Long-Bailey’s Sacking Shows How Antisemitism Has Been Dangerously Redefined

JVL Introduction

Barnaby Raine is concerned that antisemitism is being harnessed to agendas other than protecting Jews.

“Anyone who thinks throwing Palestinians under the bus is the price to pay for really cherishing Jews should ask themselves this: when Keir Starmer treats an attack on Israeli police brutality as an attack on me – on all Jews – what does that tell us about how he sees me, and how he thinks of Jews?”

This article was originally published by Novara Media on Fri 26 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

Long-Bailey’s Sacking Shows How Antisemitism Has Been Dangerously Redefined

First, the obvious. When the Daily Telegraph cloaks its racist opposition to Black Lives Matter by inventing accusations that the movement is antisemitic, and when Keir Starmer sacks the lone, bothersome left-winger in his shadow cabinet by accusing her of antisemitism, neither of these things has anything to do with Jews. It is not really about protecting a small minority community from harm. Jews are being harnessed to quite other agendas.

That is not the same, though, as saying that antisemitism is only incidental to these stories. Instead, a certain projected fantasy, an idea of ‘the Jews’ has come to signify something powerful to the right and to liberals. Once they saw us as dangerous Semites infesting European society. Now instead we are their favourite pets: heroic colonists in the Middle East and successful citizens in the West.

The wording in the Telegraph was telling. “Extreme anti-racists” hate Jews, they said. That might seem a bizarre claim, until you reckon with this philosemitic image of Jews as the protected minority of European civilisation. They need that image. It gives a thin progressive hue to their deep anxieties that the wretched of the earth – in the 1990s it was Muslim youths in France, after 2015 it was a social-democratic electoral project, now it’s black protesters on our streets – constitute a threat to the white world order. Jews are conscripted as the alibi of white society. We are the useful props for a moral panic, and this campaign has as much to do with protecting Jews as Section 28 did with protecting children – or, for that matter, as Israeli ‘pinkwashing’ does with protecting LGBT people. In each of these three examples, power defends itself by claiming a fragile, vulnerable group needs its protection from the savage hordes.

Implicitly or explicitly, establishment politicians buy into the bigoted picture of Jews as exemplars of a global elite, and they defend us on that basis; as the old Yiddish joke had it, ‘the philosemite is the antisemite who loves Jews’. Anti-antisemitism can become a widespread moral panic about radicalism only by following the antisemite in constructing Jews as stand-ins for power at a moment of crisis for neoliberalism. Hence Emmanuel Macron leapt to label the gilets jaunes a threat to French Jews, while in Britain a Labour MP opines that anti-capitalism is necessarily antisemitic and the headmaster of a private school sees complaints about the children of the rich dominating public life as analogous to Nazi antisemitism. In the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, a respected journalist compared John McDonnell’s plans to tax the top 10% of earners to “the confiscation of Jewish assets in Germany and elsewhere [which] signalled the start of the Holocaust”.

As a result, it has become impossible to think and talk about a real phenomenon of increasing antisemitism, evidenced in countless surveys and in rising violence. We desperately need to understand how the same crises of neoliberal technocracy that have produced this panic have also produced a real uptick in antisemitism; people grasp for the words to talk about power and inequality again after decades of muffling that conversation, and sometimes they reach crude and awful answers. The ‘end of history’ ruled out grand social transformation in 1989, then 9/11 and the War on Terror taught us that politics was still possible so long as its antagonisms were cultural. That established a perfect storm for revived antisemitism. If Islamophobia answers anxieties about security and identity, antisemitism answers anxieties about power and the economy. After 2008, those kinds of fears understandably made a comeback, which is why the radical left is so crucial in beating antisemitism with better answers.

It is impossible to say any of this now, and to be heard. This subject gets engulfed in a moral panic that has little real connection to antisemitism, and is instead about using Jews as a foil to defend power. The panic has aggressively eclipsed the very possibility of an anti-racist language for talking about antisemitism. It has recklessly muddied the waters between real antisemitism and legitimate anti-Zionism, which will encourage disastrous scepticism towards boys crying wolf. In debates, you get forced to choose between denying there is any antisemitism, or else admitting it and so conceding to a campaign that wants to disappear Palestinians, batter the left, and cast suspicion over any radicalism. It is an absurd choice, and one that will end up glamorising antisemitism as its predictable and utterly avoidable outcome.

The latest scandal is a case in point. Like all settler-colonial ‘fortresses in the wilderness’, Israel is a crucial laboratory for global practices of racist violence. It has made an international industry out of training police forces, including in the US. Donald Trump calls for America to mimic Israel’s racial profiling. In Athens, protests against austerity are met with Israeli teargas. The beauty amid this carnage is the possibility it creates for global alliances connecting people everywhere seeking freedom: when Black Lives Matter protests first began in Ferguson, Palestinians sent advice about how to stay strong in the face of teargas.

The actress Maxine Peake, fresh from a trip to Palestine, observed these links in a casual comment that then cost Rebecca Long-Bailey her job. Peake may have been incorrect that Israeli police forces taught the American state the particular chokehold they used to murder George Floyd, but seen against this backdrop of racist violence and resistance, what does it tell us about the Labour party that a mistake like that was punished immediately and harshly? Antisemitism exists, including on the left, and people should be sensitive to delusions of Jewish omnipotence when speaking about Israel. But pursuing every misstep in talking about Israel for evidence of antisemitism is deeply troubling. Cowing discussion of Israeli brutality only reproduces the old colonial malaise, where Palestinians are rendered invisible. How Kafkaesque and how convenient that mentions of murderous racism have now been chilled in the name of anti-racism. It helps nobody.

Anyone who thinks throwing Palestinians under the bus is the price to pay for really cherishing Jews should ask themselves this: when Keir Starmer treats an attack on Israeli police brutality as an attack on me – on all Jews – what does that tell us about how he sees me, and how he thinks of Jews?

Barnaby Raine is a PhD student in History at Columbia University.

Comments (16)

  • Emma says:

    It is worrying how to even mention injustices that those in power in Israel implement can be labelled as anti semitism. It seems that it is almost meant to scare people from speaking out about wrong doings,to silence and shut down debate. We must not be silenced. We must call out all injustice. Thank you for writing this article.

  • dave says:

    This is a good piece from Barnaby Raine because it develops the cynical exploitation of antisemitism in terms of ‘power and the economy’. Until more people understand what’s at the root of this confected crisis we will just go on failing at symptoms not causes.

  • Vera Lustig says:

    Plenty to chew on here, though I’m confused by Barnaby Raine’s comment about Israeli protection of LGBT groups: I’d regard that as a redeeming feature of the Israeli regime.

    Those who say that attacks on the rich are by definition anti-Semitic are very cunning: they manage to make an anti-Semitic point, stereotyping Jews while pretending to defend us.

    I wonder how Keir Starmer sees me, too. Does he think I’m such a snowflake, someone so ill-disposed to the Palestinians and so alert to the possiblity of any slight against my people, that I’ll fall for his humbug about RLB sharing a Jewish conspiracy theory? What an insult to me, as well as to Maxine Peake and RLB.

  • David Roderick Joyce says:

    I heard an interview with Neil Coyle MP on Radio 4 PM 25/06/2020 ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000k8fr starts at 38.00 mins) wonder what JVL members think about his description of JVL and Maxine Peake and gives a classic example of how this episode is being exploited in the LP to attack JVL.

  • Paul Richardson says:

    Great article Barnaby, having a PhD would identify you as an expert and as such you can be ignored as instricted by that intellectual giant, Michael Gove.
    Keep writing, keep educating us, keep fighting for truth. Stay safe.

  • Lorraine Chamen says:

    I feel uncomfortable with my scant academic knowledge on this complex subject. Yet I feel deeply uncomfortable with this knee-jerk sacking and this article has helped me understand why. I want to support my friends who are Jews, but I find the Palestinian situation distressing. Thank you.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Excellent article.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I didn’t hear the interview on the PM Programme with Neil Coyle that David Roderick Joyce refers to above, so I’ve just listened to it. He calls for Maxine Peake to be thrown out of the LP and for JVL to be proscribed for “denying there is a problem” and then basically calls all of us racists and antisemites.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    I so agree with your assessment. To me it appears that goalposts (definitions of what As is) have become very flexible and can be pulled into any direction deemed useful. Also I feel that the concept of AS is being used and kicked about like a football. If you want to get rid of someone in politics these days in a more ‘acceptable’ manner, just accuse them of AS. RLB is yet another politician/MP who lost her job, yet another Labour MP who expressed her esteem for Nancy Astor who was known as expressing As views and openly sympathised with nazism in the last century, is still on the front bench without any repercussions.
    To me that is hypocracy and dishonest.
    It appears that the AS accusation appears to be mainly aimed at leftwing socialist members/MPs of the Labour Party.

  • Rosie Brocklehurst says:

    Illuminating

  • shoada patrick says:

    Thank you Barnaby… This is such an excellent article crammed with truths…’The wording in the Telegraph was telling. “Extreme anti-racists” hate Jews, they said. That might seem a bizarre claim, until you reckon with this philosemitic image of Jews as the protected minority of European civilisation. They need that image. It gives a thin progressive hue to their deep anxieties that the wretched of the earth – in the 1990s it was Muslim youths in France, after 2015 it was a social-democratic electoral project, now it’s black protesters on our streets – constitute a threat to the white world order. Jews are conscripted as the alibi of white society… ‘ I left the Labour Party since the sacking… I’ve had real concerns for a while with their avid, relentless and yet somehow unspeakable approach on AS…

  • Trish O'Hara says:

    Again JVL reaches me. Explains the unexplainable to me. Thank you

  • Guinevere Tufnell says:

    It is somewhat puzzling that Long Bailey chose to get involved in this issue given a)the lack of evidence to link the murder of Floyd to Israeli training and b) the urgent issue of the Trump/Netanyahu misnamed “peace plan”. It seems a pity that she then refused to take down the offending treet when asked to do so by the party leader – surely a breach of party discipline – followed by going “off line” for several hours. And now we have lost the benefit of her leadership on education. What a shame.

  • Betina Dambire says:

    This article fully exposes the attempt of many in the British Labour party to silence people on the treatment of Palestinians by Israel through invoking the term Antisemitic whenever Israel racism is mentioned. No wonder most voters deserted the Labour Party as it is no longer a party for Justice.

  • George Wilmers says:

    Congratulations to Barnaby Raine for a brilliantly succinct and thoughtful analysis. The characterisation of attitudes of the UK elite towards Jews is particularly apposite:

    “Once they saw us as dangerous Semites infesting European society. Now instead we are their favourite pets: heroic colonists in the Middle East and successful citizens in the West”

    though 100 years ago Winston Churchill famously managed to combine both attitudes in a single short text
    https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Zionism_versus_Bolshevism

    I would however add one word of caution to Barnaby’s characterisation above by replacing the word “pets” by “disposable pets”.

  • Dan Lambert says:

    No one seems to acknowledge that Semites and Anti Semites are not born, they are socially produced.
    Along with the nonsense of nationalism what we must counter is their cause, mistaken identity.
    Our true identity as family is demonstrated by our DNA, proving we all share the greatest of all great grandparents, with that recognised and acknowledged, we will all live as family.

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