How Labour Could Start to Solve Its Anti-Semitism Crisis
With some introspection, Jeremy Corbyn could rebuild trust with British Jews.
A demonstration in Parliament Square against alleged issues of Labour party antisemitism, organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) in July. (Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News)
Antisemitism is a conspiracy theory, as Alana Newhouse puts it so well. It is a worldview that sees outsized, even omnipotent, power for Jews as a nefarious collective, quite distinct from prejudice against individual Jews. Antisemites may be perfectly courteous towards Jews as individuals and not think of themselves as holding the slightest prejudice, even while they unconsciously buy into antisemitic views of collective Jewish power and influence.
Many in the Labour party have yet to reconcile these two truths. Some racists hate the Other for the way they dress, or their smell, or their physical mannerisms, but this is almost never the case of antisemitism on the left. Instead, the left-leaning antisemite is an antisemite usually only unconsciously, who has bought into a fabricated, artificial vision of collective Jewish power and is determined to fight it.
This distinction, between physical hatred of individual Jews on the one hand, and an antisemitic conspiratorial worldview on the other, is the left's blind spot. Genuinely addressing antisemitism requires understanding that hatred of Jews can take both forms.
It is not enough to defend Jeremy Corbyn from charges of antisemitism, as some prominent commenters have done, by offering that some of his closest associates are Jews. For that matter, they add, when has he ever offered the slightest hint of physical hatred for Jewish people anyway? The charge against Corbyn is not that he detests Jewish people for physically existing.
Jews, after all, are hardly a rarity on the British radical left. Corbyn's wing of the Labour party remains strongly influenced by the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who fled the Nazis in 1940. For years, Corbyn would trundle to Tony Benn's home for meetings of Miliband's Independent Left Corresponding Society, tasked with formulating the programme for a "socialist Labour party".
Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum, has been friendly with Corbyn for decades. James Schneider, who works in Corbyn's office, is Jewish, as is Rhea Wolfson, a member of the pro-Corbyn majority on Labour's National Executive Committee. The Labour leader was perfectly comfortable attending a Seder dinner organised by Jewdas, a leftwing Jewish group vociferously critical of mainstream Jewish community organisations.
In short, Corbyn has no problem with Jews as individuals. He is not the moderate antisemite Jean-Paul Sartre evokes in Réflexions sur la Question Juive, who hisses that Jews – any Jews – "upset him physically".
Yet what has become painfully clear to many British Jews is that Corbyn has, at the very least, bought into classically antisemitic tropes of collective Jewish power and malevolence. In his case, the collective Jew of old has morphed into the Jewish state. Most likely, this is innocent and unintentional. Nonetheless, genuinely beginning to address the problem of antisemitism in the Labour party will involve a recognition that a leftist worldview is susceptible to tip into antisemitism, and an explanation of the reasons why.
To be on the left is to spend much of your time thinking about power relations between groups. Poor, weak countries bullied by the imperialism of aggressive wealthier powers; governments kowtowing to the whims of unaccountable lobbyists pushing the interests of brazen capital; the structural racism and sexism within Western society and its institutions.
And the problem which the left must address, if its fight for a more equitable society is to include Jews, is that a traditionally antisemitic worldview fits in very neatly into a leftist analysis of power structures. The German socialist August Bebel described antisemitism as "the socialism of fools", precisely because the wrong intellectual shortcuts can easily lead a dim leftist to the same conclusions as the far-right.
It is only a few steps from an interrogation of the influence of capital and lobbyists on governments to an interrogation of specifically Jewish capital and lobbyists on the functioning of the state. Denouncing military and economic superpowers bullying smaller countries into doing their bidding needs only a small prompt to include an outsize caricature of Israeli influence in international affairs, too.
(Needless to say, proportionately criticising Israeli leverage on foreign countries is not antisemitic. It is the ascribing of outsize power and unique malevolence to Israel that builds on traditional tropes of the international collective Jew, and is antisemitic.)
Sartre's moderate antisemite, before professing his physical disgust of Jews, offers: "I do not detest the Jews. I simply find it preferable, for various reasons, that they should play a lesser part in the activity of the nation."
This is typical left antisemitism, in only slightly cruder terms than usual. Sartre's collective, shadowy "they" corresponds precisely to the left's Jewish blind-spot. Since the forged Tsarist-era Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a key antisemitic trope has always been that Jews have a disproportionate influence on world affairs. When Corbyn baselessly describes seeing "the hand of Israel" behind an Islamist terror attack on Egypt, this is what British Jews hear the echo of.
There are few other ways to explain Corbyn laying a wreath at the graves of the Black September terrorists, as photos revealed this weekend – and, inconveniently, his own writing for the Morning Star – seem to confirm. Anyone who counters Israeli power, excessive and insidious as it is, is worth eulogising, even murderers of mere athletes aided by neo-Nazis. (Labour insist that Corbyn was attending a commemoration of 47 Palestinians killed in an Israeli airstrike on a Tunisian Palestine Liberation Organisation base in 1985.)
Such comments and actions can generously be ascribed to innocent ignorance, rather than deliberate prejudice. Yet Corbyn and his supporters' mentality has too often been to double down when criticised, rather than recognising and acknowledging them as, in hindsight, ill-informed and morally reprehensible. Many on the left also evince a persistent unwillingness to understand that it is perfectly possible to see the world through an antisemitic lens, even while being absolutely civil to individual Jews, as Corbyn undoubtedly is.
A good start for Corbyn to rebuild trust with British Jews – many of whose social values naturally align with Labour's, and whose young people are faced with exactly the same problems as the rest of the Labour-voting youth – would be a speech explaining how and why he came to form the worldview behind remarks like "the hand of Israel". He would outline how his analysis of power relations sometimes tipped into an outsize caricature of collective Jewish power, why he was wrong, and how others on the left can avoid doing the same.
British Jews are perfectly willing to embrace people who have previously made antisemitic comments, who have made a real effort at repentance, such as Naz Shah. It is a fiction, too, that the estrangement of British Jews from the Labour party is a result of differences of opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The immense majority of British Jews agree with the thrust of Labour stated positions on the conflict, including those harshly critical of the Israeli government.
The alienation of British Jews from the Labour party is neither natural nor inevitable. With the right steps, it can, and should, be reversed.