The fight against antisemitism in Labour

BY KD Tait

THE DECISION by Labour’s right wing to reheat the smear campaign accusing Jeremy Corbyn of failing to tackle antisemitism within the party is a deliberate attempt to sabotage Labour’s local election campaign, discredit the leadership, and silence critics of Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians.

Though they have differing priorities and motives, anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, the right wing Tory press, the Zionist Jewish Labour Movement and pro-Tory organisations like the Board of Deputies, quickly joined the press campaign to convince the public that Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite, and the Labour Party overrun with antisemitism.

The latest offensive is a repetition of that deployed in the aftermath of Corbyn’s 2015 election as party leader, which led to the abortive attempt to remove him less than twelve months later (the ‘chicken coup’). This time the offensive was better timed.

For pro-Israel forces inside the party, like the Jewish Labour Movement, it also coincided with a potentially dangerous moment; major celebrations around the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Israel, to which Nato and the EU sent delegations, just as Theresa May praised the Balfour Declaration as a great Tory achievement on its centenary.

Naturally, the Palestinian refugees organised protests against the Nakba, the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians. Typically, too, the Netanyahu government brazenly announced it would respond by killing peaceful protesters in Gaza. This it has duly done and is still doing. And, surprise, surprise, the British media have ignored it. Amongst political leaders, only Jeremy Corbyn has had the principle and courage to denounce this. In a statement to a protest he said:

“The killing and wounding of yet more unarmed Palestinian protesters yesterday by Israeli forces in Gaza is an outrage. … They have a right to protest against their appalling conditions and the continuing blockade and occupation of Palestinian land, and in support of their right to return to their homes and their right to self-determination.”

He added, “firing live ammunition into crowds of unarmed civilians is illegal and inhumane and cannot be tolerated”.

What is the evidence that antisemitism is rife ?

In 2016, the Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism and other forms of racism within the Labour Party was established following allegedly antisemitic comments by Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah MP. The BBC summed up its findings, “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism but there is an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’.”

Dissatisfied with this, the Commons Home Affairs Committee, CHAC, with a big majority of Tories and Labour MPs opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, launched its own investigation. Despite the committee’s composition and its denigration of the Chakrabarti Report, their own official report was obliged to conclude:

“Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party, and a number of revelations regarding inappropriate social media content, there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

In fact, the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report were blocked by a party apparatus controlled by disgraced former general secretary Iain McNicol. This obstruction, and the fact that the most high profile attempts at expulsion for ‘antisemitism’ by the party’s disciplinary bodies have been prominent Jewish anti-Zionists like Moshe Machover and Glyn Secker, says much about the motivations and priorities of those leading this attack. To this has now been added the outrageous expulsion of Marc Wadsworth, veteran of the Black Sections movement of the 1980s and early 90s, a key figure, too, alongside the Lawrence family, in launching the campaign for justice for Stephen.

The claim that there was something antisemitic in his accusation that Ruth Smeeth MP was cooperating with Daily Telegraph journalists, and his expulsion for “bringing the party into disrepute”, is the latest example of the witch-hunt. The purveyors of insincere antisemitism accusations do not mind in the least how such expulsions really do bring the party into disrepute with the black community, especially at a time when Corbyn and Diane Abbot are doing all they can to expose the racist policies of the Tories towards the Windrush generation.

Wadsworth’s expulsion has fuelled demands for the expulsion of Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker. Clearly, this points to how dangerous it is to remain silent on the witch-hunt or deny that it is taking place. Jeremy Corbyn and his spokespersons have foolishly adopted a passive approach to it, indeed they have conceded far too much to the idea that there is a serious problem of antisemitism in the party. Throwing Jewish anti-Zionists to the wolves will rebound on him because nothing he says will satisfy the right wing – except his own resignation.

Supporters of Corbyn’s leadership against the right should not be afraid to criticise him whenever he makes dangerous concessions to the huge right wing majority in the PLP.

There is no need to deny the existence of any real cases of antisemitism within the party in order to point out what all active members will recognise, that, in meetings, events and campaigning, instances of antisemitism are practically non existent. That is why the vast majority of the accusations relate to instances of alleged antisemitism expressed online.

There can be no doubt that in a mass party there will be a small number of real antisemites, that is, people who are prejudiced against Jews for being Jews. Such racists should be investigated, fairly judged and, if proved guilty, expelled.

Nevertheless, the undoubted widespread racist trolling on social media, however unpleasant, does not prove that the perpetrators are Labour Party members, Corbyn supporters or left wingers as the Tory media and the Blairite MPs keep asserting. Let them prove it. Otherwise it is a scandalous libel to hold Jeremy Corbyn, or the left within the party in general, responsible for such antisocial activity.

Antisemitism

Underpinning the antisemitism claims is the belief that the left is particularly susceptible to this form of racism, where it is expressed not as Holocaust denial or overt Jew-hatred, but as variations on what the German social democrat, August Bebel, rightly called the ‘socialism of fools’. That is, the attempt to focus popular indignation against capitalist exploitation onto a tiny fraction of the capitalist class and a section of the working class; the Jewish part. That is how Marxists responded to the rise of a modern antisemitism, which is a form of racism, as opposed to that based on Christian religious bigotry.

This antisemitism substitutes conspiracy theory for an objective, materialist explanation of the development and operation of class society. The most famous example of this is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery concocted by the Russian Tsar’s secret police. To this day, those who claim that Jews control business and high finance, the US government and/or the media, even if they substitute the term Zionists for Jews, reveal themselves to be real antisemites. Such people and their ideas need to be driven out of the workers’ movement wherever they make their appearance.

It is not only factually incorrect to hold Jewish people disproportionately responsible for rapacious capitalism and the imperialist system, it also exonerates the real means by which the capitalist class exploits and rules and, therefore, poisons the development of class consciousness and a revolutionary politics of human emancipation. That is why antisemitic tropes originate in, and are the favoured weapons of, the anti-socialist, far right movements, not the socialist left. It is noteworthy that the Daily Mail in its headlines and cartoons cheerfully recycles the antisemitic imagery it fostered in the 1930s but now applied to Muslims and EU migrants.

Some of these stereotypes can be, and have been, picked up by some people new to leftwing politics, frequently online, where political debate too often degenerates into abuse and baiting. Socialists need to point out forcefully wherever this includes stereotypes and coded phrases originating from the far right. We must not let it be repurposed and reproduced as a kind of “leftwing common sense”.

This “socialism of fools” is just as dangerous as the “leftwing” chauvinism that seeks to maintain privileges for British workers over those from Europe, or the “leftwing” patriotism that claims a common “national interest” between the working class and the ruling class in times of war.

Unfortunately, those accusing Labour of having a problem with antisemitism are not at all interested in cultivating a climate of political education and collective struggle, which would be the most effective way for new members to throw off the reactionary ideas that our society is saturated in.

Antizionism

The primary rationale of the charge, expressed more bluntly by some than others, is that the party’s new members are significantly more likely to be antisemitic because they, like Jeremy Corbyn, are supporters of the Palestinians and, to varying degrees, opponents of the Israeli state.

It is not an antisemitic conspiracy theory to assert the irrefutable fact that the Israeli Embassy and British pro-Zionist organisations and individuals have waged a campaign to discredit the Labour Party left and leadership, with a vehemence other organisations are spared.

The testimony of anti-Zionist Jews in Labour confirms this. For daring to speak out, they have in turn been harassed, accused of antisemitism and in some cases suspended or expelled from the party.

Criticism of Israeli state oppression of the Palestinians is not antisemitic. Nor is refusal to “recognise the right to exist” of Israel as a self-designated Jewish State. Both logically and historically, that is linked to the denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and of the right to return of the refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948 and 1967. It is de facto a recognition of Israel’s right of settlement, conquest and expulsion. Refusal to recognise such a right is not a denial of Israeli Jews’ rights to live and work in Palestine-Israel, still less is it an incitement to a second Holocaust.

For the Zionists, this basic statement of socialist principles is ipso facto antisemitic. The leftwing apologists for Zionism in the Workers Liberty group call this anti-Zionism “leftwing antisemitism”, although they are careful to distinguish themselves from the Labour right by arguing that such “antisemites” should not be expelled. But this tactical difference between friends is not allowed to interfere with their shared interest in libeling anti-Zionists and antiracists as antisemites, with the goal of stigmatising and delegitimising the just and legitimate struggle for Palestinian liberation.

Nevertheless, it is true that within the wider Palestinian solidarity movement, which has only recently started to overlap significantly with the Labour Party, legitimate criticism of the Israeli state does sometimes cross a line into antisemitic generalisations, or genuinely offensive analogies with the Nazis.

The fact that the Israeli state describes itself as the state of the world’s Jews, and facilitates the immigration of Jewish people predicated on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, is used to “justify” the antisemitic idea that all Jews should be held responsible for its crimes.

The support of Anglo-Saxon imperialism in particular and western imperialism in general for the Israeli state is often explained by recourse to antisemitic conspiracies about Jewish control of the media or the US government and international institutions. In fact, the Zionist settlement project from 1917-1947 was only possible because British imperialism saw it as one of its assets for colonising the Middle East. After the formation of the state of Israel, now with US support, it became a major asset in weakening and dividing the Arab states and aiding the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Today, it plays a role for both US and European imperialist powers in a new period of rivalry with Putin’s Russia. None of this was in reality a conspiracy since both the imperialist politicians and the Zionist leaders were pretty frank as to their objectives.

The religious and racial dynamic of Israel’s oppression of the largely Muslim Palestinians also fuels the flames of the retrograde religious bigotry and antisemitism of Islamist organisations like the Gaza-based Hamas party, or movements that claim to be in solidarity with the Palestinians in other Muslim-majority countries.

In the West, particularly in Britain with its large Muslim minority, and in France with Europe’s largest Jewish population, both with a legacy of colonialism in the Middle East, these states’ enthusiastic support for the War on Terror abroad, their military and financial backing for Israel, and their vigorous stigmatising of antisemitism but toleration of, or even support for, Islamophobic and racist persecution of Muslims, has created fertile ground for Islamist antisemitism to flourish.

In this context, the attempt to characterise Corbyn as tolerating, or even being a “figurehead for antisemitism”, is a gigantic fraud. Corbyn certainly has repeatedly condemned the crimes of the Israeli state against the Palestinians and that is enough for hardened Zionists to dub him an antisemite. In fact, like much of the mainstream of the labour movement, he does not deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. He is a long-term supporter of the so-called ‘Two state solution’, which, though endorsed by the UN and indeed formally by the USA, has been repeatedly blocked by Israel.

The reality is that many Zionists are not Jews, and plenty of supporters of the Israeli state are in fact motivated by the antisemitic idea that Jews and non Jews cannot coexist. This also explains the support of the notorious antisemite, Lord Balfour and, latterly, the US Christian Evangelical movement, for the Zionist project.

To point out these contradictions is not to minimise, let alone justify, the existence of real antisemitism, but to highlight the hypocrisy of the establishment and the imperialist system whose colonial plunder and exploitation of the working class generates and institutionalises racism and social oppression. We cannot summon the arsonist to put out the fire.

That is why socialism and Zionism are incompatible. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not two religiously-defined national states, but a single, secular state with freedom of religion for Jews, Arabs and Christians, and equality for the Palestinian and Israeli Hebrew speaking nationalities, in the whole territory.

It is the Palestinian working class, poor, and refugees who will be the central agents of that struggle, aided by the courageous Israelis, at present a minority, who oppose their country’s oppression of the Palestinians. Their victory will mean the liberation of Jewish and Arab workers alike from the prison of national chauvinism and religious bigotry. The task of socialists in the West is to be staunch allies in that struggle by fighting to end British and US imperialism’s support for the Zionist settler state and to end its role as the vanguard of western imperialism in the Middle East.

Many of Corbyn’s opponents, whether in the Labour or Tory parties, or the wider establishment, who have jumped on the antisemitism bandwagon, are not motivated by Zionist convictions. Israel is central to the whole edifice of the post-WW2 reorganisation of the Middle East, which was carried out under the auspices of the US, with the French and British as junior partners. For them, the idea of a Labour leader with a record of opposing the use of military force to secure Britain’s imperialist interests, and who might weaken Israel’s ability to serve Britain’s interests, is intolerable.

Weaponised hypocrisy

There are many Labour party members who are genuinely concerned about the presence of antisemitism and racism within the party. Some of the antisemitic abuse directed at politicians, ostensibly in support of Jeremy Corbyn, is shocking even to seasoned anti-racist campaigners.

But the hundreds of thousands of members and supporters who are sincere in their desire to root out racism, and uproot the causes of racism, are having that task made more difficult by the weaponisation of antisemitism for factional purposes.

The behaviour of right wing MPs like Luciana Berger, John Mann, Ruth Smeeth and John Woodcock, lining up alongside Tory MPs and the anti-Catholic DUP to denounce Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons, is a calculated attempt to bring the party and, by extension its leadership, into disrepute. It includes the bullying and abuse of Jews who support Corbyn.

The extent to which Corbyn’s opponents are prepared to debase themselves and the party’s reputation, was shown by the reactions to his attendance at a Seder organised by Jewdas. The members of this irreverent, leftwing Jewish organisation were immediately denounced as the “wrong sort” of Jews. The “right sort” of Jews on the Board of Deputies meanwhile had refused Corbyn’s offer of a meeting unless he accepted an ultimatum of demands that would surrender the Party’s democratic autonomy.

The cynical attempts to portray Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner against racism, as an antisemite, the denunciations and insults in the Tory press, the open collaboration with Labour’s political opponents, are unprincipled and irresponsible.

Not every accusation of antisemitism is false but, when so many clearly are, the inevitable consequence of this crying wolf is that it devalues and diminishes a serious claim. We should be alert to the danger that some Labour Party members may come to regard all charges of antisemitism as generally, if not always, fraudulent and unjustified. That would would be a dangerous conclusion since antisemitism remains an integral part of racism, alongside prejudice against BAME people and, more recently, hatred of Muslims.

Labour’s leftwing members have no reason to fear being put under the spotlight. It is socialist activists who are at the forefront of the fight against racism and sexism and all other prejudices, wherever they rear their head. But Labour’s elected representatives should also be held to an equal, in fact higher, standard.

The fact that Labour MP Sarah Champion could write an article in the Sun suggesting that British Pakistanis have a cultural problem with grooming, and then be let off with a slap on the wrist, is the disturbing proof that the racism that blights our society finds its reflection at the highest levels of our movement. Jack Straw and David Blunkett’s racist comments in the past show that Labour has been an instrument and an acceptable face of the official racism that BAME people are subjected to, in a way that has become unacceptable for Jewish people.

Ordinary members need take no lessons in fighting racism from MPs from this dishonourable tradition, nor from those who line up alongside the Tories and DUP to accuse principled antiracists of being racist.

Conclusions

Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that the party will not tolerate people who abuse MPs or, indeed, any party member, online or offline, on the basis that they are Jewish or that they are Zionists or supporters of Israel. But criticism and debate on Israel and its actions, is not personal or racist abuse.

Any supporter of Corbyn who sends abusive or threatening tweets or emails to Labour right wingers is not only engaging in the appalling bullying behaviour he has condemned time and again, but contributing to the antisocial degeneration of political culture and harming our movement.

Not only is it wrong in itself but it plays right into the hands of the left’s real enemies. If this happens then it should certainly be sanctioned, up to and including suspension or expulsion, by the appropriate disciplinary bodies.

Real antisemites should have no place in the Party, but due process, that is, the right of the accused to be notified of the charges and have the right, indeed the obligation, to answer them, must be followed. Conversely, people who make false and malicious accusations of antisemitism should be severely sanctioned.

Waging an effective struggle against racism means first of all being able to point out clearly that racism is a social phenomenon, rooted in the colonialism and slavery that inaugurated the capitalist epoch and our modern political system. That in turn means breaking with those MPs who defend Britain’s racist immigration laws, and support policies which contribute to the marginalisation and oppression of Muslims and ethnic minorities.

This is the first step on the road to a working class party that elevates the fight against racism from a question of individual morality, to a collective struggle to revolutionise the political and economic foundations of our society, in order to end the exploitation of capitalism, and do away with the social oppression it generates.

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