Between summer 2015 and the end of 2019, the British Labour Party was caught in a seemingly unending antisemitism crisis. According to one study, the UK press published 6,000 articles about antisemitism in the Labour Party in four years; and for each article, there were of course many further pieces on other news sites, in the international press, etc.
Labour’s difficulties could not be reduced to the Middle East – the allegations were much broader than that. And yet, when you look with care at the individual stories, it feels as if Israel and Palestine were never far from view. Take for example, the moment when former London Mayor Ken Livingstone told a radio interview that “When Hitler won his election in 1932 … he was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
People often forget why Livingstone was being interviewed, which was to defend a recently elected Labour MP Naz Shah, who had shared on social media a picture of Israel superimposed over the United States, suggesting that the clash between Israel and Palestine could be solved if only the Jewish population of the former chose to relocate to the latter country: “Problem solved and save you bank charges for the £3bn you transfer yearly.”
Shah had urged her followers to vote in an online poll asking whether Israel had committed war crimes. When a large vote could be seen against that finding, Shah urged her followers to vote the other way, warning that, “The Jews are rallying to the poll.” (Shah grasped that the phrase “the Jews…” was likely to cause offence and apologised for her comments. It was Livingstone who turned a minor press story into a permanent crisis).
Many other examples could be given of commentary supposedly in support of Palestinian rights which either tested the boundary with antisemitism, or which provided the opportunity for people to make antisemitic comments. Think for example of those Labour leftists who blamed Corbyn’s isolation on “Zionist agents” and “Israeli funds”. Or the Liverpool music promoter and long-time anti-racist Philip Hayes who confronted right-wing Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger. He told her that Benjamin Netanyahu was “your Prime Minister”. So far, so pro-Palestinian (he could have told himself). But then added, “I fucking hate Jewish people … All Jewish people have money”.
For pro-Palestinian activists, episodes such as these raise the familiar question of when to let certain language pass, and when to stop, to point out the danger of certain expressions and the risk of falling into racist discourse. If there was anything the British left learned in 2015-19 it was that we missed the signs, and tended to respond late.
Arguably the best activist document published in Britain in the last ten years was written before the crisis broke. Published by Jewdas, an organisation of anti-Zionist Jews which contained anarchists and Marxists as well as Labour leftists, “Antisemitism is racism,” the author wrote. “It’s just a word for anti-Jewish racism, hatred of Jews because they are Jews, equivalent to hating people because they are black, Asian, Irish or whatever.”
How, then, could anyone avoid doing antisemitic, or speaking anti-Jewish words? “You treat people as individuals. If you meet a new person you don’t assume you know anything about them from a group that they may be connected to. When they do something, be it good or bad in your eyes, you don’t connect those actions with any group – the actions are purely the responsibility of the individual in question. You don’t generalise about groups of people – you allow individuals to define themselves in their own terms.”
In common with much of the non-Jewish left, Jewdas had a keen idea of acts which were not antisemitic but were wrongly portrayed as racist. “Israel is a state. You can’t really be racist against a state.” Unlike much of the left, though, Jewdas did not stop there but accepted that criticisms of Israel might cross the line into racism: “[B]laming policies of the Israel government on ‘The Jews’? Yep, that’s racist. Blaming them on ‘the Zionists’? I’m afraid that, most of the time, that’s racist too – ‘Zionist’ has long been a synonym for ‘Jew’ in much racist discourse.”
Jewdas were back in the news by spring 2018 – when Jeremy Corbyn visited their third night seder. Criticised by the Daily Mail for holding their event in a Christian church. Putting on a secular service and replacing Seder prayers with greetings of their own: (“They raised a beetroot in the air and shouted f*** capitalism”), the organisation pushed back against press efforts to label them as antisemites – they were able to say, in good faith, that they had been warning against the risks of left-wing antisemitism for longer than anyone.
Activists in Britain are not the first to have been tested in this way. Over the years, many Palestinians have grasped the tendency for Jewish opinion of Israel to polarise, and for a significant minority to oppose that state. This, for example, is Edward Said, writing in 1997, after the Oslo process had run aground: “We need to remind ourselves that political struggles are always contests of will, in which one side attempts to persuade the other side to give up, to lose the will to resist and fight on. This is not a military but a political and moral matter.”
Said’s strategic perspective – of trying to woo, and split, Jewish opinion – had, in turn, implications for how Palestinians should see Jews and the history of Jewish suffering: “We must recognise the realities of the Holocaust not as a blank check for Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledged.”
Said was an exiled Palestinian, who had been forced to leave the country in 1948 aged just 13. He campaigned for the right of Palestinian refugees to return, even during the Oslo peace process, in which Israel and the United States pressed for a “peace” which would have forever signed away the rights of his generation. He belonged to an irreconcilable wing of Palestinian activists. If even a figure who had suffered a lifetime of exile at Israeli hands was capable of grasping that “the Jews” were not a single bloc of people but divided by class, generation and opinion, then there was no excuse for British activists to pretend that an attitude of causing gratuitous offence was somehow “pro-Palestinian”.
Six years after Corbyn’s election, Palestinian activists are left with memories of a time when it seemed as if their demands were being taken up by hundreds of thousands of people. In the 2017 general election, Labour’s vote share rose faster than at any time since 1945. At the 2018 Labour party conference, delegates waved Palestinian flags.
By 2021, however, organising for Palestinian solidarity seems to face more obstacles than ever: around 30 British universities have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. When, this summer, schoolchildren put up posters calling for Palestinian solidarity, teachers tore them down. A discourse had been allowed to take hold in which acts of solidarity had been reimagined as something hateful and wrong.
One of the tragedies of Labour’s antisemitism crisis was that for all the rhetorical support given to Palestinians, desperately few attempts were made to explain what is at stake in that conflict. It is precisely because the pro-Corbyn left was committed to a peace which removed Israel’s racial laws and provided justice for Palestine that we needed (and still need) to reject any defence of the Palestinians expressed in antisemitic terms.
If you enjoyed this piece, my book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, was published earlier this week by Routledge.