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Antisemitism and the labour movement

In a nuanced presentation that may ruffle feathers, David Feldman and Brendan McGeever argue that the political culture of the left has long been a source of antisemitism, and for the need of the Labour Party leadership to face up to this. But they also believe that the alertness of the Jewish community, especially its leaders, to antisemitism in Britain should lead them to support anti-racist campaigns more generally.

We expect readers will agree with some parts of this article and will want to dispute others. Please post thoughtful comments so we all can learn from the exchanges.

David Feldman and Brendan McGeever are Director and Deputy Director respectively of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Labour Party

British Left’s anti-Semitism Problem Didn’t Start With Corbyn. It’s Been Festering for a Century

Anti-Semitism has long been recurrent feature of radical and socialist politics in Britain. We need more than denunciations and expulsions to confront how the left talks about capitalism, race and Jews

Brendan McGeever and David Feldman, Haaretz
9 April 2018

Scandals provoked by accusations of anti-Semitism have become a recurrent feature of British politics. As the latest tumult subsides we have an opportunity to reflect on the issues that underlie these controversies.

One lesson of the last two weeks is that people who swear they are militant opponents of anti-Semitism “in all its forms” too often turn out to have friends – real friends, comrades, Facebook friends  – who are happy to spread anti-Jewish slurs or imagine the basic facts of the Holocaust are up for debate.

For this reason when Labour Party leaders insist there will be no place for anti-Semites in the Party, their words don’t measure up to the problem. Too many believe they face a handful of anti-Semites, a bunch of interlopers.

Others acknowledge the problem is more widespread but then trot out evasive phrases about “unconscious anti-Semitism,” or vaguely suggest we educate people to recognise anti-Semitic tropes.

The problems go deeper than Labour leaders have been willing to admit. Even though we conventionally associate anti-Semitism with the right and fascism especially, the political culture of the Left has long been a source of anti-Semitism.

A more recent development is that some avowed anti-racists are seemingly unable to recognise anti-Semitism when it stares them in the face. They dismiss it instead as a smear perpetrated by “Blairites” and Zionists.

While the disciplinary reforms recommended by Shami Chakrabarti may help overcome these problems, the Labour Party requires more than denunciations and expulsions. It also needs reflection, education and above all leadership.

A helpful place to start is the important distinction between “anti-Semites” and “anti-Semitism.”

We find it at the heart of George Orwell’s writing on the subject. In October 1948 Orwell wrote to his publisher, “I think [Jean-Paul] Sartre is a bag of wind and I’m going to give him a big boot.” It was Sartre’s Portrait of the Anti-Semite (better known in English as Anti-Semite and Jew) which had provoked Orwell.

Sartre’s book was organised around the idea that the “anti-Semite” was an identifiable type: bourgeois, reactionary, uncomfortable in the modern world.  Orwell, by contrast, in his essay on “Antisemitism in Britain”, published in April 1945, presents a very different view.

Anti-Semitism (not the anti-Semite), he insists, is present across all classes and is pervasive in British literary culture from Chaucer to Shakespeare to T.S Eliot and Aldous Huxley. Anti-Semitism, Orwell proposed, is a shared problem, not a pathology confined to a particular type.

He drew a striking conclusion from this insight: “The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?'”

Labour politicians would do well to emulate Orwell’s honest introspection and contemplate the movement to which they have given their lives. Doing so means coming to terms not only with Jews and anti-Semitism but also capitalism and race.

Anti-Semitism has been recurrent feature of radical and socialist politics in Britain from the 19th century’s William Cobbett to the present day. We find it in the Chartist movement in the 1840s and in the pages of Keir Hardie’s Labour Leader, which in 1891 proclaimed that imperialist wars were being planned to suit the interests of “hook-nosed Rothschilds.”

Jews were good when outcast, a long way away and suffering from Tsarist oppression. But many of the same socialists and radicals who protested against pogroms were first in line to pronounce the Boer War an expression of Jewish conspiracy.

In failing to acknowledge this inheritance, Labour leaders disavow a painful and dishonorable aspect of the movement’s past. And as events in recent weeks have shown, these problems have not died away.

Across the political spectrum protagonists continue to categorise Jews as “good” and “bad”. The habit is clearly visible on the Left. Here, too often, Jews find that having the “correct” view on Israel/Palestine and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a precondition for getting a hearing on anti-Semitism.

A key feature of modern anti-Semitism has been the racialized projection of “the Jew”, an archetype which stands above and in conflict with the working class. Throughout the history of the left, certain anti-capitalist visions generated by socialists have overlapped and combined with this strain of anti-Semitism.

What makes anti-Semitism particularly attractive and dangerous for the left is that it can appear oppositional. It provides an easy personification of oppression in the face of less tangible, global forms of domination.

Which takes us to the mural in Tower Hamlets; the cause of so much controversy last month. Entitled Freedom For Humanity, the mural depicts six men, some with exaggerated “Jewish” features, at a table dictating the ‘New World Order’. In 2012, when the local council ordered the mural’s removal, Jeremy Corbyn signalled his opposition on Facebook.

When asked to clarify his message, the artist Mear One claimed the mural depicted “class and privilege,” nothing more. In fact it offered a vision of class stained through with modern anti-Semitism: a critique of capitalism in which the forces of global power are rendered “Jewish.”

Kalen Ockerman’s mural titled “Freedom for Humanity” on a wall near Brick Lane in London’s East EndKalen Ockerman

Everyone, including now Corbyn himself, recognises this. Yet for all the attention it received, one thing seems to have eluded almost all commentators: the mural not only depicts Jews and Jewishness, but places them in opposition to the pain and suffering of black and brown bodies.The mural controversy illustrates the ambiguous position Jews occupy within contemporary anti-racist politics.

If the left limits itself to a conception of racism which focuses solely on white privilege, it will continue to find it difficult to recognise Jews as its victims. Similarly, if European racism is understood only as a consequence of colonialism, we ignore the history of racialized exclusions within Europe itself.

We need to place colonial racisms alongside anti-Semitism, and recognise how the two intersect and sometimes diverge.

American scholar and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois did just this when he came face-to-face with the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto shortly after the war. It was “particularly hard for me to learn”, said Du Bois of the rubble in Warsaw, that this “was not even solely a matter of color.” These reflections by Du Bois remind us today that color-coded definitions of racism cannot account for the history of anti-Semitism.

This difficulty is deepened by the success of Jewish integration in contemporary Britain. Overwhelmingly a middle-class community, disproportionately represented in ‘top professions,’ lauded by the political elite and with a growing tendency to vote Conservative, British Jews are poorly positioned to evoke sympathy from those anti-racists who imagine that poverty, exclusion and racism always line up neatly together.


And then there is the question of Israel/Palestine, which has poisoned the Labour Party debate on anti-Semitism in recent years and continues to do so today. The great majority of British Jews feel an attachment to Israel, constituted as Jewish state. This, of course, creates a further problem for those parts of the Left invested in a distinction between Jewish identity and Zionism as a political ideology.

Attempts to fold Zionism into the history of European imperialism and settler-colonialism bring into sharp view the ongoing racism and injustice endured by Palestinians. At the same time, however, they obscure the fact that Zionism was in part a response to murderous racism experienced by Jews inside Europe.

This tragic dynamic was captured powerfully by Hannah Arendt: “The solution to the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people.”

Israel today is a complex entity: while some focus solely on its democratic credentials, others point to its history of dispossession and occupation. It advertises its promotion of LGBTQI rights but remains a bastion of state-sponsored ethnic and religious privilege.

Jewish statehood has generated a complicated history that sometimes makes it difficult for the left to even recognise anti-Semitism in Britain, let alone combat it.

Labour needs to learn and reflect on how racisms of different sorts have figured in its own past and continues to shape the present. It should be possible to decry global inequality and support justice for the Palestinians without likening Israelis to Nazis, invoking the Jews’ special conspiratorial power or holding diaspora Jews directly responsible for the actions of the Israeli state.

The challenge for the Labour Party’s leadership is to oppose racism unconditionally and without exception, including when its targets are Jews, most of whom do not support the party and who do identify with the State of Israel.

There is also a challenge for the Jewish community, especially its leaders. Their alertness to anti-Semitism in Britain should lead them to support anti-racist campaigns more generally. It might also allow them, even as they identify with Israel, to recognize and censure the racialized inequalities within and beyond its recognised boundaries.

In their different spheres, both the Labour Party and the leaders of the Jewish community should understand that anti-racism is not divisible.

David Feldman is Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London where he is also a Professor of History. He was a Vice Chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and other forms of racism in the British Labour Party.

Brendan McGeever is lecturer in the sociology of racialization and Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the Acting Associate Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, and is author of the forthcoming monograph The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Twitter: @b_mcgeever

6 comments to Antisemitism and the labour movement

  • Dave

    I can’t see that this adds anything new to the (false) claims that there is systematic anti-semitism in Labour. We get the same ‘examples’ (Facebook groups, Alan Bull, who as far as I’m aware is not an anti-semite) and nothing to convince people like me – from a Jewish Labour family with councillors for many years – that all this time we have been subject to racism we’ve never detected.

    I posted before about the mural – it’s clearly impossible to draw such a thing with a Jewish businessman. The test should be, without Rothschild and Warburg, would the mural be OK? And is it not OK to vilify Philip Green for his business deeds? (see I can’t say he’s greedy – would that be antisemitic?).

    Another test is, take Israel out of the discussion and is there really any racism from the left and Labour?

    If there is a grain of truth it is perhaps that Labour hasn’t done enough to support the Jewish ‘community’ (in fact there are lots and many not in ‘communities’) against real racism – the kind that scratches swastikas on Volvos in Stamford Hill (and indeed the Haredis return Tory councillors). This may because the ‘community’ is much smaller than some other minorities and mostly as the article says well off, compared with say black Britons, so if anything maybe it’s Labour paying too little attention rather than too much. But given the overt hostility from the likes of Arkush and co, I doubt they are interested in the slightest in socialists.

  • Danny Nicol

    Dave’s comment is more shocking than the article.

    Our commitment to social justice should not depend on whether the victims of racism are “interested in the slightest in socialists”, we should oppose racism regardless of how people vote.

    To instance “Volvos” not cars in Stamford Hill is a nasty little comment.

    Israel can be taken out of the discussion only in the hypothetical sense. I read somewhere (here?) that Jewdas does a training on how to oppose Israel without being anti-Semitic. If so, quite a number of comrades would benefit. Seriously. Why not give it a bash.

    Art is always a matter of interpretation. In my view the mural displayed Jewish stereotypes PROMINENTLY – at focal points of the table of bankers, divisively counterposing Jews to blacks. Corbyn was right to come to conclusion he has. Mural is evidence that not everything objectionable involves Israel.

    The invention of the internet is certainly responsible for a lot of problems, oy gevalt! I do not know Alan Bull and could not judge definitively whether he is or is not an anti-Semite but read elsewhere that he deeply regrets posting on Holocaust denial and expresses willingness to go to anti-Semitism training.

    The article omits to mention another vile form of anti-Semitism which is to hark back centuries to the sugar and slave trade and try to blame the Jews. Why on Earth would anyone on the LEFT want to touch that whole line of argument with a bargepole?

    I do at least agree with Dave that perhaps Labour has not done enough to protect the Jewish people against real racism. Given the re-election of the Hungarian government the Labour Left should demand SANCTIONS against that government and the Polish government. That would indeed allow us to address all racisms at the same time in a very concrete way and to confront an urgent and most alarming problem. Whilst the support of the entire Party would be welcome, such a demand might create clear red water between the Labour Left and the Labour Right who may shy away from such anti-free-market radicalism and veer towards appeasement.

    Projecting the Labour LEFT as THE MOST SOLID opponents of Antisemitism would be best in terms of socialist strategy and best in principle too.

  • Alan Deadman

    ‘those parts of the Left invested in a distinction between Jewish identity and Zionism as a political ideology’.

    I find this statement, McGeever & Feldman ridiculous, premised as it is on the claims of the Netanyahu Govt that the Israeli State encapsulates and represents ‘The Jewish Identity. Let’s be clear, there is no single ‘Jewish identity’. We can talk of a religious identity as represented by the humanitarian, egalitarian and universal values of the Prophets (as opposed to the homophobic, sexist and racist views of the Haredis and their ilk); or the socialist and revolutionary identity associated with The Bund and with the many Jewish thinkers who have contributed to radical philosophies; then there’s the cultural identities associated with Yiddish Culture which flowered in literature, painting, the theatre, the cinema and all forms of musical expression. These two writers, in tandem with the Israeli Govt want to put us all in box and label it ‘Israel’. They are fighting a losing battle as more and more young diaspora Jews reject the policies and practices of the Israeli State: whilst at the same time being ready to challenge the rising tide of genuine anti-Semitism, alongside all the other forms of racism and intolerance.

  • Re Dave’s silly comments (above) about the mural (“I posted before about the mural – it’s clearly impossible to draw such a thing with a Jewish businessman. The test should be, without Rothschild and Warburg, would the mural be OK? And is it not OK to vilify Philip Green for his business deeds? (see I can’t say he’s greedy – would that be antisemitic?”:

    Meer One aka Ockerman has defended himself (bizarrely, choosing to do so exclusively on the website of right-wing conspiracy theorist David Icke, but more on that later), and has defenders on this website and elsewhere on the internet, including on pro-Corbyn Facebook pages.

    The gist of these defences are that there are no caricatures (which is simply untrue); not all the bankers or capitalists are Jewish (not the point); and that the Eye of Providence is not indicative of a Jewish banking conspiracy (in fact, it is widely used to indicate just that).

    In his self-justification on David Icke’s site he suggests that there is no antisemitic connection to the Eye of Providence, and then suggests that there is a Star of David on the eagle motif on the other side of the US Great Seal.

    He then recounts how some Jewish people questioned his imagery while he was painting. He brushes that aside by saying that there are only two Jewish bankers in the group and it includes the Satanist Aleister Crowley.

    The sketch that Ockerman was working from (available at bit.ly/ock-sk”) suggests his account is untrue. It includes the names of the bankers or capitalists. None is Crowley. It would appear that he was intending to paint the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, but executed it so poorly that he claimed it is Crowley.

    It appears that the second banker from the left in the sketch is wearing a kippah, and the name on the sketch is not the non-Jewish Rockefeller whom Ockerman later claimed was represented there.

    Ockerman has made great play of the third banker from the left being the non-Jewish J P Morgan (who did posses a prominent nose in later life, due to his considerable consumption of strong drink). But Morgan was fat, and while his hair thinned towards the end of his life, he was never bald.

    The mural image looks much more like the Jewish banker Felix Warburg (or possibly one of his equally luxuriantly moustachioed brothers, Paul or Max), and not at all like a depiction by Ockerman of Morgan in a work prior to 2012.
    Ockerman’s defenders say than none of this is proof. But this is not the first time that Ockerman has defended his mural. He previously did so using less careful language in a 2016 Facebook post (bit.ly/ock-16″).

    Although the mural has nothing to do with Israel, he states that “I was labelled Anti Semitic by the Zionist and unconscious supporters of capitalism”.

    He goes on to praise David Icke as “one of a select few who are willing to take a stand against the crimes of humanity committed by the Zionist elite governing the state of Israel and the U.S.”

    Ockerman links both to the oppression of Palestinians by Israel and to this international elite of “pure evil… unbridled pursuit of money and power.” There follows a link to a video by Icke where he argues the world is dominated by “Rothschild Zionists”, a secret conspiracy of Jews and crypto-Jews.

    This puts the Eye of Providence and caricatured Jewish bankers into their antisemitic context.

    Ockerman should not simply be considered someone who has lost his soul to conspiracy theories on the internet. He has developed his ideas in an environment where genuine concern with the plight of the Palestinians can merged into an unfocused anti-capitalism and ideas of the power of the Jewish/Zionist lobby, and so has already moved half way to antisemitic conspiracy theories. The old antisemitic trope of hidden power is recycled as “Zionist” power.

    The left antisemitism that was once called the socialism of fools saw the Jewish capitalists as particularly worthy of attention. It is now being updated with the word “Zionist” in place of “Jewish”.

    Until the left seeks to understand Israel without the demonising bogeys of absolute anti-Zionism, such left antisemitism as Ockerman’s will erupt again and again.

    • Jaye

      Jim, kol hakavod*. Undoubtedly the most brilliant and eloquent contribution I have seen on this website.

      *I’m assuming that Hebrew expressions are not banned on this “Jewish” site

  • Richard Kuper

    Feldman & McGeever write that George Orwell ‘drew a striking conclusion’ from the insight that antisemtism present across all classes and is pervasive in British literary culture: “The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?'”

    They continue: “Labour politicians would do well to emulate Orwell’s honest introspection and contemplate the movement to which they have given their lives. Doing so means coming to terms not only with Jews and anti-Semitism but also capitalism and race.”

    It’s worth going back to the 1945 Orwell essay “Antisemitism in Britain”, online at http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/antisemitism/english/e_antib. Its account is much more complicated than the brief extract given here suggests.

    Towards the end, trying to think about the origins of antisemitism, Orwell writes: “All I would say with confidence is that antisemitism is part of the larger problem of nationalism, which has not yet been seriously examined, and that the Jew is evidently a scapegoat, though for what he is a scapegoat we do not yet know.”

    And further on: “It seems to me a safe assumption that the disease loosely called nationalism is now almost universal. Antisemitism is only one manifestation of nationalism, and not everyone will have the disease in that particular form. A Jew, for example, would not be antisemitic: but then many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely antisemites turned upside-down…”

    Soon after that the statement cited by the authors appears, as Orwell argues that to understand antisemitism iy is best not to begin by debunking it “but by marshalling all the justifications for it that can be found, in one’s own mind or anybody else’s. In that way one might get some clues that would lead to its psychological roots.”

    His conclusion about doing anything about it is stark: ‘But that antisemitism will be definitively cured, without curing the larger disease of nationalism, I do not believe.”

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