On the return of Luciana Berger

Standard

[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.

4 responses »

  1. We do tend to forget that what Berger charged Corbyn with didn’t involve guilt by association or the reinterpretation of words which also had a more innocent meaning or the expression of political views which (while legitimate) may cause offence, or any of the other more or less strained ways in which charges of antisemitism have been weaponised. It was inconvenient for us, God knows, but she had Corbyn bang to rights – he was self-convicted of unthinking tolerance of straightforwardly antisemitic tropes. (Why this happened and what lessons we should have drawn from it is another matter; suffice to say I don’t think it rose to the “Corbyn must go” level, but “Corbyn must do something” should have got through a bit more clearly.) We also forget that Berger had a record of calling out left antisemitism of precisely this kind (use of antisemitic tropes for emphasis) dating back to before she was an MP.

    Having said all of which, I don’t think she’s any friend of the Left – and I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to readmit somebody who sat in Parliament as a representative of Change UK and the Lib Dems.

  2. Agree on your first half, Phil. On the other points, a friend on facebook pressed me and I ended up writing the following: One of the ways I’ve often thought about this is – imagine I was going to someone’s home and ask them to take part in an anti-fascist demo, and I realised they were Jewish, and mainstream, middle of the road Jewish, i.e. someone who backs Israel against Palestine, the Labour right against the left, etc. And they said, Why should I support your demo when I remember how the left treated Berger? I’d want to be able to say I remember that, and explain what I did, without feeling any shame. So, the first part of the conversation would have to be Yes, I remember that and saw it. (Seeing is a big deal). Then – in order to feel proud in that situation, there might be different things you could say. EG when I realised what had happened, I didn’t stop criticising her. Why should I, when she was criticising me and my politics? But I tried to think of her with respect. EG, when I criticised the people who left with Change UK, I never singled her out, I never treated her as worse than the others. I never used her name as a shortcut for all of them. I never spoke about her with derision or used insulting words. I knew that she’d become a symbol in people’s heads, and that process of turning her into a symbol was itself a problem. And when I saw other people doing the same, I had words with them. I continued to disagree with her, but I always treated her as a whole human being.

  3. From what I gather, Corbyn only saw a minuscule picture of the mural on a mobile telephone. What he should have done was to say that he wasn’t able to make a judgement on it there and then and made further enquiries. It’s more a case of incompetence than failing to see anti-Jewish imagery. I discussed the mural at the time with several pals, using a sizeable picture in a newspaper, and we all immediately concluded that it contained anti-Jewish stereotypes.

    Another blunder Corbyn made was his introduction to Hobson’s book on imperialism, where he failed to notice a paragraph devoted to an anti-Semitic reference to banking. Here, I suspect that he didn’t actually read the book properly, never a good idea when writing an introduction, critical or laudatory. I came across a reference to ‘Rothschilds’ when scanning an old book by Frank Ridley for the Marxist Internet Archive. I therefore wrote the note below. Corbyn should have written something analogous to this in his introduction to Hobson’s book.

    In reproducing the text, we are aware of the passages in Chapters VII and VIII, where Ridley wrote:

    ‘Without going quite as far as a dictator, the Senate appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus, surnamed Dives (‘the Rich’) from his enormous wealth, a kind of Roman ‘Rothschild’, as praetor, with extraordinary power to supersede even the discredited consuls. Crassus, as the leader of the plutocracy and the richest man in Rome, had more to lose from the victory of the slaves than had anyone else, and had, therefore, every interest in their suppression. It was ‘Rothschild’ versus the revolution…’

    ‘In such a plutocratic society as was that of the Roman Republic, money was power. And just as his modern antitypes, the Rothschilds, used their vast wealth to acquire political influence at the courts and in the parliaments of modern Europe, so did the ancient Dives use his wealth to buy political power in that highly susceptible organisation of financial corruption and political jobbery, which, in the first century BC, concealed its nefarious activities behind the high-sounding title of ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.’

    Whilst it is true that the Rothschild banking family did use its great wealth for political purposes, especially during the nineteenth century, when, for example, it provided substantial financial assistance to enable the British government and its Continental allies to defeat France during the Napoleonic Wars, to help Cecil Rhodes establish the British colony of Rhodesia, and to enable Brazil to become independent from Portugal, the Rothschild family has also become the central focus of many lurid and fanciful anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

    To our knowledge, Ridley did not subscribe to such theories: one of his last works refers to ‘the anti-Semitic myth of the Elders of Zion’ (Talking of the Devil, London, 1986). It seems that he was attempting to draw an historical parallel – as this book shows in many places, Ridley was fond of drawing historical parallels – in respect of the ownership of wealth and the exercising of political influence. Moreover, his use of the past tense – that the Rothschild family ‘used their vast wealth’ – suggests that he saw the family’s activities in this field as an historical rather than a present-day factor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s