Labour must learn to separate Jewishness from Israel
23 September 2018 09:38
In recent days, Jewish families across the UK have come together to celebrate the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the Jewish new year and Day of Atonement, respectively. This weekend, the Labour family has come together in Liverpool for their annual conference.
What these gatherings have had, and will have, in common is the major topic of conversation: the antisemitism crisis that has rocked the Labour party. Today, the first day of the conference, the Jewish Labour Movement will host a major rally with MPs including Wes Streeting, Dame Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth, all of whom have spoken out against antisemitism. The next day, Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East will hold an event chaired by Lisa Nancy MP (who has been a strong voice against antisemitism), called ‘Existence is Resistance: Supporting Palestine’s Next Generation’.
This issue has rumbled on for almost as long as Corbyn has led the party, but scaled new heights as the party’s governing National Executive Committee (NEC) got itself into a tangle over accepting the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism.
At the heart of this debate was a fear among leftwingers that they would not be able to be critical of the Israeli Government without being accused of antisemitism. As anyone who has actually bothered to look at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and its associated examples will know, this is complete nonsense. If this were not so, many Jews, and a large number of Israelis, would very quickly fall foul of the definition themselves.
As Professor Alan Dershowitz pointed out in his famous work The Case for Israel, this obfuscation and semantic distraction has been going on for decades. ‘The big lie that is being repeated all around the United States, especially on university campuses, is that anyone who is critical of Israeli policies or the Sharon government will automatically be labeled an anti-Semite,’ he wrote.
This is exactly the argument the British Left uses now. As I say, it is nonsensical to say that you cannot criticise a democracy, especially when so many citizens and supporters of that democracy do exactly that day-in-day-out.
The contortions of the Left to try and justify their concerns at the IHRA definition, and to generally dismiss the issue of antisemitism, disclose a more fundamental problem: the Corbynites’ inability to separate Jews and the Jewish diaspora from the State of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the mind of far too many, they are one and the same.
As the Jewish Chronicle reported, shortly after being elected to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee on the pro-Corbyn #JC9 slate, Huda Elmi said that the IHRA definition has ‘dubious legal grounding according to several high profile QCs… doesn’t work to effectively combat antisemitism… and even the author of the IHRA has criticised its current use’. (This is untrue. In 2010, the author Ken Stern did indeed take issue with particular examples of its wrongful usage. But he actually went on to say that ‘It remains a very good and useful definition’.) Elmi added that the caveat statement appended by Labour does ‘nothing to address the issue of silencing Palestinian history, Palestinian voices’.
In its most extreme form, this attack takes the form of explicit claims that Israel is directly behind Labour’s antisemitism crisis. Ken Livingstone put boosters under this spurious argument when he defended the Labour MP Naz Shah in April 2016 – claiming, on BBC London Radio, that she was being subjected to a ‘well-orchestrated campaign by the Israeli lobby’. PCS union chief Mark Serwotka acted in similar fashion on 13 September, when he claimed that Israel had ‘created a story that does not exist,’ in order to deflect criticism from recent events in Gaza.
The same confluence of Jewish people and Israel specifically was clear in Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion in 2013 that British Zionists ‘clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.’ In context, it is clear he is using Zionist as a synonym for Jew.
In the minds of Corbyn, Serwotka and others, there is no difference between Jews, Zionists and Israelis. For all the logic-chopping, semantic quibbles and social-media fury unleashed by the Corbynites, it is important not to lose sight of the straightforward fact that these particular comments were outright instances of antisemitism.
Foul as they were, they were at least easy to call out. But there is a far more insidious side to the phenomenon: harder to spot, but equally troubling. It comes in the form of ‘whataboutery’ – the crude rhetorical technique deployed by people responding to columnists, commentators and Jewish communal leaders who call out examples of antisemitism. It generally takes the form of a broad demand that British Jews and their allies condemn something the Israeli government may or may not have done – almost as an admission ticket to subsequent discussion. It often seems that every discussion on this subject somehow results in British Jews being asked to justify or to condemn the actions of a foreign government they cannot vote for.
Even in the now-famous New Statesman interview with former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, which was otherwise expertly conducted, Sacks was asked to comment on the controversial Nation-State Law that had just been passed in Israel. Why? He is not Israeli, and a piece of legislation passed by a foreign government has nothing to do with antisemitism here in the UK.
It is worth noting that when the Jewish community rallied in Westminster under the ‘Enough is Enough’ banner, to protest Labour antisemitism, it was made very clear that this protest was not about Israel. It was about outright discrimination against the Jewish community. Those who attended were even requested not to bring Israeli flags in order to show the clear separation of the issues. (In typical Jewish fashion, there were one or two dissenters!)
A similar protest was held by the Jewish community in Manchester last Sunday, 16 September. In response, Jewish Voice for Labour, a fringe group that exists in opposition to the mainstream and respected Jewish Labour Movement, issued the following statement: ‘For the last three years there has been a concerted effort to discredit and unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition, a man who is quite possibly the most consistent anti-racist leader the Labour Party has ever known. This campaign has been led by a coalition of groups which are deeply opposed to Jeremy’s championing of Palestinian rights, together with political opponents many of who have shown little previous interest in combatting antisemitism.’
Setting aside the rather nasty whiff of conspiracy-theorising, the mention of Palestinian rights is important to notice. To repeat: the protest in question had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. But this is seemingly the only prism through which such people can understand the Jewish people, and therefore the only context in which they can understand antisemitism.
Interestingly, the aforementioned Naz Shah has shown that there are people on the Left willing to reflect and change. Since becoming embroiled in controversy, she has worked with the Jewish community to understand why the things she had previously said had been so offensive – and has apologized for them. The crucial point is that, to do this, she has not had to withhold her support for the Palestinian cause nor dampen her criticism of the Israeli government. She has learned that the issues are separate. Sadly, a great many of her comrades refuse to recognise the distinction.
The problem, I think, partly reflects the extent to which leftwing politics and thought has been founded on the idea of blocs. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto begins: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed.’
Today, in the post-New Labour era, the party’s most senior figures, like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, say without evasion or embarrassment that their key intellectual influences are the ‘fundamental Marxist writers [sic] of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky’. At the same time, leading Left-wing commentators and Corbyn supporters like Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar feel comfortable shouting ‘I’m literally a communist’ at Piers Morgan, live on Good Morning Britain. So I think it is fair to say that this tendency is alive and well amongst many on the Left.
In the minds of such people, politics is a struggle between identifiable blocs: the working class, or the rich, or the Jews – groups to be categorised and defined unambiguously as friend or foe. They assign characteristics to people according to the blocs in which they are supposedly located. Jews and Israelis are seen as one in the same, and so must be criticised and held accountable as a single demographic entity. In reality, of course, Jews in the UK should no more be held responsible for what happens in Israel than those of others faiths should be taken to task for the actions of countries with which they have a connection of ancestry or religion.
The issue is, of course, deeply complex. Israel is the Jewish homeland and a key feature of Jewish identity and prayer the world over. But Dershowitz is right: ‘It is important to understand that although criticism of Israel is not by itself anti-Semitism, there are certain kinds of criticism of Israel that are clearly anti-Semitic.’
For all the obfuscation and allegations of ‘smears’, the truth is that the Left remains unhealthily obsessed with Israel – more than with any other nation – and appears ideologically and psychologically unable to distinguish this foreign policy question from the urgent need to tackle domestic antisemitism in Labour’s ranks. In Liverpool, the party has a chance to show that it understands and to begin to heal the damage done to its historic relationship with the British Jewish community. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.