Above: David Schneider’s response to the claim “there’s no evidence”
The continuing row over antisemitism within the Labour party has tended to generate more heat than light: yours is one of the more considered and well-argued contributions, which is why I’m writing this response.
It’s usually best, in my experience, to start debates by establishing some common ground. You start your piece by describing the events leading up to the expulsion of anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth following his denunciation of the anti-Corbyn Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of the Chakrabarti report in 2016. You suggest that Smeeth’s response to the incident, and the accusation that Wadsworth’s intervention was antisemitic, was a put-up job by Smeeth and others on the Labour right and the media: I agree with you.
Having watched the video of the incident, I can see no evidence that Wadsworth’s behaviour (though it may have been ill-judged) was antisemitic and, like you, I oppose his expulsion (on the ground of “bringing the party into disrepute”, of course: not antisemitism).
But the fact that Smeeth is on the right of the party and outspokenly hostile to Corbyn, does not mean that she is just cynically using a false allegation of antisemism where there is none. There is no evidence that Wadsworth’s behaviour was antisemitic, but does that mean the Smeeth and others like her have simply invented the whole issue of antisemitism within Labour and more broadly on the left, for factional purposes – that they have, in fact “weaponised” a non-existent (or utterly insignificant) issue simply to attack Corbyn?
I don’t believe so. In order to “weaponise” an issue there has to be something there in the first place. I first heard the term used in the run-up to the 2015 general election, when the Tory press and media accused Ed Miliband (accurately) of having a plan to “weaponise” the issue of NHS underfunding. The point was, of course, that this could only work if there really was a crisis in the NHS. The same goes for antisemitism within Labour and on the radical left.
The first major problem I have with your piece, Kitty, is that you’re unclear – bordering on evasive – as to whether or not you accept that there is an antisemitism problem of any significance within Labour and the left. In the course of your piece you ask “Is antisemitism worse in the Labour Party than in others?” (giving the answer “The evidence suggests not”); then you talk about “the Labour Party’s alleged antisemitism” (my emphasis), before going on to say “I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible … I will maintain, however, that it is no greater problem within the Labour party than it is in wider society.”
You then go on to cite a survey (by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research) that found that (a) levels of antisemitism in Britain “are amongst the lowest in the world”, and (b) that (you say) “Far from being an issue for the left, the prejudice gets worse the further right on the political spectrum that you look.”
Do you not see, Kitty, what terrible arguments these are for a left winger to be using? How complacent it sounds to be saying, in effect ‘antisemitism in Labour is no worse than in society as a whole, the right is worse than the left, and anyway, antisemitism in Britain is a low level problem’?
Surely the left should hold itself to higher standards than that!
But in any case, the claim that antisemitism is a low level, minor and exceptional problem within Labour and the left, is simply not true. The actor David Schneider (who seems to be quite sympathetic towards Corbyn) drew up the list of examples at the top of this piece in frustration at people on the left claiming there is “no evidence” of antisemitism on the left. A longer and more detailed list can be found here (yes I know: it’s from the Tory Spectator and it includes a few ‘examples’ that I don’t agree with – but the vast majority of examples, up to an including holocaust denial, are verifiable facts).
A large part of the problem that people like us, on the left, are having in discussing antisemitism on our own side, is because there is no generally accepted understanding of what left antisemitism is, and an assumption that it’s a form of racism and that, therefore, the anti-racist left cannot possibly be antisemitic.
No, indeed, apart from a few crackpots (although a surprising number of them do seem to have emerged of late), left-wing antisemites are in the main, not racist. But there was antisemitism before there was 20th century anti-Jewish racism. And there is still antisemitism of different sorts, long after disgust with Nazi-style racism, and overt racism of any sort, became part of the mental and emotional furniture of all half-way decent people, and especially of left-wing people.
For centuries, antisemitism was a Christian phenomenon: the Jews killed Christ (so the story went) and, as a result, Jews ever since have endorsed the rejection of the Saviour and the guilt of their forebears.
“Who condemned Jesus Christ to death? Pontius Pilate did it as the desire of the Jews” — that response only recently ceased to be part of the catechism taught to Catholic children. The basic idea, and spinoffs from it, are still there.
But we’re not racists! We love the Jews! All they have to do in order to be accepted by Christian society is to reject their faith and convert to Christianity! It was not about race, eugenics, or (as Hitler would put it in the twentieth century), “blood”: contemporary left antisemites mainly recoil from Nazi-style anti-Jewish racism, but they do recycle earlier Christian antisemitism, in secular, ideological form: all the Jews of today have to do in order to be accepted is renounce and denounce Zionism and Israel. Once they’ve done that, they’re welcome into the fold of the left. The cry goes out, “We’re not being anti-Jewish when we denounce Israel, but anti-Zionist”. And sometimes, at this point, you get the addition: “By the way, I am myself Jewish”.
The militant anti-racist (and non-Zionist) Jew, Steve Cohen, in his pamphlet (that I strongly recommend) That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti Semitic expressed his disgust at this “disloyalty test” set by the left (in this particular case, by the union NATFHE – forerunner of the UCU) for Jews, comparing it to the McCarthy “loyalty test”:
The question of course was whether [Ring Lardner] was or had ever been a member of the Communist Party. To which he replied “I could answer the question exactly the way you want , but if I did I would hate myself in the morning”.
I am sure Lardner, whatever his position on Zionism (if he had one) would have responded in exactly the same way to the resolution passed at the NATFHE conference which calls for a “a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from” Israeli governmental policies towards Palestinians. It is this imposition of a loyalty test which is so reminiscent of McCarthyism. And of course Lardner did not stand alone. The playwright Lillian Hellman famously said “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”. The fact that this year’s fashion – support for the Palestinians – is to be supported whereas old fashioned anti-communism is to be condemned – is irrelevant. The issue here is loyalty tests. It is being forced into making an open and public political statement not out of principle but out of blackmail.
Loyalty tests have a particular significance when forced on Jews. The significance is the assumption of collective responsibility, of collective guilt. Intrinsic to this is the requirement to grovel. Groveling, the humiliation of Jews, is fundamental to all anti-semitism. Degradation ceremonies are central to Jew-hatred. Remember those shocking images of Nazi Berlin where rabbis were forced to scrub pavements. Likewise it was central to McCarthyism.
I should add that this criticism applies (in my opinion) to “leftist” and “anti-Zionist” Jewish organisations like Jewish Voice for Labour and the Jewish Socialist Group (of which Steve Cohen was a somewhat dissident member), whose zeal in upholding the traditions of the Bund against Zionism often seems to blind them to real instances of antisemitism. It also seems to create a strange mindset in which these comrades seem to think that there’s something particularly sinister and/or outrageous when the Tories of the Jewish Board of Deputies act like any other Tories, or the Labour Zionists of the Jewish Labour Movement, act like Labour Zionists.
Now, lets deal with the question of Israel (although in your piece, I note that you scarcely touch on the subject): by “left-wing antisemitism” people like me emphatically do not mean political criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are antisemites, even though these days all antisemites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist antisemites, are avowed “anti-Zionists”.
Israel frequently deserves criticism. Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories and its general treatment of the Palestinians deserve outright condemnation. The oppressed Palestinians need to be politically defended against Israeli governments and the Israeli military. The only halfway equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a viable, independent Palestinian state in a viable, contiguous territory, side by side with Israel, needs to be argued for and upheld against Israeli power and the present ultra-right wing Israeli government.
The difference here between left-wing antisemites and honest critics of Israel – a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs – is a straightforward one of policy.
The left-wing antisemites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated. The root problem, say the left-wing antisemites, is that Israel exists.
The root “crime of Zionism” is that it advocated and brought into existence “the Zionist state of Israel”.
Bitterly, and often justly, criticising specific Israeli policies, actions, and governments, seemingly championing the Palestinians, left-wing antisemites seek no specific redress in Israel or from Israel, demanding only that Israel should cease to exist or be put out of existence.
The attitude of the “anti-Zionist” left to Israel brings with it a comprehensive hostility to most Jews everywhere – those who identify with Israel and who defend its right to exist. These are not just people with mistaken ideas: they are “Zionists”.
Finally, is a certain form of (usually non-racist) antisemitism a specific problem on the left, and, if so, why?
I would answer, yes it it. As to why:
Clearly, the Israel/Palestine conflict has a lot to do with it, together with crude concepts of “anti-imperialism” resulting in a de facto stance of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, as propagated by Stalinism and the likes of the Stop The War Coalition. But the problem pre-dates that, and runs deeper. Not for nothing did the late-19th Century German Social Democrats describe antisemitism as “the socialism of fools” (“Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle“): the phrase is frequently attributed to August Bebel, but probably originated with the Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter; the important thing is that it was in general use among German Social Democrats by the 1890s (according to Wikipedia) and for a reason: they recognised that “left wing” antisemitism existed and was a problem.
The reason seems to me to be the lack of a proper understanding of capitalism as a system by many who identify as leftists, and the simplistic appeal of conspiracy theories (particularly about finance capital) that become (to use Marxist jargon) fetishes – forms of thought that relate to the superficial appearance of capitalist social relations, not the underlying dynamics of the system of generalised commodity production itself (see Moishe Postone’s detailed examination of this): thus the tendency of uneducated leftists to see the world in terms of “elites” (as opposed to the ruling class) who “rig the system” unfairly, rather than seeing and understanding capitalism as an essentially impersonal system based upon exploitation and the extraction of surplus value. Such pre-Marxist thinking (Marx called it, ironically, “True Socialism“) leads naturally to conspiracy theories about finance capital, cosmopolitanism, Jewish bankers, etc, etc.
In conclusion: the antisemitism of significant sections of the left is not racist as such. It is however difficult to imagine what degree of extra hostility to Israel and to “Zionists” (Jews with a reflex identification with Israel) the “left” would generate if it were racist.
I very much hope you consider this a fair and reasoned response to your article, Kitty – even if you don’t agree with it all.