An ‘Antisemitism and the Labour Party’ roundtable

JVL Introduction

Soundings has just publised an edited transcript of a discussion recorded in May 2018.

It “seeks to separate out some of the different strands that have been bundled together in recent debates, and to better understand the underlying issues in the row about antisemitism, Labour and the left. Since this discussion took place, there have been a number of further developments but the basic problematics have not changed.”

We reprint the participants’ introductory statements here, where they explain their background and relations “to the issues of antisemitism, the Labour Party and anti-racist politics” and link through to the core of the discussion that followed.

Antisemitism, anti-racism and the Labour Party

This blog is a piece from the forthcoming Soundings issue 70.

Richard Kuper, Brendan McGeever, Lynne Segal and Nira Yuval-Davis, in discussion with Jamie Hakim and Ben Little

The discussion below seeks to separate out some of the different strands that have been bundled together in recent debates, and to better understand the underlying issues in the row about antisemitism, Labour and the left. Since this discussion took place, there have been a number of further developments but the basic problematics have not changed.

Jamie How would each of you describe your relationship to the issues of antisemitism, the Labour Party and anti-racist politics?

Lynne I am a Labour Party member in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of North Islington – and I was very active in getting him selected and then elected in 1983. I have been hearing Jeremy speak in Labour Party meetings once a month for years, and I have seen the relationship he has had with local Jewish communities over the last thirty years, which is really extensive. But I am also someone who in 2001 was hailed by Irene Bruegel when she sent out a message to her Jewish feminist friends after she had visited Israel and been told by Palestinians that it was very important to them in their struggle for justice that Jews got involved. So, I was one of the founders of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.1 And I also belong to Independent Jewish Voices and Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and so have been really engaged in working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine for nearly two decades. In terms of my identities and belonging, I have always described myself first and foremost as a socialist feminist – though I have always been aware, I could say proud, of my Jewish heritage. I only became actively involved in Jewish politics from 2001. It’s been a very interesting journey – and a sad one.

Brendan I am a socialist and an academic with a specialist interest in the study of antisemitism, racism and anti-racism, and their relationship to the left, historically and up to the present day. Some people approach the question of antisemitism and the left from the standpoint of Israel/Palestine, while others approach it from the position of Corbyn, Corbynism and the Labour Party. I approach it from the perspective of an academic on the left with a specialist interest in these issues.

Nira It doesn’t relate to your personal biography?

Brendan Well, there is a Jewish dimension in the family, as well as a history of anti-racism and political activism. All of this plays a role in shaping my interest in the subject, but it’s hard to say how, exactly.

Nira I have lived in London for more than half my life but I was born in pre-state Israel – I can’t say Israel/Palestine because I was born at the heart of the Zionist enterprise. My parents came from Lithuania and all their families were murdered by the Nazis during WW2. This put antisemitism as a very central emotional and ideological theme in our home lives. To my father’s chagrin, however (my mother was dead by then), this emotional involvement, after the mid-1960s, did not push me into the Zionist ‘never again’ for the Jews but instead mobilised me into ‘never again for anyone’ – and to become involved in the struggle against the military government and confiscation of land from Palestinian citizens of Israel, and, after 1967, the Occupation. I went through a long and painful process of becoming first non-Zionist and then anti-Zionist – which I only fully became after I left Israel in 1970 because even when you are in opposition there you are usually in opposition within the assumptions of what you are opposing. So I am a part of a very small group of anti-Zionist Israeli Jews and I have been active on this issue here as part of the Middle Eastern scene and more generally in a number of socialist feminist and anti-fundamentalist organisations. Over the years many of my feminist friends of Jewish origin have been very frightened, emotionally, about dealing with these issues and I was very happy when Irene and Richard and others picked upon these issues and set up Jews for Justice for Palestine, although I have mainly been involved in recent years on the academic side. I have never been a member of the Labour Party but of course I voted for Corbyn in the general election, and I am pleased that the party is being led by him. My major intervention on this specific issue was an essay I wrote in Spare Rib in 1984, ‘Zionism, antisemitism and the struggle against racism’.2 I wrote it in 1983 but there was long battle before it was published – they wanted the part which criticised Zionism but not the one which recognised the existence of antisemitism!

Brendan I still give this article to my students today.

Richard I grew up in South Africa in an atheist family that was part of a very Jewish community. My grandfather was president of the Federation of Synagogues. South Africa produced one of the most Zionist Jewish communities in the world. As I was growing up, like many others I turned to Zionism as a solution to the problems I saw around me. I couldn’t solve the problems of South Africa, but may be by running away and joining the Israeli army I could do something! I was listening to short-wave radio and cheering on the troops as they approached Suez in 1956. I spent a number of years living this kind of Zionist identity, which lasted, really, until I went to Israel for two and half months at the age of eighteen. I enjoyed it enormously, but I found it very different from my expectations. In some ways the day-to-day prejudice against Arabs I encountered among my Israeli friends there reminded me very much of the atmosphere of the world I had come from in South Africa. I then went on to England and never returned to South Africa, and just drifted away from the Zionism that had been so important to me when I became caught up in the revolutionary politics of Britain in the 1960s. I joined the Labour Party in 1964, and have been a member all along – apart from a short interlude between 1966 and 2015! In the intervening time I was involved in other sorts of politics, first with the International Socialists and then later with the Socialist Society.3 In the Socialist Society we worked with the Labour left, including Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, who were involved in the big Chesterfield conferences we jointly organised with the Campaign Group in the late 1980s.

I reconnected with my Zionist youth, as it were, from 2001, when I was involved with Irene in setting up Jews for Justice for Palestinians. That meant I had to rethink questions which, to be honest, I had just put out of my mind for many years, in part because, like many Jews, I found it very painful – the kinds of issues one has to deal with, the divisions and the deep, emotional, painful rifts which occur with family and friends as different interpretations emerge about what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I remained very active on the Israel/Palestine issue until 2015, by which time I felt burnt out on the issue – I felt I had done all I could, and I could see that there was an opportunity with Jeremy standing as Labour leader for an alternative, broader, ecosocialist politics to be fought for. And, blow me, six months later I found myself at the centre an antisemitism row, and I have done very little since then apart from being preoccupied with these issues. I am now very involved with Jewish Voice for Labour, where we try, in our own way, to provide a focus for debate for disaffected Jews who want to take antisemitism seriously but also recognise the political context in which current battles are raging – that they are in fact about a much wider politics, and not just about antisemitism.

Ben I am a member of the Labour Party, and I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader twice and would do so again. I am Jewish, but until recently I hadn’t thought about it much – not since I was about fourteen, around which time a number of things happened, including the death of my grandfather, from whom I inherited my Jewish identity. Israel had not been part of my grandfather’s Jewish identity, so it did not become part of mine either. But I did decide to have a Bar Mitzvah, as this was something that was really important to him. This meant that I encountered British Jewish cultural life from within a synagogue, but I quickly found myself quite alienated from the emphasis placed on Israel in the Jewish education we received in the synagogue. So not long after this I quit my bit of the Jewish Youth movement, over what I saw as a dismissal of the plight of the Palestinians. When I explained my reasons for leaving, an older member of the community called me a fascist. At around the same time I left my secondary school because I was experiencing sustained antisemitic abuse from some of the students – and, in the end, one of the teachers. So I left, as did four or five other Jewish boys at the school. So these were definitely questions that I avoided because of the complexity around them. In recently thinking again about these issues in the light of what is happening now, I continue to feel quite uncomfortable.

Jamie I was brought up in the North London Jewish community, which was Zionist – what I called in my PhD popular Zionism. By this I mean people who are not necessarily involved in organised Zionist politics but who share a common-sense understanding of the Zionist version of the conflict, in which a naturalised support of Israel manifests itself in a very emotionally charged, and complex, way. In my PhD I looked at the period around the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war – before then it was quite normal for mainstream Jewish organisations and institutions to be critical of or indifferent to Zionism, but all that began to change after the war. I was looking at the reasons why, and the intensity of that emotional relationship. But now I have put that work aside and started exploring different things – partly because it is emotionally difficult – for reasons that anyone who is critical of Israel but has Zionist family would recognise. I have family in Israel but my position is anti-Zionist. I think Israel should be a democratic secular state for all the people who live in that country. I am also involved in anti-racist politics so I am interested in what Brendan has to say about that.

Read the core of the discussion, organised around the themes of “Antisemitism in the current political conjuncture” and “The weaponisation of antisemitismhere.