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How To Think Clearly About Anti-Semitism Controversies In The Labour Party

Condemning bigotry and critiquing Corbyn without indulging false smears…

On February 3, 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reported  having enjoyed a phone conversation with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The backlash came quickly in the form of condemnations of Corbyn as an anti-Semite from the likes of pundit Bret Stephens and writer Elad Nehorai,  who parlayed the accusation into a personal meeting with Ocasio-Cortez. The shoots of trans-Atlantic socialist solidarity must be carefully nurtured if they’re ever to bear real fruit, but they’re already being shadowed by the great scandal of Corbyn’s record as Labour Party leader: the controversy over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.  Attacks long mounted in Britain will now be repeated here, and socialists will be called upon to respond, at risk of being branded as anti-Semites. How should we do so?

My purpose here is not to speak for all Jews or all Jewish socialists. Instead, I want us to think carefully about how our support for Corbyn should mesh with our anti-racist commitments, our solidarity with Palestine, and our critical perspective on the narratives offered by the establishment media. I also want to warn against offhandedly dismissing the accusations as being standard attacks launched against critics of Israel. This controversy is much less about Israel than it is about the internal politics of the Labour Party and its imbrication with the highly centralized British media complex.

The anti-Semitism charges against Corbyn take three forms. The first—not in order of importance—is that Corbyn is personally an anti-Semite. The evidence for this is exceedingly slim, with the best argument being a decontextualized snippet about a certain group of Zionists not understanding “English irony.” It is not possible to argue productively about the contents of Corbyn’s mind, but at worst we might say that like most people (including some Jews!) he is not immune to the background anti-Semitism and xenophobia of British culture. Ultimately, personal anti-Semitism is not the main reason behind the impression of crisis that surrounds his leadership—rather, it’s about his associations and relationships, first as a left-wing activist and now as Labour leader.

Hence the second type of charge, which derives from Corbyn’s long decades of involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement—for example, speaking at events where people with a record of anti-Semitism were also present. It is by no means the case that anti-Semitism is inherent to the cause of Palestinian solidarity, and in fact it has been quite damaging to it, but any non-mainstream movement will attract bad-faith as well as good-faith supporters. Sometimes these are people who have a known record of repeating blood libel accusations; sometimes the charge is merely that they are associated with Hamas or similar Palestinian groups. Yet Hamas leads the elected government of Gaza, and it would be difficult to avoid any association with it as a genuine solidarity activist. The strategy most often taken by the centrist and right-wing press is to comb Corbyn’s record for such appearances, conduct what amounts to opposition research on all of the people present at the same event, and then accuse Corbyn of not having done the same.

This charge should be taken seriously, but not because it shows Corbyn to be an anti-Semite. It shows him to have made different (and perhaps worse or worse-informed) decisions about the balance between the value of solidarity and the danger of complicity than other Labour leaders have done. In the same way, radical Black activists in the United States are often reluctant to fully disassociate themselves from Louis Farrakhan, because they have seen the positive aspects of the Nation of Islam’s inner-city organizing and not just the toxic fallout of its homophobia and anti-Semitism. These are not dilemmas most Democratic politicians have ever had to confront, just as past Labour leaders have not faced the dilemma of Palestinian solidarity, because they have rarely stood in solidarity with Palestinians (or radical Black activists).

The third charge is of a similar kind: that as Labour leader, Corbyn has failed to decisively reject anti-Semites within and around his party and thus “solve the problem.” It is absolutely true that Corbyn’s first instinct has not been to call for the expulsion of anyone accused in the press of anti-Semitism, and that instead he has waffled publicly or deferred to the authority of internal disciplinary bodies. In the case of former London mayor Ken Livingstone, for instance, this has led to a genuine anti-Semite being allowed to stick around far longer than he should have. But here again the tradeoffs are difficult. If Corbyn took press accusations alone as sufficient to prove anti-Semitism, he would have himself resigned as an anti-Semite long ago, to the satisfaction of the Labour right. His instinct is to doubt these accusations because they are so often deployed in bad faith. People around him have sometimes been accused of anti-Semitism in cases where either the alleged perpetrator, the accuser, or both seemed genuinely unclear about the line between anti-Semitism and legitimate anti-Zionism: In one case, Corbyn was attacked (and apologized) for chairing a talk by the Holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer which criticized the Israeli state’s deployment of the Holocaust for its own ends. Moreover, his treatment by the media is so one-sided that it appears to validate this suspicion: Any statements or policies Corbyn adopts against anti-Semitism are treated as half-hearted forced apologies, while instances of hesitation are taken as proof of underlying anti-Semitic commitments.

The problem with this type of accusation, then, is that it assumes that “anti-Semitism” is a fixed term with a straightforward meaning and not a fundamentally contested concept. We can all agree, I hope, that it is anti-Semitic to accuse Jews of ritual murder or claim that Jews were told to stay home on 9/11. But is any statement which accuses the Israeli state of having blood on its hands a callback to the legacy of blood libel? There are many people who think so, including leftists, but also many others who don’t—and probably still more people who are unaware that any statement about Jews or Israel might intentionally or unintentionally evoke a trope from thousands of years of discrimination and persecution. If we allow our definition of anti-Semitism to be determined purely by a media apparatus and political class which detests Corbyn for other reasons and has rarely shown any compunction about conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, we’re giving up an important political battlefield.

No matter how clear or tenuous the line is in any particular case, the overall impression these accusations have created is that Corbyn is an anti-Semite. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of British Jews think so (though in 2015, when the party was led by the Jewish center-leftist Ed Miliband, probably less than a quarter of British Jews voted for it). This is not proof of anti-Semitism, any more than Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is proof that he is an effective leader. Polling data is remarkably sensitive to the media climate: A steady drumbeat of media reports can effectively manufacture consensus, as the right-wing British press did around migrants and “Brussels bureaucrats” in the run-up to Brexit. Corbyn, too, is the victim of such a treatment, not just by the right but also by the center-left wing of the establishment. It is not a conspiracy and certainly not a conspiracy of Jews who “control the media.” It is about the confluence of interests between the right-wing press, which seeks to demonize Corbyn as the foremost alternative to Theresa May’s Conservative party, and the center-left press, which seeks to demonize Corbyn because he represents a threat to the New Labour establishment that controls it. Under his leadership, Labour has argued for renationalizing key utilities, raising taxes on corporations and the rich, and defending the rights of workers—all policies aimed at reversing the party’s rightward drift since New Labour’s ascendancy in the 1990s. Anti-Semitism is only the most resonant of a whole bouquet of smears targeted at him, from accusations of being a Soviet agent to “following the Trump playbook.” That the critiques are not fundamentally about anti-Semitism at all is demonstrated by the fact that not even Labour’s adoption of the extremely broad definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (which brands the term “Israeli apartheid” as beyond the pale) has earned Corbyn any credit with the media. The attacks will not stop until he resigns and New Labour is returned to power.

Mainstream Jewish organizations in the U.K., both within and outside the Labour Party, have fallen in line with this narrative, in part because they share with New Labour a fundamental commitment to Zionism. Like their counterparts in the United States, such as the Anti-Defamation League and J-Street, these organizations are invested in protecting their image as spokespeople for the opinions of Jews as a whole. This means that even as they offer the non-Jewish world an apparently unified front, they are constantly marginalizing Jews who disagree with their unwavering support for the Israeli occupation as a self-hating fringe. In the U.K., this became nakedly apparent when Corbyn attended a seder hosted by the radical Jewish leftist group Jewdas: This was taken as evidence of his anti-Semitism, because the Jews he was seeking to build bridges with were not part of the mainstream monolith. In the reasoning of the British media, anti-Semitism is not defined by anti-Jewishness but by falling outside of a magic circle which is itself defined in center-left or right-wing terms. The cynically apocalyptic tone of the British Jewish establishment’s claim that Corbyn is an “existential threat” to British Jewry is a testament to how far it will go to cry wolf in the service of this agenda.

Jewish socialists affiliated with U.S. left-wing groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have long recognized the danger of conflating the political line of establishment Jewish organizations with the true interests and opinions of the community—even when the establishment appears to represent the current views of the majority of Jews. Not only does this misrepresent the diversity of opinion within the community, it also aligns its interests with Israel, whose leader Benjamin Netanyahu has built a global network of authoritarian friends and supporters who share his ethnonationalist goal of portraying the world outside of Israel as inherently unlivable and unsuited for Jews. For those of us who have no intention of moving there, this ominous agenda is far more threatening than the questionable decisions Corbyn has made as leader. Today, anti-Semitism is just as compatible with Zionism as it is with anti-Zionism, as Richard Spencer’s vehement support for Israel suggests.

But the questions surrounding Corbyn are bigger than Israel per se. Like all segments of British society, the Labour Party does harbor elements of anti-Semitism, and it is even possible that Labour’s realignment has allowed fringe anti-Semitic voices to surface which had previously been suppressed by New Labour’s dominance. We cannot allow our positions on this issue to simply echo a media establishment whose goals differ so widely from ours, and neither can we dismiss anti-Semitism as a problem.

Instead, we should take our cues from our socialist (and especially Jewish socialist) comrades in the U.K., who have proposed that the anti-Semitism crisis become an opportunity for democratization and political education in the Labour Party. As they argue, the anti-Semitic currents in Corbynism are not the result of having indulged the far Left too much. Instead, they originate from a nostalgic nationalism, common on the left of the party, that yearns for the socialist England of the postwar years but lacks a broader internationalist horizon. When Corbyn defends strong borders, restrictions on freedom of movement, and more police on the beat, he is drawing on this same legacy with even more serious effects. Corbyn is not an anti-Semite, nor is anti-Semitism the most important issue facing Labour or Britain. But his errors of judgment in dealing with the anti-Semitism question can only be productively addressed by further pushing the party in a left-wing direction, not by caving in to right-wing blackmail. As sympathizers abroad, we should both resist the wholesale importation of the British establishment narrative into the U.S. and make distinctions between the progressive and regressive forces within the Labour Party.

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