Friday, 19 February 2016

Anti-Semitism: head-in-the-sand Labour still does not see the danger

On Monday, the chair of Oxford University Labour Club, starting point for generations of Labour cabinet ministers, resigned, claiming a number of his fellow Labour Students were showing anti-Semitic behaviour.

Which begs a reasonable question: should the British left, and Labour in particular, be worried about the resurgence of anti-Semitism? Or is this all just an isolated incident, blown up by the nasty, right-wing press?

Let’s look at that for a minute.

First of all, this resurgence is a fact. Five years ago, I wrote in the New Statesman about its spread amongst the British far left, where it often masquerades under the name of legitimate political criticism of Israel: the left-wing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel; most of the left-wing “free Palestine” organisations; and various Islamist extremist groups with links to the first two.

Since then, the phenomenon has since got visibly worse.

The non-profit CST, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, reports that 2014 and 2015 were the highest and third-highest years for incidents, respectively, since it started recording in 1984.

And of course this is not just in Britain, but across Europe. The Paris attacks last November hit a Jewish community centre and a pro-Israel theatre. There was a later poisoning attempt at a Parisian synagogue in December.

Yes, a barney between student politicians might seem relatively trivial, but Paris was a timely and shocking reminder of where anti-Semitism ends up. In violence and murder.

Of all the world’s continents, Europe should surely understand that, from the horrors that have happened within living memory there.

Second, let’s explore why this is a left-wing phenomenon. Has the British far right experienced such a resurgence? No. In fact, the BNP has largely collapsed in disarray. UKIP, to which perhaps some of its support has gone, is a moderately respectable party. Although it may not be hot on immigration, neither is it much like the BNP. In fact, its leadership recognises the danger of being perceived as racist and is consequently on its guard.

The moderate right, and centre? Well, with the long-term aftershock of the Enoch Powell years, the Tories nowadays make an effort to be studiously anti-racist. The Lib Dems, a little less effort: the examples of Jenny Tonge or David Ward MP, both suspended for questionable remarks about Jews, spring to mind (Ward was later reinstated). But both are on the left of their party.

Yes, there remains an element of traditional, far-right skinhead anti-Semitism in the British public. But the growth is clearly from Islamist extremists and their supporters on the political left.

The most likely places to look are from the far left: Respect, for example, has taken in some highly dubious activists, like its chair in Tower Hamlets. But Labour is still at risk.

And we come to the third point: why is Labour at risk, why might this phenomenon not confine itself to the fruitcakes of the far left?

Because in 2011, in the fluffy days of early Miliband, we largely did not see the danger of far-left anti-Semitism slowly entering the mainstream within our party.

And in 2016, still licking our wounds from a disastrous election result and its aftershock, the election of an unelectable leader, well, many of us have now drifted into a much-enhanced state of groupthink.

In short: if we didn’t see that danger then, we certainly won’t see it now.

And it’s not just the groupthink, it’s the example set by those at the top of the party. We have selected a leader who attended an event held by an American, open anti-Semite in 2013. Or, to present on PressTV, propaganda channel of an Irani dictatorship happy to peddle anti-Semitic myths. Or that praises Raed Salah, a man who has been recorded on Arab television making deeply anti-Semitic statements.

No-one, of course, is saying that Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. But for any party leader, it is not a good look to be happy to hang out with people who are.

What message does such equivocation send? That we don’t mind if you hate Israel. That there is a right and a wrong in the Israel-Palestine conflict: Palestine right, Israel wrong. Views which, let us not forget, no Labour leader in living memory has held.

Fourth: how did we ever get here?

The trouble, as always with the political left, is that we think we are so racially and religiously tolerant – so “right-on” – that racism in our midst is simply unthinkable. It is not.

The 21st century tactic? “I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m an anti-Zionist”. Suddenly, you can say everything you like about “Zionists”. It doesn’t mean Jews, you understand. We all like Jews, it’s just those dreadful Zionists we don’t like. But, surprise surprise, an awful lot of Jews are Zionists, i.e. they believe in a Jewish homeland.

So, if you hate Israel rather than hating Jews, you then get a free pass in certain parts of the British left. And those parts of the British left have the precise profile of the people now running the party and, one supposes, many of those who voted for Corbyn or who recently joined the party.

Now, that is not to say you might not reasonably criticise the Israeli state, as you would any other. The problem comes, as the late Norman Geras regularly observed, when you single it out for criticism in a way you would not any other. When you hold it to uniquely high standards. Why, for example, is Israel criticised for defending its population as the rockets rain down from Gaza?

As Professor Alan Johnson, an academic with a deep understanding of the Israel and the Middle East, wrote last November:

“Our task is huge: to build an intellectual firewall separating sharp criticism of Israeli policy – which is legitimate, as it is for any nation-state, and which, even when unfair, remains non-lethal – from the spreading demonology of Zionism and Israel which is not legitimate and which can be lethal.”
Now back to that question: should Labour, and the British left, be worried about the resurgence of anti-Semitism?

Emphatically, yes.

Not just because it is so deeply abhorrent in itself; but because it is also the pernicious endgame of a slow intellectual slide, from outward-looking logic and rationality to inward-looking groupthink and, finally, prejudice. A slide which is currently going on, little by little, within this party.

Prejudice is illogical by definition; create the environment where argument is replaced by raw emotion, and you create the environment where prejudice can flourish.

It might seem extraordinary for those of us who joined the party in the 1990s that we might be even having such conversations. But these are not ordinary times.

And this same party, in its current fingers-in-the-ears mode, is fast becoming a worryingly fertile ground for extremists. We must not let them take hold.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for What We're Reading at Progress Online


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  2. I don't think it's about "hating" Israel, but many people, Jews and Gentiles alike, think that Israel has lost its way.

    If you want to call that anti-Semitism, of course you may. But please stop callimg yourself "left of centre", Rob. You ain't. One day soon you will look in the mirror and recognise yourself.


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