Since the day and hour Jeremy Corbyn announced he was standing for Labour leadership, the media, the Tories and a massive chunk of the Labour right have been chucking around accusations of anti-semitism like they were going out of fashion. The slow murmur has accelerated into a thunderous roar pretty quickly.
The intention is clear – discredit Corbyn and therefore the left because it poses a mortal threat to the interests of warmongers, blood thirsty murderers and the arms industry. Legitimate criticism of the illegal and repugnant actions of the state of Israel and the role of the British State in promoting violence in the Middle East and around the world simply must be silenced, so everyone who opposes war and racism must be cast as a foaming anti-semite.
These deeply cynical maneuverings have taken a not unsurprising turn in the last few weeks, when it became clear that Muslim women in public life were being specifically targeted. The first Muslim President of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, was instantly branded an “ISIS sympathiser” following a disgusting campaign by the media… and of course also branded an anti-Semite. Naz Shah, the Labour MP suspended for sharing a meme which suggested Israel should be relocated to America, before she was elected to Parliament, managed to escape being criticised during the previous Labour leadership of Ed Miliband, who was Jewish, yet a week before the council and mayoral elections, the right suddenly care about racism… unless there are Syrian weans fleeing war, in which case, they absolutely don’t.
Much has and will be written by the left, pointing out the odious double standards of the right wing of the Labour Party (and the Tories, obviously), who went around carpet bombing millions of foreigners yet are now suspending people for a racist meme. The people who brought us racist mug and “British Jobs for British workers” seem to have a new-found interest in not being a bunch of dog whistling arseholes, if there’s an opportunity to stick it to the left and/or Muslim women and soften Corbyn up, so he can be replaced by an, erm, former soldier…
The Military Industrial Wing of The British Labour Party and the British establishment is conducting a clearly targeted campaign, for no other purpose than to restore the complicity of the Labour Party with the imperial project, that’s beyond fucking obvious – understanding that is the easy part.
The hard part starts when we stop pointing over there and begin to honestly examine the way so much of the left frames the discussion about a group whose very existence in Europe – and in Scotland – has been consistently and repeatedly undermined for most of the last few centuries.
This has fuck all to do with Jeremy Corbyn, it’s not really got that much to do with “Labour” either, this must be about all the political movements which can and should be welcoming towards Jewish people but quite simply aren’t. The left has been on a long and painful journey for the past few decades, as it unpicks its own prejudices towards women, people of colour, LGBTI people – but it seems when it comes to anti-semitism, we’re only just getting to stage one: accepting there is a problem.
I’ve seen a thousand memes just as nonsensical as the abysmal shit Naz Shah posted, I’ve been on demos I thought were about showing solidarity towards Palestinians which ended up being a bunch of people standing outside Jewish businesses shouting violent, racist, macho nonsense – the mere existence of eejits doesn’t confirm the existence of a broader problem, but the fact we often ignore them does. If you’ve never heard anti-semitism on the left, you’ve just not been paying attention.
This topic is so vast, so I’ve decided to look at a few very specific ways the left lets Jewish people down, and offer a few suggestions for changing things. This is not a definitive analysis of the Middle East and its problems, so repeating things we already know about how capitalism/Israel/America are really bad will not refute the fact that we could be much, much less shit to Jewish people than we are or that the consequences of our failures are serious.
I would apologise for the long, personal polemic – but it’s borne out a decades of frustration at no-one even recognising the validity of the discussion, never mind having it. If I’m wrong, good, but the sheer certainty with which we continue to just do what we’ve always done, without asking what impact it’s had, gives me reason to believe there‘s room for improvement. And the lack of Jewish voices, other than those we fetishise and tokenise as anti-Zionist superheroes, suggests we’re not as good at tackling oppression in all its form as we often pretend.
First, let’s recognise the problem – the left may be able to hold up prominent Jewish figures of influence, from Trotsky to Tony Cliff, but we can’t ignore the other side of our history. The TUC didn’t just fail to oppose the 1905 Aliens Act, aimed at preventing Jews fleeing Eastern Europe from settling here, they had been agitating for it for more than a decade previously.
In 1899, Keir Hardie, the Scot who was the first Labour MP, told a select committee that “God made Scotland for the Scotchmen, and I would keep it so”. The “Poles” he spoke of in such negative terms were mainly Lithuanian Catholics and Jews who had settled in Scotland. Yet Hardie was also one of the only MPs who opposed the Bill in Parliament. While many socialist groups, like the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), made clear no Jews were welcome in Britain, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), of which Hardie was a member, came to the official position that socialists must draw a distinction between “poor Jews” and “the rich Jew who has done his best to besmirch the good name of England.” Underpinning the whole left-wing narrative, even from those opposing these specific immigration controls, was a reliance on the association between Jews and money. Despite the fact this prejudice existed long before industrialisation and the modern Labour movement, the left could now assert that Jewish people were the very embodiment of modern financial capital. That‘s a view which still exists today.
There’s a clear and well-defined streak of exactly this kind of anti-semitism running through many of the political movements which have emerged in the modern era. If anything, this seems to be something that’s increasing in prominence, not decreasing. Dig into the Zeitgeist Movement, David Icke, the people who talk about the NWO all the time and it won’t take long before you encounter the view that ultimately, it’s all the fault of Jews.
These movements may not be mainstream but their influence, and sometimes just blatant infiltration of the left and grassroots activism, is plain to see. Navigating through the ever expanding array of political Facebook groups and the Twittersphere, it’s clear there are a huge number of spaces where those who feel that way inclined can post constant nonsense about how ISIS are a Jewish conspiracy, who put fluoride in your water and probably stole all your postal votes, without anyone challenging them.
Never mind just arguing with people about this on social media, we need to start using the mechanisms within our unions, movements and organisations which were specifically designed so we could get rid of racists to… get rid of racists – and not just because otherwise, the right-wing will wait for the opportune moment and do it for us. More broadly, we need to ensure we challenge the view that capitalism is a secret or that the people in charge are anything other than terrible human beings – because if we don’t, if we accept that the world is running by giant Lizards, we might as well put our feet up and eat our chemtrail cereal. Conspiracies negate the need for action, when we need to restate that need.
Beyond the narrow confines of the internet, reports of anti-semitic attacks doubled in Scotland in 2014; of the 31 attacks in that period, 21 took place in Glasgow – but with only 10,000 Jewish people living in Scotland, what those figures actually suggest is that Scotland‘s small Jewish population are more at risk of violence than any other group. Whether that’s the case or not, we need to stop pretending this is either solely a historical problem or a problem which exists somewhere else – it’s happening here, it’s happening now and a left which takes anti-racism seriously should consider why our response has been slow, if not non-existent.
There is a real danger that we can be seen to minimise and write off anti-semitic violence across Europe, by treating it like a by-product of something else and not an abhorrence in its own right, or that we just flat out fail to acknowledge it exists.
In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris back in 2015, the left response was, quite frankly, chilling. It made me question what kind of solidarity we claim to stand for, if there’s no room for reflection beyond shouting “WOT BOUT MERICA?” and “everyone who’s upset by this must be a racist”, in a way which I found totally disrespectful to a complex reality we claim to be seeking to understand.
Following the siege of a Kosher supermarket, in which 4 Jewish people died, we talked about the need to protect and defend people who would face persecution in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. That analysis was sadly correct, a wave of violence against Muslims followed. But it is striking there was barely a word about what it was that had just happened during the Porte De Vincennes siege. There was little acknowledgment of the fatal violence against the Jewish community on the political left – never mind a critique of the a continued failure of Europeans to protect Jewish citizens.
Even when the left does accept anti-semitism is real, and is a form of racism, we still treat it like the only form of racism we can self-police without reference to the people affected. We can’t. I don’t believe the way we talk about Israel, Jewish people and Zionism meets any of the same basic standards which the lefts usually claims to apply.
We don’t get to decide that ranting about “the Zionist agenda” or the “Zionist media” isn’t racist because we know the exact definition of that word in that context, and we can somehow be confident that everyone else will interpret it in the same way. There is a distinction between Muslims, Islam, Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism but that doesn’t mean sharing a Britain First meme is OK, if they happen to have picked the right phrase, or that non-Muslims can just say and do whatever we like, with no awareness of the broader context of our actions and the impact they might have on our communities. So when people blabber on about “extremists” and “Islamists” taking over, we quite rightly call that what it is, racism – because we know the impact of this behaviour is that it encourages racism, regardless of the stated intention. Yet with Jews, Judaism, Israel and Zionism, we‘ve yet to reach these same pretty basic conclusions. That needs to be tackled head on. We need to start applying our belief that we centre and respect those impacted by racism, even if they happen to be Jewish.
Using the Holocaust as a device is rank, as is constantly saying everything is what Hitler would have wanted. On every level. Any even vague attempt by non-Jewish people to use these tactics to attack Jewish people need to be treated with the utmost contempt.
There’s another pervasive message here: “you, of all people, should know better.“ That’s awful politics – it doesn’t just misunderstand a historical or materialist analysis of the world, it perpetuates a pervasive, supremacist arrogance: the European left, who failed to offer solidarity, who participated so actively in the persecution of Jewish people don‘t get to be “doubly disappointed” that somewhere in the world, there are now other Jewish people doing bad things.
Even today, the left can be seen to separating people into good Jews and bad Jews, in a way eerily reminiscent of the ILP’s categorisation of rich Jews and poor Jews all those years ago. The people who dedicate their life to fighting the occupation and Zionism? Come in, grab a microphone, can you say that thing about a one state solution again? The ideology of my left-wing party is definitely right. Jewish people who’re involved in campaigns about stuff which directly affects them in the country they actually live in, who may not feel the same sense of agency or entitlement the non-Jewish left somehow claims, when it comes to defining the existence of people half way round the world, they’re treated with more suspicion. Saying “not all Jews are Zionists, not all Zionists are Jews” is fine – but we also need to say “not all Jewish people are compelled to expend every inch of their being giving a fuck about this one issue, just because we’ve decided that’s what defines them.”
This next part is tantamount to heresy on the left, but I’ll say it anyway – because I believe it’s part of the same continuum where we allow the selective yet collective application of guilt. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, exists in order to exert political and economic pressure on the state of Israel, with an aim to ending the occupation and colonisation of Palestian and for the return of refugees to a state where their human rights are upheld by law. The movement has succeeded in raising the profile of the Palestinian cause and resulted in companies such as G4S losing contracts outside of Israel to such an extent they’ve announced they will sell their businesses inside Israel. But I’d argue there’s a massive difference between a firm who operate the checkpoints and prisons which restrict and imprison the Palestinian people and someone who’s made a film. We can’t approach Eden Springs, a company who sells water stolen from the Golan Heights, the same way we approach an individual, who happens to have been born in Israel, who wants to come to the UK to speak at a university or play a concert. Even those who support the notion of a cultural boycott abstractly need to recognise how messy it is in its application; we can’t continue to ignore the way certain tactics are perceived. Maybe I’m wrong – but all I’m asking is that we look at the outcome, not the intent, like we‘re supposed to do when we think about racism.
Watching the way someone like Ken Loach has advocated for the boycott to include culture, suggests that again the left has set aside all our attempts to more broadly analyse power and privilege. Loach spoke out against a young Israeli female director, whose film was chosen for the Edinburgh Film Festival. The attendance of Tali Shalom Ezer at the festival back in 2009 was to be supported by the JEWISH STATE, to the princely sum of £300. The argument was that since this was an Israeli director and Israel were bad, we should hold this women responsible for her Government, who unlike any other Government in the history of the world, spend money on arts and culture to promote their bizarre nationalist ideology.
This case was especially vociferously made by many because this was a woman who dared to make a romantic film, not a 4 hour epic about the occupation and her probable complicity in it, the kind of view oft-repeated by Loach himself, “If you do something that is entirely escapist, in a world which is full of oppression, this indicates what your priorities are”. The view that everyone responding to a miserable system must remain miserable, for the benefit of Ken Loach, would sting slightly less if, also in 2009, a certain Mr Loach wasn’t making films about the weighty topic of, erm, Eric Cantona, – a film funded, to the tune of rather more than £300, by a state involved in the brutal and illegal occupation of another, if we’re keeping scores.
If you believe you can cut yourself off completely from the culture, media, music and art of an entire nation, you need to, at the very least, consider the suggestion your actions might perpetuate racism in your own country. If the cultural boycott was even just a boycott, I’d still suggest it looks dodgy, but the Scottish left organising protests specifically aimed at disrupting cultural events, which essentially serve as public gatherings for a minority community facing very real prejudices? Come. On. To. Fuck.
The context of the current campaign against the left by the establishment may be clear, the timing may be obvious – the smart fuckers who run things generally pick good moments to attack, that’s how stuff works.
That doesn’t mean we should slink into defensive mode, seek to deny history, deny the problem, deny the prejudices faced by a group of our fellow citizens who we’ve spent millennia trying to conflate with various systems of power, as an excuse to piously oppose their very existence.
We can only bellow about “smashing the Zionist state” for so long, whilst forgetting the people who’re not actually residents of Zion – but citizens of our country, by choice and despite a difficult and challenging history we seem so keen to refute.
If we usually insist power and oppression cannot be understood as a one-dimensional, uni-directional force but must be considered a complex and interconnected system, we can’t oversimplify the complexities of the lived realities of Scotland’s diverse Jewish population or their relationship, or lack thereof, to communities somewhere else. These challenges aren’t an inconvenience, or a distraction, they’re a necessary part of the development of our society from where it has been to where it needs to be.
If we repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in our distant and recent past and perpetuate a situation in which Jewish people face increasing isolation in Europe, all our sound and fury about creating a more just world will mean nothing and the very system we claim to be fighting against will have been strengthened by our actions.
We need harness our collective complexity to challenge injustices, large and small, wherever we find them, to show solidarity not just when it’s easy or fashionable but when doing so forces us to confront our own history and prejudices.
If we can’t find ways of criticising the state of Israel, the occupation of Palestine, the contemptible barbarity of Governments, militarism, racism, capitalism, imperialism, the arms trade and all the other things wrong in the world, in ways which don’t needlessly denigrate and isolate Jewish people, we’re just not working hard enough. And if the workers of all countries are ever to unite, we need to start working harder.
I have come to the unpleasant conclusion that the way in which fully justified criticism of Israeli actions spills over into denying Israel’s right to exist, does indeed reflect a deep vein of anti-Semitism. How else to interpret talk of “smashing the Zionist state”, as if the 6,000,000 Jews who live there, and whose grandparents came from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Poland, could be willed out of existence?
I detest the actions of successive Israeli governments, and have long argued that the US should use the aid weapon to force Israel back behind something like the pre-1967 borders. But I fear that the Palestinians’ worst enemies (or, since the rise of Likud, second worst enemies) are those who feed the fantasy of return. And I wonder why there is no BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) Saudi Arabia.
Excellent article, really skewered my thoughts on this one.
“Underpinning the whole left-wing narrative, even from those opposing these specific immigration controls, was a reliance on the association between Jews and money”
absolutely hits the nail on the head here as for the cause (imo) for why dogwhistles and comments brushing against the boundaries of antisemitism have persisted in the left for so long.
It breaks my heart that the left seems to see political manoeuvring to justify hitler-comparisons and cries against the “zionist media” as the only method to protect its integrity, when in reality it undermines the credibility of (justified) criticism of the state of Israel.
I think you can’t have an honest discussion about multidimensional issues like these that have real impacts on disadvantaged peoples (e.g. Zionism, treatment of apostasy in Muslim theocracies, the PROC’s human rights record, public safety and Mental Health) without recognising and underlining the distinction between institutions, systems, and people.
However, I don’t have faith that anything will be learned here, and left and right will go back to keeping their comments only within the strictest boundary of acceptable.
Let me challenge *your* boundaries. The term “Zionism” is toxic, because it is used by zealots on both sides to negate the distinction between supporting Israel’s right to exist, and supporting Israel’s crimes. Attacking the former is quite correctly, seen as implicit anti-Semitism (where would you put them all?); Attacking the latter is something many Jews do on every suitable occasion