Smears, evidence and free speech: Breaking the vicious cycle of Labour’s antisemitism rows

JVL Introduction

Jewdas, irreverent meshuggenes they might be, have gone all serious and published this article. Thoughtful, provocative, definitely wrong here and there – but who’s perfect?

And it’s long…

Hopefully it will provoke a lively debate. Down with binary thinking!

This article was originally published by Jewdas on Mon 23 Sep 2019. Read the original here.

Smears, evidence and free speech: Breaking the vicious cycle of Labour’s antisemitism rows

The following piece was contributed by Matthew Aaron Richmond @mattyrichy. This is a serious piece of journalistic analysis so, if you came here to laugh and were disappointed, all we have to say is that this is our website and if you don’t like it you can get out.

For over three years now, Britain’s Labour Party has been engulfed by bitter rows about antisemitism. Previously a marginal issue of interest to a only small section of the party membership and a handful of higher-profile figures, it has become one of the main challenges facing the Party leadership and its supporters as they seek to chart a path towards government. The issue of antisemitism has taken on such significance in large part because it has become the theatre in which diverse other struggles are played out – between different factions within the Party; between dominant media and the Labour left; between groups with opposing and deeply held views on Israel-Palestine. For those who have dug in on either side of the argument, these different issues have come to be seen as inseparable: whether or not one gives credence to claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party is seen as being indicative of broader political values and allegiances. However, while such polarisation may be useful for some, it can only do damage to the Labour Party, to British Jews and, for that matter, to the Palestinian cause. It must be resisted.

As I shall argue, the underlying problem driving the polarisation is that antisemitism is often more subtle and open to interpretation than the loudest voices on both sides would have us believe. Whether or not one interprets particular statements as being antisemitic depends on personal experience and political views, but also, to a significant degree, on whether one trusts the intentions of the speaker. As trust has collapsed between the Labour left and a majority of British Jews, legitimate and sincerely held views on each side have been viewed with increasing cynicism by the other. Among a small but noisy minority of Labour supporters, this has translated into a belief that merely acknowledging the existence of antisemitism in the Party amounts to ceding ground, or even colluding with, a highly orchestrated Zionist smear campaign designed to wreck the left. In other words, the conflict has reconstituted itself along battle lines that seem tailor-made for proving that the original, exaggerated allegations of antisemitism were correct. It is an open wound that will continue to fester.

In what follows, I trace the evolution of the conflict and its current contours. I will propose that while the Labour leadership and broader left cannot stop their opponents from continuing to make spurious accusations, they can challenge the toxic way some supporters are responding to these and seek to rebuild the trust of British Jews and the wider public on this issue.

***

At first, it seemed clear that it was all just a smear. I had seen them accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being a sexist, a racist, a terrorist sympathiser and a Soviet spy. None of the accusations had stuck. But then came the charge of antisemitism, and that one did. The evidence for the Labour leader himself being antisemitic was rather thin. He had made a brief Facebook comment in 2012 opposing the removal of a mural that, to those of us familiar with the theme, appeared to contain antisemitic imagery. However, it contained no unequivocal references to Jews and it was also perfectly plausible that Corbyn had not understood it in this way. Here we are deep into the territory of subjective interpretation. Hardly a smoking gun. He apologised for not having studied the image more closely, which he acknowledged did contain antisemitic tropes.

There were then a string of further “exposés”, each considerably less convincing than the last. In a video from 2013, showing Corbyn arguing with some pro-Israel British Jews at an event, he remarked that the Palestinian speaker they had attacked had a better sense of “English irony” than they did. He seemed to be saying that the hecklers were English, but some interpreted it as him saying they weren’t. It was then revealed that in 2011 Corbyn had written a celebratory preface to a new edition of the 1902 book ‘Imperialism: A Study’, by the political economist John Hobson. The book, widely regarded as a classic text on imperialism, contains an antisemitic reference to Jews controlling international finance, though this is marginal to the theory presented. Corbyn’s crime this time was not anything he actually wrote, but rather of not having mentioned this single line in a 400-page book. It is worth noting that the book is also littered with racist references to Africans and Asians that Corbyn did not mention, though this did not draw the attention of his critics.

These and other stories tended to appear in particular ways: always framing past incidents as current news; being published in successive waves; often coinciding with elections or challenges to Corbyn’s leadership. The way they reverberated through a blatantly anti-Corbyn media ecosystem, from The Daily Mail via The Times to The Guardian and back again, looked highly suspicious to anyone who was paying close attention and not already predisposed to disliking the Labour leader.

Also notable has been the way Corbyn’s attackers have flagrantly failed to observe their own rules on what constitutes antisemitism. I remember very few of those who claimed Corbyn’s “English irony” comment was a “double loyalty” trope, complaining about a far more blatant example in 2013 when the Daily Mail described the late Jewish Marxist scholar Ralph Miliband as “The Man Who Hated Britain”. The same talking heads who condemn the use of Nazi analogies by Corbyn supporters when they criticise Israel recently feigned outrage when Corbyn sacked a shadow minister for comparing him to “Hitler in his bunker”. All of this begs the question of how the Labour left are supposed to police antisemitism on their own side when their opponents so obviously fail to do so. How to even know what to police when the goalposts constantly move depending on who is speaking?

Meanwhile, those who attack Labour for antisemitism tend to fall silent when racism against other minorities rears its head. A miniscule proportion of Labour members have been investigated for making allegedly antisemitic statements, whereas in a recent poll it was revealed that close to half of Conservative members would not want a Muslim Prime Minister and that more than two-thirds believe the Islamophobic conspiracy theory that parts of the UK are under Sharia law. Corbyn was described by Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers as representing an “existential threat to British Jews”, a line now parroted by many of his critics. I have not heard these voices call the current Prime Minister, a man who joked about niqab-wearing Muslim women looking like “letter boxes”, which led to a 375% spike in attacks on Muslims in the following week, is an existential threat to British Muslims. To highlight such a contradiction, we are told, is “whataboutery”, trying to change the subject.

***

It was clear to me that the attacks on Corbyn were smears. And yet as the row between Corbyn’s defenders and attackers escalated the conflict began to take on new, more troubling dynamics. At worst, Corbyn had not been careful enough with his language (something he has subsequently admitted) and some of his past associations in his commendable advocacy for Palestinian rights. By contrast, some of those who identified as his supporters deliberately began ramping up their use of arguments that could conceivably be understood as antisemitic, now in full knowledge that they would be interpreted in this way. The primary objective was now fighting  the “witch hunt” itself, as they call it. This is what many regard as a highly coordinated campaign to destroy the left, involving Labour Party rebels, the media and the Israeli government, and counting on the support of large numbers of British Jews. It has become an increasingly poisonous dispute that has played out both on social media and within Labour Party disciplinary processes.

Again, in most instances, the cases against Labour members accused of antisemitism are not open-and-shut. There are very few involving explicit racial slurs or Holocaust denial, for example. Few, if any, of those Labour members accused of making antisemitic statements would identify as antisemites and most would argue that the statements in question were not antisemitic or at least not intended as such. Primarily, these revolve around the older question of what language and arguments might legitimately used to criticise Israel, as well as the new claims relating to the “witch hunt” itself. In essence, a loud minority of Labour supporters have come to the conclusion that because antisemitism has cynically been used by some to attack Corbyn, that any claim of antisemitism must, by definition, be a smear. By logical extension, anyone accusing a leftist of antisemitism must be part of the conspiracy, or otherwise is caving in to it, whether out of cowardice or gullibility.

This dynamic came to a head with the case of Chris Williamson, a Labour MP who is currently suspended for a series of allegedly antisemitic pronouncements, and who has become a cause célèbre for this part of the Labour left. Among other acts, Williamson had promoted a petition calling for the overturning of a ban on Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli-British musician with a history of making explicitly antisemitic statements. Williamson later apologised, stating that he had not known who Atzmon was, begging the question of why he had defended him in the first place. Williamson also wrongly denied that an expelled former Labour member, Scott Nelson, had Tweeted about the “Jewish blood” of the companies Tesco and Marks & Spencer, which he said exploited British workers. When confronted with evidence that he had indeed said this, he immediately called for Nelson to be forgiven. Williamson’s suspension eventually came after a speech in which he claimed that Labour had been “too apologetic” in its response to antisemitism accusations, which many took as evidence that he didn’t take the issue of antisemitism seriously.

Williamson no doubt believed at the time that he was simply standing up for the latest victims of the “witch hunt”. He and supporters are now sure that, as a consequence of this, he has fallen victim to it himself. Even if some of his defenders might acknowledge that lines were crossed in his defences of Atzmon and Nelson, these are understood as anomalous – meriting apologies perhaps, but no deeper reflection on why such mistakes were made. Meanwhile, any expression of concern about antisemitism on their side is likely to induce eye-rolling and cries of “where is the evidence?!” Memes circulate on Twitter quoting Jewish figures who have endorsed the notion of the “witch hunt” (Norman Finklestein and Noam Chomsky being the favourites), accompanied by some variation of “look, a Jewish person who agrees!” Regular appeals are made to the principle of free speech, implying that antisemitism accusations are nothing more than a thinly veiled form of censorship.

In sum, a binary form of thinking has taken over the way a hyper-partisan segment of the Labour left (not to be confused with either its mainstream or it most radical wing) is engaging with the issue of antisemitism. Binary thinking is, of course, something that agonistic politics encourages in us: we draw lines between our own side and our adversaries and construct the strongest arguments we can by marshalling the evidence and citing the most authoritative voices in support of our position. This can start in a perfectly legitimate place – advocating for Palestinians or defending Corbyn from clearly calculated attempts to discredit him. However, once entrenched it can undergo a process of slippage, whereby battle-hardened partisans end up contesting entirely different issues. Labour’s antisemitism conflict is now being fought on terrain that will continue to produce headaches for the Party, one in which paranoid conspiratorial claims of Zionist infiltration are thrown around almost at random. In response to the original, exaggerated claims of antisemitism on the left, attitudes that might reasonably be interpreted as antisemitic have proliferated as a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

***

It is important to note that the kind of binary thinking displayed by Williamson and his supporters has its place. It is useful, for example, when the far right are in the streets, unashamedly identifying as racists and attacking vulnerable minorities. When this occurs, they must be met with forceful, uncompromising and unapologetic anti-racism. Williamson’s supporters continue to claim they are concerned about “real antisemitism”, as opposed to the fake claims of the smear campaign, but there is little evidence they would see anything less than Nazis goose-stepping through central London as meeting this threshold. In fact, racism doesn’t usually appear in this form. Most people who regularly reproduce racial thinking and racist tropes do not identify as racists, go to far-right rallies or use widely recognised racial slurs. Rather, they tend to use linguistic constructions that serve to mask or soften racist ideas, often to the point that they themselves may not realise they’re doing this.

There is some irony in the “witch hunt” brigade’s failure to understand this. On the left, we generally feel we are quite good at spotting racist tropes. We tend to recognise clichés such as “I’m not a racist, but…” or cries of “political correctness gone mad!” as signalling that racist views are about to be expressed. When we see guffawing Conservative commentators calling Diane Abbott stupid and incompetent, and streams of ordinary people piling in to abuse her, we interpret this as coded racism. However, only a minority of her attackers will ever actually use racist language and most would argue that they just disagree with her politically or find her personally unlikeable. When we call them racists they might legitimately ask, “where is the evidence?!”, cite a black person who agrees with them, or accuse us of suppressing their free speech.

I am not suggesting that coded or unconscious antisemitism in the Labour Party is in any way comparable to the systematic and deliberate use of dog-whistle racism by senior Conservatives. My point is that identifying racism almost always involves some process of interpretation and there is rarely definitive “evidence”, in the form of universally recognised racist terms or stereotypes, that we can point to settle rival interpretations. Demanding evidence is not the winning argument that many Williamson supporters seem to think it is, and in fact it shows a bad misunderstanding of the problem. While influential figures have clearly weaponised antisemitism for political gain, many Jews may, sincerely and in good faith, have interpreted the statements in question as genuinely being antisemitic. We may argue that they are wrong in their interpretations, but that does not mean they are knowingly part of a smear campaign.

This leaves a serious problem. If racism usually does not announce itself in the form of uniformed despots with peculiar moustaches or skinheads yelling racist football chants, but rather as the subtle reproduction of insidious ideas, how are we supposed to agree on what is or isn’t racist? On what grounds do we decide whether someone’s words are “being twisted” or whether they themselves must take some of the blame for the way they have expressed themselves? Labour’s antisemitism crisis exists in this grey area. It is only here that we can understand its causes and that we might have any possibility of addressing it.

***

So how to confront this problem of identifying racism? Some argue that we should simply hand over the right to define it to those who suffer directly from it. There is, of course, something in this. The targets of racism have lived experience that can make them well-placed to identify subtleties likely to be missed by those who do not. On the other hand, minority groups are neither “neutral” participants in these debates, nor are they monolithic. For example, many Jews may believe that Corbyn’s “English irony” comment was antisemitic, whereas I suspect most non-Jews would not. This may simply be because Jews can see antisemitic tropes more clearly than non-Jews. However, can we entirely rule out the possibility of some being over-attuned to racism and attributing it in cases where it may not in fact be present?

This problem is further highlighted by the fact that there are often disagreements over such questions within minority groups themselves. Some Jews have vocally supported Corbyn, and even Williamson, over the antisemitism controversies. Many of Williamson’s non-Jewish supporters seem to interpret the existence of a relatively small number of Jews who support their position as proof that they must be right (and presumably, therefore, that all other Jews must be lying). But why on earth should all members of a minority group be expected to agree with each other? This proves nothing except that minorities are internally diverse, something that should simply be taken as a given.

If allowing the targets of racism exclusive rights to define it does not really solve our problem, another possible option is to try and codify the kinds of language or ideas that may plausibly be construed as racist. If certain words or arguments are widely used as euphemisms for racist views, why don’t we simply ban them? This is what Labour’s National Executive Committee attempted to do last year when it adopted an amended version of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. However, this simply has simply reproduced the original problem on a larger scale. Language is inherently ambiguous, and the more euphemistic it gets, the harder it is to clearly attribute meaning. So when we ban certain ambiguous terms, we are also banning all the other legitimate ways in which they might be used.

Calling Israel a “racist endeavour” could be attached to fantasies about driving all Jews “into the sea”, or it could simply reflect the belief that for all the peoples of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to enjoy basic human rights the fundamental nature of the Israeli state would have to change. Someone arguing the latter could plausibly be accused of really meaning the former, especially if they do not express themselves effectively. We can urge people to be as clear and specific as possible to try and avoid ambiguity, but attempting to ban such terms ultimately solves nothing, while creating entirely new problems.

A final option, proposed by some, is to elevate “free speech” as the fundamental principle for dealing with racism. As long as someone is not using unambiguously racist terms, they should be allowed to say whatever they want. This is usually accompanied by the assumptions that racist views in themselves are not a problem unless they cause physical harm and/or that they will, in any case, “die in the sunlight” of open debate. However, the harm principle (Mill’s “crying fire in a crowded theatre”), fundamentally misunderstands how the relationship between language and violence occurs. When normalised, racist language can quickly concretise into violent immigration and policing regimes. Inciting violence, meanwhile, can be indirect, delayed and stochastic, as Boris Johnson’s “letter box” comments against Muslim women demonstrates (which he incidentally claimed as a defence of “liberal values”). While we should not be actively seeking to constrain free speech, we should also recognise that in itself it does nothing to solve problems of racism and that appeals to free speech can often amount to thinly veiled demands for the right to dehumanise others.

***

If racism is often harder to pin down than many seem to believe, and if subjective definition, codification and free speech are all flawed solutions for identifying and combating it, how to move beyond the impasse of Labour’s endless antisemitism rows? How to operate in the grey area? While clarifying process within the Party, speeding up complaints procedures and even expulsions may have their place, I would like to argue that the problem is essentially cultural in nature and therefore will require cultural solutions. That means trying to get to the root of how communication and trust between the Party and large parts of Britain’s Jewish population have broken down and how they might be eventually be repaired.

A good starting point is simply to acknowledge that racism is often not self-evidently “out there” for all to see, but is identified via negotiation between subjects who bring different experiences and frames of reference to the table. Furthermore, their interpretations are heavily influenced by trust. We are likely to interpret an ambiguous statement very differently if it comes from someone we trust than from someone we don’t. While many political and media figures have certainly been cynical in pushing antisemitism accusations, this doesn’t mean that most Jewish people who have believed them are complicit in the smear. They have, under heavy encouragement, come to see Jeremy Corbyn and many around him as untrustworthy on the matter of antisemitism, to the point that every positive effort now made to address the problem is likely to be viewed cynically. Understood in this way, the apparent hypocrisy of interpreting the same “tropes” differently coming from Corbyn as from others starts to make more sense.

This is the first way in which we can try and shift the culture around antisemitism controversies, especially on social media. Simply accepting that most ordinary Jewish people, and even some of those with larger profiles, are sincere in their concerns about antisemitism would be an improvement at this stage. When we believe people are wrong but sincere, we try to convince them. When we think they are lying we seek to expose them. Too many Labour supporters approach the issue as though it were the latter. So, as a rule of thumb: if you are regularly accusing Jewish people (or anyone) you disagree with on the internet of being spies operating on behalf of a foreign power, PLEASE STOP. They may be wrong in their beliefs, but you can grant them the courtesy of presuming they are not aware of this. Accusing them of being Zionist spies is very unlikely to convince them that you are engaging in good faith or have an argument that deserves to be listened to.

A second issue is to acknowledge the particular way in which Jewishness is constituted in Britain and how that may have fuelled the negative cycle of growing distrust. As someone who grew up in the UK but with Jewish American family, I am often struck by the differences between the Jewish communities in the two countries. American Jews are visible and noisy contributors to American culture and are easily identifiable to most non-Jews. This can have the downside of provoking more explicit forms of antisemitism, but it also means that there are many positive identifications with the community. British Jews are present and have had important influence over many spheres of British life, but as a community they have tended not to proudly and openly identify themselves in the same way. I often suspect that most British people would not recognise a Jew unless they were wearing a yarmulke and payot or beating up a Palestinian teenager on the six o’clock news.

A lot of the disorientation many Corbyn supporters seem to have experienced as the antisemitism controversies have unfolded is that while they bore no particular ill will towards British Jews, they were almost entirely ignorant of the community, its culture, internal differences and widespread concerns until they were suddenly being accused of antisemitism. (I am reminded of Will Ferrell portraying George W. Bush, declaring: “I don’t hate black people, I don’t even think about them!”) While the accusation of some deeply felt “Jew hate” against most Corbyn supporters is clearly wide of the mark, I do think there is a lack of ability and willingness to understand why Jewish people would be concerned about antisemitism at all. This is, I believe, a product of the relative invisibility of Jewish people in British life, which is itself likely to be a legacy of historical antisemitism in Britain.

***

Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that even if the left is able to challenge conspiratorial thinking and create a better understanding among non-Jews about the concerns of Jewish people, the issue of Israeli-Palestine will continue to drive ill-feeling. Without delving into the conflict itself, it is clear that whereas most British Jews have positive or ambivalent feelings towards Israel, a majority of British leftists view most of the last fifty years of Israeli policy, if not the state itself, in highly negative terms. This emotive issue will continue to fuel disagreements and inevitably generate future conflict that at times will come accompanied by accusations of antisemitism. If we accept this as inevitable, the question becomes: what is the most effective way for the left to manage that conflict without undermining the quest for Palestinian rights?

The kind of binary thinking I have described seems to regard any effort to acknowledge and challenge antisemitism as entailing the abandonment of the Palestinian cause. I would argue the exact opposite is true. Under Netanyahu’s extremist government, with its violent expansionism, naked racism and international alliances with far-right and antisemitic governments, a generational transition appears to be underway in the attitudes of diaspora Jews towards Israel. This is most clearly visible in the US, where leftist and anti-Occupation Jewish activism led by young people has blossomed in recent years, reigniting traditions of Jewish radicalism and effectively challenging the acquiescence of self-identifying “liberals” in Israel’s continued rightward drift. These movements have gained credibility and strength in part because they understand what antisemitism is and take it seriously, allowing them to both educate non-Jewish activists about how to express themselves effectively and to defend them from attacks.

In other words, progress in shifting attitudes on Israel-Palestine will depend upon building trust between Jews and the left; something that, in the UK, is currently in very short supply. Labour’s antisemitism rows have been a massive setback to this process, but it is not too late. There are early signs that many young British Jews, like their American counterparts, are becoming dissatisfied with the status quo in both Britain and in Israel and wish to take a lead in challenging it. Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, may be on the cusp of government, with ambitious plans to bring about radical social transformation in Britain and also help to renew international efforts to push for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the Party cannot show moral leadership and drive a process of cultural change, challenging unhealthy and counterproductive habits among parts of the membership, it may not get the chance to do either.

Comments (18)

  • Jackie walker says:

    What’s the point of JVL publishing this?

  • Moshé Machover says:

    The main weakness of this analysis is that it treats accusations of ‘antisemitism’ against Corbyn and the LP left as raised in good faith by concerned individuals. It ignores the evidence that they are, in many cases, part of an orchestrated and politically motivated campaign. The question it avoids is what and who are behind this campaign.

  • Brian says:

    While this is a great piece of analysis and seeks to better understand the debate around the antisemitism accusations against labour, the fact is, as the article itself admits, there are no clear answers and people will believe /support one side or another. The tragedy is that while we sit here and argue the finer points of language, sensitivity and semantics, Palestinians who often don’t have a voice in this debate or the luxury to sit at their comfortable home and compose prose on Twitter, continue to suffer and die. Palestinians themselves may hold the view that Israel should not exist, given the implications to them and their people, and that the land was forcibly taken from them; and this view, even to some supporters of the Palestinian cause, will be unpalatable, as many in Jewish / Christian society see the state of Israel as the unquestionable homeland for Jewish people (whether the native residents of the land consent to this or not matters not). So to me it comes down to imperialism where those in power who have forcibly taken and occupied the land of the indigenous people, define the narrative and have debates on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable discourse and criticism. All the while those on that land do not have a say in what constitutes discrimination and oppression for them. The status quo has decided that Israel should exist and continue to have debates around how to protest in a manner that does not hurt others. The Palestinians have to put up and accept their lot and can’t have debates on the Times or the telegraph and define what is ‘anti Palestinian’ and whether they should have a say in the continued existence of the state that oppressed them. I guess this will always be so and we will continue to debate how to educate ourselves to be better people and be less racist / sexist / etc. While the Palestinians continue to be oppressed.

  • Alasdair MacVarish says:

    while there may be a very few anti-semites in the Labour Party, there is little doubt but the charge of widespread anti-Semitism is a deliberate attempt by the Zionist lobby ( am I allowed to use this term?) to deflect criticism of Israel’s racist policies and illegal occupation etc. JLM has been at the forefront of this. Luciana Berger did not need police protection to attend LP conference as she claimed but from the racist right-wing thugs who 4 of whom were imprisoned.

  • WJ says:

    In case you don’t go and read a response on the original site, you might read this:

    “I have to say that despite a good introduction it soon gets lost in a sea of subjectivity. For example nowhere does it actually analyse what ‘antisemitism’ is in Britain compared to anti-Black/Muslim racism. How antisemitism is not manifested as state racism, that Jews aren’t subject to deportation ala Windrush, Police violence, incarceration etc. Just an admission of the difference would have been useful.

    Secondly it is undoubtedly the case that the campaign against Corbyn, masterminded by the Jewish Chronicle and the far-Right press has been co-ordinated and backed by the Israeli Embassy (& I suspect British and US Intelligence). We have Al Jazeera’s The Lobby to thank for that.

    Nowhere does Mendi Menem ask why the Right in this country is so concerned about ‘antisemitism’ when it is so unconcerned about any other form of racism. Why e.g. John Mann, recently made a Lord and ‘Antisemitism Czar’ is also an anti-Roma racist and bigot. Why the same is true of Tory Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel Eric Pickles who is the British delegate to the IHRA and a vehement anti-Roma/Gypsy racist who personally undertook to meet half Basildon Council’s legal costs for evicting Dale Farm in 2011.

    Indeed why Pickles defended the Tory Party vehemently in 2009 when David Miliband of all people attacked the Tories for sitting in the European Parliaments European Conservative Reform group with openly antisemitic parties (Poland’s L&J, Latvia’s Fatherland & Freedom and the Swedish Democrats). Indeed Roberts Zile of Latvia marches every year with the veteran’s of Latvia’s Waffen SS who have the blook of the Jews of the Riga Ghetto on their hands. And yet the Jewish Chronicle’s Stephen Pollard DEFENDED Zile and Kaminiski of Poland, who has an equally atrocious record.

    I’m sorry I cannot accept that the motivation for this is anything other than Corbyn’s removal and for all the many words expended on this article it fails to apply any class or socialist analysis to what has happened.

    It also fails to ask more serious and pertinent questions of the privileged white Jewish community in Britain. In essence British Jews are being used in the same way as Algerian Jews were used by French imperialism in Algeria (or East African Indians) – as intermediaries in someone else’s battle. It is about Corbyn and the ascendancy of an anti-imperialist left in the Labour Party. Keep your eye on the ball and stop engaging in sophistry.

    As for Chris Williamson. Well I know him well enough to know he is not a racist. Was he mistaken to put his name to the Atzmon petition? No. I waged a decade long fight against Atzmon. I wrote articles for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, I organised a picket outside his meeting at Bookmarks and I blogged and wrote exposing him. BUT I signed the petition. Why? Because we opposed what he wrote and said, which was undoubtedly anti-Semitic. I didn’t oppose and none of us did him playing jazz which he does very well. Chris who knew nothing of this character backed off however the idea that we oppose someone playing their music seems to have the whiff of fascism about it.

    All in all this is a disappointing article. Despite saying that antisemitism is more subtle than people make out nowhere is there any real analysis of what constitutes antisemitism. The fact is that an identification with Israel and opposition to that identity may seem to many Jews as antisemitism. Just as support for Salman Rushdi’s Satanic Verses may have been seem by many Muslims as anti-Muslim. It wasn’t.

    We should not allow democratic rights and freedoms to be destroyed in the name of anti-racism. That is the real lesson we should take to heart.

  • Dr ALAN MADDISON says:

    I found the article interesting, but I do want to raise a few points.

    Whilst I agree sincere British Jews deserve respect for any complaints they make in good faith, the article ignores the many innocent Labour members who have been victims of such false allegations, including Jeremy Corbyn.

    Many members and their families have been personally affected by the stigma attached to such allegations, the injustice, for some affecting their health, others losing their jobs or positions and reputation.

    What happened to Jackie Walker (intimidation and death threats) and Marc Wadsworth was shameful. Do they, in turn, not merit some consideration by British Jews too?

    There is also the denigration of us all, repeatedly accused of belonging to an organisation that has ‘rampant antisemitism’ or is a ‘cess-pit of antisemitism’, when the prevalence is probably the lowest of all political parties. Is this not distressing, do all British Jews realise this?

    Then there are the millions of our most vulnerable voters who may be deprived of a Labour Government because of deliberate gross exaggerations of an antisemitism. All the wasted energy of thousands of sincere members developing a solid Labour manifesto for a fairer society, and “knocking on doors” to prevent the loss of 130 000 excess deaths, and suicides of the disabled.

    It breaks my heart to realise that maybe all these Tory inflicted hardships may continue because of a relentless smear campaign of which antisemitism had the greatest impact.

    I also wonder, when the vast majority of British Jews believe antisemitism is rife in Labour and that we are an existential threat to Israel, if there are that many who would ‘politely’ inform a Labour member of their sincere concerns. On the other hand, I have seen some dreadful, aggressive and abusive attacks, and that includes against JVL members.

    We do need to address the whole problem, mutual trust needs to be rebuilt. Labour members need to realise that many British Jews are acting in good faith, but many British Jews need to recognise the hurt and pain this dreadful smear campaign has caused sincere Labour members, and the damage inflicted on millions of our most vulnerable citizens of all races and religions.

    I think most impressions of British Jews are formed not through personal contacts, but through the media. The antisemitism distortions in the media, especially Jewish right-wing media will continue as long as Labour supports Palestinian rights, aswell as those of Israeli Jews. Unlike in the US the progressive Jews have little voice in the UK mainstream media, and are often denigrated.

    So even if 100% of interactions between Labour members and British Jews became positive, and I hope they will be, the media smear campaign, with much greater reach, would convince most British Jews of the opposite.

  • TM says:

    I rather wish Mathew A Richmond had stuck to his ‘meshuggenes’. It’s writing like this that tends to keep me awake at night. To infer that those fighting the witchunts in the LP are ‘polarizing’ the situation is wrong and, quite frankly, I find it offensive. I have supported those who have been suspended or expelled (and there are many hundreds so far) because they are clearly committed anti racists. Furthermore, the accusations of antisemitism leveled against them have been simply false.
    There is so much more in this article which I hope clearer heads may address. But for me, I find life too short and considering the very dangerous political situation we now face I think this is a time for serious intervention rather than lively debate (no offense).

  • Ed McKeon says:

    I welcome this thoughtful and detailed analysis of the issues involved. I would merely add two thoughts that tease them further:

    1 For many on the left, the accusation that they *are* racist (an ontological claim) is itself a hostile act intended to silence just criticism. In other words, sensitivity to the nature of claims being made and projected onto another apply in both directions.
    2 We’ve known for decades that truth and falsehood do not reside in words and their grammatical arrangement, but in their use and the context of their use (speech act theory). Much of the debate systematically ignores this. We might more productively understand racism as a genre of speech act that determines the identity of another against their will in order to control or subjugate them. Of course, this applies to ‘bankers’ as much as to ‘Jews’ or ‘Muslims’ (even to ‘Tories’). This is why, for example, the ‘alt-right’ argument that Islam isn’t a race and therefore Islamophobia doesn’t exist completely misses the point. The subtle distinction is in the force of the utterance, its ability to carry power in its wake. ‘Banker bashing’ is perhaps unhelpful, but it hasn’t actually changed the regulatory regime, rewards systems, tax thresholds or other facets of elite authority that it might aim to affect. ‘Anti-white’ racism, claimed again by the alt-right, again misses the point because it borrows the language of racism but not its action. Forms of race hate are much more likely to result in physical as well as symbolic violence.

  • Kevin S Evans says:

    I think this is a balanced article and helps to enlighten both sides of the debate about the other without drifting into inflammatory details. I think everyone should read this before engaging in debate on this subject, so they can do so with mutual respect.

  • dave says:

    A puzzling article that seems to draw a distinction between ‘the left and Corbyn supporters’ and ‘British Jews’. While it’s true that a majority of British Jews are on the centre or right, there are plenty of left wing Jews and Corbyn supporters. Looking at it again, it’s a pretty daft article.

  • Paul France says:

    Thank you!!!

  • Allan Howard says:

    The reality is that but for the fact that a left-wing politician – Jeremy Corbyn – is leader of the Labour Party, we wouldn’t have heard a dickybird about anti-semitism, and the Ken Livingstone episode and the Jackie Walker episode etc, etc, and the mural and the book introduction etc – ie all the stuff dragged up from before Jeremy became leader which didn’t, at the time, have the MSM or Jewish Labour politicians screaming anti-semitism – would have passed the world by without mention. And it ISN’T the case that the left are arguing that Jews have got it wrong, but that they have been duped and deceived into believing there is an anti-semitism crisis in the LP – ie on the left and amongst JC supporters – when the reality is that the vast majority of the claims are fraudulent, and the ‘crisis’ is completely manufactured, and there is no more anti-semitism in the LP and amongst members than there is in other political parties, and probably a lot less than most, and wouldn’t warrant any media coverage under normal circumstances.

    Many examples could be given as evidence that it is manufactured, but here are just two: 1. When Ken Livingstone said, in passing, that Hitler supported Zionism, he was alluding to the Haavara Agreement of 1933, an historical fact, which led to the lifting of the Zionist boycott of Nazi Germany (see the wikipedia entry for details); 2. It was widely reported at the time that Margaret Hodge submitted 200 (alleged) cases of anti-semitism to the LP/NEC, but it transpired that the 200 cases corresponded to 111 individuals, only TWENTY of whom were LP members, and one has to ask how she could possibly have concluded that the 91 individuals who WEREN’T LP members WERE LP members (she couldn’t have done of course!). And needless to say, the MSM didn’t follow up the ‘200’ story with the ’20’ story (and it’s more-than-likely that only a handfull of THOSE were actually anti-semitic, and most of them were just criticising her or disagreeing with her).

  • Richard Hayward says:

    Let’s get back to basics. Forget the tortured soul-searching and the finding every opposition to belief and opinion as ‘prejudice’.

    Before all the scam stories, the fact of antisemitism in the Labour Party was – if it existed other than as a weird fringe pursuit of a microscopic minority – a non-issue.

    Lets be clear – ‘antisemitism’ in this context (note quotation marks) is a construction of the right and the Israel Lobby. It promotes what it pretends to despise as a sectarian political device.

    For a proper perspective, let’s go back to the root of the term and class every attitude or action that shows discrimination or prejudice against the Palestinian people to be included under the term ‘antisemitism’.

  • Colm says:

    Deeply saddened to see JVL publishing this with their introduction.
    What were they thinking.

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    Mendi Medem’s article is useful in a number of respects. He notes the smears against anti-racists by those determined to undermine Corbyn; that many of those who express anger over injustice to Palestinians in inappropriate ways, generalising about Jews, need education not vilification; and that language we use to resist the attacks on the pro-Palestinian left should not make blanket denunciations of Jews who have become genuinely fearful about antisemitism. My misgivings about the article echo comments above from Alan Maddison and others. It is unhelpful to suggest that all, including JVL, who have defended Labour against weaponisation of antisemitism allegations, are guilty of insensitivity towards genuine Jewish fears. Some are, but they are small in number compared with the cynical, malicious allegations have been dished out on an industrial scale (see our recent investigation into Liverpool Riverside). Our attempts to generate honest debate have met with outright censorship. I and others in JVL have worked within the party and among Palestine solidarity activists over the last couple of years, to explain the long and traumatic history of antisemitism that Jews experience, to build understanding of the genuine fears that many Jews have, and to combat the dangerous, divisive impact of the moral panic about antisemitism on the prospects for unified antiracist campaigning against the real threat from the far right. I have found most people eager to learn and very willing to discuss difficult issues sensitively. It is distressing to find friends on the left, including in Jewdas, refusing to engage with us, even to the extent of refusing to look at the film WitchHunt which has proved to be an invaluable catalyst to generating the very kind of discussion that Mendi proposes.

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    A further point that needs to be made… Mendi repeats the mistaken characterisation of Chris Williamson as having defended the antisemite Gilad Atzmon. Not having any idea who Atzmon was, Chris was momentarily taken in by a petition ostensibly protesting about a musician having a performance cancelled because of his anti-Israeli views. His instinctive response was quite understandable. I was one of those who told Chris about Atzmon’s pernicious influence, upon which he instantly took down the petition link. You could say that he and others are sometimes too quick to leap to the defence of any and all those claiming to support Palestine. But what a sorry state of affairs when an impetuous response to a perceived injustice results in wholesale condemnation, including from some on the left, while unapologetic expressions of Islamophobia are increasingly normalised.

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    This is a curates egg of piece. Good in parts. I absolutely disagree about Williamson. I have read nothing that says Chris is antisemitic I have given money to help his cause.. I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1956 when I joined the Young Socialists in Dewsbury. In all that time i have not heard one word of anti antisemitism in the Party. This is a right wing project . I believe Israeli agents have penetrated our Party. The Israeli government would be failing in its duty if it did not try to infiltrate Labour. I am extremely pessimistic about the immediate future. Our chances at the next election are slim to say the very least. All this is the result of the treachery of Labours right wing Accusations of racism are part and parcel of that. . There can be no reconciliation between the two wings of the Party.A good number of MPs will have to go sooner or later. Even if Labour were to win a majority in Parliament our programme would not go through. Right wing MPs would not support it.

  • ColinL says:

    The history of the new attack on the left partly comes from Dave Rich’s PhD thesis in which he put forward the idea of a ‘new antisemitism’, that is one that did not involve hatred or discrimination against Jewish people. This was allowed to fester, largely unchallenged for several years except against the BDS movement that resulted in the disastrous case against the UCU after several years of threats against the Union. The election of Corbyn was a golden opportunity for them to expand their argument further, and to distort the comments of the Macpherson Report, and to state that it was up to Jewish people to determine the meaning of antisemitism (only certain Jewish people of course) and not Corbyn and McCluskey as was suggested on the BoD placcards at parliament.

    I feel that the leadership should have at that point faced the matter head on and used the full comments by Macpherson and not gone on the back foot and argued around the European definition and examples. They should have also been clear that the definition was NOT the world accepted term. Attempts to placate the BoD and JLM have allowed them to continue to complain as if they are an injured party. The right wing discussion on their Engage website makes clear that the issue is politics and tactics, not religion.

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