This article was first published on spiked on 11 December 2019
How deep does anti-Semitism run in the Labour Party? One of the few points on which there is consensus – from the Labour leadership itself to its harshest critics – is that the party contains some anti-Semites. But the debate about the prevalence and significance of anti-Semitism within Labour still rages.
The recent submission on the subject by the Jewish Labour Movement, an organisation established in 1903 and affiliated to the Labour Party since 1920, certainly makes for grim reading. The 53-page dossier submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an official government body, documents numerous types of anti-Semitism inside the Labour Party, including verbal and online abuse of Jewish members; the exclusion of Jewish members from participating in party activity; the failure to implement procedure to protect Jewish members from anti-Semitism; hostile responses to those calling out anti-Semitism; and the appointment of anti-Semites to positions of power.
While these are serious charges, it should not be accepted without question that anti-Semitism is widespread in Labour. No doubt some of Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the party want such allegations to discredit his leadership. It is also true that supporters of other parties have an interest in undermining Labour. Both sets of critics are clearly willing to publicise any instances of anti-Semitism widely. The charges against Labour therefore demand closer investigation.
The official Labour Party line is of course that it abhors all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. It also insists it will take firm action against anyone propagating such views. Some Jewish members of the Labour Party support the leadership in its stance.
One line of defence for Labour is to suggest that anti-Semitism in the party reflects a broader trend across society. There is certainly evidence that lends credence to this view. For example, a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism by YouGov, and analysed by Daniel Allington, a lecturer at King’s College London, found that anti-Semitic views exist among a significant minority in British society. The pollsters asked a representative sample of adults how they would react to different anti-Semitic tropes. The results were worrying. For instance, five per cent of the British population said the statement that ‘British Jewish people chase money more than other British people’, was ‘definitely true’, while another 15 per cent said it was ‘probably true’. Similarly four per cent said it was ‘definitely true’ that Jewish people have too much power in the media while 10 per cent said it was ‘probably true’.
A parallel survey included in the same report showed striking levels of fear among Britain’s Jewish population. For example, 42 per cent of Jews have considered leaving the country, of which 85 per cent pointed to anti-Semitism in politics as a reason.
As with all surveys, such results have to be treated with caution. For instance, many religious Jewish men still seem comfortable walking the streets wearing kippot(skullcaps). Physical attacks on Jews do happen, such as the recent beating of a rabbiin London’s Stamford Hill district, but they are mercifully rare. The two teenagers reportedly responsible are said to have shouted ‘kill Jews’ and ‘fuck Jews’.
However, there are several reasons why the official Labour defence that anti-Semitism in its ranks merely reflects wider society is not convincing. For one thing, Labour makes great play of being an anti-racist party. It is all too quick to condemn what it sees as racism perpetrated by other organisations or individuals. Yet, to put it mildly, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in its ranks suggests a blind spot towards hatred of Jews.
There is also a strong case to be made that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party permeates from the leadership downwards. This was the claim made by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who represents Britain’s orthodox Jewish congregations, in The Times. He argued that ‘a new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root in the Labour Party’.
The Jewish Labour Movement report also includes the claim that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has frequently signalled that anti-Semitic views are acceptable. For example, he infamously supported the artist Mear One, after he painted a mural in East London containing several anti-Semitic tropes. These included a depiction of hook-nosed bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the world’s poor. Once publicly exposed, Corbyn took four days to apologise, claiming he did not look closely enough at the mural.
In another incident in August 2018, a video emerged showing Corbyn in Tunis in 2014, laying a wreath on the grave of the Black September terrorists responsible for murdering Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. At first Corbyn claimed he ‘was present, but not involved’. When video footage appeared to prove otherwise, he made no further comment. Several other instances are included in the report, and spiked has also commented on the same subject
However, to understand contemporary anti-Semitism it is necessary to go beyond pointing to its explicit instances, even among the Labour leadership. The problem today runs much deeper. Anti-Semitism has become central to the identity of many of today’s self-proclaimed radicals. In some cases, this echoes old themes, some of which would have been recognisable in the 19th century. But this anti-Semitism also expresses new developments in politics.
To grapple with this question it helps first to take a step back to central Europe in the late 19th century. Back then, the term ‘socialism of fools’ was coined to describe rising anti-Semitism. It is often attributed to August Bebel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, but others say it originated with Ferdinand Kronawetter, a leftist Austrian politician. According to a study by Peter Pulzer, the full saying was: ‘der Sozialismus des dummen Kerls von Wien’ (‘the socialism of fools from Vienna’).
At that time, genuine socialist movements were emerging in central Europe. Their overriding goal was to replace capitalism, the form of society based on production for profit, with one based on social need. It is not necessary to share their worldview to see that they were generally acting in good faith. They believed that the replacement of a market economy with a different form of economic organisation would benefit the mass of society.
Running parallel to the emergence of mass socialist parties was a rising anti-Semitism, which conformed to a caricature of socialism. Supporters of the socialism of fools saw capitalism not as a flawed social system, but as a giant conspiracy manipulated by all-powerful Jews. In this nightmare vision, the world was controlled by an unholy alliance of international Jewish bankers and Jewish leftists. Both sets of Jews were charged with working together to undermine the mass of the population.
The socialism of fools achieved its most brutal form in the German Nazi party, in the first half of the 20th century. National Socialists, as they called themselves, had no hesitation in using extreme physical violence against genuine socialists and communists. Indeed, many leftists ended up in concentration camps. At the same time, the Nazis were avid proponents of the idea that the world was controlled by a global Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Semitism was a central element of Nazi ideology.
Clearly, the political situation today is very different to that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, today’s anti-Semitism shares some common elements with its earlier form.
A key development from the late 1980s onwards was the almost universal acceptance that there is no alternative to the market. Almost everyone, even those who define themselves as socialists, accepted that the only viable economy is based on production for profit. Under such circumstances, traditional socialism, in the sense of the abolition of the market economy and its replacement with a different social system, had lost credibility. The old-style socialist movement was no more.
However, since the 1990s a new form of ‘anti-capitalism’ has emerged, sometimes referring to itself as the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement or as a campaign for social justice. In important respects, it reproduces some of the old anti-Semitic tropes. As Tim Black has recently argued on spiked, the anti-capitalist perspective relies heavily on the idea that the world is controlled by conspiracies. It also lays great emphasis on the role of international bankers in manipulating the economy and society more generally. Many supporters of this outlook would recoil at the idea that they are hostile to Jews, but acceptance of this worldview predisposes its adherents to key anti-Semitic themes.
Compounding this degraded form of anti-capitalism is the rise of identity politics. At a time when identity is politicised, it has become increasingly common to portray Jews ‘as powerful, privileged and the aggressor’. In this worldview Jews become not a group that has suffered oppression, but the embodiment of ‘white privilege’. So anti-Semitism comes to be seen, not as a form of discrimination, but as a radical act.
Echoes of this worldview were apparent in one of Labour’s election campaign videos celebrating diversity as the party’s strength. The clip featured virtually every group that could reasonably be seen as the victim of some form of discrimination – including LGBT+, gays, Travellers, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, blacks, Asians, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the working class and carers. But not Jews. For some reason Jews were not included in the list of those the video said would be worthy of equality, dignity and respect, and therefore valued by a Labour government. Evidently, Jews are not eligible to be, as Labour puts it, their ‘authentic selves’.
Of course, no discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism can be complete without reference to Israel. Some of this debate is well-worn but it is easy to miss the new ground that is apparent here, too. Clearly, it is widely accepted, including among the vast majority of British Jews, that it is legitimate to criticise Israeli policies. There is much about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Gaza that is worthy of criticism. But all too often criticism of Israel is used as a coded way of attacking Jews. Israel is subject to incredible double standards. It is criticised for actions for which other nations around the world get a free pass. For example, Israel is criticised for the separation wall that runs through the West Bank, yet few condemn ‘Fortress Europe’, the ring of defences around the European Union that restrict freedom of movement on a far greater scale.
Another way in which such double standards are expressed is through the notion of Israeli ‘apartheid’. It is important to recognise that this criticism is not based on an understanding of the old discriminatory regime in South Africa. Most proponents of this charge probably cannot even pronounce ‘apartheid’ properly. Rather, it is a moral category. It expresses the idea that Israel should be singled out for its actions. In this sense, the Israeli state is seen as uniquely evil.
From such a starting point, the proponents of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) feel obliged to single out Israel for their campaigns. Criticising Israel above all other nations becomes a central element of this warped form of radical identity. Boycotts of Israeli products, or Israeli culture, provide them with a high-profile opportunity for virtue-signalling.
There is also a new element to anti-Israel criticism that demands further attention. The existence of nation states is increasingly frowned on by elites. Instead, they see themselves as cosmopolitans who prefer trans-national organisations, such as the EU. Under such circumstances, Israel, as a Jewish nation state, runs into additional criticism. It is seen, at best, as an anachronism, and, more often, as a force destabilising the surrounding region.
So Jews have become the victims of today’s degraded form of radicalism. They are seen by many of today’s self-identified radicals as part of a conspiracy to control the world, with international bankers playing a particularly prominent role. They are alleged to be at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of privilege, with the bulk of the world’s population suffering beneath them. And they are attacked for supporting a uniquely malevolent nation state in a world in which nations are increasingly seen as problematic.
Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party goes way beyond a few errant individual matters. Today’s degraded form of anti-capitalism pre-disposes its adherents to a conspiratorial worldview. From this starting point it is all too easy to lapse into anti-Semitism.
However, there is one important point on which the defenders of the Labour Party are right. Anti-Semitism should not be singled out as a purely Labour phenomenon. Self-proclaimed radicals outside the Labour Party, like those within it, often share a similar worldview. These can include leftists who do not support Labour, as well as some of those who define themselves as greens.
But perhaps the most striking parallels are with Islamism. Extreme forms of Islam may use a different idiom to that of Labour radicals – Islamists are religious rather than secular, after all. But there are significant overlaps in their worldviews. Both, for example, share a conspiratorial perspective on the world. Islamists, like many of today’s radicals, also tend to focus on what they see as the pernicious power of international finance. That is why the World Trade Center in New York was targeted by al-Qaeda in 2001 – because it symbolised international finance. Nor should it be forgotten that Usman Khan, the London Bridge terrorist, was previously convicted of a plan to bomb the London Stock Exchange.
The visceral hatred against Israel from Islamist radicals is clear. For them, the existence of the Jewish State is an affront to Islam. Less well understood is the hostility of many Islamists to the nation state in general. Their ultimate goal is the creation of a worldwide caliphate that will replace nation states. In their transnationalism, at least, Islamist radicals share an important element in common with many contemporary leftists.
Anti-Semitism is a complex form of discrimination which can, in principle, exist in different sections of society. However, a terrible paradox of contemporary society is that those who consider themselves the most radical are often most prone to anti-Semitism. It is a tragedy that the radicalism of fools is gaining ground.