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

by Rob Marchant

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.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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26 Responses to “Anti-Semitism: head-in-the-sand Labour still does not see the danger”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Or those who joined the party in the 80’s, it was forgotten that Libya and Palestinians admired the OlD NF in the 70’s for its anti Semeticism, then the places t organization the BNP, were less anti Semeticism, and the pendulum swung for the far left to lose sympathy for Jews,when embracing radical Islam

  2. Frederick James says:

    I think this very real phenomenon is explicable by a simple thought-experiment.

    Which of these two groups is it more chic for the bien-pensant metropolitan-elite rich folks who populate the upper echelons of the Labour party (and no doubt OU Labour Club too) to patronise and seek to co-opt in order to burnish their deluded self-image as champions of the poor and disadvantaged? Mainstream Jews or radical Muslims? That’s not a hard question. And whom do radical Muslims most hate?

    Thus, leftwing antisemitism may be seen as the logical consequence of routine self-loathing leftwing virtue-signalling. Rather rum.

  3. Mike Stallard says:

    I fully understand the need to go with the underdog.
    The Jews are the underdog, actually.
    The Arabs and Muslims cover a huge area, they are rich with oil and they have enormous forces at their disposal. President Assad is allied with Russia, for heaven’s sake. And they are the Ummah – the People of Faith.
    The Jews have a tiny oil free country. They have been allied with the West because they are a true democracy with real elections, a parliament that works and an inclusive economy and government.
    Oxford certainly ain’t what is once was.

  4. Taylor says:

    I think the moment it became ‘respectable’ amongst the Left – including the ‘soft Left’ – was the publication of the Walt & Mearscheimer piece in the London Review of Books. When that’s the company you choose to keep, it’s only a matter of time before it turns horribly rancid. As it has.

  5. Feodor says:

    Arguably there is something of a disproportionate focus on Israel, though as a mature democracy it’s not really surprising that people expect more of it than they do some tinpot dictatorship. Certainly, the continued building of settlements, in flagrant violation of UN resolutions, is something that only the most hawkish of Israel supporters can possibly excuse.

    Nevertheless, I’m struck by how thin on substance this article is. (A Labour Uncut article thin on substance, what a shocker!) There’s no direct evidence of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, just guilt by association. Corbyn’s to blame and the one in the firing line, of course. And it’s not as if the New Labour ‘moderates’ have ever associated with some less than reputable characters. No siree!

    Moreover, if you were take a look at the comments section on a mainstream right-wing blog like Conservative Home when the subject of Islam comes up, e.g., you’d see plenty of talk of Muslims as an ‘enemy within’ or words to that effect. Conversely, you don’t really find anything like that with reference to Jews on left-wing blogs–and when people do stray into such territory, they tend to be hastily banned.

    You’ll often see criticism of ‘the Israeli lobby’, of course, but people rarely conflate that with Jews in general, and in fact some of the most prominent critics of said lobby are Jews themselves. And it’s worth noting that while such criticism is not beyond the pale, the likes of Alan Johnson often suggest that it is–the man is hardly the bastion of fair-mindedness the piece tries to depict him as.

    So all in all, while you might have a point, Rob, while this might be an argument worth pursuing, you’ve really not done a good job of putting it across. Lots of heat, but little light. Surely you can do better?

  6. Disenfranchised says:

    If Labour activist are willing to cover up the sexual abuse of 1400 young people from working class communities in Rotherham, I doubt that they’ll worry too much about the immorality of anti-semitism.

    Labour are beyond repair.

  7. Delta says:

    I am genuinely very sorry Rob, for anyone suffering ill treatment due to racism and brainless thoughtless bigotry, but I am afraid brainless thoughtless bigotry is Labours core value and belief these days. They are no longer a moral cause, they have gone from being hopelessly shallow and stupid as a result of being in power and forgetting what politics is and is for and as a consequence given license to voices seeking to fill the vacuum. Voices that move from one form of hate and prejudice to another.
    Hatred of the U.K., hatred of anyone with wealth or ability, hatred of anyone who is not a transsexual or is gay, hatred of Jews, hatred of anyone white,nhatred of young white women, hatred of Conservatives, hatred of the idea of cause and consequence as it crushes any policy they have, hatred of debate, hatred of democracy, hatred of individuality and unique character etc etc.
    This is the marriage that is undead Labour at the moment, a shallow bouncing yes and no to any policy interpretation of Blairism for any money or just hatred to replace it when people quite understandably see through it. This is the consequence I warned you all about and was ignored. Now the public are ignoring all of you. And Labour will continue to degenerate and decline and become a fruitcake factory of fearful freaks, the only problem is that it’s not funny any more, it’s just disturbing how utterly crap it has become.

  8. travelling nun says:

    I’ve come across more islamaphobia than anti-semite – in life and on social media. Is no one else concerned about this?

  9. Jamie Davidson says:

    It’s fascinating the way the “centre-left” have taken this idea that any and all criticism of Israel, Israelis and Jews, in whatever mould or fashion, however bigoted, is simply political anti-zionism and completely fair game and placed it in the mouths of ALL anti-zionists as if it’s the widespread orthodox position. I imagine that one finds among the ranks of the radical left (and its deeply insular, cliquey, patrician middle-class student variant) many thousands of people who either openly espouse or privately hold all manner of prejudices views about Jews but unless you are to claim that anti-zionism is in itself anti-semitic – that an opposition to one example of an ethnic destiny conception of state-building which in any other forms zionists themselves would find abhorrent – then the increasingly common insinuation found in this article that “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” is not just idiotic but profoundly insulting to Israelis and Jews. It tells Israelis that they are beholden to but one form of government and one creation myth and it tells Jews (because, my god, not all Jews are Israeli and not all Israelis are Jews) that unless they subscribe to this myth and conception of state-building then are not really Jewish and are indeed anti-semitic. This way lies madness.

  10. Tafia says:

    Being anti-Israel is not anti-semitism and it’s childish to even try and suggest otherwise.

    Anti-semitism is (wrongly) used to mean anti-Jewish. There are plenty of Jews who do not support Israel, particulalrly deeply religious ones who interpret the scriptures as meaning only God can give the Jews Israel, not man and because the current state of Israel is man-made then it is an abomination. So that means Marchant et al will also have to label some of the most deeply religious jews in Israel (and elsewhere) as anti-semitic – which if course is a nonsense.

    (Most Jews are not semites and most semites are not Jews)

  11. John P Reid says:

    Traveling nun ,ofcourse we’re concerned but who are we to criticize others, when we can’t even get our own act together,when we have an ability to stop Anti semeticism in our one ranks,thane fact known Labour Party members call for a ‘final solution’ or say that Israel and ‘ jews’ are the same thing with comparisons you sat ‘tomato’ I say Tomato’ of course if inciting violence or even religious hatred is concerened we can report islamoaphobia where it clearly is intended to incite unlawful hatred, yet Ken Livingstones double meaning quote,rich Jews won’t vote for me, was clearly trying to appeal to Muslim who don’t like Jews,without,actually saying it

    Unfortunately I can’t fault the other comments here,

  12. Martin Good says:

    Don’t confuse concern about Zionist expansionism with anti-Semitism. I am not against Zionism I believe in a Jewish homeland and I am definitely not an anti-Semitism but I do have genuine concerns about the influence of Zionist groups within all political parties and it’s effect on democracy.

  13. Henrik says:

    @Tafia: let’s not get wrapped around the axle playing word games. Rob’s point, which I think is a fair one, is that there seems to be a growing tide of anti-Jewish sentiment in Labour. It’s always been there in the Left, of course, see here also ‘rootless internationalist’ etc, but Labour has generally been pretty good about keeping it tamped down. For some reason – and it may be to do with the embracing of militant Islam on the basis that if they hate the West and America, they must be OK – overt anti-Jewish, not anti-Zionist, or anti-Israeli, direct and unpleasant anti-Jewish sentiment, rhetoric and action seems to be be spreading and becoming mainstream.

    Note that this has nothing to do with Israel, it’s purely about the Jooz and trust me on this, from the outside, looking in, people have noticed you guys have got a problem.

  14. Mike Homfray says:

    Being anti-Israel is the correct position, and has nothing to do with anti-semitism, but is a rational assessment of the situation.

  15. James Martin says:

    Rob Marchant is free and easy with his slurs. Slurs like those of us who oppose the Israeli illegal occupations and racist anti-Arab policies of the current Israeli government are anti-Semitic, indeed his whole argument is that failure to support Israel or to support the international boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) movement amounts to racism. The problem for this narrative is that those calling for BDS and criticising the actions of the Israeli state include Jewish groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP), a group who are well aware of the issues of anti-Semitism but who believe that the illegal actions of Israel increase it. And it is also worth pointing out that JFJFP also supports the International Apartheid Week in universities that triggered the resignation of Alex Chalmers from the Oxford Labour Club. Of course for the narrative of Marchant and the other uncritical supporters of Israel to work then logically groups like JFJFP and others like them are ‘self-hating Jews’, a slur that is indeed used by Likud and Natanyahu when he is not accusing Ban Ki-moon of ‘encouraging terror’.

  16. @Martin Good

    This is the most sensible comment so far. There is a strong Israeli government lobby on British political parties of which Rob Marchant seems to be a prominent part judging by the number of posts he makes on the subject. The shame is the present Israeli government represents a strain of Zionism which is pretty hard to defend and has little to do with the Zionism of the likes of David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir. You can Google ‘Revisionist Zionism’ to get a better understanding of this.

    That there is bigotry just about everywhere is hard to argue against. Certainly in the Muslim community there are extremist anti-Jewish ideas which seem to originate in the mosques and should be controlled under British race crime laws. It would be wrong though not to think there are similar anti-Muslim ideas floating about in our Jewish communities.

    The problem all this makes for those who are not anti-semitic and actually support the Zionist ideals that the Israeli state was built on is that people like Rob just make it even harder to put pressure on the present Israeli government to behave well. It is no wonder that American evangelist and fundamentalist Christians and neo-con politicians tie themselves closely to the needs of the right wing in Israeli politics. Those of us old enough to remember the hope expressed by the kibbutz movement and politicians like Moshe Dayan no longer have any heroes to look to.

  17. TrT says:

    When the official policy of the Labour Party is that we must open a dialogue with ISIS, a state that has reinstitutionalised slavery and that uses mass killings of conquered civillians to crush descent, but we must close dialogue with Israel, a free democracy in which the rights if women and ethnic minorities are guaranteed, and that guarantee is actually worth something, you get an understanding of just how far the party has fallen….

  18. @Martin Good: if you are not against a Jewish homeland, you are not an anti-Zionist. We are talking about people who are. The question I would ask you is, why do you think the “Zionist” lobby would be more powerful than any other lobby, e.g. Arab, European, human rights etc.? All these have an “effect on democracy”. Do you not worry that you are according a status to this lobby out of proportion to its actual power?

    @travellingnun: a lovely piece of whataboutery. Irrelevant.

  19. @Rob Marchant

    @Martin Good: if you are not against a Jewish homeland, you are not an anti-Zionist.

    Rob, if you read what Martin wrote, you would see he says ‘ I am not against Zionism…’.

  20. Tafia says:

    Still people mixing zionism, judaism and semitism when they are entirely different things and can occur in the positive and negative, in any combination. ie – it’s possible to be zionist but anti-semitic and be jewish. Like wise you can be zionist and non-jewish anti-zionist and jewish etc etc etc. Whatever combination you can make of 2 or more of the three – both pro and anti, is possible and actually exists. Then when you chuck Israel into the equation….

    For instance I do not support Israel and believe it should be forced back to it’s original pre-1967 borders and forced to comply with all the UN Resolutions it routinely ignores. I do not support Zionism. I have no problem with Judaism as a religion.

  21. Henrik says:

    @Tafia – your stance on Israel is noted. It’s a perfectly respectable opinion. Mistaken, to my mind, but that’s a separate discussion, perhaps over a pint some time. The issue at hand is anti-*Jewish* sentiment inside Labour and how that’s been manifesting itself. Whether rightly or wrongly, the perception is out there that Labour’s got a problem with Jews and many Labour activists, particularly the enthusiastic ‘new ones’ are prone to abusive behaviour towards Jewish people *because they’re Jewish*.

  22. Tafia says:

    Henrik, which brings us back to the fact that to be anti-jewish does not mean you are anti-semite. It means you are a religious bigot. Most jews are not semites. To be anti-semite you would also have to be anit-Assyrian, anti-Palestinian (does that make Israel anti-semite I wonder?), anti-Armenian.

    The misuse of the phrase ‘anti-semitism’ is something Israel fosters and promotes as to exclusiveky mean anti-jewish. Which is bollocks.

    My uncle is a jew living in Manchester. He even writes the occasional article for the Jewish Telegraph and is quite prominant within the Labour machine in Greater Manchester (and an ardent Corbynite). He was even chair of Manchester CND at one time. He hasn’t got the time of day for the concept of Israel or zionism. But he is a very proud and very religious jew – and there are many like him.

  23. Henrik says:

    Tafia, I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of Labour members don’t hate Jews or give them a hard time simply on the basis that they are Jews; however, some of the bedfellows the Party has chosen – and some of the influx of new members which you guys have seen in recent months – definitely and distinctly do not care for Jewish folk and make that dislike quite apparent. I hope the ongoing issues at Oxford University, for example, will be resolved soon, just as I hope some of the less happy commentary coming from Labour Party local organisations which are found mainly from folk with an immigrant heritage will be put down. In politics, the perception is the reality and Labour can’t afford to lose too many more narratives. JC’s not really in a position to put his foot down, given how close and fraternal his contacts with militant Islamists have been in the past, so I wonder who’s going to be the luckless sod who attempts to impose some party discipline.

  24. Tafia says:

    definitely and distinctly do not care for Jewish folk and make that dislike quite apparent

    Which means they are religious bigots, not anti-semites. I’m a religipous bigot – I consider all committed followers of any faith to be tossers and a blight on the modern world and I don’t like them, I don’t keep that secret and I couldn’t care less about what they think. People who go on about any faith are likewise religious bigots.

    If I had my way I would secularise religion to such extremes that displaying any outward religious symbols or clothing – crucifixes, turbans, kippots, female coverings etc etc, even by that faith’s clergy, would be banned in any and all public spaces and public buildings so that it would be physically impossible to tell someone’s religion by looking at them. (I’d even ban the Pope from wearing his shite on official visits). I’d also ban all weddings in a religious buillding. Legal weddings would be non-religious held in a civic building. Anything in a religious building would be merely ceremonial wsith no legal standing. And I would savagely criminalise religious Courts – including the Jewish ones that already exist in the UK. I’d even scrap all calenders that are connected to religion including the one we use, from being used or referred to anywhere in the UK.

    The French Revolutionaries never went anywhere near far enough stamping on religion in post-revolutionary France.

    Religion served it’s purpose a millenia ago when it produced a basic civic code about law and order and behaviour. Since then it has been nothing but a despicable curse, a hinderance and of no value. (Can you even imagine how many trees have perished to produce the paper used to produce religious books and other associated garbage?)

  25. Henrik says:

    Tafia, I think we’re slightly at cross purposes here. There’s the world of difference between not caring for religious expression and deliberately targeting adherents of one particular faith on the basis of a perceived racial identity, particularly when combined with talk of violence and actual intimidation, including, allegedly, some very unpleasant references to the policies of the Third Reich in regard to that same faith group. It’s a thing and it’s going on and the Labour Party needs to do something about it.

    I’m very much of your mind as regards faith in general and would endorse a number of your secular views, although I suspect your party would probably be fine with anti-Christian, anti-Jewish or anti-anything else, but would howl with indignation if the same secular gaze fell on the adherents of Islam.

  26. Tafia says:

    Henrik, my party happens to be Plaid Cymru.

    And you still avoid the fact that being anti-Jewish is religious bigotry rather than anti-semitism. Semites are race (which most Jews do not belong to – there are more muslim semites than jewish ones), Judaism is a religion not a race. ‘Anti-Semitism’ is pharse the Jewish lobby has seized and re-defined to suit their own political purposes.

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