What’s so wrong with words?

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Thane Rosenbaum’s book is part of a growing literature in the US, expressing doubts about that country’s free speech (“First Amendment”) tradition. Most of my readers come from the UK so it’s worth explaining what he’s against.

In as short as I can make this for Brits: the US Constitution was ratified in 1790. Eighteen month later, the First Amendment was added, as part of a group of amendments all protecting the individual from arbitrary government by protecting rights to jury trial, the right to silence, etc. The first amendment limits the legislature from curbing free expression, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. For more than a century after the amendment was ratified, judges ignored it. In the 1920s, judges invoked the first amendment, but in a canting, hypocritical way, eulogising its importance while criminalising all speech Socialists, Communists and radical trade unionists.

Since 1945, the First Amendment was extended beyond its original remit (“Congress shall…”) to include all parts of the government, and all private citizens in the US. All speech has required to be tolerated, even pornographers, fascists… Since about 1990, free speech has become a totem for the US right, a shield to protect everything they say, and a sword against their enemies. So, after the Trump coup of 6 January, the President defended himself from impeachment was by saying that it didn’t matter that he had incited his supporters to kill, to destroy property, or to sack Capitol Hill, the First Amendment makes all speech legal, irrespective of what comes from it.

Through the 39 chapters of his book, Rosenbaum gives his readers a series of reasons to doubt whether the First Amendment still does any good in protecting what most people would consider free speech.

His book begins in 2017 with Charlottesville, and the various neo-Nazis gathered there to chant “Jews will not replace us”. The idea behind that chant is the belief that every black person present in the US is merely by being alive, carrying out an act of violence against whites. And that Jews are the secret organisers behind the imagined mass murder of white people. These fantasies of anti-white violence are invoked, pretty obviously, to legitimise what fascists can tell themselves is pre-emptive and defensive violence on their party, murders such as the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.

Why, Rosenbaum asks, would anyone want to allow speech which is an incitement to murder? In reality, the First Amendment, is just one of several ways in which US law struggles to keep up with what every other affluent society has been doing for decades. No other country in the developed world permits this, any more than they tolerate the death penalty, or allow employers to go without paying maternity pay.

From there, Rosenbaum goes to other kinds of speech tolerated under the First Amendment, social media trolling, cyberbullying. Again, outside the US these are dealt with in the civil or criminal law as acts of “hate speech” (the US term) or “harassment” (as in the UK and Europe). Why does the US make itself the exception? “Other nations,” he writes, “managed to avoid the free speech madness”.

Rosenbaum responds to the argument that bad ideas die out when they are subjected to public discussion. To which, he asks, what happens if you are the individual who has to hear them, and you are in the middle of a riot?

From there, Rosenbaum pivots. He wants to be seen as a careful, balanced, person. Not an extremist, just someone worried about the excess of free speech. Therefore, there is a mandatory chapter insisting that as much as the right is a problem, there is also an issue of intolerant students. (He also has some pretty stomach-turning things to say about the rights of Palestinian to speak – or as Rosenbaum sees it, their obligation to be silent).

There is a lot wrong with this book. But it has its moments, too. Rosenbaum makes points which 90% of Americans don’t get to hear. That the First Amendment was only ever supposed to be a rule that bound governments, not individuals. That it is a right to speak, not an obligation to listen. That it does nothing to protect right-wing or far-right speakers, from the acts of people who will permit them to have a platform but are also intending to debate, to heckle, to subject them to slow handclapping.

That not every kind of spoken word is an idea.

That the much spoken-about free marketplace of ideas does not exist and could not meaningfully exist in a world dominated by the tech giants.

That the hearing of unpleasant words can cause physical harm, that stays in people’s bodies, that ruins their lives.

That the people who are on the receiving end of hate speech have a right to dignity and, at the very least, these two things need to be balanced.

Reading a book like this, as a socialist, or a European, or a practising lawyer, or someone who reads more than, I don’t know, one book every decade, you have to pinch yourself every two seconds and tell yourself: Let it go. You are not the audience for this book. It is not aimed at you. It is addressed at an imagined Middle American audience saturated with the assumptions of that media culture.

From that perspective this book is … ok. Ish. Kind of.

It doesn’t have the wide reading of a Jeremy Waldron, or the fizz of a P. E. Moskowitz, or the commitment of a Natasha Lennard or a Shane Burley or a Talia Lavin. But it’s a start.

On waking up in an authoritarian state

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Be honest with yourself. When you saw the woman, her arms locked behind her back – you recognised her, didn’t you?

For she had been in Poland in winter 2020, when women asked only to control her own lives. And the journalist from the BBC was forced to acknowledge that the protests were illegal, and the police acting strictly within their rights. And to show that in Britain we had not fallen quite so far, the journalist let the emotion catch in his voice, even while he called the actions of the police a necessity.

And, for those who see further, where did the massacares at Rabaa in 2013 or in Khartoum in 2019 begin, or the scenes in New York or Portland the men and women who could not breathe, if not in the days and weeks before, with images like Clapham Common, reported, repeated, so familiar that you the viewer permit the small disgrace to pass, make yourself incapable of resisting the large?

We need to admit a truth that no politician has dared tell. That the actions of the police did not come unannounced, that they are not an aberration in own low, dishonest times. That a year without democracy has paved the way for them.

Crimes made on the whim of ministers, made law within days, changed to avoid a difficult question. The friends of those in power enriched. That man is a friend of government, nothing he does can break the law. This woman its enemy; the cells gape for her.

We have all slept too long.

The Right to Protest under Covid – what you can do

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Most readers will, I suspect, have read the news that on Sunday Karen Reissmann was issued with a fixed penalty notice after organising a protest in Manchester against government plans to pay nurses a pay “rise” of just 1%.

Less than a year has passed since Boris Johnson was in hospital with Covid. On his release, he thanked the nurses who had watched over him. He credited them with saving his lives. He said, “It’s hard to find words to express my debt.” Well now what know what his words are: a 1% pay rise, and ten thousand pound penalty notice if you protest.

The list of protests which have been subject to arbitrary and unlawful policing is growing all the time. In Belfast, in summer 2020, a loyalist assembly to “protect monuments” was facilitated by the police to help it comply with Covid Regulations. In Derry, meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters were harassed, fined, and threatened with prosecution. Even the Police Ombudsman was obliged to characterise this behaviour as “unfair” and “differential treatment”. In Brighton, in February 2021, a protest in favour of the domestic support charity Rise, which had been stripped of a contract to assist local citizens, led to police officers approaching the perceived organiser, and threatening to fine her.

Here what I want to do is explain how protests can take place legally under Covid, and what to do if the police exceed their powers by serving a fixed penalty notice on you, or on a friend or fellow-protester.

Protesting in the present lockdown: You can’t. Well, possibly, you can’t. I’ll explain that possibly in a moment

The main Coronavirus regulations are now here. How lockdown has worked since January is, in effect, the whole country has been put in tier 4 (and the tier 4 rules were tightened). The rules of for tiers 1, 2 and 3 prevent people from gathering outside in groups of 6 or more. But they make an express exception for protests. Eg if you look at the tier 3 restrictions here, under para 4, exception 13, there is a rule allowing some people to protest.

The rules for tier 4 don’t have that exception. Therefore, on the face of them, all political protests have been banned – whoever does them, and under whatever form, for the duration of the lockdown.

Now this ban is almost certain “unlawful”, for the reason that it is an absolute ban. No protests are permitted under any circumstances at all (not even with facemasks, social distancing, etc). The European Convention on Human Rights protect people’s right of freedom of assembly, and while this is a relatively weak protection, it kicks in exactly at the moment when all protest is banned. In any event, the structure of the main regulations is such that they appear to make rights of protest a primary right. (They are structured into the main body of the SI, not its schedules, and are the only right given that primacy). This is only a lawyer’s educated guess, but it’s my best hunch that if someone was to judicially review the SI, or its use, say, by Manchester police, there’s about an 80% chance that any judge would agree – that the regulations should be read as if allowing protests, provided only that those protests were proportionately organised; i.e. involving, as Saturday’s did, relatively few people, socially distanced, with masks on, etc.

Some readers will be thinking – surely the law can’t be so uncertain that there is a genuine scope for doubt as to whether a law is unlawful. Actually, that happens from time to time, and one of the moments it happens more than ever is during a national emergency. As any number of legal theorists have pointed out, the whole purpose of a state of emergency is that the law becomes uncertain – these are the ideal conditions for more authoritarian forms of government to take root.

The first and most basic problem with the Covid anti-protest laws is that they were made as secondary legislation, this is in breach of a very long-held principle of UK law that it is the role of parliament and no ministers to make law. No controversial laws should be introduced through secondary legislation, and certainly no criminal offence. The practice has been heavily criticised by a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords.

The legislation has also been arbitrarily applied. Two months into the Coronavirus Act, the Crown Prosecution Services carried out a survey of all 44 Magistrates Court prosecutions carried out by that date. It found that in every single instance to that date the Defendant had been wrongly charged.

In early 2021, the CPS again reviewed its use of the new powers to prosecute. Some 127 out of 1020 charges brought under the various coronavirus Regulations were withdrawn or quashed, worse still, every one of 232 charging decisions under the Coronavirus Act were found to have been wrongly brought.

In the Manchester case, it is clear that police did not know what they were doing. The journalists describe officers scrolled down their phone screens, desperately trying to work out what the law actually said.

So what can you do? The bad news about the fixed penalty notices is that there is no appeal mechanism. The good news is that, in contrast to a court order, there is no enforcement mechanism, or no direct one. If you fail to pay, you can’t be subject to bailiffs. The regulations define a fixed penalty notice as an “opportunity of discharging any liability to conviction for the offence by payment of a fixed penalty to an authority specified in the notice”.

You are perfectly entitled to say – I have had my “opportunity” and I decline to make use of it. What the police then have to do is pass the case to the CPS who then make a decision whether to prosecute. If you are a nurse involved in a protest against a 1% pay rise then you can be pretty confident that either a) the arguments I’ve set out above would succeed, in the magistrates or on appeal, or in any event b) that any fine will be in the hundreds not the tens of thousands of pounds.

Protesting in tier 1-3: You will be able to, but subject to various limits requiring organisers to carry out a risk assessment and socially distance.

All I need to say at the end of this piece is that none of what I’ve been describing here cuts against the health case for a lockdown. That is and was a necessary step towards saving lives. What I am criticising is rather the way constitutional power has seeped towards the executive, resulting in the expansion of the law and its use in an authoritarian manner. The kind of policing we are witnessing is all of a piece with the corruption shown by ministers in the lockdown, the interpretation of the criminal rules so as to protect advisers and ministers, etc.

On David Baddiel’s ‘Jews Don’t Count’

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I am sure I wasn’t the only person whose heart sunk at the news of the publication of David Baddiel’s new book. Did we really need another re—run of the great social media battle of Labour versus the Jews? I reckoned the book would receive rave recommendations in the Times and the Spectator (it has). I thought that Baddiel would be critical of several prominent leftists, and some would deserve his criticism, and some would not. And yes, he does all of that.

What I didn’t expect was that at several moments Baddiel would prove to be sharper than most people who read the Labour crisis in similar ways to him. For example, friends with a long memory may recall the contributions made by Lisa Nandy MP. In February 2020, speaking to an audience of the (pro-Israel) Jewish Labour Movement she explained that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had been incapable of understanding antisemitism because the Labour left did not understand that “Antisemitism is a very particular form of racism. It’s the sort of racism that punches up, not down”. A report in the Jewish Chronicle noted after using this metaphor, Nandy “received loud applause” from her audience. Nandy then used the same phrase a second time later that year, in an interview on Radio 4.

Baddiel insists that this way of understanding antisemitism is wrong. He writes, “It is always dangerous, however cleverly you word it, to say Jews are rich. Jews aren’t rich, particularly. Some are. And some aren’t.” He cites figures to show that fewer than one in 50 of the world’s millionaires are Jews. He also points out, and rightly, that when the antisemites portray Jews as both rich and poor. “Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.” Baddiel does a better job of understanding what antisemitism is than the people who are now rushing to congratulate him.

Or take the discussion, which came back into the news last year about Black Lives Matter and how Jews should react to it. The Spectator and the Telegraph commissioned articles insisting that BLM could not accommodate Jews and was therefore irredeemably racists: “the same unforgiving standards applied to racists by the hard left are never used towards antisemites”.

In contrast, Baddiel refuses to play the right-wing game of blacks-versus-Jews. He invites people to see Jews through the eyes of the far right. “Jews, for the racists, don’t have a skin colour. That’s part of their dastardly power.” He talks about the Great Replacement conspiracy theory which maintains that white people are the victims of a global genocide (in which they are unfairly made to share Europe and the US with other people who happen to be black, brown, etc), and that in this paranoid theory, “Jews are not white – they can’t be, as they are operating against the white races and they are whites’ main enemy – but they are not brown or black either, because they are utilising those races for their secret, world-conquering purposes.” Elsewhere he talks about Jews’ “flickering’ whiteness: that being white is not just about skin colour but security.

How can Jewish people feel safe when every few months there are antisemitic murders, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, and anti-Jewish talking points multiply online? (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for myself what it’s like to have family members buried beneath Hebrew gravestones, and to find myself thinking – should I visit their graves? What will it be like, if I go to see them?)

I appreciate that to some readers it will seem strange to think of Jews as both white and non-white. But the ordinary racist imagination, shared by those one in six British people who tell opinion polls that Jews are clannish, obsessed with money, and that they wouldn’t let their children marry a Jew – loads onto the bodies of racialised outsiders a changing series of characteristics. At one moment the category “white” excludes, then later it includes, then later still it excludes again such common Jewish physical traits as big lips, big noses, or copper skin. Jews aren’t alone in this.

Are Italians white? They weren’t in America, or not uncomplicatedly so, 100 years ago. How about the Irish in Britain? How about Arabs in the US today? The census says yes, millions of people (both racists and anti-racists) would say no.

That takes me to the heart of Baddiel’s book. Jews Don’t Count is aimed at people who consider themselves “on the right side of history”, which means not just the left but liberals, and even half the people who vote Conservative. This majority, Baddiel argues, understand that anti-black racism is wrong, would frown at sexist remarks. But they have convinced themselves that Jewish people are outside history’s categories of the underdogs and must therefore be refused a sympathy which everyone else attracts.

Baddiel is not saying that Jews should win in relation to either antisemites, or non-Jews. He’s saying that Jews should be entitled to as much soft power, as much sympathy, as the victims of other sets of binaries. Jews should be loved in the way black people are for their struggle against racism, or the disabled, or lesbians and gay men.

I don’t know any more whether this idea is Baddiel’s or it’s the moment we’re all living through, but I find this notion that oppressed groups shouldn’t be looking at their oppressors but at the people each side of them, strange and depressing.

I wish someone could have said to Baddiel – before his book was written – can’t you see how odd this demand is? It looks at the past 100 years of organising and says, Malcolm X was wrong, Martin Luther King was wrong, Rosa Parks was wrong. People shouldn’t fight for justice for equality in relation to structures of power. What they should be doing instead is looking outside their own battle, and comparing themselves discontentedly to another group of oppressed people and demanding parity of recognition with them.

But there are plenty of groups out there who are, also ignored in the progressive imagination. When did you last see leftists campaigning against anti-Chinese or anti-Traveller racism?

If you think about why some part of the British left have decided in the last few years to take trans rights seriously, the answer is because that movement fixed on a great shared goal, the winning of self-id, rather than the present need to register with a gender recognition panel, which grants recognition to just 200 trans people every year. That goal was set, the government promised to legislate, and changed its mind. Hundreds of thousands of people were defeated – and parts of the left, however late, have seen and acknowledged their suffering.

One in four young trans people have attempted to commit suicide. When they try to talk on social media, a part of the British left has made it their business to seek them out, to misgender and to abuse them, and to do so gleefully in the name of another oppressed group, women. To demand, in that context, that Jews should receive as much sympathy as trans people seems not just misplaced, but reflective of a wilful ignorance of other’s people causes – a sheer, dogged refusal to look for nuance – that is every bit as annoying as the antisemitism Baddiel calls out on the left.

I agree that there is a phenomenon in which at certain times particular minority groups suddenly become loved. I don’t accept that Jewish people gain anything by worrying if we’re in this position or not, or by arguing at gentiles or left-wingers (in the manner of a spurned lover) that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t love us back.

For Baddiel, the story of the past five years is a story of disappointing leftists. Why don’t we spend our every day in the streets? Why don’t we talk about the workers, the way we used to? Why won’t the left organise mass movements of solidarity with Jews?

It’s as if Baddiel has in mind the left-Jewish relationship of 85 years ago, when tens of thousands of dockers, Communists and others occupied the East End of London to stop Oswald Mosley and he’s asking – why can’t we have another Cable Street?

That particular moment was not just the great moment of left-Jewish sympathy in all of British history, it was arguably the clearest instant of racial solidarity that the British working-class ever managed. So why doesn’t it happen again, every week?

Part of the answer is to do with how you mobilise people. Social movements arise in response to a threat. In the 1930s, it was the immediate reality of hundreds of physical attacks on Jewish bodies and premises, openly, in the daytime, and a global context was heading (however poorly anyone grasped it at the time) in a certain direction – genocide.

The instinct to help hasn’t gone away. But it comes back to life only in response to something truly shocking and obvious. When all our computer screens filled with images of crowds marching though Charlottesville and chanting “Jews will not replace us”, American public opinion turned against Donald Trump. When the Tree of Life shootings happened, the response was an outpouring of pro-Jewish solidarity.

Unlike David Baddiel, I don’t want the messages of solidarity. That’s because I don’t want the hate that gives good people a reason to send you their love.

If Baddiel is saying that non-Jews should try feel instinctive sympathy with the demands of British Jews, without needing there to be the threat of genocide to stir them back to life, then I’m with him. When he says that this is about British Jews, not Israel – I’m with him all the way. But I don’t see why the route to winning this argument should be by making comparison with other oppressed groups, whose lives and unfinished battles to win recognition are ones Baddiel barely seems to understand.

So, was Trump a fascist?

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Back in September, I published a book Fascism: History and Theory, which tried to bring together in a single place my summary of the most revealing left-wing theories of fascism of the 1930s, and what I thought united them. I did not write it to reflect on the politics of the world crisis since 2016, or Trump. (I had only just published another book on that subject). I wanted to understand the past on its own terms.

But, last week’s autogolpe has changed the politics of the debate. Suddenly, it feels as if every historian of fascism is being asked their opinion as to whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Robert Paxton argues he is, Richard Evan insists he is not.  Without covering the same ground as either of them, I thought I would set out my own approach.

If all that was at stake in this argument was how much to be worried about Trump, then my sympathies would be with the people insisting on his threat, not those diminishing it. The effect of four years of Trump’s Presidency has been to increase the size and popularity of the right. Thousands of people who four years ago were mere isolated individuals without any meaningful audience, have been able to use Trump’s support so that now they have Youtube channels or twitter or facebook accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. When those activists returned from the Capitol, they came home with the applause of their friends and relatives ringing in their ears. They are not chastened, they are eager for more.

All that acknowledged, I distrust the idea that we make sense of the present but attaching to it the labels of the past. After all, there was more than one way in which the model of the 1930s swept people behind Trump. In the most obvious example, people were fascinated by the evil of fascism, wanted themselves to appear large and cruel and monstrous, like Hitler’s followers. That’s why they wore tshirts saying “Camp Auschwitz” or saying 6 million wasn’t enough. But weren’t there also Trump followers role-playing their support for Churchill? I mean the people waving their Israeli flags, that part of the demonstrators who admire Trump because the outgoing American President Israel’s best friend. For 70 years, American has been telling itself a story in which the best thing that country ever did was join in with the war against Hitler. Repeating that narrative puts no barriers in the way of Trump’s ascendancy – it’s the same story that Trump himself tells.

More to the point, while this week it feels like the important use to which we can put the word “fascism” is as a measure against which to the hatefulness of Trump’s regime, the reality is that next month a different enemy will be checked against the same test, and the month after that it will be someone else’s turn. I’ve watched over the past 20 years as the following have been compared to fascism: Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, the 9/11 hijackers, ISIS, the Israeli state, its Palestinian opponents, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, the Brexit-era Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. If I asked whether any of them deserved the name, I’d be choosing between “very few, if any” and “actually none”.

In my book, I point out that the first generation of anti-fascists were principally concerned to distinguish fascism from two movements to which it was often compared. The first was ordinary conservatism. Compared to that, they argued, fascism was different. It was a counter-revolutionary threat, which gave itself the mission of smashing the existing state, and disturbing the balance of class forces which underpinned it.

A closer proximate were the many reactionary regimes which dominated in Europe once the revolutionary tide of 1917-23 had ebbed. By 1939, such states included Portugal and Spain and every state north and east of Italy – as far as Poland’s border with the USSR. Most of these had been formed from coups, but none (the likes of Gramsci, Zetkin or Trotsky argued) were fascist.

The difference, essentially, was this. Their military rulers had wanted to crush their insurgent opponents – trade unionists, anarchists and Communists – but they had not wanted to alter the composition of existing ruling elites (the Church, the army, business). Therefore, although their regimes began with spasms of violence, it petered out. After that, the regimes settled down into a military, authoritarian form of ordinary capitalist rule.

If you want to think of a single society which marks the border between “ordinary military” and “fascist” rule, it was Franco’s Spain. Formed out of a counter-revolutionary war, but characterise by a desire to maintain pre-fascist elites, the birth of the regime was marked by an extraordinary period of killings in which the state killed tens of thousands of people From that point onwards, however, Francoism ruled like a conventional military regime. Such genuine fascists as Ramón Serrano Suñer were marginalised and forced into a form of political retirement. A regime was established after 1945 which save for the absence of fair parliamentary elections was in many respects akin to the other Christian Democratic societies of postwar Europe.

The difference, I argue in my book, between fascism and these military regimes was that the former kept the reactionary and mass elements of right-wing politics in relative balance for much longer: there were still mass organisations, there were still mass realities, there was still an effort to disturb the balance of society and for the regime to be ever radicalised.

From this perspective, what sort of politician was Donald Trump? As President, he did not jail the majority of his opponents, he did not annul elections. If you were to come up with a single scale with “conservative” at 1, “non-fascist military dictatorship” at 5, and “open fascist rule” at 9 or 10, then on the things that matter you might give him a 2 or 3 out of ten.

If even Franco with his 100,000 deaths after the end of the Civil War is on the borderline of dictatorship and fascism, then Trump with his single extra-judicial killing, is so far below him that you have to start wondering, why are we even counting?

The answer to that is not just that Trump summoned an army into the street, but that he chafed at the limits of his politics, looked over the edge of ordinary electoralism, and was willing to consider the possibility of a future in which he was in power not as a result of winning an election but because of the armed support of his followers.

There’s a point to be grasped here about how fascist parties are formed. What is true of far-right activists is also true of the people who lead them. Think for example of Ashli Babbitt. At one point she was an Obama voter, next an anti-Clinton Republican, then a libertarian. Only in the last year does she appear to have taken Q seriously, and become the sort of person willing to put her life in the hands of her beloved President. We can see these as a series of incremental steps in one direction, with each seemingly making the next move inevitable.

Had the 2020 election been closer, had it been like Florida in 2000 the matter of a single state with a plausible argument that the results were genuinely unclear, Trump might have faced the much more serious possibility of staging a coup. Had he settled on that option as a serious possibility, rather than a desperate last-minute attempt to forestall an inevitable decision to accept the election result, we might be talking about a situation in which even more Republicans had supported him, and the armed forces might possibly have been split.

In those circumstances, the decision to take power primarily through a coup, would be the recognisable act of either a military dictator or a fascist. And, undoubtedly, it would have changed Trump. He would have given a pledge to his supporters, and would now have a debt to them. He would be the same person, with the same past history, the same personal style, but the logic of his decision to take power outside elections would have changed him.

We might still be talking about a “5” rather than a “9”, a civilian figure brought to power in a coup, rather than an ideological fascist. He would be something different however from what he was a year ago, or what he is now.

After all, at one point in history, even Hitler was not a fascist. He was merely an unemployed soldier and a gun to hire. The coming force in Bavarian politics was a local soviet led by Jewish anarchists, and Hitler was seriously considering siding with them. Hitler became a fascist through a series of choices, above all, through joining the forerunner of the Nazi Party.

Trump could have taken similar steps – choosing the armed path – if history had offered him a better hand. But it didn’t.

None of this is to argue that America is a healthy society, that the world is immune to fascism, or that the left needs to be standing down its online armies. That last’s a metaphor, of course. It is a good thing that millions of people are looking on in shock, that tens of thousands have been identifying and exposing the people that took part in the coup. We don’t need less outrage, we need more of it – we need people in the streets rather than watching mutely through their screens.

But the monster of our lifetimes belong to the future, not the past. Right now, all my instincts are to say that the people who need watching are the ones who marched on the Capitol – the Patriots, the Proud Boys – and not the people who sent them into battle.

As for Trump himself: he has had, and has wasted, his chance.

On the return of Luciana Berger

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[TW: antisemitism, harassment]

Looking over at Twitter, there seems to be a growing fear on the part of fellow socialists that Keir Starmer will invite back into the Labour Party people who left with Change UK. The name that keeps coming up in this context is that of Luciana Berger.

At a time when people who’ve been active on the Labour left for decades are being suspended for allowing their branch to discuss pro-Corbyn motions, I can understand why people feel that differential standards are at work (i.e. the Labour right is being tolerated even for breach of rules which are of decades long standing, the left driven out in the name of instructions with little basis in the rulebook). I get that.

But before anyone goes too far down that path, I’d encourage them to think about what actually happened to Berger in the Labour Party and whether any of us are really comfortable with it.

A quick recap. In 2014, the Daily Stormer website developed an obsession with Berger, and published about 40 articles about her, attacking her using the most open and blatant antisemitic language. One of the attacks ended “Tell her we do not want her in the UK, we do not want her or any other Jew anywhere in Europe.”

At one point Berger was receiving hate messages at the rate of 800 *a day*. Between 2014 and 2018 three supporters of the far right were jailed for threatening her. (A fourth case began with emails send by a fascist to her, although the sender was convicted and jailed for other, terrorism, offences).

If Diane Abbott is a unique target for sexist and racist use, then Berger has taken on a similar role in the antisemitic imagination. I cannot think of anyone in Britain who has received anti-Jewish hate in a similar volume to her.

Depressingly, an amount of this has come from the left. In 2013 (ie. before the Daily Stormer started stalking her) one socialist and anti-racist activist Philip Hayes the founder of Liverpool music venue The Picket approached Berger when drunk. He talked to her about Gaza and about Israel, and quite quickly about Jews. He said, “All Jewish people have money”. Hayes referred to the prime minister of Israel as “your Prime Minister,” and said, “I fucking hate Jewish people”. Hayes was convicted of a public order offence.

The other instance of criminal harassment of Berger from the left occurred in March 2018. A Labour activist Nick Nelson sent messages to two Jewish women MP, Luciana Berger, and Ruth Smeeth. He told Smeeth she was a “red Tory traitor” and Berger that she was a “vile useless Tory c**t” who was “using Judaism as a weapon”. He pleaded two guilty to two offences of harassment and was given a suspended prison sentence.

One thing worth noting about Nelson is that these tweets seems to have been sent in response to the single act for which people blame Berger the most – i.e. her decision in spring 2018 to share on her twitter feed an old news story about Jeremy Corbyn and an east end mural. This became the Mear One mural / Enough is Enough crisis – and probably did more than anything else to remove the moral sheen of Corbynism.

Analysed in “side” terms (the left v the right), you can understand why people were angry with Berger and blame her for Corbyn’s humiliation and defeat. I think they’re wrong. It seems to me that they are blaming someone visible on the far side of the party for a mistake made by us (i.e. Corbyn’s misreading of the mural, without which none of that would have happened).

But in anti-racist terms, Berger was a member of an ethnic minority complaining about racism at the head of her organisation. Criticising her, and abusing her, is what lawyers mean by “victimisation”, i.e. causing a person a detriment because they have made a complaint.

I could go on and on about the crap that was directed at Berger through 2018: stories that she had imagined a police escort purely to embarrass the leadership. Attempts to get her deselected, etc. Even the antisemitic tarring of the relatively few people on the Labour left who stood up for her, and opposed her deselection…

By autumn and winter 2018, on Corbyn-supporting social media pages there was a level of hate directed at Berger which was unforgiveable. She was called a traitor, an Israeli, a spy, and there was just an enormous amount of abuse directed at her, some sexist, some racist, some both.

The point I’m getting at isn’t about then, so much as now. Friends really, really, *really* need to let go of the idea that if Berger is allowed to rejoin the Labour Party then something terrible has happened. The bad things here are first Berger’s original treatment, and second the spurious exclusion of members for passing anodyne motions in support of Corbyn.

If Berger is allowed back, then it is not a failure on the scale of either of those two mistakes. If she is allowed back, you need to live with it.

Palestine in 2020

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I’ve seen a number of friends talking about Palestine on social media. I’ve also seen their friends asking some version of “what’s happening in the Occupied Territories?” (i.e. questions motivated by both an interest in what life is like there, and a lack of knowledge). I thought I’d share therefore something I wrote a few weeks back – a simple “explainer” setting out for people in the West how the occupation works and its impact on people’s lives

The Palestinians comprise a) nearly two million Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, or a bit less than one in five of the Israeli population, where their average income is around a third lower than that of Jewish Israelis,[1] and they are more than twice as likely to have an income below the state poverty line.[2] They suffer discrimination in employment and housing, for example by rules offering employment only to those who have served in the Israeli army. Arab employment in the civil servant stands at just eleven percent, or around half of what it should be were it not for employment barriers.[3]

In theory, those living within the pre-1967 borders are permitted to vote in Israeli elections, and they elects members to the Knesset, enabling Israel to present itself to the world as a normal democracy. However Arab deputies are stigmatised, denounced by government ministers and subject to laws enabling other deputies to revoke their election at any time.[4] According to the Knesset’s Rules of Procedures, the Presidium “shall not approve a bill that in its opinion denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People.” On the basis of those rules, between 2011 and 2019, four bills related to Palestinians’ rights, including their right to participate in public life, were disqualified before even reaching discussion in that parliament.[5]

There are then b) around 400,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem which was annexed in 1967. They do not have Israeli citizenship, only a limited right to reside which can be taken away at any time (for example, if they marry a non-resident). They are not permitted to vote in Israeli elections. Laws prevent building in East Jerusalem and encourage the demolition of Palestinian homes, which the state does repeatedly, with 265 homes pulled down in 2019 alone.[6]

Then there are c) some four and a half million Palestinians living in occupied West Bank or Gaza. There, average wages are significantly lower than among Arab Israelis, at very roughly a half (the West Bank) or a quarter (Gaza) of what they are in Israel.[7] In spring 2020, the official unemployment in Gaza stood at 45 percent.[8] A small number of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are employed in Israel or on settlements (around two percent of the population) there they suffer even worse discrimination than those living within Israel’s borders. Health and safety protections are minimal, workers are refused to switch employers, their work permits are routinely cancelled, and wages go repeatedly unpaid.[9] Although Palestinian literacy rates are among the highest in the world,[10] educational infrastructure is crumbling.[11] While, in autumn 2020, as Covid struck, health officials were warning of a lack of ventilators, PPE, and medicine.[12]

In Gaza, economic blockade has meant that fewer than one in ten households have access to fresh water.[13] Access to electricity is interrupted. The roads which join Palestinian towns are broken, every few hundred metres, with a fresh checkpoints, many of them created by Israel’s 400 mile long separation wall, more than four-fifths of which meanders within the Western Bank far inside the Green Line (the supposed border with Israel).[14]

Meanwhile, repeated incursions from Israeli troops, including by helicopter,[15] and in bulldozer raids and night-time bombings cause even during times of apparent peace repeated civilian deaths. Two hundred citizens from West Bank and Gaza were killed in 2019, according to the UN; while eight Israeli civilians also died.[16] Between 2018 and 2020, night-time raids on the occupied territories were taking place at the rate of 250 per month. No warrants were required to justify these raids. They left their victims feeling unsafe in their own homes and beds.[17]

Palestinians residents of the West Bank or Gaza are not citizens of Israel, have no right to travel there unless (exceptionally) for work, and have no rights or legal status within that country. By law even a Palestinian married to an Israeli is prohibited from being a citizen of Israel or residing there. As Prime Minister Sharon explained, when the law was introduced, “There is no need to hide behind security arrangements. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state.”[18]

The West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous; it is a matter of extreme difficult to travel from one part of the occupied territories to the other. Citizens of the occupied territories are not citizens of Israel, are permitted only to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority, which has no effective control over most of the matters which normally constitute statehood: people, goods, food, medicines and even water enter only by Israeli consent, which is repeatedly withdrawn.

The fourth and final element of the Palestinian population are d) the refugees of Israel’s wars, who live in exile (many in cramped conditions in refugee camps),[19] and their descendants. Some 4 million Palestinian refugees, including the survivors of the 800,000 people[20] displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israel war, and their families, are registered for humanitarian assistance with the United Nations.[21] Members of this group are excluded from Israel citizenship and deprived from returning to Israel. Their homes and land were part of historical Palestine and are now occupied by Israel. “Our dead are still in the cemeteries of others,” the Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti has written, “our living are clinging to foreign borders.”[22]

When speaking of Palestinian refugees, it should be recalled that Israeli attacks on other countries in the region have destroyed some of the few places where Palestinians were allowed to live in relative peace; notably Beirut which prior to Israeli’s 1982 invasion and the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, had been “the birthplace for thousands of Palestinians who knew no other cradle … an island upon which Arab immigrants dreaming of a new world landed”.[23]

For all Palestinians, occupation is a constant and ongoing process:

[It] prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way. It interferes in every aspect of life and death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.[24]

None of these Palestinian groups have the same citizenship rights in Israel as the country’s seven million Jewish citizens[25] – nor indeed the same citizenship rights as Jews living in Britain, France, or the United States. Rather, a panoply of directly and indirectly discriminatory laws make them second class citizens or permanent exiles.[26]

Sources:


[1] ‘Wages of Jewish workers in Israel 35 percent higher than Arab counterparts,’ Middle East Monitor, 11 December 2019.

[2] Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, ‘Israel’s Annual Poverty Report: Decline in Arab Poverty Meets Increase in Depth and Severity’, 5 February 2019.

[3] N. Ahituv, ‘Could Netanyahu Actually Be Good for Israel’s Arabs?’ Haaretz, 31 October 2019.

[4] Y. Jabareen, ‘Silencing Arab members of the Knesset would be a new low for Israeli democracy,’ Guardian, 1 April 2016.

[5] ‘Israel Discriminatory measures undermine Palestinian representation in Knesset,’ Amnesty International, 4 September 2019.

[6] J. Magid, ‘2019 saw spike in Palestinian home demolitions by Israel, rights group finds,’ Times of Israel, 6 November 2020; for justification of previous waves of house demolition, E. Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (London: Arabia, 2010), p. 125.

[7] ‘The Working Conditions of Palestinian Wage Earners in Israel’, Center for Political Economics, February 2017.

[8] ‘Labour Force Survey Preliminary Results First quarter January – March 2020’, 31 May 2020.

[9] Kav LaOved, Worker’s Hotline, undated but accessed 20 August 2020.

[10] Around 4 percent of adult Palestinians, compared to 16 percent in Britain. ‘Literacy Rate of Persons (15 Years and Over) in Palestine by Age Groups and Sex, 1995, 1997, 2000-2013’, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014; ‘Adult literacy’, National Literacy Trust, accessed 26 October 2020.

[11] In 2014, thirty percent of Gaza schools needed rebuilding as a result of that year’s Israeli military attacks. ‘Education,’ United Nations Development Programme (2015).

[12] W. Mahmoud, ‘Gaza declares COVID-19 disaster with health system near collapse,’ Al-Jazeera, 23 November 2020.

[13] G. von Medeazza, ‘Searching for clean water in Gaza,’ Unicef, 10 January 2019.

[14] ‘The Separation Barrier,’ B’tselem, 11 November 2017.

[15] “The helicopter hovering above the refugee camp / As though it were dusting a field,” A. Shabtai, ‘Mice of the World Unite,’ in T. Nitzan and R. T. Back, With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (New York: Excelsior Editions, 2009), p. 19.

[16] ‘Data on Casualties’, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accessed 20 August 2020.

[17] P. Beaumont, ‘Dehumanising: Israeli groups’ verdict on military invasions of Palestinian homes,’ Guardian, 29 November 2020.

[18] A. Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), p. 25; U. Forat, ‘For an Israeli Married to a Palestinian, Family Unification Is Forbidden,’ Haaretz, 1 June 2020.

[19] Sahar Khalifeh writes of “Life in the refugee camp, in a tiny room the size of a chicken coop, amid the clamour of people and their secrets”. S. Khalifeh, The End of Spring (Northampton, Massachusetts: 2008), p. 9.

[20] David Gilmour writes that the exact number of refugees was never established. The UN Economic Survey Mission put the total at 726,000; the Refugee Office of the UN Palestine Coalition Commissions placed it at 900,000, and the true figure is probably somewhere in between. D. Gilmour, Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians (London: Sphere Books, 1982), p. 74. The Jewish population of Palestine was at that time just 630,000 people. S. Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009), p. 281.

[21] ‘Palestine Refugees,’ United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees int the Near East. Accessed 1 August 2020.

[22] M. Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 38.

[23] M. Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. xii.

[24] Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah, p. 48.

[25] ‘Monthly Bulletin of Statistics,’ October 2019.

[26] Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has published a list of more than 60 Israeli laws which at discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel or Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. ‘Discriminatory Laws in Israel’, Adalah, accessed 26 August 2020.

Trump-Biden: The 90-10 Election

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As the election comes closer, it’s worth asking how much remains of the fear, which was widespread two months ago, that Trump would refuse to accept the election result? Or, indeed of the related concern that Trump is pushing the United States closer to fascism?

The answer I’m going to give is that this election is best understood as a “90-10” election; in other words it’s 90 percent likely that once the dust has settled on the Trump Presidency, we’ll look back at this time as an aberration in US politics: a moment when the abyss could be seen and people pulled back from it. There is still however something strange and hostile about how Trump operates. If you want, you can all it a 10 percent chance that something really unpleasant is just about to start.

The hard thing in the next day couple of days is going to be balancing these two kinds of possibilities: one which is unlikely but could be exceptionally bleak, and another which is more likely and reassuring but contains its own dangers.

The starting point, for me, is the argument I’ve just put in my book Fascism: History and Theory. What I say there is that if you read through the history of Marxist theories of fascism, a coherent understanding of that politics emerges.

First of all, such writers as Klara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Trotsky, etc, saw fascism as part of the political right. It wanted bosses to win against workers, the army strengthened, increased power for the police. It sought to deepen and entrench all the social privileges, of men against women, of “aryans” against racial outsiders, it sought to destroy the few organisations that protected workers against the poor.

Second, fascism was unlike mainstream conservative parties (or indeed the military dictatorships around it) in that fascism gave a much greater active role to a mass movement, whose members would listen to Hitler on the radio, or see him in the cinema, and take part in his parades. Its “activism” included shooting socialists off the streets, in hundreds of political murders, culminating in the fascist seizures of power.

Third, the real place at which fascism distinguished itself was that it kept this reactionary and this mass element in balance. Most far-right parties opted for state power at the expense of their own movement and ended up behaving much like other conservative parties just without elections. Fascism went much further, kept on radicalising, culminating in the war and the Holocaust.

The 90 percent chance

From that perspective, how different is Trump from an ordinary Republican candidate? After all, anyone with any knowledge of US politics will know that ever since 1945, the Republicans have been accusing the Democrats of being closet Communists, and the Democrats have been accusing Republicans of being actual fascists. From Nixon to George W. Bush, the left has used the same line of attack, and (until recently) its main effect has been to make Democratic candidates seem bolder than they were, while exaggerating the difference between them and their rivals.

Moreover, as I’ve pointed out on this site and elsewhere, the US state has not taken on new authoritarian power compared to 2016: deportations are running at half the rate they were four years ago, the border wall has hardly grown…

It’s in this context, especially once you factor in the extreme negligence of Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid crisis, and the way he has risked the lives of the most important part of his voting base, that the “90 percent” part of this 90-10 election emerges. Kit Adam Wainer has set out the dynamics which point to a “normal” handover: the lack of support from the military for American business or a coup (I’m pretty sure that’s right), the satisfaction of the Republican grandees now they have their Supreme Court majority (looking at their record, I think she’s being unduly optimistic).

Focussing just on the shrinking support for Trump and the continuity in carceral power between 2016 and 2020, by far the most likely result of the Presidential election is that Trump will lose, his plans to declare a victory will look like bluster. In three months’ times everyone will be thinking, why did we ever call him a fascist?

The 10 percent chance

On the other hand if you go back to my book on fascism the one thing, I argued, which distinguished fascist parties above all else from other far right traditions was what I called the “fascist style”, i.e. a leadership cult (think QAnon), an emphasis on violence (think of the Patriot and the Proud Boys). Normal conservative parties, I argued, didn’t have a relationship with people who used violence repeatedly against the left. On the other hand, Trump has built that movement, multiplied its audience, and (even now) still envisages a role for it.

It’s in this context that Trump’s plans for the election take on their most menacing overtones. The point is not just that he is likely to declare a victory on election night, even if the popular vote has gone against him, but an election where much of the voting is done postally gives him untold opportunities to do so. From that perspective, the most troubling things we’ve seen in the election campaign were Trump’s two comments during the first election debate: his “stand by” order to the Proud Boys, and his call for “poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing,” in other words for his supporters to go the polling stations, harass the people voting, and those counting the votes. Those weren’t mere boasts, rather they’ve been listened to: just think of what happened in Texas to the Biden bus.

What that means is that, alongside the 90 percent chance that this election will end peacefully, in a clear victory for either camp (or, almost certainly, a clear victory for Biden), there remains a ten percent chance that the result will be close enough so that Trump will be able to derail the election count before it finishes, and that groups of his supporters will be involved in harassing voters and vote-counters, in a repetition of the 2000 election count, except this time with guns. And that this process of relying on Trump’s supporters in QAnon, the militia, etc, will so change Trump’s government that his next four years will be radicalised even compared to what went before. If you want to understand how bad it could get, with Trump losing controlling of his supporters, and the police backing them, read this piece by Adam Turl, then imagine those dynamics – which have shaped American and global politics – turned up to 10.

Fitting these two things together

What I’m encouraging people to understand, in speaking of this 90-10 moment is that both routes remain open. We have the impossible, unbearable, task of living these last few hours in the knowledge both of the overwhelming likely of relief, and the real possibility that politics in America is about to change for the worse. It’s not like watching a conflict you expect to win, or an argument that could end terribly, it’s both of them at once, and it could easily stay like this for days.

The last point I want to make is that if Trump wins, the political battle is going to be straightforward. Every cause in which I and you believe will have suffered a reverse but, at least, the immediate task will be obvious: take to the streets. You need to go there even in the certainty that the police will be against you – and that the Democrat governors will be on their side. We saw the BLM protests in the summer: we’ll need them and more of them.

But, if Biden wins, the American army will be in no way reduced. Any measures to reduce global warming will operate at a pace capable of stop ecocide somewhere only in such a distant future that hundreds of millions of lives will be lost. And, if Trump has been negligent in solving Covid, do not expect much better from a Democratic Party whose hostility to socialised healthcare is entrenched. Even if Biden wins this round, in other words, anti-fascist are going to be facing a far right whose leader will still have in his possession 90 million followers on Twitter and all the authority of his recent spell in office. His relationship to them will continue. They will still hold all their guns. They will have been told that his election defeat was illegitimate. And they will be looking for a new leader figure to take forward an increasingly unhinged right.

The civil war in American hearts and minds isn’t going to end this week.

Antisemitism: why the far left could still be part of the answer

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With the news of Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party, many of my friends are again debating whether socialists should stay in Labour. To my mind, this is the wrong question. It reflects two assumption, of the groups outside Labour and their ex-members, one of which I share, while the other is wrong.

The first assumption is that Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party will be more like Neil Kinnock’s or Tony Blair’s than Corbyn’s or Miliband’s, i.e. at every chance Starmer will give his support to the police, to the rich and to the Conservatives.

[Yes he will: he’s been in charge for a year and we’ve seen his record. There is nothing now that will reinvigorate the old, left-wing Keir Starmer of the 1980s and 1990s]

The second assumption is that the far left in no way contributed to Labour’s antisemitism crisis. That, if mistakes were made by other people, we were innocent of them.

[But, in reality, at key moments, the outside Labour left has bolstered the people who were handling this issue worse than anyone]  

The fact that only one of these assumptions is true, makes the next steps particularly difficult for anyone interested in creating a principled left.

Here I want to set out what I think is a better answer.

Admit and accept

The first thing we need to acknowledge is the obvious: the left wouldn’t be in this trouble if the left as whole (including the left both inside and outside Labour) hadn’t understated the scale of antisemitism in British society, and of antisemitism on the left.

Key figures in the Labour Party have repeatedly said things which crossed the line into antisemitism. They begin with Ken Livingstone’s remarks that “when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism…” The offence of that interview was not, as last week’s mealy-mouthed EHRC report suggested, that Livingstone was likely to upset Jews by supporting his colleague Naz Shah’s remarks about Israel. The offence was that Livingstone made Jews complicit in the Holocaust.

Jackie Walker, the national vice-chair of Momentum, claimed that “many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”.

In 2018, we all had to deal with the pain of Jeremy Corbyn’s ill-judged comments on antisemitic mural. “Rockerfeller [Rockefeller] destroyed Diego Viera [Rivera]’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin”.

On every occasion, Corbyn’s outlier sites could be founded defending this nonsense: Skwawkbox, the Canary, Vox Online.

Who manufactured this scandal? We did, you and me, and people like us who share our politics, by our inability to admit and speak out against what was happening.

Every time Counterfire insisted that Ken Livingstone was no antisemite, or the SWP made Chris Williamson the main speaker at their Marxism event, the extra-Labour left were saying to socialists in the Labour Party – there is no problem, the real issue is Palestine, if people have spoken racist words or have racist friends, who cares?

See the crisis as a whole

The second thing to be said is that the dominant explanation of Labour’s crisis fails to explain where antisemitism comes from, or how events in Britain connects to what is going on everywhere else.

In America, where Jews are living at the centre the global increase in anti-Jewish racism, where their President actively encourages that racism, and at a time which has witnessed the most violent antisemitic attacks in all of American history, Jews are reaching for the opposite conclusions to their counterparts here.

Some 51 percent of American Jews blame the political right for antisemitism, only 12 percent the left. How is it possible that two sets of Jewish people could have such wildly different explanations of what is going on?

One short answer is that people deal with what’s in front of them. Philip Roth once wrote, “I’m never more of a Jew than I am in a church when the organ begins”. To which a British Jew might add: or when the Chair of Wavertree CLP appears on David Icke shows, or when Ken Livingstone opens his mouth.

Another way of looking at it is that opinion-formers in the UK have worked hard to frame antisemitism as a matter of sly words and not of violent acts, as occurring in Britain but no anywhere else, and as a product of the left and not the right.

This too is also a form of denial. If you want a recent instance of it, then you need look no further than the Board of Deputies which posted on its Twitter account this week that “the US elections results matter all around the world”. Trump, the Board wrote, “has not sufficiently disavowed white supremacists; but abroad he has increased peace in the Middle East by bringing about the Abraham Accords”. (Those Accords put relations between Israel and the UAE on a diplomatic footing.)

The Board and those philosemitic politicians who take a lead from them have treated opposition to anti-semitism as a qualified duty. If members of the British Labour Party have used antisemitic language intermittently, then that Party must be denounced, and its leaders broken. But if leaders of the Republican Party have proved themselves a nest of antisemites who spread their poisonous doctrines through the world, then that Party must be praised, conciliated, and exempted from any criticism.

Antisemitism, on both left and right

The way I see Labour’s antisemitism crisis is as merely the domestic expression of a much bigger situation in which anti-Jewish racism has risen since 2015 with the breakdown of a previous kind of neoliberal politics.

It has been replaced by a new combination of state and private capital, in which the political conflict in most countries is between parties of “nationalists” and of “internationalists”. The former think that capitalism will be healthier if it breaks up the multinational institutions of the postwar period, if it spends more on welfare, but it selects people for entitlement to welfare on racial lines and excludes migrants and international racial minorities (blacks, Muslims, etc). The politics of Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro… all polarise for and against along these lines.

Where the nationalists have been most successful (as in Trump’s Republican Party), antisemitism has grown faster than at any other time since 1945. The reason this has happened is that the right wants to pose as anti-capitalist, or at least as anti-globalist, and the idea of removing the Jews (financiers) from the economy provides them a way of imagining a reformed, “national” system which is still capitalism.

When my friends on the left say that the US far right is the “root” of the rise of global antisemitism, they’re correct – as far as that analysis goes. What they don’t seem to be able to grasp is that when you pull up a weed, it produces many further roots, all over your garden. Antisemitism is growing not merely on the right but all over the political spectrum.

You can see this in the United States. Although Trump’s support is greatest on the right and on the far right of American politics; the role he has played in legitimising anti-Jewish racism has had an impact even on people who hate him.

In 2018 and 2019, the three most brutal attacks in the US were the Tree of Life murders in October 2018, killings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue outside San Diego in April 2019 and in December 2019 the murder of three people at a New Jersey kosher market.

The San Diego killer John Earnest posted a manifesto referencing Adolf Hitler and William Pierce’s white terrorist Turner Diaries. If Earnest had previously admired Trump, he was now exasperated with him, calling Trump a “coward”, a “Zionist, Jew-loving, anti-White, traito[r]”. (The Tree of Life killer had a similar background).

The attackers in New Jersey, David Anderson and Francine Graham, by contrast, were black. One was a supporter of the black Hebrew Israelite movement, which holds that black people are the true descendants of Israel and Jews merely “imposters” (a term used by Anderson). Anderson’s social media posts denounced the police, quoted the Bible, criticised white police officers as actual or likely supporters of the Klan. Murderous anti-semitism infected people who had more in common with most leftists than they do with the far right.

Since 2015, antisemitism has spread – from the United States through the world. And it has expressed itself on both the right and the left.

When people talk in Britain about antisemitism having grown in the Labour Party: they are correct. That is exactly what happened, and it happened on our watch.

Quitting a crisis with your politics intact

If what I’ve written above is correct, then the question of whether people are in the Labour Party now or in six months’ time is the wrong question to be asking.

Whether they stay or not, we will still have all the most exciting bits of actually existing Corbynism: Tribune and Novara and the people who make Momentum’s films. We will have The World Transformed. All of us will still be trying to make socialists, as best as we can.

The real question is – how do we break the belief that is now held by millions of people that, in Britain, antisemitism is mainly found on the left?

The press debate has focussed on finding a solution to Labour’s dispute mechanisms, as if this will provide the answer to everything. But it won’t.

Yet the very large number of complaints which have been made to the party in the last two years reflect a “civil war’ environment, in which people have made themselves into the voluntary external participants in a disciplinary process. They have sent complaints to the party, in huge number. With Corbyn removed from the leadership, the likelihood is that this volunteer apparatus will stand down. Labour will “look better” in the press and Starmer will be able to claim a victory – while actual antisemitic will be every bit as prevalent and as ignored as they were prior to 2015.

A disciplinary apparatus can only get involved after something has gone wrong. What the left needs isn’t more and better laws (although it would be no difficulty to come up with a better process than the ones Labour currently has). What we need is a culture shift in which the large majority of socialists grasp that people shouldn’t use antisemitic language that (to take just one recent example) telling a Jewish person to stop counting their gold and then (when they complained) that they aren’t Jewish is just bad, annoying, and self-destructive politics.

This is what I mean when I say that the left could be part of the solution.

Think back to perhaps the clearest instance of antisemitism in the whole four-crisis crisis. For me, it was that occasion (which I’ve already alluded to) in 2012 when Corbyn had given his – limit, passing – support to the Brick Lane mural, and in 2018, when this story returned to the newspapers. When all of us had a chance to look at the same image. When we gave ourselves time and we could see how racist it was.

At that moment, what shocked me was how many friends dropped their critical intelligence, shared stories supporting the image, insisted it wasn’t antisemitic. We wanted to take sides and, to do so, we imagined away what was in front of us.

What I want to argue here is that there is a different way of looking at the incident.

The artist, Mear One, had on his account been a year long activist-participant in Occupy Los Angeles. He had been part of an anti-capitalist struggle and had its legacy uppermost in his mind as he flew to London:

“Over the course of this year-long movement my experiences helped to crystallise my post 9/11 thinking on global politics and the economic slave system, deepening my knowledge of fractional-reserve lending and other banking schemes that led to the collapse of the markets in 2008. These facts began to find design in my mind, and while on the flight to London I sketched out my plans for a mural inspired by these recent real-world events.”

You couldn’t have a clearer example of antisemitism growing up within far left circles, and spreading from there, through the Labour Party, into the wider left.

But there’s another way of telling this same story:

  • That the Occupy movement which shaped Mear One was ideologically mobile
  • That within a left-identified movement there were also right-wing ideas, including ideas that exaggerated the role of finance, or imagined a capitalism free of usury, or blamed Jews
  • That the people best placed to challenge those ideas were people on the far left who had a different, rigorous theory of capitalism, untainted by antisemitism
  • That an artist who saw his mural criticised and overpainted looked instinctively to the far left to support him
  • This was an opportunity (yes, a missed one – but still a chance) for people to talk to him and explain to him that he was in the wrong.

What the situation demanded was someone to talk to the artist, to draw on their shared involvement in protests, and to change what he thought.

To be able to do that, you have to be the sorts of social movement, that sees an artwork being painted over and (without having seen it clearly) is unthinkingly attracted to it. You need to be the sorts of people who think that graffiti is art, not the sort of politician who believes every artist should be in jail.

That’s why, however blithe the left has seemed this week and the past four years – it is worth gambling that the best chance of challenging antisemitic ideas comes from a larger left, changed by the experience of the past four years and learning from them. And to predict that the answer to antisemitism will not come from the centre, or from the Labour right.