Pieces in Friday’s Daily Mail, Timesand Jewish Chroniclereported allegations of antisemitism against Priyamvada Gopal, the Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University.
There are two main criticisms of Gopal. The first, is that she has supported the campaign to rescind her University’s decision to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which she says is contrary to free speech but which her opponents insist is essential to Jewish safety.
Gopal is not alone among staff at her University in opposing the IHRA definition. The local branch of the academics’ union UCU which has a membership in excess of 2,000, passed a motion calling on the University not to implement the definition. UCU also held an online webinar on the issue, chaired by two Jewish academics from Cambridge.
Indeed Gopal’s resistance to that definition is in line with a significant minority strand of Jewish opinion, which is well represented by the recent Jerusalem Declaration, signed by 200 academics from the United States, Britain and Europe.
Among the initial signatories were the historian of the German Army in the Holocaust, Omer Bartov, the philosopher Brian Klug, Tony Kushner, who has written more widely than anyone on antisemitism in postwar Britain, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, and the international human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands.
If we tell ourselves that opposition to the IHRA definition is so great an offence against Jewish opinion that anyone guilty of it must be sacked, among the first to lose will be Jewish academics, dozens of whose university posts will be at risk.
The second complaint related to a Twitter thread posted on Thursday morning. There, Gopal pointed out (as she has in the press before) the incongruity of her university holding two positions between which there is undoubtedly some tension: support for the IHRA definition and an absolutist position of free speech. She criticised lecturers at her university who claimed to combine these two beliefs, and the journalists who reported on them.
One newspaper which has become a friendlier home to the right-libertarians in recent weeks is the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity which had recently published an interview with a retired Professor, the historian, David Abulafia. By far the most offensive allegation contained in Gopal’s thread was that she accused either the journalist or the lecturer of having manufactured quotes about her and described the interview as “made up”.
The key phrase was introduced by Abulafia. In looking back on previous pieces he had written (on the Colston statue trial), and Gopal’s response to them, he claimed to be offended by a tweet from Gopal in which she had supposedly described his interventions as having a “racist overtone”. This language Abulafia described as offensive, and the journalist reported his criticisms of it verbatim, without seemingly checking whether Gopal had in fact used those words.
Abulafia, or the journalist, were quoting something that Gopal had never said. She had indeed criticised Abulafia’s language, but not as racist. She was accusing him not of insulting black writers but of giving them fulsome but insincere compliments. Elsewhere, writing for the Spectator, Abulafia has been willing to admit that distinction.
Nevertheless, this phrase “racist overtone” appeared in the interview between speech marks as if Gopal was being directly quoted. In that context, her allegation of a failure of ethical integrity was well deserved.
The Cambridge University Jewish Society then joined in, saying that Gopal made “baseless and damaging accusations against two Jewish student journalists … [and echoed] historic tropes about media control.” But Gopal has never spoken of conspiracy. It is her critics who introduced that language. Nor is the trope accurately rendered.
There is a recurring problem in the way in which the national press finds stories of Oxford or Cambridge staff or students, and uses them to fuel culture wars. In autumn 2018, for example, a Cambridge University Student Union Council meeting debated whether to broaden the commemoration of British war veterans to include all those affected by war. The then editors of the Varsity newspaper saw how a story they had created span out of control. The right-wing press “placed narrative above fact, prioritised sensationalism over student safety, and violated students’ personal privacy.”
All this has happened, once again, in Gopal’s case – the main difference is that the target is not a woman student but a woman academic.
The allegations of antisemitism against Gopal only serve to add an extra layer to what is some publications’ long-standing obsession with her. This year, even before the antisemitism allegations, she had already been criticised in the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Spectator. Last year, she was in the press after the Home Office cancelled her invitation to address its staff.
The year before, Gopal was previously accused of racism, after journalists circulated a false quotation attributing to words she had never written. That campaign resulted in her receiving dozens of rape and death threats. In that context, why anyone would want to restart this unpleasant cycle of shaming Gopal in the national press is beyond me.
It would be false to claim that universities are somehow immune to the antisemitism you find elsewhere in society. Indeed the risks are about to get worse, when the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passes, with its absolute duty on universities to protect free speech, even that of cranks and conspiracists. Life is likely to get harder for students and academics, and we do well to choose our targets with care.
Yet a Jewish identity should not be a card that any political activist or student journalist can pull out, as the opportunity arises, to get them off the hook of well-earned criticism. To those of us who have had to campaign against real antisemitism in the last five years, it is depressing to find instances of genuine offence equated with these thin pickings.
(Be warned, this is long and a bit of a rant, but I hope it explains my book on antisemitism and how it fits into my views of the left…)
When I look back on my membership of the SWP and that party’s treatment of its Jewish members I split that time in two. In a first period, c1991-2001, the organisation did well. It taught its members anti-Zionist politics (a justice position with which huge numbers of Jewish people instinctively sympathise). When Julie Waterson had her head cracked open by the police at Welling, stood beside her were the Holocaust survivors Esther Brunstein and Leon Greenman. When Morris Beckman launched his memoir the same year, the SWP sent him speaking around Britain.
Things changed with the protests against the Afghanistan and the Iraq Wars. The SWP central committee acquired a vainglorious sense of their own abilities to provide “leadership” to the whole British working class, a potential which could only be achieved by wooing George Galloway. A belief in the equality of Jews became, along with LGBT rights, a mere “shibboleth” which members of the party were no longer expect to uphold, or at least not in relation to the leadership’s Respect project.
In 2004, the SWP started promoting Gilad Atzmon, inviting him to speak at its Marxism conference. In his speech, Atzmon explained that the left was wrong to oppose Israel when really it should oppose the Jews who were the enemy of human liberation. One member of the SWP Rob Ferguson challenged him from the floor, emphasising Jewish involvement in 1917, at Cable Street, etc. “That’s Chicken Soup and Barley”, Atzmon laughed, meaning that it was exactly the sentimental Jewish leftism that he was against.
For six years, the SWP backed Atzmon not Ferguson. The jazz musician was invited back to Marxism in 2005. The SWP put on six Atzmon gigs in 2006, he spoke alongside George Galloway and Martin Smith in Tower Hamlets, was publicised as supporting the SWP appeal in 2006, played Marxism again in 2007, and was promoted by the SWP again in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
For six years, left-wing Jews criticised the party and accusing it of being blithe to antisemitism, and for six years the SWP insisted that it knew better than them.
The SWP since its 2013 splits has done better at avoiding antisemitic controversy. The organisation has given up on its attempts to lead the left, becoming one of those parties which combines an abstract Marxist critique of capitalism with a political practice of tailing everyone else – a less exciting counterpart to Socialist Appeal.
Frankly, this is a good thing. 74 years have passed since Tony Cliff published his analyses of the class basis of the Soviet Union, was expelled from the main British Trotskyist group the RCP, and was forced to found a party. Revolutionary groups aren’t built to last for three quarters of a century.
In my book telling the story of the British left and the antisemitism crisis, the SWP receives barely a mention: less either than that book’s heroes (Mourid Barghouti, Edward Said) or its villains (the Canary, Socialist Fight, Skwawkbox, etc).
Possibly the one occasion when the SWP took sides came in summer 2019, when Chris Williamson was under attack for having used his Twitter account to promote the antisemitic obsessive and pro-Assad blogger Vanessa Beeley, and Gilad Atzmon (him again). Far from being troubled by an association with antisemitism, the party invited Williamson to be the main speaking at the opening rally of its 2019 Marxism conference.
I am setting out this history because, without it, it is hard to make sense of the article which has just gone up online on the website of the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism. Written by Rob Ferguson, it purports to be a review of my book on Labour’s crisis, but it barely makes a first stab at summarising my book’s argument, rather it is a shielding exercise, protecting the positions taken by his party
Although the piece is long (7,000 words – three times as long as this post, which is long enough) it makes just three main points. First, that whatever has been done by the left since 2015-19 is beside the point, since the left is under “attack”. “How a witch hunt is resisted and fought is important—but fight it we must.” The task of the left it to take sides with Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, David Miller etc. Doing anything else would be to “abando[n] the accused”.
Second, that I am wrong to consider that antisemitism might emerge from within the left since antisemitism is a “reactionary” ideology, “a break from socialist politics”. It is always something which emerges from the right and assists the right.
Third, Ferguson acknowledges that there may have been one or two occasions when the left mis-spoke. He cites the example of Corbyn’s support for the Mear One mural; amd the way in which parts of thee left defended Corbyn by peddling conspiracy theories that the mural was correct, the Rothschilds really do run the world. Ferguson refuses to speculate on the scale of these incidents, saying they were “fleeting” and “passing” i.e. irrelevant.
In response: (1) I have rather more experience of “fighting” than Ferguson. In my job, I stand up in court and I take part in a ritualised conflict whose violence is seemingly suppressed but sometimes visible: when I lose criminal cases, I have had clients pulled from the room screaming. I hate losing.
In the whole long period of Labour’s crisis, I took to court, fought and won the most high-profile case of a left-wing Corbyn supporter accused of antisemitism: a case which ended with the vindication of my client, the clearest possible statement that he was no racist, and judicial statements warning against the shoddy mis-investigation of false online allegations of antisemitism.
One of the reasons why he won the case was because his lawyers treated it as a conflict. We minimised the material which the other side was likely to use against him, and we maximised the material we could use against them.
If the left as a whole had treated the support of Palestinian rights with the same seriousness, if rather than just waving Palestinian flags we had produced explainers to people showing how Palestinians live under occupation, if we had made them rather than middle-aged racists central, then we would not be in the trouble we are now. This would have meant arguing with people who said stupid things, explaining to them, getting them to stop, and depriving the right of its attack lines.
Ferguson seems to think that politics is a football game. In which there are two sides, and you prove your loyalty to one side by shouting loudly your support, whatever people on your side do. Fortunately, real-life football bans are better than that: when racists appear on their terraces, they organise against them. Labour’s crisis was waged online with twitter pages and facebook groups being scoured for material which could form the basis for complaints to the Labour Party. Leftists were no long merely supporters; we were all players. Every time that someone on the left lied about racism or promoted the likes of an Atzmon or a Williamson, they were liable to be noticed; they shrank the left.
(2) It should be obvious to everyone that the historical relationship between antisemitism and the left is not the same as its relationship to the right. As I have spelled out in twenty years of writing about fascism, there are things which antisemitism does for the right – a function it supplies in terms of bolstering fascism’s self-image as a movement equally opposed to the rich above and to workers movements and social reforms below. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a left-wing movement in history in which antisemitism was equally central.
Ferguson never explains what he means by terming antisemitism as a “reactionary” movement. If he means that it returned to global politics in 2015-16 initially through the right I agree (this is a theme of one of the chapters of my book). If he means that antisemitism serves to pull people to the right from wherever they start on the political spectrum, I agree. I make the same point repeatedly.
If he means a version of the “True Scotsman” theory, i.e. that no one in the left can ever say something which is actually antisemitic, because they are on the left, and the left is incapable of antisemitism, then what was he doing standing up at Marxism all those years going and criticising Gilad Atzmon? He would done better to say what most of his comrades did say: “Yes, this sounds like anti-Jewish racism. But we are the SWP, we are by definition incapable of platforming a racist. Whatever we think we are hearing, this isn’t really happening”.
Among the many problems with this approach, beyond its blindness and deafness, its inability to persuade anyone paying attention, etc, that approach requires us to ignore and write out of history the quite large number of Jewish people who had to work to drive antisemitism out of the left in previous generations: whether that’s the nineteenth century Social Democrats warning against the Socialism of Fools, the East End Jews who organised in the SDF against their leader Hyndman, or the anti-fascists of the 1920s and 1930s who worked to isolate such renegade ex-socialists as Mosley or Mussolini. Personally, I preferred the Rob Ferguson of 2004 – a person who stood up against racism, and saw those anti-fascists as worthy of celebration.
(3) That takes me to his last point, how bad was the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party? Ferguson’s metaphor of a fight elides together two possible situations (i) a conflict in which your side is 99-100% in the right, maybe does one or two things which are wrong but no more. If Labour’s antisemitism had been on this scale then merely taking sides wouldn’t be a stupid response; (ii) a struggle in which your side is 60% in the right, but makes so many mistakes that any person with a sense of their own survival will spend much of their time telling their people to stop ruining their own case.
He says tiny; I say real a problem. Who’s right?
I know there will be some people reading this post who disagree with me; I also know that there is not one statistic or objective fact which can answer that discussion in and of itself. You might say for example, that only one in 50 members of the Labour Party were investigate for antisemitism and this is a minority. Or you might say that never in the whole history of British politics has any party seen as many allegations of misconduct, let alone racism, as Labour in 2016-19. Both facts are true, neither is an answer which will persuade people on the other side of the argument. I’ve written a book which asks this question repeatedly and, in the end, it has to speak for itself.
All I can say is that when the crisis first reached a meaningful level, which it did with the Livingstone affair, I thought the fault was just him. I did not expect that over the next four years, a leading member of the Labour Party would blame the slave trade on Jews, or that candidates for office would deny the Holocaust, or that one of the leaders of the Wavertree CLP would give an interview which was then put on YouTube with supporting images which would have belonged as well on a neo-Nazi podcast.
You can call this stuff “passing”, you can look away from it and pretend it didn’t happen. Fine, if that works for you. But it’s no way to build the left. To use that Ferguson metaphor again, its like going along to a boxing match, warming up by punching yourself in the face repeatedly then being surprised when you lose.
Finally, if anyone’s interested in the book itself, rather than my – or Ferguson’s – summary of it. You can read it for yourself, here.
To coincide with the publication of my new book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, which is published today, I’m running an extract from it on this blog. Today’s piece explores how the increase in antisemitism throughout the anglophone world began in 2015-16 with Trump’s run for the Presidency. This, far more than events in Britain, inspired emulators in other countries. Moreover, Trumpism has had a permanent effect on the Republican right in the United States, making antisemitism a plank of that party’s thinking. That process has continued, despite Trump’s electoral defeat at the end of last year.
During the 2016 election, Trump repeatedly employed antisemitic myths. He counterposed his message of America First to the risks posed by the “global” power structure, manifested in the “international banks” who he accused of holding covert meetings with Hillary Clinton. Trump also used anti-Jewish symbols, for example, by tweeting images of Hillary Clinton with a pile of money, the words “Most Corrupt Candidate ever,” and a six-pointed Jewish star. He claimed to be standing against the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class”, words illustrated with an image of the Jewish CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein.
The effect of Trump’s success in that election can be traced in the growing popularity of antisemitic online memes and messages, and in antisemitic actions off-line. So, for example, on Twitter; the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Jewish tweets were sent between summer 2015 and summer 2016. The ADL was especially concerned with tweets directed at anti-Trump or pro-Democrat journalists, who were accused of being unpatriotic Jews. Some 800 journalists were targeted in this way, and 45 million people read the antisemitic messages directed at them. Indeed between 2016 and 2017, the Anti-Defamation League found, the total number of antisemitic tweets rose again – by more than 50 percent.
Indeed, if we look beyond Twitter, the picture is the same. Fascists and antisemites were able to build up an audience under his patronage, and at an extraordinary speed. So, for example, James Allsup was a member of the far-right Identity Evropa group. In 2016, he first came to the attention of the press when he was a student Republican at Washington State University and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Together with fewer than a dozen other people who supported him, Allsup put up a “Trump Wall” at WSU. He later invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. Both events were widely covered in Trump-supporting Republican media and helped to create an image of Allsup as a young, contrarian, boldly standing up to political correctness in all its forms. Prior to November 2015 and Trump’s rise, he had no visible presence on YouTube or on other social media. In August 2019 YouTube closed his account. By that point, his films had been watched 73 million times.
Events such as the use of antisemitic slogans by far-right activists at Charlottesville in summer 2017 (“Jews will not replace us”), or the defence of those protesters by Trump (“very fine people on both sides”), showed that, after years in which antisemitism had been marginal to American politics it was tolerated by one of the country’s two main parties.
Moreover, Trump’s philosemitism was not merely a personal affectation but played to a part of his voting base: Evangelicals who see the restoration of the Jewish people to statehood in Israel as a prerequisite the speeding up of the millennium. These fantasies offer Jews little long-term benefit. The Book of Romans envisages that with the arrival of end-times the Jews will all be converted to Christianity – and cease to exist as Jews.
Some readers may object to the ideas of Trump as a key figure in the global spread of antisemitism. He has a Jewish daughter; he has promoted the interests of Israel. Trump has spoken at Jewish events. All these characteristics are said to prove that Trump is no antisemite.
It is true that Trump has used language which sounds, on its own terms, pro-Jewish. But we need to dig a little deeper. As so often happens where people express their admiration for Jews, the kinds of behaviour he fixed on were ones which are unlike how most Jewish people live, and which many Jews would find uncomfortable. So, on 8 December 2019, Trump addressed the Israeli American Council National Summit: “A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers. Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.”
Trump pretended to make a joke of Jewish disdain for him, saying it was reciprocated. But commercial interests, he argued, would bind his audience to him: “Even if you don’t like me; some of you don’t. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’ll be out of business in about 15 minutes, if [the Democrats] get in.”
Plainly, in Trump’s mind, he is a Jew-lover, but what is it about Jews that he admires? He loves the “fact” that Jews are businessmen and hate taxes. He believes that Jews place their own interests above other people, that Jews are clannish and insular, that Jews formulate plans to advance their own interests, and that Jews have a power which is international. All these ideas make him an antisemite, no matter how many Jews he speaks to.
Under Trump and since, a number of Republican Congressmen including Kevin McCarthy, Louie Gohmert, Steve King, and Paul Gosar have spread conspiracy theories in which prominent Jews, such as the financier and Democrat-donor George Soros, are blamed for any setback suffered by their party.
The reason the politicians have done so, is that this faction of the American centre-right (along with President Trump) understands American politics as a struggle between “globalists” who would sell out America to her foreign rival China and to various other international institutions which are perceived to have escaped from American control and “economic nationalists” who would defend US interests aggressively.
Once you have split up politics between nationalists and internationalists, it is an easy next step to see Jews not as a group of people who agree or disagree with one in the way that black people or white people do, but as an ideological category – supporters of multi-national institutions such as the IMF or WHO or World Bank, advocates of liberal policies such as freer migration, and an obstacle in the path of right-wing victory.
Trump-style antisemitism spread beyond US borders. If you want a good example of it, think of the Soros myth, in other words the idea that all liberal, left, anti-fascist and pro-migrant sentiment in the world is financed by a single shadowy Jewish financier, George Soros. Here are some examples of how that idea spread into parts of the new nationalist right: in Hungary in 2018, the ruling Fidesz party stood for reelection on the slogan, “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” The posters were then covered almost everywhere with grafitti identifying Soros as a Jew.
Italians started talking about Soros-financed immigrant boats arriving on the shores. In the US, some people suspected Soros was behind the migrant caravan entering from Central America. A Polish member of parliament called Soros the “most dangerous man in the world.” In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair published a cartoon showing Soros as the puppet master controlling first shape-shifting lizards, then Illuminati, and then finally a triad of anti-corruption activists, journalists and left-wing politicians. In Britain, a range of nationalist-mindeed conservatives have one on record to support the myth: Roger Scruton, and the MPs Sally-Ann Hart and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In emphasising that the Donald Trump campaign was the moment when antisemitism became a significant force in global politics, after thirty years in which it had been at the margins – I am not minimising the mistakes of the left, or saying that there was any high wall preventing ideas which had begun at one point on the political spectrum from then reppearing at another. There were also places where antisemitism came into the UK left – even moments where you can trace the transmission from the US right to the left here:
The Mear One mural. The story of antisemitism in the Labour Party became front-page news in March 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his support for an American artist Mear One who had painted a street mural in east London, ‘Freedom for Humanity’. If you look at the mural for any length of time, it clearly embodies any number of antisemitic visual messages. Corbyn had seen the photograph and posted a quick, mis-spelled message of support for the artist. For this, he was widely and rightly criticised. Mear One, had been a street artist in the hip hop scene of 1980s Los Angeles and had contributed to anti-war art tours before being invited to paint his mural. In Mear One’s account the design was simply the transportation to Britain of the politics of the Occupy movement: “I had just gone through the cypher of Occupy LA 2011 … 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.” Mear thought he was on the left, but in reality he had been radicalised to the right by Occupy and by coming across right-libertarians there, and believing their criticisms of capitalism in which the problems of the latter were blamed on banking, finance and (just beneath the surface) the Jews. Asked to explain what the criticisms of the mural were about, he said, “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc. as the demons they are.” Mear gave an interview to DavidIcke.com. “I thank David Icke and Gareth Icke and their team” Mear One wrote, “for allowing me this opportunity to offer my side of the story, uncut and uncensored, for those who are awoken.”
The Campaign against Luciana Berger. This began in 2014, the US far-right website Daily Stormer website developed an obsession with Berger, and published about 40 articles about her, denouncing her for being Jewish. 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 sent by a fascist to her, although the sender was convicted and jailed for other, terrorism, offences). From early on Berger seemed to be a particular target also for some people on the left – with rational criticisms of her (she was on the right of the party, she had a long record of pro-Israel advocacy, she had been parachuted into a left-wing Labour seat…) spilling over into something strange and unpleasant and unjustifiable. Leftwing music promoter and anti-racist activist Philip Hayes was convicted after abusing her when he was drunk (“I fucking hate Jewish people”). In March 2018, another supporter of the Labour left received a suspended sentence after sending her hatemail. By 2018, when Berger was blamed for the Mear One story making it into the press, she received abuse at anextraordinaryrate.
At the fringes of the antiwar movement. In 2019, the pro-Corbyn MP Chris Williamson toured the Labour Party and the UK, putting his anti-war and left of centre politics to every audience he could find. He then promoted the social media presence of the people who had hosted or spoken alongside him. Among the individuals he boosted where Gilad Atzmon (“Hands off Gilad Atzmon – Sign the Petition”) and Vannessa Beeley (“a privilege to hear her speak”), each of whom have been able to build significant social media presences by appealing to an anti-American milieu on the edges of – and just outside – the ordinary antiwar movement. Atzmon will be familiar to many readers of this blog for his long record of Holocaust Denial and antisemitism. While, as for Beeley, she has denounced the Syrian medical defenders the White Helmets (“are #WhiteHelmets not ready to come out of the Zionist closet just yet?”), Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia (“#Zionist apologist”), Palestine Solidarity campaigners who support an uprising against the Assad regime (“Zionist agenda in #Syria”), and politicians in France (“a Zionist apologist”) and UK (“Zionist agenda”). Individuals in this pro-dictator, antisemitic milieu are able to build an audience in part because in the US, unlike in Britain, the antiwar movement has largely broken its relationship to the organised left, and its supported by parts of the libertarian right, and key blogs such as antiwar.com, are funded by the right.
In conclusion – often people talk about antisemitism as if it is a permanent fixture in life – always present, and always at the same intensity. But that’s wrong. It used to be part of the wisdom of the US centre-right that anti-Jewish racism was as a disaster for them. The things the right was trying to do – enable capital moving freely, spread a right-wing version of open borders – did not connect well to antisemitic ideas or conspiracy theories. With the right’s turn to nationalism, the vision has grown of a different way you could run an economy, as a series of national fortresses – this creates a space for antisemitism to revive.
It used to be part of the collective wisdom of the centre-right that in order to grow they needed to keep antisemites and conspiracy theorists out. Think for example of what happened to former Klan leader David Duke when he ran for US Senate in Louisiana in 1990. Criticised almost as much by Republicans by Democrats, the GOP surrendered the primacy to incumbent Democratic senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., rather than having a racist and antisemite elected on their ticket. Looking back on that moment, it feels like it is not thirty but a hundred years ago – so much has changed.
Since 2016, a racist view of the world has become integrated into mainstream centre-right thinking. It will continue to do harm even now that Trump removed from the White House. And in a world connected online, where ideas move freely, and can cross ideological lines – the left needs to be much better than we have been at identifying antisemitism when it is near to hand, and opposing it.
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.