Thursday, 28 April 2016

Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party

A couple of points about anti-semitism

Anti-Semitism and Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone, all too fond of his own voice and supremely confident in his own knee jerk opinions, has yet again waded into a public argument and got burned.

Here's what he told the BBC today about Hitler:

"Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. [He then] went mad and ending up killing 6 million Jews. "

All it takes is the toe-curling qualifier "Let's remember.." and you know what's coming: some half-baked, misremembered reduction of the Holocaust to the status of mere accident or act of madness. The Holocaust was deliberate policy and Nazism's hatred of Jews total from the outset. Hitler didn't just "go mad." It was the systematic, rationalised implementation of barbarism at an industrial scale.

I don't think Livingstone intends to be anti-Semitic, but he is. Just like when a perfectly innocent grandparent says something racist. Except you tolerate racist grandparents because they are not usually lifelong leftists with decades-long public careers. This last point is crucial: Livingstone should be well aware of how subtle coding can influence the public reception of certain statements which appear relatively benign but give off a certain malignant message beneath the overt words. The left calls this "dog-whistle" politics - and is rightly angry at the Prime Minister and the Zach Goldsmith campaign for doing it to Sadiq Khan. Livingstone has been a public figure his entire adult life. This seems not to have made him more reflective about his influence on public discourse but less so.

A final note on Livingstone: why on Earth did the Labour leadership allow such a knucklehead to dominate the public debate about this sensitive issue? 

Labour and anti-Semitism

The most controversial episode of the week involves Labour MP Naz Shah, who has been suspended from the party because of anti-Semitic Facebook posts. One reportedly advocated the mass relocation of Israeli Jews to the USA.

There have been odd attempts by left-wingers today to defend Shah from accusations of anti-Semitism. But imagine an analogous situation in which someone on social media proposed relocating the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek with its high Mislim population to, say, Saudi Arabia with the caption "Problem solved." Many on the left would, quite rightly, accuse that person of stupidly endorsing the forced relocation of an entire population. People would call it Islamophobic and they would be right. 

So, Naz Shah shared something on social media that was in effect anti-Semitic, even if she didn't intend it to be. But how widespread is Labour anti-Semitism? At Open Democracy today Jamie Stern Weiner counts nine individuals and one Labour organisation accused of anti-Semitism. In each case the accused were suspended or inquiries launched within one or two days. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have publicly spoken out against anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds throughout their careers and especially as Labour Party leaders. If we lived in a rational world this would be enough. Anti-Semitism is poisonous - and where it occurs it should be stamped out.

So why are so many in the Labour Party desperate to associate the current leadership with anti-Semtism? After all, a Tory councillor was recently expelled from his party for anti-Semitism, with no remonstrations aimed at David Cameron for tolerating such an individual. Are the accusers - mostly from Labour ranks themselves - really saying that something about their party attracts or even creates anti-Semites? Of course, they are not. Their assertion, entirely without evidence, is that Corbyn is the inadvertent cause of all this. Never mind the fact that some of these allegations clearly pre-date Corbyn or involve people within a large organisation he can hardly have had anything to do with.

After all, why would anti-Semites be attracted to a party led by a fiercely left-wing leadership famed for its supposedly wet Islington multiculturalism, positive views about immigration, racial minorities and a multi-faith society. Or for that matter a leader who says things like, “I go to churches, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to synagogues. I find religion very interesting. I find the power of faith very interesting.” During the leadership election last summer Corbyn stated that the UK should have “relationships with all sections of society in Israel” and said, “We shouldn’t judge everything to do with Israel through the prism of whatever Benjamin Netanyahu is saying from one day to the next – Israel’s politics is much wider than that."

Indeed, every one of Jeremy Corbyn's enemies in the Labour Party - and many of those beyond it - knows this. The truth is they want to stamp out this left wing upsurge as quickly as they can, at any cost to the long term reputation of the Party.

Anti-Semitism and the Left

Since the anti-Semitism controversies started leftists have been arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are different beasts, and that to criticise Israeli policy is not to be anti-Semitic. Both statements are in a sense true. But they are in fact separate arguments and there is a careful process of elision operating between them. What is missing is a definition of anti-Zionism and whether it is itself identical with criticism of Israeli policy.

To be clear, I do not consider myself an anti-Zionist and I don't think the left more generally should endorse thee term either. This is because anti-Zionism is hard to pin down and this very ambiguity plays into both the hands of the left's enemies and the anti-Semites. After all, what does it mean to be anti-Zionist? It cannot mean simply being against this or that Israeli policy, since that might make Barack Obama an anti-Zionist. Does it mean being against all illegal Israeli settlements? Or all the territories seized by Israel after 1967? Or is it to be against the existence of the Jewish state? And what would that mean in practice? It
is one thing to regard Israel's foundation as unjust (so was that of the USA) and quite another to think it worthwhile to oppose its continued existence.

Anti-Zionism is an increasingly unhelpful designation, which merely throws up barriers between leftist Palestinian solidarity activists and potential allies. Its easy confusion with anti-Semitism does too many favours for all the wrong people.

Now, it is important to remember the cause of all this: Jeremy Corbyn is a long term Palestinian solidarity activist and much of the Atlanticist state, the conservative and imperialist right, the private media and the neoliberal wing of the Labour Party want desperately to destroy him. It is useful for them to associate him with anti-Semitism.

A note on the embattled Labour leadership then: they knew full well this storm was brewing - that anti-Zionism and Palestinian solidarity are a discursively delicate issue; that their weaknesses could be exploited by their enemies; that they would need to carefully construct an unassailable ideological position. They didn't do enough to prepare for this battle. Why didn't Corbyn give a set-piece speech months ago on internationalism and solidarity with the world's marginalised, declaring a Labour foreign policy based on cooperation and an end to imperialist wars, with arms open to all willing to cooperate? Instead we get Livingstone fudging his own bizarre Hitler theories on daytime telly. The Labor leadership needs to get better, fast.

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