Let’s talk about Zionism – and much else besides

Lord John Mann

JVL Introduction

Rosemary Bechler in her recent Splinters column, reproduced below,  notes the emergence in recent years of unitary and exclusionary political formations – exemplified in Trump’s US, Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Orban’s Hungary, not to forget Johnson’s Brexit Britain.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews plays its part in the “construction of a particular kind of symbolic identity formation that they claim to represent, which we might call the unitary ‘Jewish Us’”.

The answer to it, affirms Bechler, is not to stymie and chill debate, but to encourage it, to work for a deliberative democracy in which diverse perspectives are treated as equally important for the outcome of key debates.

Her argument is rendered particularly pertinent by reports this week of John Mann, our so-called Antisemitism Czar, calling on Keir Starmer to outlaw “the use of the words Zionist or Zionism as a term of hatred, abuse, of contempt, as a negative term “[emphasis added].

In his statement he clearly cannot distinguish between holding a critical view of Zionism and those “who choose to be antisemitic”.

In opposition to  Mann, we affirm the need for more debate not less, more interrogation of the meaning of Zionism, the nature of the Zionist state and its history. And of the price that the Palestinian people have paid and continue to pay.

We at JVL intend to do pursue this debate with vigour.


This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Fri 1 May 2020. Read the original here.

A qualified welcome to a new Labour leader in the UK

All of Labour’s leadership candidates were vocal on the need to end factional organisation and acrimonious divisions in the party. Each reassured anyone who asked that dealing with allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party was top of their agenda. None of them has offered democratic mechanisms for reaching either desirable state. Unfortunately the new leader, promising to get a personal grip on the latter process, seems to favour ‘automatic expulsions’.

This toes the line of the Jewish Board of Deputies, whose 10-point pledge calls for no ‘platform’ for debate, here decried as ‘bigotry’; a literal application without a hearing of the IHRA definition and all its examples (despite the fact that this decontextualized usage has been described as McCarthyite by one of the two people who drafted it); the elevation of their favoured faction in the Labour party to sole trainer on antisemitism; no opportunity for contestation or reform; and no engagement with the Jewish members who disagree, on the basis that these are ‘fringe groups’ and have nothing to say.

Jewish Voice for Labour, of which I am a member, has pointed out that the pledge is a brazen attack on Labour’s inner party democracy. The misapplication of the MacPherson principle which insists that the victim should determine the definition of antisemitism, is here taken to its logical extreme in also dictating how it is applied and punished. More dangerous than this however is the BoD’s construction of a particular kind of symbolic identity formation that they claim to represent, which we might call the unitary ‘Jewish Us’.

This ‘Jewish Us’, I would argue, has central features in common with an aggrieved majoritarianism to which many of the most advanced liberal democracies have succumbed in recent years. Across the world, aggrieved majorities like the Brexit leavers, have been encouraged by their political representatives to perceive themselves as the “Real People”, the ‘National Us’, unfairly victimised by some threatening Other. The identification depends on a sense of superiority that is nevertheless suffering an existential threat.

A proper platform for debate in the Labour Party could properly debate to what extent this ‘Jewish Us’ is or is not reliant on another similar identification, rendered lethal by the punitive legislation and use of force afforded to all state monopolies on violence, that is the Israeli National Us. To what extent is this link an essential underpinning for the ‘Jewish Us’, both in its sense of superiority and its sense of threat? Furthermore, we could explore whether or not both these forms of identification are in their turn significantly strengthened by the rise of strong-men leaders of aggrieved majorities, albeit of very different hues, across much of today’s pandemic-ridden world: from Trump’s US to Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Orban’s Hungary, not to forget Johnson’s Brexit Britain.

If this is true, then one conclusion might follow, that when Jewish and non-Jewish Labour Party members criticise the present Zionist state of Israel, this has little if anything to do with its Jewishness, and everything to do with what we have been learning about the violent formations that inevitably emerge from the unitary  nature of the monocultural National Us.

The Labour Party, in treating these accusations of antisemitism with deference, has fed both drivers in this identity formation – the sense of superiority and the sense of threat. In attempting to appease the very powerful forces at work, it has treated its members as a considerable liability – in particular pursuing the fantasy of an independent outside authority solving the problem, rather than empowering members to enter into an open, pluralist, democratic debate.

Crucially, the Labour Party needs to be a deliberative democracy where diverse perspectives are treated as equally important for the outcome of key debates. The Bannonite far right cannot thrive amongst a people who are confident about reaching across the borders between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. One-way, knee-jerk, psychometric digital messaging was always going to be their preserve, since they thrive on enemy images and prejudice.

So consider that other case, scuppered by inner-party factionalism, Labour on Brexit. Ignoring Corbyn’s carefully calibrated stance, a faction-ridden party fatally split between Leavers and Remainers, two monocultural National Us’s, each convinced of their own superiority and the existential threat presented by the Other. This handed Johnson the election by allowing him to tap into the anti-systemic energy of the UK’s UKIPised ’National Us’. He has proceeded to declare war on parliament in the name of defending the Real People, on the civil service, the judiciary, the press and BBC.

Had Labour proudly capitalised on having both articulate leavers and articulate remainers in its ranks, had it called for citizens assemblies to bring both together in every devolving nation of the UK and every English region, Labour could have seized the initiative in showing how “disagreement in a reasonable way”– democracy by (and not just for) the many – can empower us all.

Comments (6)

  • RC says:

    The linked JC article alleges that John Lord Mann is still a member of the LP.
    Words fail me!

  • Benny Ross says:

    Great to read about a thoughtful and positive approach to debates. An interesting point about the Brexit phenomenon…. Any suggestions as to how we can combat the arrogance of the Board of Deputies and show the world that they don’t represent all Jews? This seems to me to be an increasingly urgent task.

  • Philip Ward says:

    “The misapplication of the MacPherson principle which insists that the victim should determine the definition of antisemitism, is here taken to its logical extreme in also dictating how it is applied and punished.”

    I think it is really important to knock on the head the idea that there is a “MacPherson Principle” and that MacPherson said “victims” should determine the definition of antisemitism. Which Jews are to “define antisemitism”? As has been pointed out on the JVL web site itself, all the MacPherson report was trying to do was ensure that alleged racist incidents were recorded by the police. There was no assumption that if an incident is alleged to be racist then it must be racist. It was absolutely clear this was a matter for investigation and proof.


  • Martin Davidson says:

    I suggest that John Mann change his title – he is giving men(n) a bad name.

  • RH says:

    There is a massive (and repulsive) irony in the way that the diversionary use of ‘antisemitism’ as misdirection has marked a significant general increase in the wider use of propaganda techniques and media control that were honed in the Third Reich.

  • RC says:

    Goebbels certainly honed propaganda techniques – but both he and Hitler acknowledged their debts to British WWI propaganda. Even extreme reactionaries such as Max Hastings in his history of WWII (“All Hell Let Loose”) point out that factual information about the scale of the Nazi holocaust was disbelieved or at least treated with scepticism because of the disproof of British lies about German behaviour e.g. in Belgium (‘babies speared with bayonets” – remember the Anglo-American propaganda about “the Kuwaiti babies torn from their incubators” told by the ‘nurse’ who turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US? the keen ear of the AngloAmerican propaganda machine has detected the social attraction of baby-atrocity propaganda).. Even SCOTUS Justice Felix Frankfurter, when shown Jan Karski’s factual report about Auschwitz, had to comment that he could not believe it – not because he thought it was untrue, but because his mind could not manage the feat of belief. Thus British imperial lying history helped prolong the Nazi holocaust.
    When film of Bergen-Belsen was shown in Ireland, those of a critical mind demanded to know whether this was in fact footage of Churchill’s famine in 1943 Bengal. The Irish know a lot about British famines.
    Too often the appalling character of the Third Reich is used to exonerate British imperialism. Have we really forgotten the Balfour Declaration? Or the 1936-9 British overt war against the Palestinians, comparable to Franco’s ‘crusade’ at the same time? It was then that Montgomery, who had won his spurs repressing the Irish, ascended the saddle of imperialist repression. (see John Newsinger’s article, available on this website)
    Yet the May 2020 VE celebrations airbrushed the re-establishment of British (and Dutch and French) imperial rule, a re-establishment conducted through many a bloodbath and concentration camp – in Malaya, Kenya (Hola shocked Enoch Powell (!), though not the PLP except for Barbara Castle), Cyprus, the Yemen (where British forces are still supporting Saudi genocidal activities, often conducted with British arms and technical advice).
    A bit less smugness from the Brit establisments might be welcome. High time the British war against the Arab masses, whether direct or collusive, including that operated by the LP GLU, was brought to a halt.

Comments are now closed.