Does the Left really have an anti-Semitism problem?

Recently accusations have started flying that the Left, including the Labour party, has a ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism and that Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, hasn’t been doing enough to combat it. The accusations include that the Oxford University Labour society is a hostile environment for Jews, that various members and leaders of local Labour groups and affiliated organisations have made anti-Semitic remarks online, and that the Left in general has turned against Israel and that human rights campaigns that target Israel have become a “new front” in European anti-Semitism and a “new blood libel”. This type of rhetoric aimed at silencing criticism of Israel based on human rights principles is not new, but while anti-Semitism in far-left fringe groups has been known of for decades, the flurry of claims about anti-Semitism within the Labour party has only happened in the last few months.

An image of two men spliced together, with the slogan "ISIS is the only terrorist org (sic) that travels 2000 miles from Syria to attack Paris but can't travel 52 miles to attack Israel. Why? Because the dog doesn't bite its own tail".It goes without saying that the Labour party shouldn’t tolerate racism of any kind in the party. Apart from the fact that racism breeds discrimination and violence, it is a political dead end: it allows people to blame others for their problems rather than identify solutions. The problem is that the number of incidents has been tiny — a literal handful, if that — and those involved are an ordinary member who had written some conspiracy-minded material on a leftist website, the leader of a Momentum group in Thurrock, and the leader of the local party in Woking, a no-hope constituency for Labour (whose comments, similar to those in the image on the right, were utterly crass and ignorant; the reason ISIS hasn’t attacked Israel can easily be identified by looking at a map). All the people concerned have been expelled, and when someone was re-instated recently, a protest led to him being removed again. As is well-known, the leader of the party cannot unilaterally remove someone from the party, so it is unfair to blame Corbyn for failing to do so, or because he has brought these people in or they are his supporters, or whatever other reason.

The situation at Oxford university is rather more complicated, since it seems to consist of hostility to Israel being openly expressed and, in some cases, taken out indiscriminately on Jews here, rather than anti-Semitism in the traditional sense. Aaron Simons, a former president of the university’s Jewish society, alleged that “a committee member stated that all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so”, which is plainly unacceptable, much as it is when Muslims are expected to condemn ISIS or al-Qa’ida, which has happened frequently. He also alleges that “one OULC member argued that Hamas was justified in its killing of Jewish civilians and claimed all Jews were legitimate targets”, a heinous suggestion one might think before one considers that (a) this is one ordinary member of the society, not an office holder and (b) Israeli apologists routinely excuse the killing of Palestinian civilians with such claims as that Hamas works and launches rockets from civilian areas.

Simons traces the upsurge in “anti-Semitism” at Oxford to the left’s theory of racial oppression and white privilege in which Jews are treated as white. Well, that’s because they are — at least, the vast majority of Jews (especially if we mean practising ones) in western countries are. True, Ethiopian Jews aren’t, but they do not live here in any large number. He suggests that this theory erases Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, who migrated from the Middle East rather than Europe, but in fact the theory acknowledges that anyone can be part of a privileged and/or oppressor group (whites, for example) while simultaneously being part of a disadvantaged one (e.g. women, disabled people) but still benefiting from the power and privilege of the first group. Throughout the recent history of the white world, there have been ‘lesser whites’ (e.g. Irish and Italian Americans) who have nonetheless benefited from white privilege. Mizrahi Jews may not be the Ashkenazi elite but they are not the downtrodden of Israel by any means; Palestinians and African immigrants are.

He claims that when the theory of racial oppression is applied to Jews “it becomes a quagmire of prejudice” and “the consequence of seeing Jews as white is in effect antisemitic”. But they just are. This is no longer the 1940s in which Britain (the mother country, that is) was almost entirely White and the only significant minorities were Jews, Gypsies and the Irish. America always made an underclass of its Black population, even when white minorities such as Jews were subject to discrimination as well. It is not anti-Semitic to say that Jews are not a powerless and impoverished minority in the UK. They are not the Gypsies or Travellers who cannot be sure when their homes will be torn down, for example. They may not “control the media”, but there are a variety of Jewish voices in all the major British media, including some bigoted and reactionary ones (e.g. Melanie Phillips) as well as some fairly moderate ones (e.g. Jonathan Freedland). And the pro-Israel lobby in the USA has power far beyond its power here: it has been known to block or obstruct appointments of people who take a pro-Palestinian position, for example.

It suits the Zionist agenda to keep race relations, as well as ideas of what constitutes progressive politics, stuck in the pre-immigration 1940s when Zionism was seen as a liberal, progressive cause. People forget that progress meant a lot of different things then; progressive figures of that time endorsed eugenics and previous generations of liberals had supported other misguided resettlement schemes, such as Liberia which resulted in more than a century of tyranny followed by a brutal civil war starting in the late 20th century. At that time building roads and industry was considered progressive; even the highly racist Mississippi senator, Theodore Bilbo, was considered to be a progressive in that sense. Needless to say, the ethnic composition of the progressive left has changed during this period, and you could not expect them to insistently repeat the mistakes of previous generations of white, middle- and upper-class (mostly male) progressives. It stands to reason that people who endorse a misguided liberal project of a bygone era that turned a blind eye to its inherent racism, or at least conduciveness to racism, should not feel comfortable among progressives now, who see anti-racism as fundamental to their beliefs.

On a similar note was the article on Newsweek by Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi (that is, chief rabbi of the United Synagogues, the Modern Orthodox branch of Judaism), titled “Anti-Zionism is the New Anti-Semitism”. He concedes that that criticism of the Israeli government and even the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are not “inherently anti-Semitic” but that much of the intimidation that occurs is related to “Israeli Apartheid Weeks” and BDS events which “have become what Easter was in the Middle Ages, a time for attacks against Jews”.

He describes anti-Semitism as “a virus that survives by mutating”: that Jews were hated in different ages because of a different religion or because of their race, and “today … because of their nation state, Israel”:

The legitimization has also changed. Throughout history, when people have sought to justify anti-Semitism, they have done so by recourse to the highest source of authority available within the culture. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science. Today it is human rights. It is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.

The term anti-Semitism was not actually coined until the 19th century when race started entering into European perceptions of Jews, rather than religion. Even up until that time in Russia, Jews who converted to Christianity were accepted as Christians. But to compare a false accusation originating in the superstitious Middle Ages with facts that are well-attested to about Israel’s human rights record is grotesque. Israel is not the only country that has ever been criticised on the basis of its human rights record, including among democracies. Israel is not the only country which elected a man connected to a massacre as its prime minister (India did very recently, and as is the case with Israel, he is being feted by politicians around the world). Israel is dominated by white Europeans, so it stands to reason that its form of government should be one based on what is usual in Europe, and the surrounding countries have dictatorships which were often supported by foreign powers, such as the USA or Russia, and some of which are friendly to Israel (Egypt and Jordan, for example). It’s not only because of anti-Semitism that western human rights activists attack Israel’s appalling treatment of the native population of the land it occupies; Jews who are oppressors should be subject to the same accountability as any other oppressors.

Of course, it was wrong to blame poor Jews in inter-war Poland for whatever the misdeeds of wealthy Jewish families like the Rothschilds (not all of whom remain Jewish by religion in any case). But that was then; the Jewish diaspora in the UK and USA is fairly prosperous, privileged, powerful and vocal, and despite the fact that we all know there are Jews who oppose its policies rigorously, or even its existence, as we see them in the BDS movement, support for Israel regardless of its human rights record is a mainstream position. Given that Muslims are regarded with enormous suspicion right now on the basis of a few acts of terrorism and a terrorist quasi-state entity that all the evidence suggests most of us do not support, and which all Muslim figures of any repute who have ever been asked have condemned, a few harsh words here and there is a small price to pay for openly supporting a state which has a history of terrorism both against foreign targets and the people under its occupation.

So, it may well be that some skeletons from the old sectarian Left that have joined Labour as a result of Corbyn’s victory (or who joined in the rush to vote for him) may be spreading their old ideas, but there isn’t much evidence of it beyond a bit of chatter on social media. (One tweep who kept remarking on “the Left and their anti-Semitism” linked to a blog entry and the offending comments were by someone in Germany.) But the mainstream progressive Left have moved on from the 1940s and will no longer indulge an obviously oppressive state in the Middle East on the grounds that it was founded as a result of a genocide in Europe, and will not indulge its supporters here either. Labour and other organisations which fight for social justice should make sure there is no intimidation or racism, but should not change this basic position. It’s not racist to oppose oppression wherever it comes from; what is racist is making an exception because the oppressor is special, and the victims particularly deserving.

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