Stephen Marks

The Labour Party and antisemitism

Stephen Marks
The Labour Party and antisemitism

ANTISEMITISM CERTAINLY exists in British society, and in common with other forms of racism, bigotry and scapegoating, has been increasing in recent years as austerity and insecurity bite.

Its causes include ignorance, the growing tendency, especially on social media, to simplified conspiracy theories including memes about ‘Rothschild banks’, and confusion of all Jews with Israel, not least due to the uncritical support for Israel from official Jewish community organisations.

However, along with most Labour members, we totally reject the claim that Labour is “institutionally antisemitic”, or an “unsafe place for Jews”. We simply fail to recognise our party in this description.

We also reject the claim that Jeremy Corbyn has “failed to give a lead”, which mainly consists of his refusal to sign on the dotted line to every demand in the ultimatum given him by the Board of Deputies (BoD) and the self-appointed ‘Jewish Leadership Council’.

Consider for example the totally over-the-top letter from the Board of Deputies to Jeremy Corbyn on 28th March, which makes clear that their real objection is not to actual or imagined antisemitism but to Corbyn’s anti-imperialist politics.

Jeremy is charged with being “fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities. At best, this derives from the far left's obsessive hatred of Zionism, Zionists and Israel. At worst, it suggests a conspiratorial worldview in which mainstream Jewish communities are believed to be a hostile entity, a class enemy… There is literally not a single day in which Labour Party spaces, either online or in meetings, do not repeat the same fundamental antisemitic slanders against Jews… Rightly or wrongly, Jeremy Corbyn is now the figurehead for an antisemitic political culture, based on obsessive hatred of Israel, conspiracy theories and fake news that is doing dreadful harm to British Jews and to the British Labour Party.”

Clearly there is nothing Jeremy can do that will ever satisfy people who can come up with this stuff. Demands that Labour expel named individuals whose cases have not yet been heard, or that an outside body be appointed to oversee Labour’s disciplinary procedures are deliberate provocations put forward in the knowledge that they cannot be accepted, in much the same spirit as the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 was designed to provide a pretext for starting World War I.

For that very reason however we must resist the temptation to dismiss the whole issue as a fake. We must distinguish between the view that “there is no problem, it is all invented by JC’s enemies” and “there is a problem but it is being exaggerated and weaponised by JC’s enemies.”

The actually existing antisemitism in Labour occurs on social media and is mostly capable of being dealt with by education – but not with material that assumes anti-Zionism is antisemitic, or which requires Labour to confess its ‘guilt’. Apart from anything else this will simply be counterproductive.

The few exceptions to the above should of course be dealt with by disciplinary measures, and currently are being so. And it is ironic, and indeed disingenuous, for the BoD and its followers to complain about the delay in implementing Chakrabarti when that is not the fault of Jeremy and Jennie Formby but of Iain McNicol who was applauded as an honoured guest by the Labour Friends of Israel at the Brighton party conference.

Today the real antisemitism threat comes from the nationalist populist right across Europe and the US, from figures like Orban in Hungary, the Polish far right, and Trump and the alt-right in the USA. There antisemitism complements Islamophobia and white supremacism. Increasingly these currents are also supporters of Israel - which means they cannot effectively be fought by those with close and intimate links with the Israeli embassy, like the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

Indeed as the increasingly pre-fascist mood within Israel strains relations with traditionally liberal elements within diaspora communities – especially within the US – the dominant Israeli right, including Israeli Labour, now cares less and less about liberal diaspora opinion and actively prefers the support of the nationalist right.

Some will say that the current pre-fascist political situation in Israel represents a degeneration from Israel’s founding ideals. Others will say that it was inscribed in the nature of Zionism from the beginning.

For JVL, as an organisation primarily concerned with the needs of Jews in Britain and especially in the Labour Party, what matters is the conclusion, by whatever route it is reached. The fight against antisemitism cannot be separated from the fight against all other forms of racism especially white supremacy and Islamophobia, and therefore cannot be conducted effectively by those tied by an umbilical cord to the Israeli state.

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vice-chair, Oxford District Labour Party