I should probably begin by stating that I am a member of the Labour party. My reasons for joining were a little convoluted. I do think that part of being a citizen is to be politically engaged. It depresses me and worries me that many people aren’t. So many things that affect all our lives go unnoticed or unchallenged for this reason. As the West Wing noted, decisions are made by those that show up.
I must confess though that I am one of those odd people who is inherently interested in politics. I really care about policies and outcomes but I am also interested in the process. So in one sense, it’s easy for me to be engaged. Despite this, I was not a member of a political party until quite recently. It was David Cameron who inspired me to join the Labour party. As I have mentioned, I do have an interest, and I tend to watch the party conferences’ leaders’ speeches. I was so incensed by Cameron that I joined the Labour party. I got involved. Only in a small way but I did. Having said that, I am not significantly involved in the party – I have never been to a meeting or canvased doorsteps. I do read the members’ emails, and I have voted in leadership elections, but that’s it.
Antisemitism has become headline news – specifically in the Labour party, the following is my analysis of where we are at. I really want people who disagree with me to try to convince me, I want discussion. I want to be persuaded of a different view, if my understanding is wrong.
It is impossible to talk constructively about antisemitism without first acknowledging the long and horrific history of Jewish oppression. The Holocaust looms very large over the 20th century, but that was not a new phenomena. It was new in extent but not in terms of how Jewish people have been maligned, mistreated, oppressed and ultimately murdered. We know that Shakespeare wrote about it, we know how in mediaeval times in much of Europe, Jews were despised. You can go back to the third century AD when Rome converted to Christianity and Christendom was born and Jews were cast as ‘Christ-killers’ (which is appallingly bad theology, by the way). You can go even further back to ancient Babylon when the Jews were a mistrusted and persecuted minority. So there is 2500 years of history here.
Given the two-and-a-half millennia of history it is not surprising that Jewish people have a kind of 'paranoia.' I don’t even think ‘paranoia’ is the right word. Most commonly we use that word when there is no actual threat, when it is a perception that everyone is out to get you – what is the word when they actually are? Even after the Second World War with the establishment of the State of Israel, the surrounding Arab nations vowed to destroy the state and drive all Jews into the sea. It is not true to characterise antisemitism as a thing of the past – it is very much a thing of the present. From the desecration of Jewish graves to personal violence to simple discrimination, it has not gone away.
Given all of this and the true horrors in living memory, Jews have an absolutely justified sensitivity (if that’s the right word?) and antisemitism should never, ever be remotely tolerated. I think it is hard for non-Jews to understand, to inhabit this. But the horrors of the all-too-recent past are very real. However, I am not yet convinced that antisemitism therefore should command a special status above other forms of racism. More of that later.
The State of Israel has an ignoble history but it is a complex one. The above description of centuries of abuse and discrimination that in some senses culminated in the Nazi atrocities gives the psychological backdrop to Israel. Added to that is a genuine military existential threat and so I do not think anyone can be surprised that a siege mentality exists for the Israeli State. In fact, it is almost the defining characteristic of the country.
This is where it all gets a lot more complicated. In order to establish the State of Israel, the Palestinian people were displaced and they have for seven decades now lived in what is essentially a massive refugee camp. The Israeli state is able to cut off access, cut off power and generally ensure appalling conditions for those who live there. And in this particular battle, the Israelis are the ones with all the power. In this article in the Guardian, it is argued that it is inherently antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany. I disagree. It is both potentially deeply insensitive and very offensive but the Israeli state very much have the whip-hand and some comparison with the way the Palestinian people are treated could be factual accurate. If that is true, not withstanding the circumstances I have just described, why would it be wrong to say so? Arguably, given the history of Israel, the charge of becoming like one's oppressors is an important one to lay if the facts support it.
It is true, that extremist groups target Israeli civilians and that is pure evil. It is also true that the Israeli forces when attacking legitimate targets are incredibly careless of the so-called collateral damage - as well as being guilty of criminal over-reaction: responding to stone-throwing with live ammunition. Make no mistake, there is a lot of blood of everybody’s hands but the State of Israel, for all its totally legitimate security concerns, is guilty of horrendous crimes.
There is a part of UK left-wing politics that has a strong affinity for the Palestinian cause. Ultimately, this in an oppressed – and often murdered – people. Where we run into trouble is the conflating of righteous criticism of the actions of the State of Israel and an attack on all Jewish people. And it happens both ways.
There are, undoubtedly, people who take criticism of Israeli actions and turn it into an attack on Jews. And that is antisemitism. There is no way around it. The historic tropes about Jewish people are so often heard when criticisng Israeli actions. It is also true that apologists for Israel will use the word ‘antisemitism’ as a shield to hide behind – as if any criticism of the actions of the Israeli state are automatically dismissible. Herein lies the problem – genuine antisemitism is real in UK left of centre politics (although very much a minority) and the accusation of antisemitism is used to avoid fair scrutiny and challenge to horrific actions.
I do not think it possible to have a meaningful discussion of the issue without understanding and acknowledging that these two situations co-exist.
So, what of the UK Labour party; does it have an antisemitism problem? My answer to that is yes and no. And I will insist that it really is both yes and no.
There is clearly a sub-group of left-of-centre thinkers who cannot separate the wrong actions of Israel from Jewish people (or do not want to) and some who take it further and believe in odd world-wide Jewish conspiracies. This does exist, and some of these people are Labour members.
For what it’s worth, I have never seen this within the Labour party. But, as I have already said, my day-to-day participation is minimal, so I could just not be in a position to see it. What I do know, is that whenever an allegation has come forward, the party has investigated and suspended or expelled members found to have crossed this line.
Antisemitism is never acceptable. In the light of the 20th century it is particularly abhorrent, and should never, ever be tolerated. But here is the first however. I do not think it remotely accurate to say that the Labour party does tolerate it. I think the investigations and expulsions show that the party does not. Furthermore the evidence from actual research on the matter shows that antisemitic views are prevalent in society – but less so among Labour supporters. Moreover as the Parliamentary report in 2016 stated, It should be emphasised that the majority of antisemitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-rightwing parties and political activity. So, here’s where it gets really sticky. There are anti-Semites within Labour’s ranks, but the characterisation of the situation by the media is also deeply misleading. So I believe the following to be true:
- Labour is striving to deal with the issue
- The prevalence of antisemitism is not higher in the Labour party than elsewhere in society
- Newspapers are being selective and misleading in their reportage.
I will concede that, given all that the Labour party stands for (or claims to), the presence of antisemitism within its ranks is deeply disappointing. It is also the case that there is a particular flavour of ‘leftie’ antisemitism which is different to the kind of prejudice and racism you see from right-wing parties. However, this leads me into point 3. I do not want to fall into the trap of whataboutery. I will not defend antisemitism by saying it’s everywhere or that other parties are guilty of racism. What I am driving at here is that the Labour problem is not as huge as some want you to believe and is being confronted by the party. To give the counter example; the Conservative Party has a much larger Islamaphobia problem that gets a fraction of the coverage. This is what I mean by the selective and misleading reportage. By the way, it’s not just me that thinks the Conservatives have an Islamophobia problem – former party chairman Baroness Wasi (with whom, I disagree on almost everything) says so. But more to the point, in the Mayoral election, Zac Goldsmith ran a deliberately racist campaign against Sadiq Khan. Not only did the party leadership take no action against Mr Goldsmith, they sanctioned this campaign and supported it. To be absolutely clear here: my argument is not that 'Labour may be antisimetic but that's ok because the Tories are Islamophobic.' That is as ridiculous as it is ethically wrong. My argument is that the media reporting bias makes the Labour antisemtic issue look bigger that it really is. And that is also morally unacceptable. As I hope I have made clear, I consider antisemitism deeply evil, but it is also wrong to use antisemitism for one's own ends.
Whilst, I disagree with those who think the antisemitism in Labour story is just a media-creation, I can understand where they are coming from. This incredible inconsistency feeds into that understanding very easily. Labour must continue to fight and root out all forms of racism wherever they are found within the party. And antisemitism does deserve special attention and at the same time, the projection that some want you to believe that Labour is inherently antisemitic is both unfair and misleading. It does become something of a nuanced argument after a while. Whilst the evil of antisemitism is very much black and white, the wider story really isn’t in this case.
Part of what I am reaching for here is the notion that something is not necessarily antisemitic because a Jewish person says so. Clearly, the voices of Jewish people should be the first we hear from but this argument is what allows people to defend the hideous actions of the Israeli state by claiming any criticism is antisemitic. There must be some objectivity possible here.
So, how do I sum all this up? Firstly I am not convinced that antisemitism is categorically different to other forms of racism. (If the argument is the Holocaust, then the Roma people of Europe have a strong case too). If you disagree, please convince me otherwise, I really want to hear what you think. Secondly, the conflation of legitimate criticisms of the actions of the State of Israel with animosity of all Jews is both a hallmark of antisemitism and a very convenient shield to the evil argument that Israel can do no wrong. Thirdly, the Labour party must strive to confront this. Fourthly the party has taken actions. Fifthly, there is no doubt is my mind that parts of the media are playing this story as a way to attack the party (and particularly the leader) with significant bias and deliberate myopia.
Ultimately, I do not think the Labour party is inherently anti-Semitic. You may say that I would say that as I’m a member. I profoundly disagree; if I thought the party was anti-Semitic, I would leave immediately. If you disagree, show me why I am wrong. I am listening.