On socialists and Jews; or, how to turn down the tension

Standard

The news that Labour has been recruiting fifty temporary agency workers to address its backlog of complaints about members is likely to fill many members of that party with dread. The primary targets for investigation are likely to include not just members of the left-wing factions now excluded from membership by Labour’s National Executive, but also office-holders who previously allowed their constituency to discuss motions in support of Jeremy Corbyn.

Some complaints will be investigated under Labour’s antisemitism policy which means, no doubt, that several instances of unmistakeably racist conduct will be punished. The next few months will also witness, however, a ratcheting up of the pressure on Labour’s Jewish members, including above all anti-Zionist Jews.

For example, in 2018, Diana Neslen posted on Facebook that the Holocaust had not merely led to the creation of Israel, it had also seen the destruction of a different Jewish culture, which had rejected the nationalism of that country. “All lives are worthy and since the Israelis learnt the wrong lesson their baubles no longer have any currency.” She was investigated and received a letter from the party, telling her, “These comments have caused offence.”

Stephen Solley, a former chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, responded to a campaign by a member of Jewish Labour Movement asking for people to vote for her as a Jew and someone who “face[s] antisemitism every day”. Solley believed that her words were hyperbolic. He wrote back, “The Jewish Labour Movement is, in my opinion, a force for ill and something of a con in that it is destructive of socialism. It is a pro-Israel, anti-Palestine group.” Complaints were made to his chambers, the Bar Standards Board, and the Labour Party. Cleared by the first two, he remained suspended from the Party ten months later.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi was accused of telling a meeting of her Chingford Constituency Labour Party that “The cynical manipulation of Jewish fears and concerns is unforgivable and undermines all our work against racism of all kinds.”Many other examples could be given. By the end of 2019, some 220 members of the Labour Party had been investigated for antisemitism.

According to David Rosenberg of Jewish Voice for Labour (which had acted as the main defence campaign for those suspended), at least 25 of those investigated by that stage, or one in eight, were Jews. That is a significantly higher proportion of that party than Jews constitute within Britain as a whole.

But instead of using this post to tell a familiar story of left-wing victimhood, which may be psychologically gratifying, but wouldn’t change anything, I’m more interested in what the Labour left could have done differently.

I am focussing on the Corbyn left because this is my part of the movement. I could give any advice you like to Keir Starmer or Stephen Pollard but they won’t listen.

In thinking about what we should have done I am not imagining that anti-Corbyn commentators were serious / intelligent / willing to play by the rules or stick rigorously in the truth. (For many of them, especially those who covered the story for the tabloids, it appears to have been quite the opposite). My point is rather that in a political battle where the left was always likely to be on the defensive, what was the best that could have been done, or more to the point, what was the best that was actually done.

In particular I want to remind friends of two occasions when the hostility between Labour’s socialist and socialist democratic Jewish supporters was diminished – when people broke through what has too often seemed an unresolvable conflict between socialists and Jews. This happened at several points in 2015-19, principally when socialists found a way of talking of mainstream Jewish opinion as if it was something not to be denounced but courted.

My examples derive from events in January 2016 and in April 2018. In the first of them, Jon Lansman, a prominent Jewish supporter of the Corbyn project, made an attempt at explaining the politics of the new leader to readers of the Jewish Chronicle.

Jon Lansman had come into left politics through his rejection of antisemitism and had been thinking about the issues for years. Right at the start of Corbyn’s leadership, he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle, the nearest thing there is to an official paper of the Jewish community. He described going to Israel after the 1973 war to stay with relatives. Lansman emphasised his Jewish heritage and described how his pro-Palestinian perspective had come about not from ignorance of the region but from the time he had spent in Israel: “I worked on a kibbutz in the Negev and my aunt lived in Beersheva. It was actually a very politicising experience. When I did my barmitzvah I saw myself as a Zionist and I think after I went there, I felt it less.” Lansman tried to signal to readers of the paper that there was a space for them in Corbyn’s Labour and that they should think about the party sympathetically.

In the second example, Corbyn attended a “third night” Passover Seder held by Jewdas, a group of young Jewish leftists. (The idea of a Third Seder emerged in the 1920s among Yiddish-speaking migrants from eastern European, and their descendants. Many such Jews wanted to preserve vestiges of the major holydays that most of their grandparents had observed in Europe; and they reimagined those customs in secular and often irreligious terms). He was criticised for being there – only for the other attendees to rush to his defence, and to win a significant portion of mainstream Jewish opinion behind them.

Jewdas was an organisation of Communist and anti-Zionist Jews. Its core demographic was several decades younger than the more visible pro-Corbyn campaign Jewish Voice for Labour. Compared to JVL, a much higher proportion of its members were religious and attended or even led synagogues. Unlike JVL, or indeed Jon Lansman, it did not make a fetish of membership of the Labour Party, it did not set itself up as a participant within Labour’s factional wars.

Jewdas was seemingly a much more flippant organisation than JVL: its Twitter account was fractious, and its literature often satirical. This veneer concealed the reality that Jewdas was much more serious than Jewish Voice for Labour about combating antisemitism. Three months before Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the Labour Party, and long before Corbyn had decided to run for the Labour leadership, it made a first attempt to set out its own definition of antisemitism, one which was intended to keep the issue as simple as possible: “Antisemitism is racism. 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.”

(I have quoted this definition elsewhere and readers have complained that it is too simple – antisemitism does not require hate, any more than sexism requires misogyny. Part of antisemitism’s distinctive appeal has been the way that people employ it both against those who they believe are privileged and those who they believe are not. Antisemitism plays a distinctive role, and a uniquely troubling one in the way that it can overlap with redistributive instincts. I accept that argument to some extent although, I am also quite sceptical that this idea is unique to antisemitism. There have been other forms of prejudice which have equipped people who believed they were at the bottom of society to attack those seemingly just above them. And, if you read the whole Jewdas piece, they saw the point about “punching upwards” too).

Like much of what would become the Corbynite left, Jewdas rejected the idea that criticisms of Israel were automatically antisemitic. “Israel is a state. You can’t really be racist against a state. There is no position on Israel that is per se antisemitic – although you can express views on it in a racist way.”

Unlike others on the left, the group acknowledged that blaming Israeli acts on its Jewish population might well cross the line: “[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.”

This early acknowledgment of the possibility of antisemitism on the left equipped the group well for the crisis that would follow. In 2018, for example, when Corbyn was criticised for his support for the mural “Freedom for Humanity” and its artist Mear One, Jewdas was able to remind its readers that it had criticised antisemitism on the left. They refused to justify the mural or make excuses for Corbyn’s support of it: “There is no question that the mural was antisemitic … Six years ago, that mural got taken down. At the time, Jeremy Corbyn consoled the artist who drew it. Inconsiderate? Definitely. Dodgy? Yeah. Racist? Maybe.”That acknowledged, they went on to say that Corbyn’s reaction did not justify the anger now being directed at him: “[I]s it a communal crisis that the leader of the Labour Party posted an unthinking comment on a Facebook post six years ago? Only if you’re a hired troll whose job it is to dig up dirt on left-wing politicians to force them out of office.”

In choosing to sit down with Jewdas, Corbyn was making time for people who had a coherent idea of what needed to be done, and one which was different from his or his allies’.

The Daily Mail journalist Andrew Pierce attended the Seder. The story Pierce told his readers was that Jewdas was not a group of Jews at all, but really gentiles parodying and insult Jewish traditions as part of their sinister mission of offending and humiliating Jews. Several subtle steps all came together to demonstrate that Jewdas were not the Jews they pretended to be. In contrast to real Jews, many members of Jewdas were self-declared anti-Zionists. Unlike British Jews, they did not eat meat. Jewdas had chosen to hold their Seder in a Christian church. They were extremely critical of self-declared Jewish leaderships. They had put on a largely secular service. Worst of all, Jewdas replaced traditional Seder prayers with greetings of their own: “They raised a beetroot in the air and shouted f*** capitalism.”

In an interview for Sky News, the President of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush denounced Jewdas for breaking what had until then been a shared communal wall excluding Corbyn. Arkush insisted that the Mail was right, Jewdas were not Jews. The only thing which held Jewdas together, he insisted was antisemitism, “They are lifelong campaigners against the Jewish community to whom they show the utmost disregard and contempt.”

However, as the story continued, more and more public voices confessed to having been if anything heartened that Corbyn should spent his time at a meeting with young Jews, even ones with views different from their parents’ generation.

The Jewish Chronicle ran a first piece criticising Jewdas. Later the same afternoon, itran a second piece by Charlotte Nicholls (a Labour Party member who had attended the Seder). “Jewdas has also been absolutely steadfast in addressing antisemitism on the left, particularly in pro-Palestine circles, including producing one of the most useful resources around on the distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.”

Jewdas was being criticised when, Nicholls insisted, it was simply a meeting of left-wing Jews. “While some communal bodies lay claim to speaking on behalf of the whole community, as though we are some monolithic bloc that speak with one collective voice, Jewdas is a place for disagreement, debate and where there are very few taboos.

Lansman’s article was a relatively small incident in Labour’s antisemitism crisis, but the underlying politics of it were the right ones for a left that was serious about finding a principled way through. It was a significantly sharper reaction than those on the left who responded with allegations of treachery against him.

Lansman was speaking to an audience of people who, he understood, needed to be persuaded of Corbyn’s good faith. The paper gave the interview a friendly title, ‘Ex-kibbutznik who is Corbyn’s left-hand man.’ Other Jewish newspapers responded to it in guarded or emollient tones. “Even some critics concede that Lansman’s intentions are sincere,” wrote Jewish Notes. This was as good as the Labour left was likely to get at the time, and a long way from the open conflict of three years later.

Similarly, after the Jewdas dinner, David Baddiel wrote, “They are just Jews who disagree with other Jews. Which means Jews … To make out that it’s somehow antisemitic for him to spend Seder with them just because they’re far left is balls.” Writer and comic actor David Schneider presented the Mail’sposition as: “‘Boo! Corbyn needs to get out and meet some Jews!’ (Corbyn spends Passover with some Jews at Jewdas) ‘Boo! Not those Jews!’”

It has been one of the bitter ironies of the past five years that policies intended to protect Jewish members of the party have turned out to be used extensively against left-wing Jews. That conflict was not inevitable. But responding to it required empathy, a realisation of quite how strident and hostile the left was capable of seeming. What we needed to be was both principled in our politics and much more sophisticated in how we argued them.

Three years later, that remains the left’s task.

This piece is loosely based on material from my new book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, which has just been published by Routledge.

One response »

  1. Hatred is a slippery term, certainly – when Trump complimented Jewish leaders on their business acumen, he wasn’t showing hostility towards them. I think perhaps the key is in Brian Klug’s definition of antisemitism: “Hostility towards Jews as Jews, where Jews are seen as something other than what they are” (NB quoted from memory). Klug’s argument had to do with inter-group tensions – if every Jew you’ve ever met is a bully, are you an antisemite if you say ‘all Jews are bullies’? – but I want to go somewhere else with it. That phrase “something other than what they are” implies that there is something that is “what they are” – and what Jews are is, well, people. Perhaps the core of antisemitism is “singling out Jews as other than normal” or “defining the default human so as to exclude Jews” – in which case Jewdas were right and antisemitism is exactly like other forms of racism, and exactly like sexism too.

    As for the main body of the post, obviously you’re right to say that there have been times when left-wing and anti-Zionist voices have been heard, but I’m not sure what the lesson is. Evoking religion seems to have been effective in one case, shared links to Israel in the other – but secular Jews who identify with the Diaspora should still be able to speak “as a Jew”, surely. Admittedly, it would be nice if parts of the anti-Zionist left didn’t mix it quite so enthusiastically with their Zionist counterparts; when I look at that Diana Neslen quote I do see a Jew setting out to annoy other Jews. I don’t see an antisemite, though – and that quote is far and away the ‘worst’ example of the three you cite. The logic applied to Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi is particularly depressing, and shows how far party management’s tunnel vision has gone – “there is no cynical exploitation of Jewish fears, therefore there is no danger of undermining antiracism, therefore suggesting otherwise equates to minimising Jewish fears, therefore this Jewish activist expressing concern about racism is in fact an antisemite, QED”.

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