Labour must treat antisemitism as a human problem, not just a political one

JVL Introduction

Vashti is one of the new kids on the block of the Jewish left. Welcome! And thanks  for letting us repost this article.

We’re Vashti. Like the Persian queen who defied Achashverosh and inspired Esther, we will defy community consensus and inspire the Jewish left.

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In this article Rivkah Brown urges us to treat antisemitism as a human problem, not simply a political one, that the “problem” is as much about feelings as about facts.

This article was originally published by Vashti on Wed 27 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

Labour must treat antisemitism as a human problem, not just a political one

Vashti says:

[A “broigus” is a bitter quarrel – and then some! – JVL ed]

This article was originally published in Vashti, a new media platform for the Jewish left. Donate to their running costs.

How does antisemitism feel? I remember it as a kind of muffled panic, like screaming into a pillow. I was fifteen and had gone to the park to join my then-boyfriend and his friends, a group of boys whose only way of interacting with girls was with—if they liked you—persistent teasing or—if they didn’t—relentless bullying. One particular friend had been testing me for weak spots for months, and that day found my Achilles’ heel. “Look who it is,” he hissed as I approached. “The crow.”

Logically, I knew this moniker was unlikely antisemitic (I don’t think the friend even knew I was Jewish), far more likely a reference to my black coat, hair and eyeliner than to my big Jewish nose; likelier an expression of animus towards me, than of animus towards Jews. How was this friend to know that my run-of-the-mill teenage bodily self-consciousness was compounded by a specifically semitic self-loathing? How long I’d spent staring down my big Jewish nose in the mirror, trying to find its forgiving angles, imagining it a few inches shorter? Featherweight as it seemed to him, I crumpled under the weight of the word “crow”. His intention was to attack my appearance—yet it was my identity that felt bloodied.

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.

Evidently, some of us were listening intently to the leaders’ debate last week when, in response to a question about Prince Andrew, Jeremy Corbyn mentioned Jeffrey Epstein, pronouncing his name Germanically. “When he mispronounces it as ‘Ep-shtine’”, one person tweeted, “- the traditional German-Jewish pronunciation rather than the Americanised “Ep-steen” that we’re all used to – every Jew watching heard the jibe. Heard him “otherise” Epstein and emphasise his foreignness. His Jewishness.” This tweet was then picked up by Jewish comedian David Baddiel, and in turn by The Times of Israel: “Dogged by claims of anti-Semitism,” read their strapline, “UK Labour Party leader prompts more criticism by using a pronunciation some said appeared to make Epstein’s name sound more Jewish.”

There will inevitably be Jewish people who genuinely heard something iffy in Corbyn’s pronunciation. After all: you say crow, I hear non-Aryan; you say “Ep-shtine”, I hear Other. Yet Epstein-gate typifies the way in which 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 in turn enables non-Jewish politicians to affect concern about antisemitism in order to play electoral football with it (take our philosemite-in-shining-armour, Michael Gove, who recently began haphazardly @ing on Twitter people he spuriously judged to be Labour antisemitism apologists).

The longer antisemitism has been an issue for Corbyn’s Labour Party, the more politicised that issue has become. What began in the real feelings of ordinary people—the shock many British Jews felt when “patient zero” of “Corbynite antisemitism”, Ken Livingstone, presented with the virus—has since become entirely abstracted from them, a talking point for politicians and journalists to joust with. If there’s one thing the Chief Rabbi and I agree on, it is that Labour’s failure in dealing with antisemitism has been a “failure to see this as a human problem rather than a political one.” By deciding to view antisemitism only as a political “smear” rather than also as a popular sentiment, the party has given itself no choice but to respond to the problem as it does all political problems: with attack and rebuttal.

The Party’s response to Panorama epitomised this approach. “We completely reject any claim that Labour is antisemitic,” begins their statement, which goes on to condemn the documentary as “a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic”. I agreed with much of it: the documentary was presented by a journalist who has previously criticised Corbyn; it did seem to have prejudged its conclusion; it was at points inaccurate. Yet 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. A former member of Labour’s disputes team and himself Jewish, Westerman related an exchange he had with a party member at the end of a disciplinary interview about antisemitism:

Party member: Where are you from?

Westerman: What do you mean, where am I from?

Party member: I asked you, where are you from?

Westerman: I’m not prepared to discuss this.

Party member: Are you from Israel?

At this point, Westerman falls silent, and I feel a familiar wordless fury bubble in my gut. “What can you say to that?” he asks, aghast. Almost as shocking was the discovery that, in their response to the documentary, Labour had labelled Westerman and the other former staffers who testified “disaffected”. This was a signal mistake, one that confused the bad faith of those who use antisemitism as a stick with which to beat Labour (admittedly, there are many of them) with the good faith of those hurt by a party they love. To me, Westerman seemed not cynically disaffected, but genuinely affected.

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.

Labour’s—and particularly Corbyn’s—primary failing with antisemitism has been an emotional one. The leader’s interview with Andrew Marr in September 2018 was a signal example of this:

Marr: How did you feel when one of your MPs, a Jewish MP, Margaret Hodge, looked you in the eye and called you a racist and antisemite?

Corbyn: I completely and utterly reject the idea that I’m any kind of racist or any kind of an-

Marr: How did you feel?

Corbyn: The matter with Margaret Hodge is closed.

Marr repeatedly invites Corbyn to share his feelings about Jewish people; instead, the Labour leader accounts for the facts. A similar thing happened yesterday, when Andrew Neil gave Corbyn “an opportunity to apologise to the British Jewish community for what’s happened,” an opportunity Corbyn took to rehearse Labour policy. In both instances, Corbyn allowed his legitimate sense of embattlement to obstruct a necessary empathy—leaving Jewish people, including many who wholeheartedly want to support the Labour leader, painfully disappointed.

Corbyn does not lack a political concern for Jewish people—his Race and Faith Manifesto, the same whose launch yesterday was overshadowed by the Chief Rabbi’s opinion piece, enshrined protections for Jewish cemeteries and community security groups like the Shomrim and CST—but rather an ability to negotiate those politics personally. From the backbenches to the front, Corbyn has fought for Jewish freedoms; yet it’s this fighting spirit that has latterly made him an intractable elder statesman who struggles to admit wrongdoing.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that a younger, humbler generation of Labour Party activists is beginning to turn the tide. Take Zarah Sultana, Labour’s candidate for Coventry. Sultana was lately accused of antisemitism for a number of tweets she shared. Zarah might have robustly rebutted these accusations: by arguing that “Zionist” is not a byword for “Jew”; that the Holocaust is not an incomparable event; that celebrating death may be crass, but condemning Netanyahu is not. She might simply have deferred to her reputation as a longstanding anti-racist campaigner, or restated her opposition to antisemitism “and all forms of racism”. Yet by refusing to relitigate the rightness or wrongness of her actions, and instead simply apologising for the feelings they provoked, Sultana began to rebuild Jews’ trust far more effectively than any of her party’s leaders have managed.

The clincher in Sultana’s apology was its incorporation of the Holocaust. For what that showed was that Sultana recognises something many in her party do not: to alleviate Jews’ heightened fear of antisemitism, one must first speak to it, and its causes, empathetically. The programme of antisemitism education announced by Labour in yesterday’s Race and Faith Manifesto will—providing it goes beyond the purely historical or objective to integrate Jews’ subjective experiences of and anxieties about racism—enable Labour’s other half a million members to follow Sultana’s lead; enable them to understand how historic attack has made Jews naturally defensive; how to forge bonds of solidarity with a community reeling from a genocide still in living memory.

Yom Kippur is Jews’ holiest day for a reason: teshuvah is essential to the functioning of our community, indeed our society. Old wounds must heal, and they can—if first we acknowledge that they are there.

Rivkah Brown is the editor of Vashti.

This article was originally published in Vashti, a new media platform for the Jewish left. Donate to their running costs.


Comments (5)

  • Liz says:

    Has Vashti perhaps not seen the JVL article “The Panorama programme – a compilation of critical comments” which features a transcript of a recording of the interview where Westerman says he was asked “Where are you from?”?
    “Former Labour Party investigator caught lying in BBC Panorama interview.”
    Source: Johnny Beggs, Facebook 12 July 2019
    “No-one knew Mr Westerman was Jewish, and no-one asked him about coming from Israel. He is attempting to use his Jewishness to smear another (Jewish!) Party member.
    “It is a provable lie because all the interviews were recorded by us.
    “The transcript of the conversation with an elderly Jewish comrade, who was acting as the interviewee’s silent friend, goes like this. The initials R signifies the interviewee’s Silent Friend, present at the interview.
    “Ben W: (To R) Ok. Do you want to…?
    “R: No, I’m just curious cos I haven’t been in the Labour Party for very long and I certainly haven’t been to anything like this informal interview before, erm, so I’m just curious, just, like what branch are you in?
    “Ben W: I don’t think that’s relevant.
    “R: Oh, ok.
    “Ben W: I hope that’s ok -, I’m sorry I just don’t think, I don’t think where I’m from is at all relevant to the investigation… [NOTE He hasn’t been asked ‘where he’s from’, he’d been asked what branch he is in – Johnny Beggs]
    “R: Yeah, I just, I just misunderstood, I thought the investigation bit about me not being a silent witness was…
    “Ben W: No, no it is, you’re more than welcome to ask questions, but I reserve the right to not answer them and I feel that’s a, that’s a question about my personal situation which I don’t think is relevant to the situation in Riverside.
    “R: Oh. No, it might not be. Just but, it might be interesting.
    “Ben W: I’m, I’m not prepared to discuss my, my address, basically. [NOTE: He had not been asked for his address! – Johnny Beggs]
    “R: Mmm. [EXTRACT ENDS]
    “After a few more brief sentences from the interviewee (also Jewish) the exchange ended. Nothing was said after the interview, as was claimed by Mr Westerman on PANORAMA.”

  • LINDA SAYLE says:

    Thank you for this which I found moving and convincing. I do not want to detract from your powerful message but I must point out that I believe you are mistaken about Ben Westerman’s testimony. He frankly misrepresented what had happened when he stated in the documentary that a Liverpool Riverside interviewee asked him “where are you from? Are you from Israel?” Although presented as one of the most sinister revelations of the film, this never happened. Not one of the six individuals interviewed by Westerman asked this question, nor suspected at the time that he might be Jewish. The recording reveals that Westerman is misrepresenting an innocent incident where a party member (herself Jewish) asks him what branch (of the Labour Party) he is a member of, a question Westerman refuses to answer. This is well-documented and recordings show the truth of what happened. I suppose following your argument above, it is possible that Westerman genuinely thought that was what was said, but he was wrong.

  • dave says:

    Sorry but this article is mostly babble. There is no lack of empathy on the part of Corbyn and the left – that’s one of the defining elements of socialists and evident as much for people subject to racism as for people subject to class war as the two are intertwined. What is hard and can be impossible to do is to express empathy for concerns that are based on fake news – that’s where we should have been more robust from the start in stating the facts. Now we are in the trap of being asked to apologise for things we haven’t done.

    Take Margaret Hodge – her attack on Corbyn was nothing to do with antisemitism. As for Ben Westerman, is it not the case that JVL has helped debunk his ‘Israel’ story as faked?

    We hear a lot about the ‘genuine concerns’ of the ‘Jewish community’ – it helps no one, least of all Jews, to persist with the myth than these concerns are based on reality by pretending to be empathetic.

    And the proof is that by so persisting over 4 years has only led to the opposition escalating the ‘concern’, which we see only too well now. Corbyn had clearly had enough in the Neil interview – but it was way too late.

  • John Webster says:

    It is necessary to take account of peoples’ feelings. BUT, these are being exploited by pro-Israel elements and added to with lies and distortions. Ben Westerman’s testimony is one such piece – see the comments above. For me the question is this: was Westerman just play acting? Was he serious? Or did he really imagine the conversation he maintains he had? Was it simply propaganda – or did he actually imagine and believe his own propaganda. All good propagandists are to some degree actors in that they genuinely believe their own propaganda. That doesn’t make it right. It may make it more convincing.
    In this whole debate I have found a disturbing trend to focus on ‘feelings’ rather than ‘facts’. Perhaps because the facts about Corbyn’s antisemitism are rather thin on the ground. And Westerman’s allegations of antisemitism made on the Panorama programme is clearly undermined by the tape. They would not stand up in a court of law.

    I understand what this article is getting at BUT facts are not feelings. The facts have to be given prominance. I concede (as do most actors) that the way facts are presented and the tone they are presented in is important. I found the remarks of the Chief Rabbi vicious in the extreme as well as dangerous for those he criticised as well as the Jewish community. Let’s be clear about this – this has been initiated by pro-Israel elements who are anxious to deflect criticism from Israel because of its appalling record and because Corbyn has bravely supported justice for the Palestinians. Corbyn was identified as ‘an existential threat to Jews’. When we talk about feelings, do you not take account of his and the rest of us who have spent years and years watching people being blown to pieces by the IDF?

    I have watched over the last more than 50 years as Israel has drifted from being a refuge built on hope to a fortress built on racist hate. I most certainly do not blame Jews for that. I do blame a succession of Israeli right wing politicians.

  • John says:

    I wonder about the effectiveness of setting up all these mini- and sub-groups within the Jewish community?
    It is starting to resemble something like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” movie with the daggers-drawn relationship between the Peoples Front for the Liberation of Judea and the Judean Liberation Popular Front – all the while ignoring the real enemy of Roman expansionist colonisation.
    Ring any bells?
    The real progressives within the UK Jewish community should all unite behind Jewish Voice for Labour.
    That is the way to bring about real change.

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