Antisemitism in Labour: as we saw it in 2018

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2020 - 2:08 Author: Sean Matgamna
Evening Standard front page

For sure, his opponents in the party and the Tory press are out to get Jeremy Corbyn.

One of two things then: either they’re telling the truth on this matter or they aren’t. Either there is a problem of antisemitism in the party or there isn’t. Either his critics are lying or exaggerating, and should then be stood up to and faced down. Or they are telling the truth; in which case Corbyn should energetically set about digging out Labour Party antisemitism by the roots.

Corbyn agrees there is a problem. He responds under pressure, moves in the direction his critics are pointing to, but it is as if he cannot understand what the fuss is about. He apologises, retracts, insists that he meant no antisemitism or to be offensive; was not responsible for and did not agree with what other people said, uncontradicted, in his presence. But everything is low energy, insufficient, ineffectual, can be seen or portrayed as evasive, as lacking conviction. John McDonnell has gently distanced himself from Corbyn.


Corbyn can’t get a grip on the situation. His article in the Guardian (3 August 2018) is the latest case in point. Much good sentiment and promises. A principled stand on the right to criticise Israel. And then he defines the situation as one in which the Palestinians have been victims of racism. Losers in a prolonged national conflict, yes. Victims of wrong, yes. And the distinction between racism and nationalism is habitually blurred. But the false definition of Israel as racist (followed by identification of Israel with South Africa) is one of the main roots of “left” antisemitism.

The truth, I think, is that Corbyn really does not “get it”, or “get” enough of it. In the thirty-five years he has been an MP, and earlier, he has lived in a world in which what other people defined as antisemitism was commonplace among much of the ostensible left. Labour Party antisemitism is in large part an infection from the ostensible left. Corbyn and the people around him and much of the left have been desensitised to antisemitism because it has long been the norm on the ostensible left.

He says he is for two states in Israel-Palestine. Some of his political friends do not support a two-state solution. The intense rhetoric against Israel, its demonisation, the comment on events, is always at a higher volume, is more intense, more all-encompassing, more hysterical, more “hate Israel” than is compatible with a two-state solution.

That of course means recognising not only that the Palestinians have a right to their own state, but also that Israel is a legitimate state and has a right to defend itself. The full scale implications of the continual stream of hatred spewed out does not match with the belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself. It matches the view that Israel is not a legitimate state and that it has no right of self-defence. The kitsch revolutionary left is saturated with it and it is infectious.

This crisis about antisemitism in the Labour Party was a long time germinating. Take the Morning Star, the paper with which Corbyn seems to agree — he hasn’t said otherwise — and for which he used to write a column until 2015. Recently it published an article loudly proclaiming that antisemitism in places like Britain will stop if and only if Israel stops ill-treating the Palestinians. It is a nearly plain statement that antisemitism, and the specially “left” antisemitism, is justified. That is what many of the “left” antisemites think. Under criticism the paper apologised for printing it and retracted, for what that was worth.

TheMorning Star of course, as the Daily Worker during the full scale antisemitic campaign of Stalin in the years before 1953, fed into the labour movement much that has now become the commonplace wisdom of the ostensible left. For instance the equation of Zionism and Nazism.

The Labour Left, the Corbyn surge, will inevitably undergo a political process of sifting, differentiating different political positions. The process of sifting and sorting out on this question is long, long overdue.

It is seriously to be doubted that there are many supporters of the left among the leaders of the Jewish community or the editors of the three newspapers that cater to the Jewish community. On a certain level their general politics will feed into the anti-Corbyn agitation.

But they are not in this being right-wing zealots or hypocrites. And there will be some amongst them who play close attention to the left, and its incipient pogromist agitation against Israel and those who support it. They are not fools. They know that the “Corbyn surge” has put into power in the Labour Party people who are “absolute anti-Zionists”, people who are radical anti-Israel zealots and supporters of Arab or Islamic conquest of Israel and the forcible abolition of the Jewish state.

And that there are people, including Jeremy Corbyn, who have peacefully co-existed with such people, and shared platforms and publications with them, instead of denouncing and stigmatising them for the antisemites they are. That for this left, though its sympathy and solidarity is the “good reason”, hostility to Israel — any Israel, with any policy on the Palestinians — is a great deal more powerful than support for the Palestinians. That it is autonomous, self-justifying, self-sustaining. That it finds or merges in with earlier strains of antisemitism, of which there are many.

“Large parts of the ostensible left are antisemitic”

The horrible truth that has to be faced is that large parts of the ostensible left are — for all practical purposes — antisemitic, hostile to Israel’s very existence, denying any Israeli right to self-defence. That they endorse and circulate malice-ridden accounts of the history of Zionism and Israel and that from that comes emotion-ridden hostility to Jews who defend Israel and refuse to see it as racism and imperialism incarnate. That is, most Jews alive. That they are a left that allies with Palestinian (Hamas) and other clerical fascists and with groups of people in Arab and Muslim-majority countries who circulate old Nazi antisemitic filth. That itself circulates the old Stalinist antisemitic filth. That they consist of people who are not abashed, shamed or inhibited to find themselves running in a pack in full cry after the very people on which the worst racist atrocity in recorded history was inflicted.

In their perception of the left here, Jewish people — whether they are of the left or the right in their general politics — are not mistaken to distrust and be fearful of that group that now leads the Labour Party. They know that the tendency of the ostensible left to use Nazi images and comparisons to express opposition and criticism to Israel is specifically and pointedly anti-Jewish, a form of jeering and thick-skinned baiting of all Jewish people in their recent tragic history.

On one level episodes like the scandal-mongering around the [Pete] Willsman affair blow it out of all proportion. He is an irascible old man. His remarks at the Labour Party National Executive are the words of someone stung in his Labour Party patriotism and simple-mindedly blustering and harrumphing. But what he said illustrates the scale and depth of the problem of left antisemitism in the party. He hasn’t noticed! But is inability to recognise left antisemitism or give it proper weight in itself antisemitism?

The serious question is can Corbyn deal with antisemitism in the Labour Party? Is not asking him to strike at his long-time friends and associates — including his right hand man Seamus Milne — too much like asking him to lift himself up by his bootstraps?

Corbyn is for two states. If he takes that seriously he should want to sort out the “destroy Israel” people in the Labour Party. He should insist that advocates of the destruction of Israel have no place in the Labour Party; that comparisons of Israel, when it does things we don’t like, to the Nazis is not acceptable; that it is pointedly, and deliberately, offensively, antisemitic.

It is necessary to preserve the right to criticise Israel as severely as events dictate. But denial of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself is not criticising Israeli actions. It is possible to make specific criticisms or condemn Israeli actions without resorting to obscene and preposterous equations.

Corbyn should sort out the antisemites.

• From Solidarity 476, August 2018 (slightly trimmed): original here.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.