Let's start with my own personal experience. In the two years that I have been a Labour Party member (in a branch where Corbyn supporters are in a clear majority) I have only once encountered any evidence of anti-semitism. That occurred in a private conversation with one member who casually conflated 'Israel' with 'Jews'. When I took him to task on it, he laughed it off as me being PC. There's one other thing I should mention – the member in question is passionately anti-Corbyn.
So, does my personal experience in any way equate to the idea of a party that has a widespread problem with anti-semitism, or is 'institutionally anti-semitic'? Not in a million years. The Corbyn supporters in my branch are solidly anti-racist, and are well aware of the difference between criticising the current appalling Israeli government and attacking people because they are Jewish. They are genuinely and understandably furious at being labelled anti-semites by people who couldn't care less about anti-semitism or any other form of racism, unless it is used as a stick to beat Corbyn with.
But here's the thing. However small the numbers, there is no question that anti-semitism does exist in the Labour Party. A good friend of mine had an appalling experience in his branch, where he was told that he was “not the sort of Jew we can do business with.” Surprisingly, and with a remarkable generosity of spirit, my friend says that he doesn't believe that the person who said it is actually an anti-semite at heart. Well that may be so – but he's certainly doing a bloody good job of acting like one. For me, that incident is not borderline – that's crass anti-semitism. At the very least, that member should have been given a final warning about his behaviour, told to apologise and to educate himself as to why that sort of comment is totally unacceptable.
So, there's a problem here. Anti-semitism does exist in the Labour Party (just as it exists elsewhere in society) but it's also without doubt being weaponised by people who have their own cynical agenda. In fact, I would go as far as to say that ninety percent of the people who complain about anti-semitism in the Labour Party actually couldn't care less about anti-semitism and are simply using it as a line of attack against Corbyn. But that still leaves ten percent whose concerns are genuine. And that really matters.
The fact that so many accusations of Labour anti-semitism are fuelled by malicious motives doesn't mean we can ever ignore them. Each case has to be treated on its merits. If someone has said something that's controversial – is it or is it not anti-semitic? That is always a valid question. We should never be afraid to answer it. If it's not anti-semitic, we should say so loudly and explain why it's not. And if it is anti-semitic, we should equally loudly say that it is, and explain why.
But there's a further consideration. If something is anti-semitic, then we have a duty to examine just how bad an example of anti-semitism is it. Because, like any form of racism, it's ridiculous to pretend that all expressions of anti-semitism are equally bad.
There are different levels of racism, and they simply cannot be treated as one and the same. There is a huge difference between conscious full-on intentional racism (“W*gs go home” for example) and unintentional racism (e.g. assumptions that black people will be good dancers, athletes etc) which can sometimes be innocently expressed by people who wouldn't realise that they have a racist bone in their body.
In the past, before Corbyn was Labour leader, did anyone ever suggest that someone who made a mildly racist remark should be instantly kicked out of the party? Of course not. The embarrassing truth is that they would often have gone unchallenged – or at best they might have been politely corrected. Similarly, there is a categorical difference between someone who, for example, talks about "money grabbing Jews" and someone who makes a mildly anti-semitic remark without fully understanding the connotations.
To take one example. I've never been a fan of Derek Hatton (although I was even less a fan of Neil Kinnock's vainglorious, grandstanding speech in which he capitulated to Thatcherism and in doing so helped condemn working class people to decades of poverty and despair.) But earlier this year, Hatton, having been readmitted to the Labour Party, was immediately suspended for a 2012 tweet. It's really instructive to examine it.
At the height of another Gaza bombardment, with yet more innocent civilians being killed, Hatton tweeted: “Jewish people with any sense of humanity need to start speaking out publicly against the ruthless murdering being carried out by Israel.”
So let's analyse it. Is that tweet an example of anti-semitism? The headline answer is 'yes'. It's wrong to demand that Jews should condemn the actions of Israel's government any more than anyone else with an ounce of decency should condemn it, for the same reason that it would be wrong to demand that Muslims have a particular duty to condemn the actions of Saudi Arabia or ISIS, both of whom claim to be acting in the name of Islam.
But, having accepted that it's anti-semitic – just how bad an example of anti-semitism is it? That's a very important question. As I've said, it is unquestionably wrong to demand that Jewish people should condemn the actions of Israel, no matter how appalling those actions might be. But is it at least understandable why someone might express their hope that Jewish people would?
To answer that, let's examine another scenario. When there's a terrorist attack on innocent people, carried out by people who claim to be acting in the name of Islam, am I pleased when someone condemns it? Of course. But do I specifically demand that every single Muslim condemns it? Of course not. However – if I'm totally honest – am I extra pleased if a person who condemns it happens to be a Muslim? Yes I am. Why? Because, for a start, I know that the person isn't doing it because of Islamophobia. And their condemnation sends a message to both extremes – this vile atrocity was not carried out in my name.
Similarly, if Israel (which describes itself as 'a Jewish state') is responsible for an atrocity, am I extra pleased if the person condemning that atrocity happens to be Jewish? Yes. And for the same reasons. For a start, I know that (just as with the Muslim who condemns ISIS) the condemnation is far less likely to be coming from a bad place. It's not motivated by anti-semitism. And whenever a Jewish person condemns the actions of Israel, it helps to stop the conflation of Jews and Israel, something that the extremists on both sides encourage.
So, yes I'm pleased when a Jewish person condemns the Israeli government for its actions. But would I for one second demand that any or every Jewish person should condemn it, any more than I would demand it of a non-Jewish person? No. To do so would be anti-semitic. But It's easy to understand how someone might genuinely fail to see that.
To pretend that every example of anti-semitism is equally bad is dishonest and dangerous. It puts the kind of subconscious anti-semitism which is the product of ignorance on the same level as the most vile examples of fully intentional anti-semitism. And in doing so, it allows genuine anti-semites to diminish and dismiss legitimate criticism.
Someone who says that "the world is run by greedy self-serving Jews" is clearly a disgusting anti-semite (not to mention factually incorrect and just plain bonkers). But it's ridiculous and counterproductive to claim that there's no difference between someone who says that and someone who says "The way that Israel is treating the Palestinians is similar to how the Nazis treated Jews." It is, without any shadow of doubt, anti-semitic to say that (and if you don't understand why, I urge you to read up on it) but it's on a totally different level of anti-semitism to that in the first example.
But the sad reality is, what's happening nowadays is that any and every example of anti-semitism (no matter how small) is being cynically used as yet more supposed proof of the 'institutional anti-semitism' in the Labour Party. And when people fail to distinguish between deliberate, calculated, intentional anti-semitism, and anti-semitism that's born of ignorance, they're actually letting the real anti-semites off the hook. It ought to be easy. We should utterly condemn the first person (and kick their racist arse out of the Labour Party) and explain to the second person why they're wrong. But the current tendency is to lump both people into the same boat. "Look! There's another anti-semite!" Which immediately prompts the equally facile response: "See?! It's all made up!"
The blindingly obvious truth is that (as with all forms of racism) there are degrees of anti-semitism – from the inexcusably awful, to the merely uneducated and unthinking. It ranges from full-on anti-semites like David Duke, to anti-semites like Gilad Atzmon (whose views, in spite of the fact that he's Jewish, are undoubtedly anti-semitic – again, look it up) to people like Derek Hatton who make an anti-semitic remark out of ignorance, to the vast majority of the half a million Labour Party members who are not in any way anti-semitic in the slightest.
And, let's be clear, the idea that Labour is worse than other parties when it comes to anti-semitism is a myth. A report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on Antisemitism in the UK found that "Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party, and a number of revelations regarding inappropriate social media content, there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party." In fact, there was even a YouGov poll which showed that anti-semitism amongst Labour supporters has actually decreased under Corbyn.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, whilst I have no problem at all with people who say (as Corbyn himself has acknowledged) that he initially failed to tackle the small, but nonetheless real, problem of anti-semitism in the party robustly enough, the idea that Corbyn himself is anti-semitic is simply nonsensical. I could quote a hundred pieces of evidence to support that opinion, but in the end I can't put it better than the late, great Jeremy Hardy, who tweeted not long before his untimely death:
"Just to clarify something, I’ve known Jeremy Corbyn for many years and he’s definitely not an anti-semite. Not even slightly. It’s just not how he thinks about humankind. Glad to help. Not entering a debate. If it makes you happy to think he is an anti-semite, you’ll continue."
Before I conclude, I'd like to share another story from my Labour Party branch. Since I joined, many excellent speakers have addressed us on subjects ranging from education, to the gig economy, to fair taxation. One such speaker was a Palestinian lawyer who spoke about the current situation in Israel/Palestine.
At the end of the meeting, when she was asked what people could do to help the cause of the Palestinians, her answer surprised me. She said that donating to charities like MAP or supporting boycott campaigns was all very well – but in her opinion, the single most important thing that anyone could do to help the Palestinian cause was to elect a Labour government under Corbyn. The idea of the UK being led by a Prime Minister who supported justice for Palestine would be a game-changer. That answer really brought home to me why people who support the current Israeli government and its repressive anti-Palestinian policies are so worried about Corbyn becoming PM.
It seems to me that there are three types of people who attack Corbyn (and the Labour Party under his leadership) for anti-semitism:
1) People who genuinely care about anti-semitism.
2) People who are desperate to prevent a socialist Labour government in order to protect the status quo (and in many cases their own personal wealth) who use anti-semitism as a convenient stick to beat Corbyn with.
3) Supporters of the current Israeli government who want to stop the election of a Labour government that would stand up for the rights of Palestinians and recognise Palestine as a state. (To be absolutely clear, such supporters of Israel include Jewish and non-Jewish people, and they are most certainly not part of an all-powerful global conspiracy!)
And here's where it gets even more complicated – it is theoretically possible for someone to be part of all three of those groups. Although I would respectfully suggest that, in the long term, anyone who is part of groups 2 and 3 is actually harming the cause of group 1.
So to sum up...
Jeremy Corbyn, and hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members like myself, want to change society in a way that it hasn't been changed since 1945. We want to reverse the pernicious evils of Thatcherism. We want to transfer wealth from the 1% to the 99%. (And, incidentally, guess what? That would also result in a transfer of wealth from 1% of Jewish people to 99% of Jewish people.) The transfer of wealth and power from the few to the many is what the 1% fear most of all. And that's why they will weaponise anything, even something as deadly serious as anti-semitism, to try to stop it happening. We must continue to fight anti-semitism – but we must also fight its weaponisation.
Pete Sinclair, June 2019
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