Labour and antisemitism: a final word

JVL Introduction

A personal statement by media analyst and Labour left activist, Justin Schlosberg, in which he looks at why the debate over Labour and antisemtism is as heated as it is and offers a series of ideas to help us through it.

It isn’t, he points out, always black and white: “The existence of these grey areas is precisely why we have to be both utterly robust but also extremely nuanced in tackling racism.”


Labour and antisemitism: a final word

Justin Schlosberg,
22 February 2019

The first casualty of a polarised society is tolerance. Brexiteers lambast remainers for being stooges of a Brussels-Westminster elite. Remainers bemoan Brexiteers for being brainwashed by decades of anti-immigrant racist propaganda. Feminists dismiss those who support the right to self-identify as closet misogynists whilst transgender rights advocates decry feminists for mobilising transphobic hatred.

The common sub-text of all these positions is not that we profoundly and fundamentally disagree with your views but rather we reject your right to hold such views. Each side accuses the other of mobilising some form of hatred or oppression.

Ironically, intolerance of other people’s views is perhaps the most basic and common ingredient of fascism in all its disguises. And it is no more apparent than in the debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. All too often those who have defended the Labour leadership on this issue (Jewish or not) have been accused of being complicit in the world’s oldest hatred and/or indoctrinated by the cult of Corbyn. And all too often those who have legitimate concerns about anti-Jewish hate speech have been dismissed as stooges of Israel or dupes of the propaganda war against Labour.

This week I threw my hat in the ring for the selection of Labour’s new parliamentary candidate in Finchley and Golders Green. As a Jewish socialist and media academic outspoken on the antisemitism issue, this was bound to trigger a slew of negative headlines along with the usual firestorm of abuse on Twitter.

Contrary to what was implied in these responses, my decision to stand had nothing to do with deliberately stoking or stirring up tensions in the borough where I live, which has one of the highest concentration of Jewish people in the country. Nor did I stand with any expectation of winning the candidacy (let alone seat). I stood mainly in an attempt to cut through the fog of information war on both sides and try to discover some common ground on which to rebuild trust between the Labour Party and the Jewish community. My motivations were idealistic, naïve and perhaps arrogant. But they were sincere and not malicious.

I was raised in a secular but traditional Jewish family. I had my barmitzvah in an orthodox synagogue. I grew up immersed in the social fabric of ‘mainstream’ North London Jewish life. I have seen what antisemitism on the left looks like from this vantage point, and it looks as ugly and insidious as it does anywhere. It’s not just a ‘handful’ of cases. We now know there are some 400 members that, according to Labour’s governing body, should face further investigation or some form of disciplinary action over antisemitism.

Many of these members have made several offensive comments on social media. Added to that are many thousands of antisemitic posts from non-Labour members hanging out in Labour or pro-Palestine forums. Added to that is what looks like relentless Israel-bashing and anti-Zionist rhetoric which many Jews see as at best insensitive language, and at worst thinly veiled antisemitism. They may be critical of Israel themselves (most British Jews oppose the policy of settlements on occupied Palestinian land pursued by successive Israeli governments). But they see attacks on Israel’s ‘right to exist’ as denying Jewish people — uniquely — the right to self-determination.

Mix all that in with the constant negative headlines and gruesome details of abuse suffered by Jewish Labour MPs, and its easy to see why many decent and even some left-wing Jews are deeply uncomfortable with what’s been happening in the Labour Party.

On the other side, people see complaints upheld about 400 members as representing a microscopic proportion of the mass Labour movement that Jeremy Corbyn has propelled. It amounts to less than 0.1 percent of the party membership — far lower than the proportion of the general British public who hold antisemitic views based on consistent polling. Perhaps even lower than might be the case in other parties, including the Tories, if they were to face even a fraction of the scrutiny applied to Labour on this issue.

They also recognise that much of the antisemitic discourse bound up in this cesspit of hate does not stem from Labour members at all. Of the 111 people who were the subject of 200 complaints made by Margaret Hodge MP, 91 were found to have no connection to Labour — that’s more than 80%.

And they rightly fear the possibility of ‘infiltration’ by people with ulterior motives to undermine the Labour leadership. We know that both the British security state and the Israeli state have been actively and surreptitiously trying to undermine Corbyn. These are not conspiracy fantasies but based on evidence that is neither disputed nor disputable.

There is also indisputable evidence of inaccurate and distorted media coverage of this issue across the mainstream press. A report I co-authored on this last year was prefaced with explicit caveats that antisemitism in the Labour Party is real and substantial and that the research found no evidence of any orchestrated smear campaign. This did not stop a torrent of abuse on Twitter, accusing me of denying antisemitism and deliberately “whipping up animosity towards the Jewish people”.

And then there is the abuse of Jewish socialists more generally that gets virtually no column inch or airtime but which, in many cases, involves explicitly antisemitic rhetoric espoused by the very people decrying the plague of antisemitism within Labour. Jewish socialists who have voiced support for Corbyn have been on the receiving end of countless messages such as “go back to the gas chamber” and “the Nazis also killed Jewish Kappos like you”. During the Labour conference last year, national newspapers were awash with headlines about Luciana Berger attending with a police body guard but barely covered an actual bomb threat that forced the cancellation of a fringe event organised by the socialist group Jewish Voice for Labour.

People from this vantage point are also outraged by what they see as legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism being unfairly dismissed as anti-semitism. They do not see themselves as ‘singling out’ Israel for special treatment or harbouring any animosity or prejudice towards Jewish people. They see Israel as an occupying force that’s been subjugating and oppressing Palestinians for more than half a century. Their fixation has nothing to do with Israel being a Jewish state, but rather a western outpost in the Middle East, just as they fixated over Apartheid South Africa given the implicit backing to the regime offered by Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. Calling out western hypocrisy and the support of western governments for racist or oppressive regimes is written into the DNA of left-wing ideology.

Above all, they see themselves as fundamentally anti-racist. And it’s easy to see how in this context, misplaced accusations of antisemitism can provoke legitimate anger. And all too often this anger is expressed in antagonistic and insensitive language which then itself becomes a new headline and the latest presumed evidence of the scourge of antisemitism within Labour.

And on and on it goes. A vicious cycle of outrage and counter-outrage that has deeply politicised the issue and produced blindspots on all sides. But amidst all the over-heated rhetoric there are some truisms:

First, the antisemitism problem within Labour is something we should all be concerned about, whatever the proportion of the membership it represents.

Second, Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. Like many on the left, he has waxed critical about Israel and Zionism in a way that has, at times, caused legitimate offense. But he has spent his entire political life fighting all forms of racism, turning up and voting for motions on anti-semitism in the Commons when most of his Blairite critics couldn’t be bothered, and doing all this alongside Jewish activists both within and outside of Labour for decades. These are palpably not the hallmarks of an antisemite, insidious or otherwise.

Third — and this is where it gets tricky — some antisemites do piggy back on the anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian cause, just as some have piggy-backed on the anti-Corbyn cause: witness Hungary’s Victor Orban dismissing the Board of Deputies of British Jews last week, for raising concerns about virulent antisemitism in Hungary. Orban cited in response the antisemitism problem within Labour and told the Board to ‘mind their own business’.

And some antisemites don’t get involved in any debates about Israel or Labour and never publicly utter an antisemitic word. Others still venture into antisemitic language unintentionally. A friend of mine once remarked after a few drinks that “everyone knows the Jews run America”. When I pointed out this was a deeply antisemitic statement he was genuinely shocked and outraged. He thought it was complimentary.

Such is the nature of racism that it’s not always clear who is or who is not racially prejudiced, or what ‘counts’ as racist language. No doubt many people who are anti-immigration are also racist xenophobes. But there are also perfectly legitimate reasons — however much I disagree with them — for being critical of immigration.

The existence of these grey areas is precisely why we have to be both utterly robust but also extremely nuanced in tackling racism. It is also why the Chakrabarti Report — which stands as the most comprehensive and in-depth dissection of antisemitism in any political party ever — was right to recommend expulsion only as a last result.

Criticism of Israel and Zionism should never be used as a pretext for levelling accusations of antisemitism, and the existence of some antisemites within a mass political movement should never be used as a basis for implicating a party leader or dismissing the legitimacy of the movement as a whole.

By a similar token, evidence of media distortion and British or Israeli state interference in Labour politics is not a legitimate basis for claims of an orchestrated or over-arching conspiracy. Clearly there have been some who have exaggerated the extent of antisemitism in the party just as some have underestimated it. We need to move on from this if there is to be any hope of reconfiguring a space for legitimate, open and inclusive political debate.

We also need to be careful of the language that becomes normalised in our particular political thought bubbles. Just last week, at an event hosting the premier of a new documentary film about this issue, a man from the audience made a comment to the effect that the ‘western order’ was ultimately responsible for the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. The comment was made in an otherwise rambling contribution that ended with a call to attend an anti-racism demonstration. I was on the panel and applauded that call but missed the repugnant statement which preceded it. That was wrong and I have apologised — I should have listened more carefully and called it out.

And that’s my peace. Being very much ‘caught between worlds’, this issue has taken a significant personal toll. No doubt it will wage on and on, resurfacing as it has persistently over the last three years. But since I also care about things other than politics and have said just about all I have to say on it, I’m out.

Comments (4)

  • James Turtle says:

    Dear Justin
    You have written such a good piece. Thank you so much. I hope to forward it to all my friends and contacts who are interested in the subject.
    May I wish you all the very best in your candidacy in Finchley and Golders Green. Parliament needs people like you.

  • Richard Hayward says:

    “Being very much ‘caught between worlds’, this issue has taken a significant personal toll. ”

    … and I understand that. As I understand the inexcusablility of some antisemitic tropes from the left.

    Of course, (anti) social media throws up all sorts of brainless bile – often difficult to source.

    But the implicit ‘on the one hand and on the other’ does result in a false perspective, I’m afraid. Many long-serving members will testify that antisemitism as a phenomenon in the Labour party simply hasn’t been on the radar over decades of their membership.

    Even a cursory look at the mainstream media coverage – its falsehoods and its omissions – and the cases of those victimised by fake allegation shows that victimhood and venality are not evenly balanced (even given wrongs on both sides) – any more than is the armed conflict between the IDF and Palestinian resistance.

    That, I’m afraid is the hard truth.

  • dave says:

    It’s almost a good piece. I make two points.

    Given the admission that antisemitism really isn’t a big problem in Labour, this endless discussion only inflates a small problem. The failure to tackle the hyperbolic attacks head on and make concessions has just made it worse, as we’ve seen.

    Second, surely it is not necessary to have Israel to self-determine as Jewish. This must be wrong:

    “But they see attacks on Israel’s ‘right to exist’ as denying Jewish people — uniquely — the right to self-determination.”

  • Sabby Sagall says:

    Justin Shlosberg takes exception to my statement during the Q & A following the screening of Witchhunt that ultimately western capitalism was responsible for the Holocaust. And he was quite right to state in a tweet that no individual or group other than the Nazis was responsible for the Holocaust. However, it is perfectly legitimate, indeed necessary, in explaining human action to analyse the wider context which helps to shape it. That context forms an essential part of the analysis. We are social beings and the Nazis didn’t operate in a political or economic vacuum. They came to power as a result of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the greatest crisis in the history of western capitalism, which hit Germany particularly hard. It seems perfectly legitimate to draw the conclusion that in the final analysis, European Jewry were the victims of the crisis of western capitalism which twice in the 20th century resulted in world war.
    As for Israel being supported by western capitalist powers, Justin himself refers sympathetically to the perception of Israel as an ‘outpost of the west’. Following the foundation of the state of Israel in May 1948, the United States promptly recognised Israel de facto (though the Soviet Union was the first country to recognise Israel de jure). Since 1985, the United States has provided nearly US$3 billion in grants annually to Israel. Indeed, Israel has been the largest annual recipient of American aid from 1976 to 2004 and the largest cumulative recipient of aid since World War Two ($121 billion, not inflation-adjusted). Almost all US aid to Israel is now in the form of military assistance. In addition to financial and military aid, the United States also provides political support to Israel, having used its United Nations Security Council veto power 42 times with respect to resolutions relating to Israel, out of a total 83 times in which it has used its veto.
    Justin has a perfect right to disagree with my analysis of the contradiction at the heart of Zionism. But to call it ‘repugnant’ is patently absurd.
    Was my contribution ‘rambling’? I spoke for 1 minute, 30 seconds, well within the 2-minute limit requested by the chair, and made just two points plus a call to support the demo on the 16th. Hardly ‘rambling’.

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