Why Momentum Must Not Fire Jackie Walker Over Her 'Anti-Semitism' Scandal

She's already been suspended from Labour. To fire her from the pro-Corbyn group would be a huge mistake.

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Oct 3 2016, 1:10pm

The lectern at the "Momentum Jamboree" last year (Photo: Michael Segalov)

Jackie Walker is Jewish. The vice-chair of Momentum, who was suspended from Labour over the weekend, is facing widespread outrage for comments made at a training day on anti-Semitism organised by the Jewish Labour Movement, widely interpreted as diminishing the importance of the Holocaust and insulting the history of Jewish suffering.

At the meeting she contested the EUMC draft definition of anti-Semitism (which includes opposition to the State of Israel, and which has been adopted by some Zionist groups despite never being formally endorsed by any of the agencies that drew it up) and said that it would "be wonderful if Holocaust Day was open to all peoples who have experienced holocaust". For those who choose to believe this sort of thing, it's more evidence that the political Left is increasingly infested with Jew-hatred, or even that the two have become indistinguishable – that the Labour party is simply not a place where Jewish members can feel welcome or comfortable any more.

But put aside for a moment what she actually said – if we're going to be making accusations of anti-Semitism, isn't it worth recognising the fact that the person being accused is herself Jewish? Whether or not Jewish people are capable of being anti-Semites – it's a thorny question, and very difficult to answer – shouldn't the fact that Jackie Walker is Jewish at least be put into consideration?

Strangely, this really isn't happening. The Guardian's report on the scandal at no point mentions Walker's Jewishness, except when directly quoting her. The Independent does the same thing. A call for Walker's suspension from MP Tulip Siddiq and Jewish Labour's Mike Katz in the New Statesman omits any mention of Walker's Jewishness altogether. "When one Jewish member feels hostility towards them for being Jewish," they write, "it should be a concern for us all." What about a Jewish member who is facing not only hostility from within the party, but what amounts to a wholesale erasure of her Jewish identity?

It's hard not to see this as racism. Jackie Walker is of mixed heritage, both Jewish and black Jamaican; it's easy for white Jews to dismiss her as being not fully Jewish. When the pronouncements of a few unrepresentative and unelected "Jewish community leaders" are taken to be representative of our entire community, black, leftist, pro-Palestinian Jews like Jackie Walker don't fit into simple conceptual categories. (And it's worth remembering that this Jewish inability to be easily assimilated into existing structures was a major factor in pre-war European anti-Semitism.) But if Jews can be anti-Semitic – and this is what Walker's critics are tacitly claiming – then her treatment is also bald and despicable anti-Semitism.

In this arena, at least, Jewish people are held to an absurd double standard. Indian scholars who write defences of British colonialism are not usually accused of racism against their own people; black activists who want to include other struggles in their movement aren't considered any less black for it. People who belong to most other minorities can express attitudes that would be considered racist if they came from anyone else – people within the community might disagree, but it's understood that they're including themselves here, that there's an irony at work. But not Jews.

Jewish identity is precarious and vanishing. Even the most minimal gesture of opposition to Israel – something which should and must not be conflated with anti-Semitism – is met with fury and delegitimisation. Any Jewish person at all active in Palestine advocacy will, sooner or later, be accused of being a "self-hating Jew", of not really being Jewish, of hating their own people – and more often than not, this is coming from gentiles who can't tell their menorah from their arsehole. Non-Jewish people like the Spectator's Nick Cohen, who, despite the name, is as kosher as a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach, make a living calling Jews who oppose the Israeli occupation anti-Semites. I've received the same treatment – most recently, I've been accused of being improperly Jewish by Breitbart's Raheem Kassam, who, at a guess, has never spun a dreidel in his life.

Can Jews be anti-Semitic? There are some unambiguous examples – the writer, jazz musician and "ex-Jew" Gilad Atzmon is a strong candidate. But Jewishness has always been marked by an anxiety about itself; from the prophets of the Old Testament to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, you'll find Jewish people at war with their own Jewishness, ready to accept every demeaning stereotype about their own people, and wishing to be done with the whole painful business of being a Jew.

This kind of ambiguity is basic and structural to our experience of history, which is precisely why it's an entirely different matter when potentially questionable statements about the Holocaust or Israel are coming from a Jewish person. This is complex and murky territory; the non-Jews who rush into it screaming about anti-Semitism can very quickly find themselves lost, and on very shaky ground.

I've said before that people on the left really ought to stop using the Holocaust to score rhetorical points, that the death of six million Jews shouldn't be utilised to win a political argument. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk about the Holocaust, or the way it's remembered and represented, at all. Jackie Walker, who is Jewish, brought it up at a Jewish event, attended mostly by other Jews. We have a long tradition of debate and contention; the issue of the extent to which the Holocaust should be remembered as a discretely Jewish event (separate from the experience of all the Communists and gays and dissidents who died in the same camps) is a legitimate one. It might not be opportune to bring it up on Question Time, or in Parliament, but if we can't talk about it in this kind of space, where can we?

Firing Jackie Walker would be a terrible tactical error for Momentum, letting its opponents know that they can get rid of anyone they like – even the group's second-in-command – just by making frivolous accusations. But more than anything, if she's suspended today, it'll only show just how difficult being a Jew on the left really is

@sam_kriss

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