs a classic trifecta: a reasonable doubt (there are always more rotten apples than anticipated), likely dishonesty (they would say that, wouldn't they), and finally guilt by association. Every Freedland article on this topic appears to end with the words: "No one is suggesting Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite". You get the drift.

Freedland's style is one of exasperated reasonableness, like a disappointed teacher reporting on a dim pupil to an anxious parent, but he occasionally lapses into hyperbole: "what exactly is it about the world’s only Jewish country that convinces its loudest opponents it represents a malignancy greater than any other on the planet?" This obviously begs the question (the answer is anti-semitism) but it is also demonstrably daft. Does the UN, which has passed many resolutions opposing Israel's actions, consider the country to be a greater "malignancy" that climate change? Would the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn consider stopping new settlements on the West Bank to be more important than stopping austerity in the UK? Probably not. Freedland's problem is that a charge of institutional anti-semitism cannot stick against the Labour Party, hence the snidery of the "rotten apples" metaphor that recalls the Met's long journey from Robert Mark to Macpherson's finding of "institutional racism".

If Freedland prefers to ignore the left, Nick Cohen is only too happy to devote the bulk of his energies to it, his attacks on Labour often appearing a mere afterthought, like an 80s Trotskyite denouncing Thatcher after having first worked his way through the entire Labour shadow cabinet. Where Freedland apes the style of a public school housemaster, Cohen prefers that of a street-fighter, employing a provocative rhetoric that makes his regular invocation of George Orwell all the more amusing (by the way, Orwell exhibited the casual anti-semitism of his class and time but was at least self-aware). Cohen's career has been built around castigating the left as useful idiots, but his rants have started to take on a visceral tone. Consider "the antisemitism that has spread so far from the extreme left into the mainstream that it now threatens to poison the Labour party". What's disturbing about this language is the suggestion of the host infected by a foreign virus, which was long a trope used against Jews (at least he doesn't call the left "vermin"). The claim that anti-semitism has spread to the "mainstream" is not merely an exaggeration, it is clearly intended to claim Labour for the centre and to push the left back to the margin.

In Cohen's view, the anti-semite believes "Democracy, an independent judiciary, equal human rights, freedom of speech and publication – all these 'supposed' freedoms – are nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world". But this subtly misrepresents the original reactionary critique of liberty in which the Jews were just one of a number of convenient enemies of throne and altar, including Protestants and Freemasons. In doing this, Cohen equates attacks on Jews with attacks on the Enlightenment, and thus on modern liberal values. This allows him to segue to those who should be the natural defenders of the Enlightenment project: "But consider how many leftwing activists, institutions or academics would agree with a politer version. Western governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The 'Israel lobby' controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the 'root cause' of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State".

The Israel lobby clearly does not control Western foreign policy, but it does have a disproportionate influence over US foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. And given its own interests and opportunities (the organised diaspora), why wouldn't it seek to achieve and maintain this influence? The more interesting question has always been what the US gets out of this special relationship. Similarly, you have to be obtuse to pretend that there isn't an Israeli dimension to many Middle Eastern issues, from the Saudi-Iran competition to the stability of Lebanon. This isn't about blaming Israel as the "root cause" (most historians would place Ottoman Turkey and Anglo-French interference higher up the list), merely noting that its existence is inescapably significant because of geography and regional power dynamics. To put this in perspective, claiming that Germany was the root cause of European violence during the 20th century is not by definition anti-German.

Some of the "Labour is increasingly anti-semitic" turn is clearly motivated by a desire to delegitimise Corbyn, and some is little more than Tory mischief-making (there are no anti-semites in the Conservative Party), but there are other dimensions to this as well. The angst over the relationship of Jews and Labour predates Corbyn and reflects long-term changes in the politics of both the UK and Israel. The great intellectual sea-change of the last quarter of the twentieth century was the drift from the left to the right and Jewish (and philo-semite) intellectuals and political commentators in the UK were particularly prominent in this migration, possibly influenced by the contemporaneous shift in Israel from social democracy to conservative nationalism. In other words, identification with Israel increasingly required identification with policies traditionally associated with the political right (this has also seen the Israeli left, and leftist members of the Jewish diaspora, increasingly being branded as "traitors" and "self-hating Jews").

Looked at sociologically, one fear that underpins the renewed salience of antisemitism among British Jews is that British Muslims are growing in influence within the Labour Party, which reflects both broader change (i.e. a growing Muslim population) and their greater involvement in politics (i.e. greater integration). In contrast, the Jewish community, though its population has been pretty stable in recent years after a steady decline, has seen a gradual change in its composition that has weakened its political influence across all parties. Emigration to Israel, particularly among politically-engaged retirees whose attitudes were formed in the 60s and 70s (the last great Zionist "revival" around the 1967 and 1973 wars), has been offset by higher birth-rates among the more religious (the Haredi) who often abjure political involvement. The consequence is that Jewish membership of the Labour Party, and by extension influence, is in relative decline for reasons of demography and culture, independent of any alienation of sympathy in recent years.

This uncertainty and sense of relative decline has fuelled a pessimistic turn among secular Jews. At the same time, the widespread adoption of a defensive rightwing mindset (often taken wholesale from the US) has seen the emergence of a paranoid strain of reasoning whose most egregious exponent in the UK is probably Melanie Phillips (another who started on the left). But this affects Jewish thought well beyond the media. In his submission to the 2006 Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, the historian David Cesarini explained that it was difficult to identify and confront contemporary anti-semitism "because it no longer has any resemblance to classical Nazi-style Jew hatred, because it is masked by or blended inadvertently into anti-Zionism, and because it is often articulated in the language of human rights". Ironically, this emphasis on the insidious and subtle form of the problem, absorbing and corrupting the good, echoes a traditional trope used to explain the difficulty in getting a handle on the "Jewish problem".

Similarly, Ben Cohen sees anti-semitism as a problem embedded in a broader turn against democracy occasioned by the aftermath of 2008: "The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), an outfit known for its sober and dispassionate analysis, says that a 'crisis of democracy' now prevails in a Europe where the voting public feels great remoteness from the political class. ... An important aspect of the threat that Jews in Europe face lies in the fact that they are closely associated with the political class that the EIU says is now in danger". Ironically, this echoes old prejudices about Jews sucking up to elites (the "Court Jew"). Cohen here echoes his namesake, Nick, in tying the fate of Europe's Jews to the Enlightenment project, whose modern incarnation is believed to be found in the EU and Third Way politics, but he reverses the polarity. Where Nick believes the Jews must be saved to save the Enlightenment, Ben believes that European neoliberalism must be saved to save the Jews. Despite the difference in perspective, this indicates that the current concern over Labour's "anti-semitism" is partly motivated by a post-2008 desire to preserve a centrist political space.

One last thought: despite the otherwise striking similarities between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, there has been little attempt in the US to criticise Sanders or his supporters (who include plenty of tactically-voting leftists and Muslims) for their tolerance of anti-semitism, though Sanders has inevitably been accused of being insufficiently pro-Israel. The obvious explanation is that Sanders is Jewish. In no small part, Labour's "problem" is that its current leader isn't, which is funny when you consider that the last one was. Ed Miliband famously saw his father traduced, as a man who "hated" the country, by a newspaper that today lambasts the party leadership for its failure to combat anti-semitism. Even if "Weird" Ed were in charge today, his modest shift to the centre-left would still have prompted cries of "soft on anti-semitism, soft on the causes of anti-semitism", much as his even-handedness towards Palestine prompted hyperbolic outrage. Labour's "Jewish problem" says more about the anxiety of centrists than it does about anti-semitism.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment21 March 2016 at 18:01

    Freedland has time and again proven himself to be a devoted Zionist, loyally writing black propaganda to tip the national discourse in favour of the state of terror that is Israel. He does this from the viewpoint of the rational liberal in a sea of irrational reactionary fools., because he knows that this persona will go down well among the centre.

    The problem for the likes of Freedland and other Zionists is that Zionism is losing its popularity, if we can call it that, among ordinary people, which itself is simply a reflection that the ideas of the ruling class are no linger the ideas of society. This could be a sign we are entering a revolutionary period or simply that people are pissed off about bankers causing a crisis and ordinary people up the tab.

    Freedland has to create a number of straw men and at the same time deliever some pretty unplatable views to make his claim stick.

    Firstly, I am an anti Zionist but I do not put this above US imperialism or the oppression of Muslims in Myanmar for example. or even the conflict in the Congo. If anything I would say we do not raise this issue to the level it deserves, if for example we compare it with apartheid South Africa, which we really did prioritise.

    On the conflict in the Congo this highlights how the Freedlands of the world raise certain national issues above others, for example while the US was invading Iraq and the likes of Freedland were screaming about the horrors of Saddam they were all silent on the carnage and death being carried out in the Congo. At the time of the Iraq invasion the Congo crisis was a much more real and present problem, yet the likes for Freedland said nothing.

    The unpalatable part of Freedlands logic about why are you worrying about Israel and not other nations is that he is effectively saying we should stay mute on all outrages because if we don't it shows our inherent bias. Except in reality of course what he is saying is, "I love Israel and I defend its right to deal with its vermin" It is just being such a dishonest little shit he wraps it up in Liberal verbiage.

    Support the boycott of Israel!

  2. @HDTE - precisely. This is fundamentally mainly about signifiers.

    And then about creating another stick with which to beat Corbyn. The current attack is particularly absurd considering he wasn't leader when the protagonist was barred and then reinstated. But the insinuations are doing their dirty work.

    As for Cohen he's becoming a parody - endlessly recycling the same column each week.

  3. One of the ridiculous ironies of the 'Corbyn is an anti-semite' argument is that he has clearly spent a lot more time attacking Saudi Arabia since he became Labour leader, and understandably when you consider that they are a major destabilising factor in Syria as well as a barbaric religious-influenced monarchy. On this stance he is relatively safe, though, because though Saudi Arabia is an 'ally' (and customer) of the UK, its human rights record is incapable of defence, unlike Israel which can get away with its illegal violence (like the Western powers) through its formal democratic status.

    'Anti-semitism' seems to be very much a media problem. I don't see much of it in society and I doubt most Labour voters even realised (or remotely cared) that Ed Miliband was of Jewish descent, for example.