The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story

The fact that there is a smear campaign against Corbyn's Labour doesn't mean there isn't real antisemitism.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
29 April 2016
Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 14.23.40.png

Ken Livingstone, image, the World Economic Forum, Creative Commons 2.0

The world is complex and it contains multitudes. Thus, it is possible for all of the following things to be true:

1) There are some people on the left, and therefore too many, who are antisemitic. When running a workshop at the Occupy camp, for example, a participant said to me that those to blame for the financial crisis were ‘the Jews’. At this year's NUS conference, someone gave a speech against Holocaust memorial day, arguing that it was exclusive. Some people cheered.

What are your thoughts on the Labour 'antisemitism' story? Tell us in the comments below.

2) Criticism of the state of Israel is not the same thing as antisemitism, and, worse, conflation of the state of Israel with Jewishness, whoever it is done by, sails close to an antisemitic wind. Unfortunately, this line is often intentionally blurred by those campaigning for the state of Israel, as well as sometimes by those campaigning against it.

3) Sometimes, criticism of the state of Israel, by using terms like 'Zionist' as a dog-whistle proxy for 'Jew', can be antisemitic or perpetuate antisemitic ideas. For example, there is a spectrum of statements running from “AIPAC is a powerful lobby in the USA” (not antisemitic) through to “a secret cabal of Zionists controls the media” (antisemitic). It’s not always clear where this line has been crossed.

4) There are some people on the left who repeat antisemitic tropes, without entirely understanding that they are doing so, who thus behave in antisemitic ways without necessarily 'being' antisemitic.

5) There is a specific form of antisemitism more prevalent on the left, which focuses on 'bankers', 'Rothschilds', etc.

6) Those things need to be challenged and require education.

7) The left is held to a significantly higher standard than the right. For example, the Tories can run a racist campaign for London Mayor, and it is still Labour who are having a racism scandal.

8) Ken Livingstone's comments were shocking, and it was appropriate to suspend him. Specifically:

i) He said: "a real antisemite doesn't just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington. It's a physical loathing.” This is a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of racism, in a dangerous way. Hating a subcategory of Jewish people based on where they live (rather than, say, hating people for doing particular things) is still antisemitism. Denying that plays into the hands of racists.

This gets to the nub of the whole thing. If you, as we all should be, are angry at the policies of the Israeli state, that doesn't make you in any way antisemitic. It makes you a human who has been paying attention. But if that rage seeps over into 'the Jews of Israel', then that is a form of antisemitism.

ii) The specific claim that Hitler wanted to relocate Jews to Palestine is historically true, in a narrow sense*. Lots of people have been sharing an article laying that out, as though it vindicates the comment. It doesn’t. The speed with which conversations about anything relating to Jewishness in politics returns to something relating to the man who murdered the parents or grandparents of many of the Jewish people around today must be deeply hurtful for huge numbers. It's generally not appropriate to turn such conversations to Hitler and Nazis without a very compelling reason. Similarly, the specific point is also one often used by hard antisemites to argue that Jewish people were 'in cahoots' with Hitler. As such, it's probably best avoided, unless you have the time and space to deal with it sensitively. This isn't an abstract theoretical argument about history, it's a discussion about people's lived experience of ‘othering’ today. And that’s before we engage with what he meant by ‘before he went mad’.

iii) There is another debate to be had about whether Livingstone’s comments were antisemitic. I have seen lots of people argue that they weren’t – ‘what he was trying to say…’. I think that’s a different question, which can be discussed more calmly over time. They were clearly inappropriate.

9) The (white) Tory mayor of London can one week say that the US president hates the UK because he is half Kenyan (and, implicitly therefore, that Kenyans hate the UK, meanwhile focusing on a racist trope about Obama somehow not being really American), and face no expectation of discipline from his party; a (black, Muslim) Labour MP can have in the past made comments which are perhaps of equivalent levels of racism, and faces loud demands that she is immediately sacked.

10) Her comments were indeed antisemitic, as she has acknowledged.

11) The same journalists demanding that said MP is sacked can repeatedly mock the (Jewish) former leader of the Labour party for how he looks when eating a bacon sandwich, but anyone who suggested this was problematic was shouted down.

12) As Jamie Stern-Weiner has shown, there seems to be no evidence that antisemitism in the Labour party has increased since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. In fact, many of the incidents which are being used to attack him seem to have taken place before he was leader, or are online comments from people who joined the Labour party before he ran for leader.

13) Each alleged incident of antisemitism in the Labour party has been dealt with quickly, yet the party is still being accused of moving too slowly.

14) Allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party are being used by numerous enemies of the party leadership to undermine it.

15) The Labour party could and should do more to stop antisemitism within its ranks. So should every other political party.

16) Israel is an apartheid state. Its government brutally oppresses the Palestinian people, murders children in cold blood, steals land and water and uses torture, including of children and teenagers, as standard. As the movement against its violent oppression continues, particularly through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, it is increasingly finding ways to accuse its critics of antisemitism, often in spurious ways.

17) The right has a problem with Islamophobia, and this is treated by much of the media as though it is essentially not a problem.

18) Accusations of racism should be listened to, and taken seriously.

19) Exploitation of accusations of racism for other political ends undermines the fight against racism. 

20) It’s possible to suffer oppression whilst also doing something wrong. It probably is true that Lutfur Rahman faced Islamophobia at the same time as being corrupt, and that if he hadn't been Muslim, he may have got away with the corruption. Neither the corruption, nor the Islamophobia excuse each other. Likewise, it can be true that people who are both Jewish and apologists for the state of Israel face antisemitic oppression at the same time as they argue for a murderous apartheid state. Likewise, neither action excuses the other.

21) As James McAsh has argued, antisemitism which exists on the left will be best dealt with by the left when it is not being weaponised against the left. If you throw rocks at people, they dig trenches rather than having open conversations.

22) John Mann has waged a war against Jeremy Corbyn from day one, and doubtless relishes this opportunity to undermine his leadership**. His attack against Ken Livingstone at the moment is forceful because there is truth in it.

23) The timing of this affair has more to do with an attempt to damage Corbyn before the May elections than the timing of any antisemitic incident, but Ken Livingstone's escalation has made the attack particularly potent.


**a couple of updates**

*for a detailed account of this, it's worth reading this.

**I previously described Mann as a political opportunist in this context. It has since been pointed out to me that he in fact has a long track record of fighting antisemitism. Whilst he may absolutely wish to undermine Corbyn, it was unfair to to imply that his anger wasn't genuine. I have now edited this to reflect that.

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