Britain’s opposition leader should have plenty on his plate at the moment, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is spending much of his time instead putting out fires as he is attacked from within and without his party for failing to get to grips with a supposed “anti-semitism crisis” besetting Labour.
In late March, leading Jewish groups organised a large “Enough is enough” march on parliament, attended by prominent Labour MPs, to accuse Corbyn of siding with anti-Semites.
In response to the rally, Corbyn issued a statement acknowledging that “anti-semitism has surfaced within the Labour Party,” apologised and promised “to redouble my efforts to bring this anxiety to an end.”
There are no signs that Corbyn’s problems are about to end. On April 17, he had to endure the bizarre spectacle of a parliamentary debate on anti-semitism convened by the Conservative government in which his own backbenchers spent hours lambasting their party and him as leader.
All of this, severely denting Corbyn’s authority and image with the British public, took place just weeks before local council elections that should have been Labour’s chance to seize the initiative from the Conservatives.
Despite plentiful evidence that anti-semitism is a much bigger problem on the right than the left, Labour MP Luciana Berger argued that Jew hatred was an especial problem in Labour. She received a standing ovation. Another MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, argued: “It feels that my party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged. Antisemitism is making me an outsider in my Labour party.”
The same day, a poll indicated that nearly two-thirds of Britons think Labour has a problem with racism and religious bigotry – more than believe the Conservative party is home to such prejudices.
Under Media Attack
In fact, 18 months earlier, Britain’s parliamentary home affairs committee had found “no reliable, empirical evidence” suggesting Labour had more of an anti-semitism problem than any other political party.
But the anti-semitism claims should be understood in a wider context: of the backlash to a Corbyn-led Labour Party.
From the moment of his surprise election by party members nearly three years ago, Corbyn has found himself under relentless attack from the British media, including the state broadcaster the BBC and the liberal Guardian newspaper.
His chief offence seems to be that he harks back to an era before Margaret Thatcher stamped a neoliberal orthodoxy on British politics, requiring the Labour Party under Tony Blair to reinvent itself as “New Labour” by renouncing its socialist, and even social democratic, roots.
Corbyn’s election as leader brought a surge of new members into the party, making it now the largest political party in western Europe.
Nonetheless, Corbyn’s MPs, most of them survivors from the Blair era, have been in near-permanent revolt, even forcing him in 2016 into a rerun of the leadership election, which he again won decisively.
But despite the attacks and dismal ratings, the Labour leader shocked his critics in the June 2017 election by nearly overturning the large Conservative majority. He won the largest share of the vote for Labour since 1997, when Blair enjoyed a landslide victory, and produced Labour’s biggest share increase in the vote since 1945.
Holes in the Narrative
For a while, Corbyn’s media critics and the Labour parliamentary party were stunned into silence. But in recent weeks they have revived concerns about anti-semitism more aggressively.
There is an unstated implication in the so-called “anti-semitism crisis”: that it has been triggered by Corbyn’s long-standing support for the Palestinian cause, his vehement opposition to imperial wars, and his historical sympathy for third-world liberation movements.
His critics have mostly left it unclear whether they are suggesting his worldview stoked a previously dormant anti-semitism in the party, or whether he has been secretly encouraging Jew hatred, despite his long and well-known record on anti-racism.
Though there have been isolated examples of anti-semitism among Labour party activists, as there are in any walk of life, Corbyn’s critics are making a far stronger claim. They argue that the Labour Party under Corbyn is uniquely vulnerable to, and infected with, anti-semitism.
But there were holes in the anti-semitism narrative from the outset.
Many of the alleged examples highlighted after Corbyn’s election as leader predated his rise to power. These cases were identified after critics scoured the social media accounts of Corbyn supporters, often focusing on the period during Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza in late 2014, when online tensions were at a peak.
Though it is rarely mentioned, a significant proportion of those who were summarily suspended, or expelled, for anti-semitism by a Labour party bureaucracy still dominated by anti-Corbyn Blairites were Jewish or had Jewish ancestry, such as Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein, Cyril Chilson and Glyn Secker.
In one case, a respected Israeli Jewish academic based in the UK, Moshe Machover, found himself expelled until an outcry forced party leaders to grudgingly reinstate him.
The thread connecting these high-profile cases was that all of them were vocal critics of Israel.
Livingstone Comes a Cropper
The biggest scalp in the anti-semitism row, however, was Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London who was seen as firmly in Corbyn’s ideological camp. Livingstone, we should recall, was so reviled by Thatcher that she abolished London’s main local government body in the mid-1980s to be rid of him.
Livingstone has been indefinitely suspended from the party, and there are angry calls from many Labour MPs for his expulsion.
His case became the defining moment in Labour’s “anti-semitism crisis”, which is a reason to examine it a little more closely than has generally been done.
Livingstone is an outspoken, independent-minded politician by nature, and so can hardly be said to represent the general state of Labour. But even so, the attacks on him highlight the ideological muddle, and possibly bad faith, of those advancing claims of an “anti-semitism problem” in Labour.
During a radio interview on anti-semitism in May 2016, Livingstone ventured on to incendiary historical ground: “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
There were lots of problems with Livingstone’s foolhardy statement. The date should have been 1933; there was no Israel then, it was Palestine; and the phrase “went mad” implied that Hitler’s earlier expulsion policy might be seen as sane.
But the mix of inaccuracy and clumsiness of Livingstone’s off-the-cuff remarks are not what got him into trouble: it was the claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. Almost immediately the media reformulated Livingstone’s statement as “Hitler was a Zionist”, even though it seemed patently obvious that was not a fair summary of what he said or meant.
In English, the formulation “Hitler was supporting Zionism” is ambiguous and could mean either that Hitler liked or sympathised with Zionism as an ideology, or that he assisted or facilitated Zionism’s aims, possibly unintentionally.
The distinction is important because there are plenty of respectable historians of that period who would agree with the second meaning, and almost none who would concur with the first. Certainly, the second meaning is no proof of anti-semitism.
But no one in the media or among Corbyn’s critics was interested in raking over the troubling but documented ties between early Nazis and sections of the Zionist movement, even though it was the key to understanding Livingstone’s remark.
Toxic Row Brews
Corbyn hoped to draw a line under the mounting row about anti-semitism by setting up an internal review in June 2016. Barrister Shami Chakrabarti concluded that the party was “not overrun” by anti-semitism, as critics claimed, but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” which needed to be addressed.
The conference where these findings were issued, however, was overshadowed by just such a toxic row, this time provoked by a Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth. She made a very public exit from the conference in tears.
She accused a Corbyn supporter, Marc Wadsworth, a black activist and founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance, of promoting “vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people” at the event by accusing her of leaking stories to the right-wing press to harm Corbyn. Wadsworth argued that he didn’t know that Smeeth was Jewish, but was suspended for anti-semitism nonetheless. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that Smeeth was implying that because she was Jewish, criticism of her was anti-semitic by definition.
For good measure, she dragged Corbyn into the fray, saying he “stood by and did absolutely nothing … a Labour Party under his stewardship cannot be a safe space for British Jews.”
Smeeth later claimed to have received 25,000 abusive messages online, most of them via Twitter, in the days immediately following the spat over the Chakrabarti inquiry’s findings.
But a study by the Community Security Trust, a UK Jewish lobby group, in March 2018 blew a large hole in her claim. It identified only 15,000 anti-semitic tweets for the whole of the UK in a 12-month period that included June 2016.
Nonetheless, following a hearing late last month attended by Smeeth, to which she was ostentatiously escorted by some two dozen Labour MPs serving as a “bodyguard”, Wadsworth was expelled for “bringing the party into disrepute.”
Making Palestinians a Priority
The concern is that Corbyn’s opponents in the party have made common cause over anti-semitism, a charge of such gravity that they know party members will be reluctant to come to the defence of those accused. The media have seemingly been an enthusiastic accomplice.
Corbyn’s supporters argue that the main Jewish lobby groups in the party, most notably the Jewish Labour Movement, the UK’s sister organisation of the Israeli Labour Party, dread a future in which a Corbyn government may become the first in Europe to prioritise the Palestinians over Israel.
And the dominant faction of Blairite MPs fear losing their party to someone they view as a political dinosaur and a threat to the political and economic order they champion.
There is a substantial overlap between these two interest groups, with some 80 prominent MPs also members of Labour Friends of Israel.
These suspicions appeared to be confirmed early last year when the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera aired four episodes of a documentary into the role of the Israeli lobby in the UK. Three were on the lobby’s role in the Labour Party, while a fourth dealt with Israeli embassy efforts to “take down” a Conservative government minister, Alan Duncan, highly critical of Israel’s settlements.
Significantly, Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter exposed the intimate and covert ties between the leaderships of two key Labour groups—the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI)—and Shai Masot, of the Israeli embassy in London. Both organisations, which are seen voicing their hostility to Corbyn, have been at the forefront of the campaign to claim that Labour under the new leader has an anti-semitism problem.
Although Masot claimed to be an embassy official, there were strong indications that he actually worked for a secretive unit of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry.
According to the Israeli media, the unit is charged with carrying out smear campaigns against overseas Palestinian solidarity activists, especially those in the growing boycott (BDS) movement.
It also emerged that the director of the JLM, Ella Rose, previously worked at the Israeli embassy and has boasted of her close ties to Masot.
The Al Jazeera documentary created surprisingly little fallout. Masot was removed by Israel, but no investigation was launched by the Labour Party into the activities of the JLM or LFI.
Instead, the controversy was allowed to fester, surfacing unexpectedly at the Labour party conference in October last year, where the issue of anti-semitism again loomed over the proceedings.
In reaction to the unchallenged dominance of the JLM as the voice of Jews in the Labour Party, a new breakaway group, one that was pro-Corbyn, launched at the conference called Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). The new group quickly found itself tarred with claims of promoting hate speech at the conference.
There were wells of general resentment among a section of delegates towards the JLM for its role in seeking to discredit Corbyn that had been exposed by Al Jazeera. There were even a few calls for the JLM to be expelled from the party.
This context was entirely missing from media coverage, serving instead to offer yet more proof of the party’s anti-semitism problem.
At the heart of the dispute between the JLM and JVL were efforts by the former to broaden the definition of anti-semitism to include “the holding of beliefs” that might be “perceived” as offensive. Corbyn supporters and others warned that the move would create “thought crimes”.
The JLM also hoped to incorporate more fully into the party rule book a controversial definition of anti-semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an inter-governmental body. It lists many examples of criticism of Israel as anti-semitism, and has been condemned by, among others, Stephen Sedley, a Jewish former appeal court judge.
Faced with resistance from party members at the conference, the JLM was forced to water down its proposals.
The JVL and its supporters, such as the award-winning film director Ken Loach, also found themselves dragged into yet another anti-semitism row—this time over reports that a fringe meeting had included a speaker arguing that people should have the right to question whether the Holocaust happened.
The allegations again looked deeply mischievous. The speech was not made at a JVL event, and there was no recording of it. But more significantly, the speaker in question was not a Labour activist but Miko Peled, a well-known Israeli whose father had been one of the country’s most famous generals.
Friend with ‘Bad’ Jews
Nonetheless, the conference clash helped to clarify what was at stake for many of those involved. Jonathan Freedland, a senior columnist at the Guardian, waded in to support the JLM, arguing that the traditional definition of anti-semitism—that it was a hatred of Jews for being Jews—was too limited.
Instead, he claimed, it was a mood that could be perceived only by its victims, even if there was no tangible evidence that outsiders could detect. Further, anti-semitism included attacks on Jewish identity. And because Israel was now central to most Jews’ identity, attacks on Israel could be evidence of anti-semitism too.
There was a deeply disturbing, Orwellian logic to this argument. It drew on the most sectarian kind of identity politics, and brazenly conflated anti-Zionism with anti-semitism.
But Freedland’s argument suffered from another glaring flaw. The conference had just shown that there was a significant group of Jews in the Labour party who refused to define anti-semitism in the way Freedland and the JLM did. How did Freedland’s authority to be the arbiter of anti-semitism trump the authority of these other Jews?
Embedded within Freedland’s argument was the anti-semitic assumption that there are good and responsible Jews, on one side, and bad and irresponsible Jews, on the other. It is a variant of the “self-hating Jew” trope long used to discredit Jewish critics of Israel.
The implications of Freedland’s argument came fully to the fore last month when Corbyn, hoping to dampen the tensions sparked by the march on parliament, enjoyed a seder meal with Jewdas, a group of left-wing (and satire-loving) Jews who are highly critical of Israel. They had been among those warning that the recent anti-semitism protests in London were “cynical manipulations” organised by the Jewish establishment.
Corbyn found himself facing a barrage of criticism for spending time with Jewdas, which was used as further evidence of his indulgence of anti-semitism. Corbyn, it seemed, was friendly with the wrong kind of Jews.
Critique of Capitalism
Where is this “anti-semitism crisis” heading for Labour? A clue was provided by recent attacks that have dragged Corbyn deeper into the fray.
He was accused last month of having exposed his own anti-semitism in a social media post from 2012. In it, he supported an artist, Mear One, whose London mural was about to be removed following complaints to the local authorities. Corbyn did so, he originally said, in defence of public art and free speech.
For the first time, however, the sustained attacks forced Corbyn decisively on to the back foot, eventually agreeing that the mural was anti-semitic, apologising for his post, and promising to work harder to root out anti-semitism in the party.
It was a given in all the mainstream reporting that the mural was blatantly anti-semitic, portraying “Jewish bankers” seated around a Monopoly-style game board supported on the backs of workers. Mear One, however, insisted instead that it was a radical critique of capitalism, and that the “bankers” portrayed were caricatures of real-life capitalists, most of whom were not Jewish.
The expedience of the mural row to Corbyn’s critics soon became clear. It could be exploited to launch a wider assault on his political programme, cementing the alliance between Labour’s ardent Israel supporters and its neoliberal Blairites.
Two academics used the pages of the liberal New Statesman magazine to argue that much of the language traditionally used by the radical left to critique capitalism and imperialism was actually code, concealing its anti-semitism.
Corbyn had fallen into the trap of backing the mural, they argued, because of “deep-seated theoretical underpinnings of left critiques of capitalism that have anti-semitism as their logical consequence.” When socialists or Occupy movements critiqued globalisation—speaking of “global elites,” “a rigged system,” “a parasitic 1 per cent”—they were not just indicting a ruling class. According to the authors, they were also echoing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery claiming that Jews controlled the international financial system.
The advantage of this line of attack for a capitalist class keen to maintain its privileges hardly needs pointing out. Any effort to articulate a programme for radical change, for socialism, becomes inherently vulnerable to the charge of anti-semitism.
Daniel Finn, editor of the New Left Review, recently set out what was at stake. The primary goal of the Blairites and the Israeli lobby in Labour—and his opponents in the British establishment—“is to destroy Corbyn altogether.”
And if that fails, a secondary aim is to get him to capitulate on Palestinian rights. “If we can’t hold the line in defence of Corbyn’s eminently moderate stance on Palestine, we certainly won’t be in any condition to resist the pressure that is still to come,” he wrote.
In short, his critics inside and outside the Labour Party need Corbyn crushed or tamed. And the inexhaustible anti-semitism crisis offers a route to one solution or the other.
This article originally appeared in Orient XXI Magazine.