Antisemitism and the left – some lessons to learn

By Ian Saville

Sometime before the first lockdown began, I started thinking about doing a new Socialist Magic show to take to the Edinburgh fringe. I had a title, and some vague ideas about the shape of it. I was pretty clear what I would be saying in the show, but I didn’t get much further than that. I hadn’t thought about what magic tricks I would use, for example, which is really something a magician should think about.

The title I had decided on, though, was How I Became an Antisemite. It was meant to be ironic, of course. I’m not an antisemite. I couldn’t be, because (1) I am Jewish; (2) I consider myself a socialist; (3) I’ve been on numerous anti-fascist and antiracist demos, marches and actions. I was in the Anti-Nazi League in the late seventies. I’ve signed petitions against racism and in support of people facing persecution. I’m a member of the Jewish Socialist Group, and was a founding member of the group Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) – in fact, my recollection is that I proposed the name at a meeting above a pub in Clerkenwell.

However, I was wary about the proposed title for my show. The fact that I knew I wasn’t an antisemite didn’t mean that everyone else agreed. In fact, it had become clear to me that in the eyes of some, the list of activities and traits above, including that of my Jewish heritage, did not bar me from acting as an antisemite, or even being one. Having publicly announced my support for Jeremy Corbyn and defended some of his actions was enough, in the eyes of some, to justify me being branded as antisemitic. And when I appeared on television and radio programmes to put a left Jewish point of view, I was quickly denounced by anonymous tweeters and emailers as a ‘kapo – a Jewish collaborator with the Nazis in the death camps – surely one of the worst insults that can be levelled at a Jew.

Like many on the left, I supported Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership, and welcomed his victory in that campaign. With other Jewish friends and comrades, I set up a Facebook group ‘Jews for Jeremy’, to offer some support for the candidate, who, even then, was facing accusations of antisemitism from those opposing him.

Running the J4J Facebook Group was not plain sailing. Not only because of attacks from the right. It seemed that our group also attracted some people with strange ideas. I spent some time on the phone arguing with a ‘supporter’ aggrieved that I had taken down a post which alleged that the Holocaust was a fantasy. This individual, who came from a Jewish background, nevertheless thought that Jews had somehow contrived to bring about the Russian Revolution and the Second World War in order to bolster their banking empire. He was frantic in his eagerness to persuade me of this truth. Alarmingly, he also supported Jeremy Corbyn.

That person was very much an outlier, and most of the people on the group were reasonable, balanced, and would have no truck with such ideas. But he wasn’t entirely alone.

I thought of that individual while reading David Renton’s excellent new book, Labour’s antisemitism crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It (Routledge).  But not only him. In fact, in some ways, he was one of the easy people to deal with. He was clearly somewhat disturbed, and his ideas were easy to dismiss, even if he himself wasn’t. More difficult are the people who seem more reasonable, but when you look into what they are saying, you find difficulties – elisions of logic and evasions from difficult truths. Sometimes they are people you respect, and who have worked with on worthwhile campaigns and actions.

In Labours Antisemitism Crisis, the left-wing, Jewish barrister David Renton clearly identifies the common and well-understood antisemitism of the far right seen in the attitudes of Trump, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice Party. But he has also recognised that such ‘old’ types antisemitism is not the whole story, and he moves towards criticising his own former work in its failure to discuss forms of antisemitism which have gained currency on the left. Focusing only on the antisemitism of our opponents is a mistaken and possibly even a corrupting stance:

‘The only way to respond with integrity to the rise of antisemitism is to treat it as an absolute wrong, and to see it as no less repugnant whether the person expressing antisemitic views is someone who you have previously agreed with, or someone to whom you have always objected.” (p.2)

If this seems like an endorsement of the ideas of those who claim that the left is inherently antisemitic, it categorically is not. Renton singles out some individuals on the left who have made statements which clearly contain elements of antisemitism, and he demolishes the arguments they present with clarity and precision. But the bigger and most important charge is about many of us on the left who failed to challenge such arguments. It seems we were blinded by the transparent attempt by the right to use the issue to attack and destabilise the left. By ‘rallying round’ our friends in these circumstances, doubling down on supporting an ahistorical account of the Holocaust from Ken Livingstone, or of Jewish involvement in the slave trade from Jackie Walker, we gave ammunition to the right, further alienating many who could have been our allies.

Indeed, even when Jeremy Corbyn himself acknowledged that he had made a grave mistake in hastily endorsing the antisemitic mural by the street artist Mear One, there were many who were furious that he had made this concession. It was as though just agreeing that something was antisemitic, if that is how it had been described by somebody on the centre or right, was a sort of betrayal, and ‘giving in’ on such matters was an abandonment of the socialist cause. In fact, as David Renton demonstrates, acknowledging real antisemitism on our own side was absolutely necessary if we were to show that we were principled anti-racists. And, more importantly, if we were to be principled anti-racists.

I understand the instinct to ‘rally round’ which came, partly, from the pressure we all faced from the relentless right-wing onslaught, often taking the form of transparently absurd accusations of antisemitism, such as the virulent criticism of Corbyn for attending a secular seder service put on by the Jewdas group. I believe this pressure led some of us to a feeling that almost any accusation of antisemitism must have been bogus, and should not be conceded.

It came home to me when I was on the JVL Committee, and we had decided that one Committee member should have the job of supporting those who had been unfairly accused of antisemitism. I supported this, but then ventured the idea that there should also be support for people who had themselves faced antisemitism within the Labour Party. People looked at me askance, as though I was asking for an officer to support people who had been attacked by leprechauns. Nobody argued against such a move, but I had the feeling that I was bringing up an irrelevant debating point. As far as I know, my suggestion was not acted upon.

Renton is quite critical of JVL’s attitude, quoting Jon Lansman’s criticism of the group as being “an organisation which is not just tiny but has no real connection to the Jewish community”. I think this is unfair. The group began with a pretty good range of members, typical of a particular section of the left Jewish community, and even crossing over with membership of the much younger group Jewdas. But from the beginning there were two quite different focuses that JVL was addressing.

While I was still on the JVL Committee I set out what I hoped would be JVL’s function in an article in Labour List. Perhaps naively, from the beginning I thought that JVL could operate as a ‘Jewish Section’ of the Labour Party that would eventually become a meeting place and forum for all Jewish members, without having to be tied to the Jewish Labour Movement’s commitment to the Jerusalem Protocol, which effectively excluded those who objected to a Zionist perspective. So at the founding event, it was stated that JVL was neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, but a place for all Jews in the Party. We even had one (only one, as far as I know) member who was also a member of the JLM (though recently even that member has fallen foul of the Party’s present left-exclusionary leadership).

But there was another focus for many of the founding members. As Renton puts it, “JVL was set up as a campaign to support Corbyn’s leadership”, and this was clearly the understandable priority in 2017, at the time of its founding. Of course, everyone on the left felt the need to support the first truly radical socialist leadership since the Second World War, and many of the attacks on Corbyn around the question of antisemitism were overstated or even fabricated, as Greg Philo et al demonstrated in their comprehensive critique Bad News for Labour. It was right to counter fake antisemitism and call out exaggeration.

But it was also true that there were an abundance of conspiracy theorists who associated themselves with the left, and who were constantly posting online tales about the Rothschilds’ control of the economy, or Israel running all of our media. Most of this stuff was online, but some of it surfaced at meetings. In my own experience online, I was immediately kicked off one ‘Corbyn-supporting’ Facebook Group when I reported someone to the administrators after he had put up lurid conspiracy material about the Rothschilds. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of crass conflation of Jews and Israel at some meetings for this to be a concern – I have heard this from Jewish friends who are left supporters of the Palestinians (even people who have worked with Palestinians on the West Bank). For my own part, I recall one very nice, elderly woman talking to me after a show for a Labour Party branch, suddenly asking “what are we going to do about these Jews, then?” Presumably she had not paid all that much attention to my act, in which I make my Jewishness clear.

Reports of antisemitism in the Labour Party were often grossly exaggerated, but it was there. Some of it was ignorant rather than malicious, but it still needed to be called out. Often, the idea of ‘supporting’ Corbyn seemed to take on an element of explaining to him that he should be more steadfast in his denial of all accusations of antisemitism, as though his ‘supporters’ knew better than he did what was good for him. We see this in the case of Mear One’s mural quoted above. And when Corbyn also criticised Ken Livingstone or Chris Williamson for their inflammatory statements, it was assumed by many on the left that Corbyn didn’t really mean such criticism, and he was urged to recant, or his criticisms were just ignored.

Renton devotes a chapter to “The Bullying of Luciana Berger”, and it is here that some of the most egregious mistakes of the left become apparent. Renton makes clear that the initial sources of the torrent of obscene and violent messages directed at Berger were, in the first instance, right-wing, Nazi-loving groups located in the USA. Then similar British groups joined in the campaign of hate. But what happened next was more shocking, in some ways. As Renton explains: “The Labour left assumed bad faith when we would have done better to offer sympathy and emotional intelligence.”

Berger was not a Corbyn supporter, and was disliked by many on the left, not least in her own constituency party of Wavertree. But she had served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and at first respected Corbyn’s position as leader. However she had raised a question about the Mear One mural, and had also been a director of Labour Friends of Israel before she became an MP. These factors seemed enough to convince some on the left that they were licensed not only to ignore the bullying of the right, but also, in some cases, to join in with it. There were principled reasons to disagree with Berger, and a respectful way of doing so was in order, but as Renton says:

“If there was a way of disagreeing with Berger in relation to Corbyn, while also showing her solidarity for having survived a torrent of hatred from the Anglo-American far right, the Labour left needed to find it – and failed. Worse than that, some leftists joined in the abuse.”

Renton points out more generally that before Corbyn’s leadership, the left had historically played a ‘gatekeeping’ role against antisemitism that claimed to be from the left. For example, this role was apparent in the case of Gilad Atzmon. He was a well-known jazz musician of Jewish/Israeli background, who espoused a weird belief that Jews were themselves the cause of the Holocaust, and Jewishness was an aberration. In the case of Atzmon, almost all left-wingers came to condemn such antisemitism – following the lead, to a large extent, of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. His antisemitism was eschewed. But in the frenzy to protect Corbyn from bogus antisemitism charges, this gatekeeping role had to some extent been abandoned.

It would be wrong to see this book as just a critique of the left, though. Renton trains his lawyerly intellect on the IHRA ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, and shows just how inadequate and unfit for purpose that shibboleth is. He is also scathing about the EHRC investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, and shows that it failed even on its own terms. He criticises the present Labour leadership’s implementation of the EHRC’s recommendations. He has hard words for the Labour Party’s Code of Conduct, which states that those found guilty of abuse should be “shunned and not engaged with” – a far harsher sanction than even the British state applies to convicted criminals. In this, he concludes that, “The party, under Keir Starmer, [is] more concerned with looking good than doing good”. The recent alarming epidemic of suspensions, expulsions and auto-exclusions under Starmer, not least among large numbers of Jewish members, would seem to support this conclusion.

Renton also gives a lucid account of the historical links between the fight against antisemitism and for black emancipation, rebutting the arguments of those who counterpose one against the other.

It may be that many on the left will think that, given the present ascendency of the right, and the wholesale attacks on the left by the Labour leadership, this is not the time to be self-critical. It is certainly true that, once again, many people are being excluded from the party in the name of fighting antisemitism, using bogus accusations. But Renton reminds us that not all accusations are bogus, and we must not fall into the trap of assuming that everyone should be defended, whatever they have said or done. As Renton concludes, “The left made so many mistakes; we admitted so few of them.”

Maybe eventually I will get back to working on that Edinburgh show, but if I do, it will be a bit more complicated than I first thought.

Ian Saville is a socialist magician and an activist in Brent Central Labour Party

Image:“ACMS #9 @ Edfringe13: Ian Saville” by Diamond Geyser is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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