A Straightforward and Practical Resource for Understanding Labour’s Antisemitism ProblemBy Professor David Hirsh | May 7, 2019 | Flashpoint 58
This web page, and the many links contained within it, is a resource for political people who will increasingly find that they need to understand contemporary antisemitism. Please bookmark it and come back to it when you need it.
And I’m sorry to tell you that you will need it. Antisemitism always positions its own image of ‘The Jews’ at the centre of all this that is bad in the world. It is a terrible irony that in our time not the Jews but antisemitism is implicit within most of what is threatening to democracy.
Antisemitism is not interesting and thinking about it is not what democratic people would like to spend their time doing. But we have no choice. The populist, that is the proto-totalitarian assaults on democracy which are mushrooming into mainstream politics are fundamentally conspiracy fantasies. And conspiracy fantasies are always pregnant with antisemitism, whether the fantasists know it or not.
We do not choose to be interested in antisemitism; antisemitism chooses us. Antisemitism is never only a problem for Jews, it is always also an indicator of a wider sickness of democratic politics within any space where it is tolerated. Anybody who fights for democratic politics and against populism will find themselves forced onto this terrain. And they need to know how to deal with it.
I have resigned from the Labour Party after fighting antisemitism on the left for three decades. For years I refused to be pushed out by antisemites or to acquiesce to my political homelessness. I respect those who still resist; as I respect those who never understood why I stubbornly remained.
I am on the same side as opponents of antisemitism no matter what party they’re in at the moment. People who disagree on strategy are not the problem. The problem is the antisemites: people who thrill at the ‘blasphemy’ of upsetting Jews; people who close their ears to the experiences of Jews; people who look the other way when they are shown the evidence; and people who insist that the issue of antisemitism is a conspiracy to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left.
- Criticism of Israel and antisemitism
When people used to rail against Jewish bankers or Jewish pornographers, Jewish child-murderers or ‘cultural Marxism’, or the real power behind the politicians, this was not criticism of capitalist banking, pornography, murder, Marxism or democratic politics; it was antisemitism. When people ask why Hilary Clinton stood by her man or when they focus on Angela Merkel’s dress sense, that is not criticism but sexism.
There is much to love about Israel and being protective of Israel is a democratic imperative; Israel is a life-raft for the undead Jews of Europe and for their descendants; and for the Jews ethnically cleansed from the great cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East; and for the Jews who escaped the horrors of Russian Tsarism and then Communism.
Today, about half of the world’s Jews live in Israel and about half in the United States of America, give or take small communities in Britain, France, Germany, South Africa, and Australia, and smaller communities elsewhere. A hundred and twenty years ago they lived almost wholly in eastern and central Europe, Russia, North Africa, and the middle east. To nurse only an angry hostility to Israel within yourself is to refuse to feel the joy of Jewish survival and renaissance.
Some people are more critical than others of the ways in which Israel relates to its neighbours, and that is fine. There are real conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and between Jews and the huge and largely hostile region which surrounds them. Of course it is important for people to critically and politically engage with Israeli policies and political culture, as it is important to engage with Palestinian and wider Arab and Islamist politics.
But antisemitism is not criticism of Israel.
The problem is when actual events come to be thought of in antisemitic ways. Yes, people under eighteen are killed in the conflict, no Israel does not set out to murder children. Yes, Israel and Jews fight politically for people to see things their way, no there is no Zionist control of the ‘mainstream media’. Yes, there is racism in Israel, no Israel is not in essence a racist endeavour. Yes, Jews sometimes worry too much about antisemitism, no they do not raise the issue, ‘weaponize it’, in a dirty conspiracy to silence the Palestinians.
Antisemitism, and the anger, hostility and demonization of Israel with which it comes packaged, is not the same thing as rational criticism of this or that Israeli policy or this or that aspect of Israeli culture.
- The Livingstone Formulation
The standard way, since the Macpherson Inquiry, of responding to somebody who says they have experienced racism or sexism is to begin with the assumption that they might well be right.
The standard way of responding to Jews who say they have experienced antisemitism is to assume they might be lying in an effort to smear or to silence.
My experience of raising the issue of antisemitism is precisely that. I was not treated as somebody who has something important to say, I was treated as somebody who means the left harm, somebody who is really from outside, an imposter, an alien, somebody who is spinning a malicious falsehood at the behest of a foreign state.
Populist politics tends not to engage rationally with what people say. Rather, it tends to define communities of those who are on the side of ‘the people’ in fixed opposition to those who are defined as being necessarily ‘enemies of the people’. Those who raise the issue of antisemitism get cast out of the ‘community of the good’ and treated as hostile; they are excluded from the universe of people who should be debated with and they are put into the universe of people who may be vilified as enemies. This is what happens to Jews on the contemporary left, those anyway who refuse to disavow Israel and to whitewash antisemitism.
The Livingstone Formulation is a refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism; it is a refusal to look at the argument or the evidence; instead it reflects back an instant and angry counter-accusation that the Jew is the aggressor and that the antisemite is the victim.
Antisemites have always presented themselves as victims of the Jews.
Antisemitism is a weapon aimed at Jews; it is not ‘weaponized’ by Jews against antisemites.
Antisemitism silences Jews, it does not silence antisemites.
- People who are most responsible for Labour antisemitism believe themselves to be the most consistent opponents of antisemitism
Is Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite? He is a man who for decades has embraced antisemitic politics; he has a long record of defending antisemites against Jews; he supports Hamas and Hezbollah; he participated in a wreath laying ceremony for the Munich Olympic murders of Jews; he treats Israel as a key evil on the planet; under his leadership antisemitism in the Labour Party has blossomed; he is so wedded to his way of thinking that he has been willing to endanger his whole project rather than deal with the problem; one of his key advisors said that the issue of defining antisemitism was a hill that he was prepared to die on.
Yes, but is Jeremy Corby an antisemite? My answer to that is, it depends on what you mean by the word. I am interested in what he says and what he does, not in the moral cleanliness of his own inner soul.
In our time, racism is not only, and not even mostly, about hatred. Racism is about social structures and fixed ways of thinking which seem like common sense and which exclude and discriminate against people.
Antisemitism is the same. People who defend antisemitic ways of thinking and exclusions are often quite convinced that they are doing the opposite. They look into their own heads and find themselves morally blameless; so they then look at the accusers and angrily accuse them of acting in bad faith.
But fighting antisemitism is not only about finding and expelling individuals. Antisemitism is a social phenomenon, external to any particular person; it exists objectively, irrespective of somebody’s subjective feelings about themselves or about Jews. The carriers of today’s antisemitism think of themselves as good people and as anti-racists.
But if you, like Pete Willsman, a member of Labour’s NEC, say that those raising the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party are ‘Trump fanatics’; or if you, like a former vice chair of Momentum Jackie Walker, try to make people think of Jews as ‘the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade’; or if, like Ken Livingstone, you say that ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism… before he went mad’; of if you, like Jeremy Corbyn, present programmes for the propaganda outlets of the Iranian regime; then you are doing antisemitic things, even if that is not how you feel about yourself.
This is one of the difficult things about challenging contemporary antisemitism. People who say antisemitic things genuinely have no understanding of why people think they are antisemitic. And they are not open to thinking about the issue in an ordinary way.
But there is an issue of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party because it is tolerated and licensed by the leadership – by its politics – and by the institutions of the Party even when they deny that this is the case.
In 2003 to 2011 we saw the University and College Union being infected by institutional antisemitism when it began to embrace the boycott campaign. One of the forms this takes is a demand for secrecy. Institutional racism requires a tightly closed boundary around the institution. This facilitates ways of thinking becoming normal within the secret boundary that outside are looked upon as being entirely inappropriate. If there is nothing to hide then there is no reason why people should not be able to say in public what is happening.
It is noticeable that when institutionally racist institutions come under external pressure, they tend to enforce the boundaries ever more stringently, and punish those disloyal enough to talk in public about what happens within the institution.
- Antizionism and campaigns to boycott Israelis bring with them antisemitism into any social space in which they are treated as legitimate
Antizionism tends to make an ‘-ism’, a worldview, out of hostility to Israel. Antisemitism has always put Jews at the centre of all that is bad in the world; antizionism can’t resist the temptation to put Israel at the centre of all that is bad in the world.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Zionism was a movement which held that Jews could only defend themselves against antisemitism by creating a nation-state; there were other competing movements, like Bundism, which said that Jews should find a new non-religious way of being Jewish and should defend themselves where they already lived; and there was Bolshevism, which said that Jews should combine with all the other workers of the world and should shed their Judaism and build a new world in which everybody would be unique. Antizionism, at this time, was an opposition to an idea, and it was fundamentally a Jewish critique; and it was a legitimate critique.
But all three antiracist movements were defeated by Nazism; none of them could save the Jews of Europe. After the Holocaust, and after the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism was no longer a set of ideas but it became a material reality.
Antizionists like to talk about Israel as though it is an idea, because if it is an idea, it can be a bad idea. That is why they like to deny that Israel is a nation state, because if it is a nation state, it just is; it cannot be good or bad; and it cannot be undone. Being against the existence of Israel today means siding with those who would destroy it.
We have learnt many times, and most recently from the experiences of the Yazidis, that minorities in the Middle East which cannot defend themselves are at grave existential risk.
- The campaign to boycott Israel is an antizionist campaign which aims to create such a hostility to Israelis that people will feel justified in excluding them from the global community of scholarship, arts, sport and business. We know from experience that anywhere that the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) campaign takes hold, antisemitism follows.
- Antisemitism takes an especially vicious form against Jewish women
Women Labour members, such as Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth, Margaret Hodge, Louise Ellman; and non-Jewish allies in the fight against antisemitism such as Joan Ryan, have had to endure specifically misogynist antisemitic abuse. There is something about a strong and articulate woman that antisemites find completely intolerable.
- Antisemitism tends to construct Jews such that don’t fit into the normal categories of understanding of social life
It constructs them as being outside of nation, outside of race, outside of class, and it constructs them as having a special relationship to gender.
Jews are targeted by white supremacists who believe them to pollute the ‘white race’. But Jews are also targeted by many antiracists, who believe them to be ‘white’ and then ‘privileged’ and then ‘white supremacist’.
Jews are targeted by antisemites who say that Jews are bourgeois, particularly involved in banking and finance capital, that they work for the capitalists; and that they play a special role in global imperialism. Jews are portrayed as part of a liberal elite and they are said to have more loyalty to those of their own kind around the world than to members of their own local, national or class communities.
Jews are also targeted as being Bolsheviks and ‘cultural Marxists’; and Marxists are targeted as being Jewish.
Jews are targeted when they have no nation of their own, as ‘cosmopolitans’; and they are targeted when they have a nation of their own, as ethnic nationalists.
- There are a few Jews who fight hard for antisemitic politics
There is an overwhelming and strong consensus against Labour antisemitism in the Jewish community. There is a consensus as to what antisemitism is and as to how it manifests itself.
But there is a small minority of Jews for whom hatred of Israel is an all-consuming passion. Many Jews are especially concerned with Israel. Some are especially concerned, and then obsessive, about its shortcomings. Antizionist Jews parade their Jewish identities, they speak ‘asaJew’, in order to try and portray the Jewish community as divided.
In truth, the institutions and individuals of the Jewish community are not divided: the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Holocaust Education Trust, the Community Security Trust, the synagogue movements, the Jewish Labour Movement, the list goes on… they know antisemitism when they see it.
But antizionist Jews do immense damage by trying to give Jewish legitimacy to politics which is dangerous to Jews.
If I were not Jewish, and I discovered that I had been taught antisemitic ways of thinking by my Jewish friends or comrades, I would be furious.
- Antisemitism and left and right wing populism
We have learnt that it is possible to be antisemitic even if you appear only to be concerned with the evils of Israel.
But we have also learnt, from people like Donald Trump and President Orban of Hungary, that some people who appear to be friends of Israel can also support antisemitic politics, and seek alliances with it.
On the left, antisemitism is often treated as a cry of the oppressed, while opposition to antisemitism is often treated as a discourse of power, trying to silence the oppressed.
On the right, xenophobia and racism are often treated as the cry of the oppressed, the ‘white working class’ or the ‘left behinds’, while opposition to racism is often treated as a discourse of power, a sly tool employed by those who wish to defend the status quo.
There is emerging a right wing Islamophobia in America, in Britain and in Europe which is analogous to left antisemitism in some ways; which is gaining the kind of apparent legitimacy in mainstream politics which five years ago it could only have dreamed about.
On the right, conspiracy fantasy about globalism, cosmopolitans, citizens of nowhere and the shadowy power behind politics, approaches closer and closer to antisemitic discourse.
Left and right populists both tend to see antisemitism and racism only in the other’s political family. “No, the real problem is over there!” they say, pointing at each other. In this way they license and legitimize the antisemitism or other forms of racism within their own political families.
Professor David Hirsh is the author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” and is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London