Labour and Antisemitism
I’m an opinionated Jew with a PhD in the history of antisemitism, but I find it daunting to weigh in on the debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. To describe the accusations as disproportionate is to risk being branded an antisemite. But while genuine instances of antisemitism should be tackled, there is no more of it in Labour than in other parties. The sustained offensive by the Labour right and by Conservatives is not only unfairly damaging the party and the left in general, it also unthinkingly reinforces antisemitic motifs.
The populist right’s public enemy number one is the ‘liberal elite’. This phrase deliberately merges two very different entities: metropolitan intellectuals on the one hand, and global capitalism on the other. In her 2016 ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, Theresa May declared that ‘liberalism and globalisation … have left people behind.’ The elision harnesses public anger at banks and multinational corporations and turns it onto members of the middle-class precariat: academics, journalists and left-wing MPs.
This scapegoating of a relatively powerless ‘elite’ echoes the antisemitic fantasy of the rootless cosmopolitan who is also part of an international financial network. The notion that prejudice is festering among the ‘chattering classes’ of North London unwittingly invokes an antisemitic stereotype. It also undermines qualities that are both vital and under threat in an age of philistine oligopoly: intellectualism, expertise, rationality.
Allegations of antisemitism employ a hermeneutics of suspicion, often uncovering examples recorded in meetings, or buried on social media, even from years ago. This replicates the classic dynamics of conspiracy theory, a common feature of traditional antisemitism. The language of the accusations, too, echoes that of antisemitism – a ‘stain’ or ‘scourge’ that has ‘infected’ the party and must be ‘rooted out’. I’m not arguing that centre-right and right-wing critics of antisemitism are antisemitic, but their campaign has a ferocious hygiene about it that carries unpleasant and ironic resonances, and leads to irrational outcomes. Attempts to reveal hidden hatred are a central feature of the asymmetrical identification of antisemitism with the left. Right-wing antisemitism is assumed to be more blatant, and therefore attracts less scrutiny. The left is held to a higher standard, and ‘gotcha’ moments trump statistical evidence.
On Monday, the Labour MP Siobhain Mcdonagh said on the Today programme that ‘it’s very much part of their politics, of hard-left politics, to be against capitalist and to see Jewish people as the financers of capital, ergo you are anti-Jewish people.’ ‘In other words to be anti-capitalist you have to be antisemitic,’ John Humphrys interrupted. ‘Yes,’ Mcdonagh said. ‘Not everybody but there’s a certain strand of it.’ I could hardly believe my ears, but she is not alone. In the New Statesman last year, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts wrote about the ‘deep-seated theoretical underpinnings of left critiques of capitalism that have antisemitism as their logical consequence’.
Such commentators make associations that they would regard as antisemitic if articulated in reverse: the link between Jews and a version of capitalism that is about actors as well as systems. Similarly, they are keen to stress the distinction between Israel’s actions on the one hand and Jews on the other, yet at the same time frequently identify criticism of Israel as at least latently antisemitic.
Unlike political opposition, and because of the Holocaust, the charge of antisemitism has an absolute, unarguable quality, which is exploited by Jeremy Corbyn’s critics for a political end. It’s true that Corbyn and some of his allies are digging their heels in, creating a vicious circle, but many of the accusations are implacable because their aim is to undermine the left. On quitting Labour last month, Joan Ryan MP said antisemitism was ‘never’ a problem before Corbyn became leader: fifteen years ago I reviewed a volume of essays on the perceived rise of ‘a new antisemitism’ on the left.
What is new is Corbyn’s indictment of the financial greed hollowing out our society. An analysis of broader social and economic power was missing from British politics through the decades of New Labour, and is still absent on the right of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s message has resonated profoundly with many people. But it is being muted and drowned out by the antisemitism row.
Some conspiracies – not involving the Rothschilds – are real: the networks of offshore tax havens and shell companies, and the links between Russian money, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Trump and the Brexit campaign. Bolton and Pitts criticise Corbyn’s portrayal of ‘a parasitical “1 per cent” draining the vitality from the “real economy”’ and a ‘global elite’ who ‘do not produce anything tangible but merely make money out of money’. But that portrayal rings true.
Viewing power in perspective lays bare the vast and widening wealth gap, and a left that is at a low ebb compared to the neoliberal hegemony and the resurgent populist right. The antisemitism furore is undermining the left still further at a time when we need more than ever to challenge the real financial elites that are wrecking our world. Critics should not feel bullied into silence.