Labour and antisemitism: did the left lose its bearings?

Mike Phipps reviews Labour’s antisemitism crisis:  What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, by David Renton, published by Routledge.

This book grew out of an article the author originally wrote for the Labour Hub website in response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation of antisemitism in the Labour Party. After three drafts, David Renton found that “there were extra depths to the story which I had not yet measured.”

Many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s former leadership, Renton believes, took the view that if only complaints about antisemitism within the Labour Party had been investigated more effectively, then it would have been clearer that only a tiny minority of Labour members were involved. On the right, there was a similar fixation on procedure: from this perspective, Corbyn and his allies “had been slow to address the problem and over-concerned with protecting other leftists… Corbyn was incapable of addressing the problem, the Labour right said, because of his opposition to Israel.” He adds: “I find each of these narratives unconvincing.”

So if readers are hoping that Renton’s book will simply take sides, “excoriating Corbyn’s critics in every instance and giving the Labour left a clean bill of health”, they will be disappointed. In his view, “the left has tolerated antisemitism, or at least a mindset which comes close to antisemitism –an ignorance about what most British Jews think combined with an indifference to the thought of antagonising them.”

Moreover, Labour’s problems on this issue were decidedly not “caused by a surfeit of enthusiasm for Palestinian rights.” If Renton is going to be harsh on the left, he warns in the Preface, this is because he feels he is part of it and responsible for what it says and does.

And he doesn’t pull his punches.  The charge sheet includes the attempts by some on the left to challenge criticism of antisemitism by invoking the historical crimes of Zionism; a tendency to imagine that anyone who supported Israel, or opposed antisemitism, must be part of a well- resourced “lobby”; quiescence as other members of the left harassed Corbyn’s prominent Jewish opponents; and “a failure by a generation of older, often Jewish, left-wingers who had previously been active in fighting antisemitism, but who relaxed their gatekeeping activities for fear of being seen to take sides against the most left- wing leader of the Labour Party in a generation.”

“Not all Corbyn’s supporters made these mistakes,” contends Renton, “but enough did to damage his cause.” In his estimation, there was an important distinction within the Corbyn project between elements associated with Unite and those grouped in Momentum. “The former encouraged those who sought to escalate the crisis, was ignorant of Jewish sentiment, and blithe at the thought of offending it. Momentum, by contrast, saw the gap emerge between Jewish community institutions and the Labour left and worked hard to address it.”

Renton takes us through the various stages of Labour’s burgeoning crisis, from Naz Shah’s unacceptable comments, which – unusually in the list of allegations made about Labour antisemitism – seemed to stem from wholehearted support for the Palestinian cause and for which she had the good sense to make a genuine apology. Then Ken Livingstone waded in to defend her. The author writes: “It was his intervention, and the thoughtless way in which parts of the left rallied to defend him, which changed a containable crisis into a story which was to drag on for several years.”

What propelled Livingstone onto the front pages was his claim that Israel was an illegitimate state, because it had been born out of an alliance with Nazi Germany, and that the ideology of Zionism was irredeemably tainted because Hitler, in Livingstone’s words, supported it.

Renton notes witheringly:

“The journalist William Davies’ advice on how to fight and win a culture war goes as follows: ‘Identify the most absurd or unreasonable example of your opponents’ worldview; exploit your own media platform to amplify it; articulate an alternative in terms that appear calm and reasonable; and then invite people to choose’… All the Conservatives needed to say was, ‘Jewish people are troubled by his remarks’, and leave Livingstone to speak –confident in the knowledge that any words spoken in his own justification would make him look ever worse.”

Moreover, as David Baddiel later pointed out, Livingstone’s interpretation of the Haavara agreement – the basis for the suggestion that Hitler was a Zionist – was devoid of context and compassion: “That is not Adolf Hitler supporting the idea of a Jewish state. It is the Nazis taking advantage of the terror and despair of fleeing refugees to get more of them to leave the country. It is just the thin edge of the wedge of Nazi horror.”

Corbyn himself dissociated himself from Livingstone’s remarks, which were referred to Labour’s agonisingly slow disciplinary process. Those on the left who had anything to say on this tended to polarise into pro- and anti-Livingstone camps. If you criticised Livingstone – who could have lanced the boil by apologising and stepping out of the Party but did the latter only two years later – you were part of the ‘witch-hunt’. Corbyn himself characterised Livingstone’s remarks as “grossly insensitive”, but there were many on the left who felt that if Livingstone could be proved to not be an anti-Semite, then he was totally in the clear.

“By summer 2016, there was an increasing number of complaints that Corbyn’s accession to the leadership had allowed antisemitic behaviour to be indulged,” writes Renton.  Corbyn’s leadership contests in 2015 and 2016 had already taken place in a highly factional atmosphere in which exaggerated claims of a far left takeover by the Party were rightly dismissed by the left.  It was unsurprising that many on the left would respond to allegations of antisemitism with similar contempt.

And with some justification: one anti-Corbyn MP named 111 supposed perpetrators of antisemitism, among whom only 20 turned out to be members of the Labour Party. Over 2,000 complaints about antisemitism came from a single complainant who seemed to have a poor understanding of what antisemitism was.  Many complaints – and worse, official investigations – were based on trawling through an individual’s past social media posts. “No courts in Britain work like this,” points out Renton.

But he is careful not to give carte blanche to the left and takes a forensic approach to each of the cases he considers. Like Livingstone, some individuals, whose initial remarks one might give the benefit of the doubt, made their position worse, by returning to their theme and embellishing it, becoming more offensive in the process.

It’s the tendency of the left to unthinkingly defend the indefensible that really irks Renton. In a 2012 comment, having briefly viewed it on his mobile phone, Jeremy Corbyn appeared to support a mural whose contents were antisemitic. In 2018, when the story resurfaced, Corbyn apologised, saying the contents were clearly antisemitic. But this did not stop some on the left from leaping to the mural’s defence.

In the summer of 2016, Shami Chakrabarti’s report into antisemitism and other forms of racism within Labour, commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn, was published. As I argued at the time, it was excellent both in terms of policy and procedure. But it fell victim to the highly factional and polarised atmosphere in the Party at this time and was never fully implemented. When news broke that its author had been nominated by Labour for a seat in the House of Lords, the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained of a “whitewash for peerages”.

As the crisis escalated, a rare moment of relief was provided by Jeremy Corbyn’s attendance at Passover Seder held by Jewdas, a group of young Jewish leftists, who for all their anarchic flippancy were very serious about opposing antisemitism. The event leaked to the media and both the Daily Mail and the President of the Board of Deputies framed Corbyn’s attendance as a calculated insult, implying Jewdas were not authentic representative of any Jewish outlook. But this quickly backfired. David Baddiel denounced the smear as “balls”. Comic actor David Schneider presented the Mail’s position as: “‘Boo! Corbyn needs to get out and meet some Jews!’ (Corbyn spends Passover with some Jews at Jewdas) ‘Boo! Not those Jews!’”

This was perhaps the only time in this crisis where the left found itself on the high ground, looking reasonable, while their opponents were mired in confusion, looking foolish. But it wasn’t to last.

“People on both sides were opposing antisemitism while saying things intended to humiliate Jews they disagreed with,” suggests Renton. While three Jewish newspapers hostile to Corbyn warned that the election of a Corbyn- led government would cause an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”, some on the left, instead of patiently refuting such an absurd accusation, argued that their opponents were in the pay of a foreign government. Depressingly, the accusation of ‘Israeli funds’ was applied to anyone who suggested that Labour had a problem, not just long-standing Corbyn detractors, but committed supporters like Jon Lansman, who differed with much of the left on this issue.

Renton is refreshingly balanced, both in his exploration of the idea of an ‘Israeli lobby’ and, for instance, in his sympathetic discussion of the case of Stan Keable, who was sacked from his job at Hammersmith Council after being filmed by a BBC journalist on a counter-protest against a demonstration calling out Labour antisemitism. Sifting through the alleged examples of antisemitism involving Jeremy Corbyn himself, he brings a lawyer’s attention to detail and exonerates the ex-leader on all counts.

Part of the problem facing the Labour Party was that a significant number of the complaints it had to investigate was made by non-Jews, and a significant minority of the targets was Jewish. Meanwhile, the left claimed that many in the Party bureaucracy who were hostile to Corbyn had dragged their feet in the investigatory process in order to prolong the crisis and create an appearance of indifference, an accusation the right wing threw back at the leader. In fact, frustrated by the inaction of officials, the leader’s office did sometimes intervene, often to call for speedier and more effective sanctions against high-profile offenders.

At the height of the crisis, the right were claiming not only that opposition to Israel could be antisemitic but that opposition to capitalism might be as well. Many on the left derided Blairite MP Siobhain McDonagh’s crude suggestion that it was part of the left’s politics “to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital.”

But, another Labour right winger, Wes Streeting, was deadly serious when, speaking after the 2019 election defeat, he chose to weave Corbynite electoral slogans into an antisemitic conspiracist mindset: “Labour’s antisemitism crisis stems from a worldview that puts Jews or Zionists at the centre of a global capitalist conspiracy working to create a rigged system that works for the wealthiest few at the expense of the many. It was this worldview that voters found repulsive and that we must comprehensively abandon.”

Renton notes:

“In this account, Corbynism become a cautionary tale, a warning not just against antisemitism, but against any form of anti- capitalism or left populism. The only options left on the table are the politics that won majorities for European social democrats in the 1990s and have brought them an ever-shrinking share of the vote since… A party of socialists who cannot acknowledge the interests of the rich, or pose the interests of working- class people against them, is a party which is doomed.”

But the attack would widen. By the summer of 2020, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, at least one journalist could insist that anti-racist movements repeatedly foster antisemitism – notwithstanding the overwhelming mass of historical evidence to the contrary.

We finish where it all started: the EHRC report. Renton was disappointed by its fixation on procedure and felt an opportunity had been missed. In any event, whatever merit the report may have had was immediately overshadowed by Keir Starmer’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn from the Party – not for anything in the report itself, but for saying that the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party.” Corbyn made it clear that he was referring to media coverage of the crisis, but his opponents were intent on exploiting the situation for factional purposes.

Thus, the numbers of suspensions and investigations multiplied, often for the offence of attending events at which people expelled for antisemitism had been present or similar catch-all pretexts. Given how serious the issue of antisemitism is, Labour’s response was almost frivolous.

And once again, it was Jewish people who were left feeling bewildered and unsupported. The fact remains, when all the factional dust settles, that antisemitism is on the rise in wider society and Labour as an anti-racist Party should be challenging it wherever it appears and whoever is leader. Because of the way the issue was manipulated by Corbyn’s adversaries in their attempts to discredit him, some on the left lost the plot and closed ranks, rather than calling out the indefensible. In doing so, they fell into a trap set by their political opponents, rather than serving the wider interests of the movement. Can we learn something from this?

But the crime of the right was qualitatively greater. By seeing antisemitism entirely as an opportunity to discredit the Labour leader, where other attacks on his integrity had failed, they ended up belittling antisemitism and other forms of racism that didn’t fit this purpose. And that is an outrage.

Many on the left won’t like this book, but everyone should read it if we are to do better in future.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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