Jewish radicalism

JVL Officers had a discussion on 8th December at which it was decided that we should not endorse a meeting organised by Red Labour and billed as “A celebration of Jewish Radicalism”, to which we had previously lent our name.

There were different views but a consensus was reached.

This is our statement.


Sam Rothbort: Itka the Bundist Breaking Windows, 1930s–1940s

Vashti and Rivkah Brown

Vashti launched in November 2019.

It describes itself in this way on its website:

Launched in 2019, Vashti gives a voice to the British Jewish left. Building on a rich history of radical thought in the UK and around the world, we aim to pursue an ongoing inquiry into what it means to be a Jewish leftist in Britain and the wider world today; to examine and enrich it in print, video and audio; to create a space in which progressive Jews and our allies can convene and conspire.

That community is Vashti’s lifeblood. We have no big backers – we have you. People who want a new Jewish media to exist, and are willing to pay for it. Support Vashti.

We loved the project and reproduced its first article – Labour must treat antisemitism as a human problem, not just a political one – on the JVL website. We love Vashti’s cool contributions to Jewish culture and debate and its elegant design and presentation. We welcomed its bold assertion that “We’re here to bring back the broigus [a bitter quarrel – and then some!]”

Perhaps we can quote at some length from that introductory essay by Rivkah Brown:

If antisemitism is an irrational hatred of Jews, Jews’ fear of antisemitism can also possess an irrationality. On the one hand, our fear of attack is acutely rational: attackers have pursued us throughout history, culminating in a not-too-distant, very-nearly-successful attempt to eradicate us. Yet the enormity of the Holocaust also amplified Jews’ sensitivity to threat, inducing a kind of collective post-traumatic stress whose triggers are usually less traumatic than the traumatising event itself. It’s why dog whistles work so well on us: our ears are already pricked…

Jewish media outlets capitalise on their audience’s alertness to antisemitism in order to generate marketable headlines, feeding a cycle of fear in which news upsets readers whose upset becomes the basis of further news (a tactic these outlets—many of whose editors are openly conservative, or whose objections to Labour extend far beyond antisemitism—have refined since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader). In fact, the homogeneously right-wing Jewish press has been one of the central engines in escalating Corbynite Labour’s antisemitism crisis: in 2015, the Jewish Chronicle asked its readers whether we were “concerned” by Corbyn; by 2018, they had branded him an “existential threat”, a term designed to exacerbate Jews’ genocidal anxieties….

This is not to say that affect is the best measure of antisemitism. On the contrary, I agree with Professor David Feldman, of Birkbeck’s Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, who in a 2015 report for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism wrote that “a definition [of antisemitism] which takes Jews’ feelings and perceptions as its starting point […] is built on weak foundations”—particularly given Jews’ historically-legitimated hypersensitivity. However, a response to antisemitism that entirely discounts Jews’ feelings and perceptions will prove—indeed has proven—ineffective. We might therefore rethink the Macpherson principle thus: to be hurt by racism does not mean that racism has occurred; it does, however, mean someone is hurt…

And earlier Brown had written, repeating words from the article’s title ‘Labour’s failure in dealing with antisemitism has been a “failure to see this as a human problem rather than a political one.”’

There is nothing in the above we would dissent from. It is a valuable corrective to those of us who ignore the hurt caused by political conflict and try to resolve conflicts as though it is enough to express disagreement with an argument, without relating to the depth of feeling which underpins the alternative point of view being expressed.

Yet Rivkah Brown’s key illustrative example to highlight Labour, and particularly Jeremy Corbyn’s insensitivity is simply false. She writes of the Panorama programme that “even the documentary’s most sceptical viewer would have struggled not to be moved by some of the testimonies it featured. Ben Westerman’s unsettled me most”.

The story is well known. Westerman talks about a disciplinary hearing he had been involved in in Liverpool. He says that he was asked where he was from and, when he declined to answer, was asked: “Are you from Israel?”

Rivkah Brown writes “I feel a familiar wordless fury bubble in my gut…”

Ours too. That Westerman story simply has no foundation. It is refuted in our article Exclusive: The Riverside scandal: Louise Ellman and the war on Riverside Labour Party published on the JVL website on 16 October 2019. We have drawn Rivkah Brown’s attention to this in a recent email, but although she replied, she chose not to comment on this fact.

Vashti does not have an editorial line, but there is sometimes a tone to Vashti’s articles which distances them from those of us in JVL or others sharing our orientation – captured well in Keith Khan-Harris’s throwaway comment on Vashti about “the blanket denials of antisemitism common to the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL)-affiliated left”.

For the record – though we don’t expect a fair hearing from those determined not to hear us – we do not deny antisemitism, inside or outside the Labour Party.  We do, however, question the antisemitism label applied to many of the alleged instances of it. And we oppose the demonisation of many individuals like Chris Williamson or Jeremy Corbyn who seem to be fair game for yah-boo-sucks vilification.

On 29 July 2020 Rivkah Brown tweeted “As well as being a nasty Jew-baiter, Chris Williamson is derailing a much-needed conversation about the EHRC’s credibility as an instrument of antiracism by making this about himself. The EHRC isn’t sabotaging the movement, he is.”

How could someone, so clearly, in so many ways, part of the socialist left, rooted in the best of the radical Jewish tradition, fail to see this for what it is: inflammatory, untrue and without justification. Hate speech. This use of language is, to coin a phrase, beyond the pale.

So, while we are happy to participate in an evening celebrating Jewish radicalism,  with Alexei Sayle, Andrew Feinstein, David Rosenberg, Leon Rosselson, JVL’s Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and – yes, also with Rivkah Brown  – her advertised presence means that we cannot in good conscience co-sponsor it.

We are all for open discussion, robust and principled disagreement. We have consistently sought such engagement with Jews of all persuasions, including the ardent Zionists of the Jewish Labour Movement – and consistently been rebuffed. We look forward to such a discussion with Rivkah Brown whenever she feels open to it.


Comments (11)

  • rc says:

    I’m glad I left Rivkah Brown out of my proposed list of left Jews persecuted for their political opinions; in the end, on good advice from JVL comrades, I omitted such names altogether (Weekly Worker 1326, Dec 3).
    No platforming should never be a default tactic, and never a strategy, in my view. Let Hannah Marks and Mica Bird, whom Brown has monstrously libelled, confront her and let her recognize the truth. Let her perform criticism and self-criticism – otherwise she cannot restore her bona fides.
    Let her spare us the inkling of din rodef.

  • dave says:

    I don’t see how you address the hurt caused by lies told for political purposes without calling out the lies for what they are. It was failure to do this from the start that just ramped up the lies that caused more ‘hurt’, although I question how much of that ‘hurt’ was real and not expressed by political opponents. No one in my Jewish family and friends circle has been remotely ‘hurt’ by any of this and most are on the political centre or right.

  • I was the person who first raised the problem of Rivka Brown’s participation in the Commemoration of Jewish Radicalism.

    There is a problem with Rivka’s article, leaving aside the inaccuracies. Contrary to the wisdom of the old feminist saying that the ‘personal is political’ sometimes it is anything but.

    The Board of Deputies and the JC set about exploiting the Jewish communities fears by equating criticism of Israel and Corbyn himself with existential antisemitism. It was cynical, crude and effective. The Zionist movement is a cruel and cynical movement, not least to Jewish people.

    But does that mean one has to pander to those feelings?

    I can remember when White South Africans, when told they would be living under Black majority rule feared for their lives. Settler colonialism induces a siege mentality such that you fear the reaction of those who are oppressed. What conclusions do you draw from that?

    The CAA asked in one of its rigged surveys whether Jews felt that 1930s antisemitism was returning. 56% agreed that “the recent rise in anti-Semitism in Britain has some echoes of the 1930s.”

    Anshel Pfeffer, wrote in Haaretz that:
    ‘If the majority of British Jews and the authors of the CAA report actually believe that, then it’s hard to take anything they say about contemporary anti-Semitism in their home country seriously. … To compare today’s Britain, for all its faults, with the Jews’ situation in 1930s exhibits a disconnect from reality which borders on hysteria.’

    Rivka is wrong. The use of antisemitism is above all political. Once you reduce it to the personal then we are in the realm of identity politics where the oppressor and oppressed are equal. There is no way of differentiating. Hence intersectionality.

    Red Labour should have withdrawn the invitation to Rivka until she apologised for her outrageous statement about Chris Williamson.

    See: An Injury to One is an Injury to All – Rivkah Brown’s Attack on Chris Williamson as a ‘Jew Baiter’ Causes Jewish Voice for Labour to Withdraw

  • Mary Davies says:

    You have made the right decision JVL. I’m disgusted with Rivkah Brown’s hatefu, nasty comment.

  • Simon Lynn says:

    I think this is an unnecessarily defensive approach withdrawing from co-sponsoring this event because Rivkah Brown is one of the speakers. I think this shows a lack of self-confidence by JVL, and a lack of openness to the diversity of perspectives and experiences on the Jewish left. Vashti recently hosted a great seminar on ‘Where next for the Jewish left’ with interesting presenters and around 200 engaged participants.
    I think this JVL approach is self-defeating in potentially alienating a whole constituency of young, radicalising, open-minded left Jews – I think this retributive approach is a big mistake by JVL. You do not actually have to agree with everything a speaker says to co-sponsor an event.

  • John Wattis says:

    As a non-Jewish sympathiser of JVL, I think you have dealt with this very fairly. These issues truly present a minefield of high emotional reaction and it is very hard to tread delicately through that minefield. Ultimately it feels as though the Labour Party needs enormous wisdom and perhaps a process from both sides of the argument of really listening and responding to those we disagree with after due consideration rather than always reacting in a polarised way

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    That is terribly sad. People make mistakes, especially on this issue where it is really difficult to keep up with all the accusations, explanations, counter accusations etc. It’s not a hanging offence to get something wrong – it’s the failure to acknowledge. . .

  • Simon Cohen says:

    I agree with Simon Lynn, we need to keep engaging rather than causing further fragmentations and polarisations within greater polarisations.

    We are living in a period where binary oppositions are creating false culture wars that hide the underlying issues buried deeply under decoy arguments (Brexit/Remain; ‘woke’; ‘anti-woke’; ‘liberal’; ‘populist’).

    Deep beneath this there is, I believe a lot of collective anger that we are the victims of gaslighting, mis- and disinformation, manipulation and that only serves to keep the financialised hegemony untouched.

    I think Rivka was wrong about Chris Williamson but Chris has also handled things badly at times and misunderstood the fears (albeit manipulated) of the jewish Communities. I also think Rivka was wrong in her criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate response to the EHRC report.

    But we need to keep connection and work together and as Naomi (above) points out, in the welter of complex intersectionalities involved in this whole business the best of us are sometimes going to make judgements that are not totally kosher. I’m sure I’ve made many.

    Tony is right to say we don’t ‘pander’ to feelings BUT it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them into account.

    We won’t get anywhere if we get too ‘purist’ about our stances and I’m saying that as someone who has those ‘purist’ leanings.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    Rivkah Brown was perfectly well aware of what she was doing when she stepped up her language to accuse Chris Williamson of being a ‘nasty Jew-baiter.’ She intended to wound and she intended to divide. Those of us who have felt bound In all conscience to reject such judgements, even where it means upsetting an element of our Jewish neighbours, will know that the issue is neither personal or political: it is moral, and if a person is not above all considerations moral I can’t see how they can call themselves a socialist.

  • Leon Waksberg says:

    You withdrew your sponsorship because Rivkah Brown was going to be there? Is she the “wrong kind of Jew”?

  • RC says:

    “the wrong sort of Jew” language is now being exploited to put some (all? I don’t think so!) Jews above criticism.
    “All Jews are above criticism”. Is LW advocating such a position ? If not, how does he distinguish between allies and opponents?
    Brown has libelled Helen Marks and Mica Bird. Why should she not apologise? Simon Lynn and Simon Cohen need to make it clear that they do not endorse Brown’s libel. And withdrawing from sponsorship is not “no platforming” – why should JVL support Brown’s libellous activities? Nor has she or Simon Cohen made out any case against Chris Williamson. CW dealt with fears on the part of many (? how many?) British Jews by exposing the fraud which gave rise to those fears. It should be a relief to learn that your nightmare was 99.9% imaginary. And it was and is.

Comments are now closed.