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Labour’s Antisemitism Affair

The controversies of the last week show the need to be vigilant against antisemitism while remaining steadfast in defense of Palestinian rights.

Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, launches Labour's local election campaign at Stretford Sports Village on March 22, 2018 in Stretford, England. Christopher Furlong / Getty

For more than a decade, seasoned far-left internet-surfers have enjoyed the scabrous, hilarious, tasteless wit of Jewdas, a social-media-savvy radical — and tiny — Jewish group. Had it been suggested a week ago that this minute, loose grouping of righteously furious Bundist pranksters would be national, even international news, it would have seemed impossible, if a delightful thought. But a week, these days, is a particularly long time in politics. Thus it is that Jeremy Corbyn attending a Jewdas-organized Seder in North London is being depicted as an insult to Jews.

For approximately two years, the Labour leadership has been assailed by charges of tolerating, or showing a blind spot for, antisemitism. For the first time in that whole period, the scandals have drawn blood. Corbyn’s attendance at the Jewish festival — his hosts report being delighted that he brought his own homegrown horse-radish — is, by deranged political judo, being cited as evidence for antisemitism.

Leading up to this, Corbyn has been forced to apologize for a Facebook comment from several years ago, defending an antisemitic mural by the artist Mear One, and to issue a sweeping statement addressing the problem of “pockets of antisemitism” in Labour. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and Momentum, have also put out statements saying that antisemitism in Labour is a real problem, not to be dismissed. Unfortunately, many people refused to see anything antisemitic about the mural, featuring a classic conspiracy theory trope about rich Jews. Some Corbyn supporters signing a petition defending him against a “very powerful interest group,” toxic language to use in this context.

Subsequently, Christine Shawcroft, a close ally of Momentum founder Jon Lansman and a long-standing Bennite activist, has been forced to resign from Labour’s National Executive Committee. She will be replaced by Eddie Izzard, from the party’s right-wing. Shawcroft made the lamentable mistake of opposing the expulsion from Labour of Alan Bull, a would-be local council candidate. Bull posted Holocaust-denial and antisemitic comments about David Miliband (“a jew” “paid by Rothschild who also owns Israel and also controls mossadd who kill people for Israel and Zionism”) on his Facebook page. Shawcroft said she would not have solicited on his behalf had she seen these posts. Given her long-standing commitment to defending members against a hostile bureaucracy, it is plausible that Shawcroft acted on autopilot. But such carelessness, which could have resulted in this antisemitic conspiracy theorist representing Labour in local government, was a gift to the Right.

There is, clearly, a problem somewhere. Unfortunately, the way in which allegations of antisemitism have been used for party-political purposes, has tended to obscure the need to address it. Antisemitism is being depicted, by the Right, with the mainstream media obediently reproducing the lie, as a problem of the Left when a study published by the Community Security Trust, which is strongly pro-Israel, finds that the Left is in no way more antisemitic than the political “center-ground.” Antisemitism, in fact, is predominantly a right-wing problem. The narrow, distorted framing of this issue, therefore, clearly benefits one side in a turf war over control of Labour. That narrative has spiraled “out of control”, as Joseph Finlay suggests, when Tory minister Sajid Javid can use the surreal atmosphere (and parliamentary privilege) to accuse Momentum of being a neofascist organization.

However, this can’t be used to avoid a real problem. It is a cautionary tale, or what Americans call a “teachable moment.” To get to grips with why it has happened, we must review the scandals — amid remarkable achievements — of Corbyn’s still-young leadership of the Labour Party.

From Scandal to Scandal

Corbyn was not supposed to win. The fact that he did, with a landslide, was treated by many Labour MPs as a matter for counter-subversion. Rather than reflecting their weakness, they insisted, it was proof of the infiltration of Labour by a “hard left plot”: new virulent strain of Militant. For both the right-wing and the hard-center of the British press, it was evidence that an unthinking mob had taken over — akin, said the Financial Times, to the supporters of the Third Reich.

In an age of shitposting, the mass media developed a powerful case of coprophilia, dredging examples of “abuse” of centrist MPs and journalists by Corbyn supporters in the gullies of online activity, and demanding the Labour leader answer for it. A false story about Momentum planning to march outside Stella Creasy’s home was broadcast far and wide. Corbyn himself was subject to the most bizarre campaign, faulting him for allegedly not singing the national anthem, or for a supposedly “damaging” relationship with Diane Abbott.

The theme of alleged antisemitism surfaced early on with the right-wing Jewish Chronicle’s “key questions Jeremy Corbyn must answer,” consisting of guilt-by-association and insinuation. But though, given his long-standing commitment to Palestinian rights, this was partially about Israel, it wasn’t just about Israel, as a reductionist reading might anticipate. Rather, when accusations of this kind were made against Corbyn, they tended to form part of a wider moral critique of his foreign-policy alignments, from Ireland to Iran. His alleged antisemitism was concomitant with his supposedly “encouragingterrorism. This fit neatly into the media’s representation of Corbyn as an anti-British eccentric. At its most extreme, this fevered campaign allowed an unnamed senior army general to threaten, in the Times, a “mutiny” against a Corbyn government.

However, it was antisemitism in the rank and file that grabbed the biggest headlines. The accusations of pervasive antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour Club, from Alex Chalmers, a former intern at the pro-Israel group BICOM, generated ample headlines. The substance of the complaint was not sustained by Baroness Jan Royall’s inquiry, although Royall acknowledged localized cases of prejudice. Gerry Downing, a seasoned sectarian hack, was the next to appear in the headlines, for urging on ISIS victory against the US, and describing Israel as a form of “the Jewish question.” He was immediately suspended. A local Labour vice-chair, Vicki Kirby, made a number of gratuitously antisemitic comments on social media. The comments were made in 2014, under the old regime, and Kirby had been suspended before being readmitted. But when the comments made headlines in 2016, Labour’s NEC suspended her again. Subsequently, a typical online bin-hoking operation by the right-wing provocateur Guido Fawkes blog dug up some old Facebook posts by Naz Shah MP. These included a tongue-in-cheek meme about relocating Israel to the United States and an antisemitic statement about “the Jews.” Once again, the comments were from several years ago, before Shah became an MP. She apologized profusely (and seemingly sincerely), resigned from her positions, and was suspended by the Labour Party.

It was a characteristically “loose cannon” intervention by former London mayor Ken Livingstone, however, that exploded the issue into weeks of headlines. Defending Shah’s comments, in spite of her widely welcomed contrition, Livingstone also used his radio program to embark on an historical detour, alleging that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” This was supposed to be a reference to the Havaara agreement between the Third Reich and the Zionist Federation of Germany, wherein the Nazis agreed that those Jews fleeing Germany and being fleeced of their possessions on the way out, could have some of it back if they moved to British Mandate Palestine. This agreement was hugely controversial, not just among Jews, but among Zionists at the time. However, Hitler was not “supporting” Zionism, so much as using every expedient to expel Jews from Germany. Livingstone was making a gratuitous hash of a history which wasn’t particularly relevant to the issue, and dropping his party in a huge and unnecessary mess. He was suspended, amid a huge furor.

The case of Jackie Walker added a further twist. Walker, a black woman of Jewish descent, was at that point a vice-chair of Momentum. She had been unfairly accused of blaming Jewish people for the slave trade, based on a Facebook thread. Walker’s words were twisted, and her relationship to her Jewish heritage suspiciously omitted in the coverage. And she was suspended. In an effort to confront what she and allies saw as the “Israel Lobby” in Labour politics, Walker later attended a Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) training meeting. The depiction of the JLM supporting Israel is not wrong. It is linked to the Israeli Labour Party, and had joined in the attacks on Corbyn. More generally, as a Labour Party organization it leans to the right of the party, and supported Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership election. The nature of her intervention left no doubt that Walker was there to wage factional war, attacking the JLM’s approach to antisemitism and the political valences of Holocaust Day by suggesting (wrongly) that it was not “open to all people who experienced a holocaust.” On the most generous reading possible, Walker chose the worst terrain and format for making points that would have required nuance and careful unpacking. The audience was on edge as soon as she spoke, and her roundly heckled comments were secretly recorded and leaked. To anyone not steeped in Walker’s politics, this looked at best tendentious. In the coverage, it looked as though she was splitting hairs, belittling antisemitism. Walker’s tactical misadventure inadvertently damaged her own cause, and she was drummed out of the Momentum leadership.

Even so, anyone looking at the evidence would have been hard-pressed to agree that Labour had been taken over by antisemitism. Thomas Jones wrote for the London Review of Books that just 0.4 percent of the parliamentary party, 0.07 percent of the councilors, and 0.012 percent of the membership had been suspended for antisemitism. Even allowing that no official was being trigger-happy in the face of an embarrassing scandal, this was a grand total of fifty-six individuals. As Jamie Stern-Weiner’s review of the cases suggests, even some of these examples were tendentiously represented in the national media, so that in some cases at worst crude or tone-deaf comments about “Zionists” were treated as equivalent to antisemitic conspiracy theory and Holocaust denial. Unsurprisingly, the Labour inquiry into antisemitism headed by Shami Chakrabarti, found no evidence of systemic antisemitism, but did make a series of recommendations for addressing occasional toxicity and ignorant attitudes. The JLM endorsed Chakrabarti’s “sensible and firm platform” for addressing antisemitism, and denounced the sensationalizing of the problem.

Nonetheless, said a piece in the Jewish Chronicle, Labour now attracted “antisemites like flies to a cesspit.” Dan Hodges, a Blairite pundit legendary for his erratic judgment, claimed that “antisemitism is now firmly embedded in the Labour Party’s DNA.” Jonathan Freedland wrote for the Guardian that Labour had become “a cold house for Jews.” Many on the Right concluded that the Chakrabarti report was a “stitch-up.” The argument supporting this claim was that, beyond the specific outbursts of a few dozen individuals, anti-Israel sentiment on the Left had made Labour the natural home for antisemitism.

There are many reasons for this sort of campaign. The distinguished Israeli historian Avi Shlaim argued that “the charges of Jew-hatred” were “being deliberately manipulated to serve a pro-Zionist agenda.” The group Independent Jewish Voices warns against the use of such allegations in a “campaign of intimidation” against critics of Israel. But, while partisan suspicion of pro-Palestine politics is part of the picture, it is about much more than that. Israel has become a totem issue for some on the center-right and hard-left, but that’s in part because it has become a displacement for other issues.

Labour and the “Jewish Vote”

Despite two years of attacks, Labour dramatically increased its vote in the 2017 snap election, with the biggest surge since 1945. Yet, in the glare of the antisemitism scandals, a mischievous question went up in the national media: can Corbyn “win back” the “Jewish vote”?

The idea of a univocal “Jewish vote” is a figment of the antisemitic imagination. Like other voters, Jewish voters generally divide on social class. Like other faith groups, they divide on social issues. For example, Jewish voters were overwhelmingly anti-Brexit, but those with a religious affiliation to Judaism were slightly pro-Brexit. Generationally, younger Jewish voters are more pro-Labour than older Jewish voters; self-employed Jewish voters are more Tory than employed Jewish voters.

More complicatedly, the right-wing academic Geoffrey Alderman has argued that a “Jewish vote” emerges contextually to tilt the balance of votes in swing constituencies, where an issue like support for Israel might be at stake. An analysis by Tablet claims, along these lines, that a small number of Jewish voters may have cost Corbyn victory in 2017. Marcus Dysch of the Jewish Chronicle claims that Jewish voters in the “bagel belt” helped obstruct the red tide, simply by not defecting to Labour. This is quite an extraordinary claim to make for the cohesion and power of 0.5 percent of the electorate.

True, polls suggest Corbyn’s support among Jews is lamentably low. In the 2017 general election, he had the support of about 14 percent of Jewish voters. Corbyn does have passionate Jewish supporters, many of them prominent in the movement, but their views are not necessarily reflective of the majority of Jewish opinion. Strange to relate, however, Corbyn’s support among Jews is practically identical to that for his predecessor, Ed Miliband, who had the support of 13 percent of British Jews. This last figure is striking: far more Jewish voters chose the Home Counties Tory David Cameron over Ed Miliband, who was literally “Jew-baited” by Tory candidates and in the national press, and would have been Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister. This was a huge shift from 2010, when Jewish voters were split evenly between Labour and Conservatives. Robert Philpot, director of the Blairite think-tank Progress, attributed this to Miliband’s criticisms of Israeli policy, and others to his not being “loyal enough” to Jews.

By implication, Labour can only “win back” Jewish voters by adopting a less critical position on Israel. But while Israel matters to most Jewish voters, there is no unilateral consensus among them about what Israel should be, or do. Miliband’s criticisms of Israeli actions and support for Palestinian statehood, for example, were well within the mainstream of Jewish opinion, even if not acceptable to the Board of Deputies. The evidence suggests that, overall, there has been a much long-termer shift from Labour to the Conservatives, which was interrupted by the New Labour era. So what caused the shift? In a way, the question is itself a problem, if it takes the migration of Jewish opinion to the right as some sort of aberration.

As Philip Mendes points out in his history of Jews and the Left, Jewish radicalism has historically been a product of systems of ethnic and class oppression. Today, these structural factors don’t exist in the same way. The destruction of the Third Reich dealt a lethal blow to dictatorships based on antisemitic persecution, while the terrifying realities of the Holocaust have delegitimized any attempt to give popular antisemitism the teeth of state power (one of many reasons why Holocaust denial is so toxic). The postwar era saw significant class mobility among British Jews, from the working class and petty bourgeoisie, to the professional middle class. The ensuing right-turn was a function of class mobility rather than ethnic solidarity around Israel, as even Alderman agrees. When parts of the British middle class shifted to Thatcherite hard-right as the postwar consensus disintegrated, therefore, a lot of Jewish voters were among them.

If the shift wasn’t caused by Israel, one might ask, how much was it enabled by British foreign policy toward Israel? In the retrospection of the Jewish Chronicle and the Board of Deputies, Thatcher is celebrated to the skies for her pro-Israel position. Philpot esteems Thatcher an “honorary Jew” for supporting Israel. It is true that Thatcher made a conspicuous effort to cultivate Jewish support, and shed the Tory aura of antisemitism. Supporting Israel was important to this strategy. It is also true that, in 1982, the British trade union movement and the Labour Party began to break with Israel in response to the Menachem Begin administration’s massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Under Livingstone’s GLC, support for Palestine found a place in the spectrum of left-wing, anti-racist politics, and Left support for negotiations with the PLO toward a Palestinian state began to appear. This was part of the context in which the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovitz, became a fierce defender of Thatcher, capping a trend in which Tory candidates increasingly had rabbinical support, especially from Orthodox synagogues.

However, Thatcher’s administration was less pro-Israel than her encomiasts suggest. Arguably, it was less so than the SDP, which chose “zealous” support for Israel as one of its unique selling points in its fight with Labour. Thatcher criticized Menachem Begin, whom she disliked, and deemed the massacres in Lebanon “barbaric.” Her foreign secretary spoke of supporting a Palestinian state, and Thatcher cautiously endorsed negotiations with the PLO toward land-for-peace. Jewish residents of her Finchley constituency at one point protested outside Thatcher’s office over her government’s Middle East policy, after she endorsed the EEC’s Venice Declaration calling for an end to Israel’s “territorial occupation” and supporting Palestinian self-determination.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley was strongly pro-Israel. Hattersley denounced “creeping antisemitism” on the party’s left, in response to resolutions supporting a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine. And there was a natural overlap between the monomaniacal drive to break the Left, exemplified by Kinnock’s chief whip, Michael Cocks, and the aggressively pro-Israel politics of his wife, Valerie Cocks, the head of Labour Friends of Israel. If being pro-Israel was the issue, Jewish voters might just as well have preferred the Kinnockite Labour Party, or David Owen. Indeed, if Thatcher’s alliance with an increasingly conservative Jewish establishment were just about Israel, Jakobovitz’s defence of Thatcher would not have focused on criticizing welfare, union-bashing, and condescension toward inner-city black people. The right-turn built on existing social trends and class attitudes, which were in no way particular to Jews. Insofar as Israel is being talked of as the cause of this, it is a displacement.

It is striking, despite all this, that two years of repeated antisemitism scandals in which attitudes to Israel featured prominently barely altered Labour’s support among Jewish voters. This, despite the fact that Corbyn was more consistently critical of Israeli policy than any previous leadership. But given the general surge for Labour, the fact that Corbyn didn’t improve Labour’s standing among Jewish voters demands explanation. Lacking detailed psephological data, it is difficult to say what the figures actually mean. Consider what happened in some of the London constituencies with the highest numbers of Jewish voters, in 2017. In Finchley & Golders’ Green, Hendon, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and Ilford North, Labour increased its vote share while the Conservatives lost votes in every single one. Compare to the middle-class Hertfordshire constituency of Hertsmere where, despite a definite Labour bounce, there was an increase in the already huge Tory lead. In two of the London constituencies, there was also a small boost for the Liberal Democrats, likely coming from 2015 Labour voters. It seems unlikely that the composition of the Jewish vote in these seats didn’t change at all.

As with all other parts of the electorate, there was probably a degree of polarization. Older and more affluent Jewish voters repelled by Labour, and believing it to be antisemitic, will have either migrated to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. But this was made up for by younger and poorer Jewish voters being excited by Labour’s platform. Either way, it seems likely that insofar as the antisemitism scandals, and the arguments about Israel, made a difference, they mostly confirmed the drift of those who already wouldn’t go as far left as Ed Miliband. The failure of those voters to support Labour is not a Jewish aberration to be explained, but a logical reflection of class-being, and the corollary support for the dominant institutions of British society.

None of this is to say that the issue of Israel is completely irrelevant to these shifts, or to class politics. Unsurprisingly, the radical left has learned to oppose the racist and class oppression of the Palestinians. And while the trade union movement has largely swung behind the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign supported by Palestinian civil society, the British military establishment and security state has long been partners with that oppression. As support for Israel has narrowed politically, it has become one a mainstay of the middle class right-of-center vote: having an elective affinity with military bellicosity and orthodox views on the economy, but not being the cause of either position. A vocally pro-Israel politician of either major party will tend to support this broad, center-right governing consensus.

It is, however, to suggest that those on the Right or the Left who make Israel the benchmark are buying into a fetish. Israel is “the issue” only inasmuch as it condenses, for these people, a great deal else. Beyond these arguments, Israel has not been “the issue” for most people. Corbyn’s right-wing critics may want it to be, but are likely to be disappointed. But so, by a strange logic, are some of his left-wing defenders.

Jewish Anti-Zionism

The pattern of antisemitism scandals since the election conformed to what went on before: short, nasty, and demoralizing, but not making a long-term difference. For example, at the Labour conference following the election, Corbyn cheerfully snubbed Labour Friends of Israel, while his office outmaneuvered an attempt by Labour right-wingers to remove criticism of Israel from the National Policy Forum report. In the press, it was claimed that the conference fringe had seen “a surge of hatred against Jews,” “a farce combined with despicable antisemitism,” while the party exposed itself as “shot through with antisemitism,” the new “nasty party” and so on. The basis for such allegations, as Jamie Stern-Weiner once again documents with matchless patience, is slight. And their impact wasn’t great.

However, now, in early 2018, the scandals have claimed a scalp on the NEC. And in doing so, they have raised a difficult issue on the Left. Many socialists have responded to a crude “anti-antisemitism” of the Right, that conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, with a tone-deaf, defensive, “anti-anti-antisemitism” of its own. This has many sources, and some of it, as Momentum suggests, might be rooted in shades and variations of unconscious antisemitism. Some of the “anti-anti-antisemitism” is simply a result of sustained political isolation and a misplaced “hardness,” which is sometimes confused with hard-headedness. Seasoned activists who have developed the ability to articulate and defend the most difficult positions, sometimes think they’re being soft if they don’t do so. There is, though, a less talked about aspect of this.

Left-wing groups like Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) and Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) have generally taken uncompromising positions. One thing these groups have in common is a connection to a minoritarian strain of Jewish anti-Zionism, rooted in radical and revolutionary internationalism. The leaderships of FSOI and JVL overlap, and comprise a group of experienced Jewish anti-Zionists, used to fighting in the political wilderness. Although they are a minority among British Jews, and stand against the general drift to the right, surprisingly enough traditions of Jewish anti-Zionism have grown in the last few decades. What has been dwindling, is left-wing Zionism. The majority of the European and North American Left was pro-Israel when it was founded. It was seen as being a left-wing cause, a national liberation, particularly when the USSR decided to back it. Labour had passed a motion, driven by Hugh Dalton, calling for Palestinian “population transfer” at its 1944 conference. “Fellow traveler” Henry Wallace baited Harry Truman for “selling out” the Jews by not sufficiently supporting Israel. It is difficult to envision such an enthusiastic left-wing support for Israel today, much less a figure of the stature of Ralph Miliband empathizing with Israel today, as he did in 1967.

On the other hand, the traditions of anti-Zionism emerging in the post-1967 era tend to be socialist and internationalist. For example, Moshé Machover, recently expelled and readmitted by Labour, is the founder of the Israeli Trotskyist organization, Matzpen, which calls for the de-Zionisation of Israel. Lenni Brenner, whose critical history of Zionist politics “in the age of dictators” was cited by Ken Livingstone, is an American Trotskyist. Maxime Rodinson, whose critique of Israel as a colonial-settler society has been so influential, was a French Communist. Marcel Liebman, the Belgian Marxist, likewise saw Israel as a colonial situation. Joel Kovel, whose book calling for Israel to abandon Zionism, is a Marxist and eco-socialist. Norman Finkelstein is not straightforwardly anti-Zionist, but his harsh criticism of Israel and of the US Jewish establishment are partially rooted in his formation as a Maoist. Mike Marqusee was a celebrated figure on the Labour left whose moving memoir challenged Zionism’s claim on Jewish identity. The Jewish Socialist Group and the radical group Jewdas, take their inspiration from the tradition of secular, anti-nationalist Bundism.

As Jewdas points out in its furious intervention on the crisis, Jewish radicals, marginalized by a fairly conservative Anglo-Jewish establishment, have often found a niche in Palestine campaigns, or in Trotskyist groups. The specific focus of Free Speech on Israel, and Jewish Voice for Labour, is opening the debate on Israel and giving confidence to non-Jewish activists faced with condemnations for antisemitism. They are seasoned in a long period of battle when support for Israel was the default, and supporters of Palestinian national rights were accused of purveying a “new antisemitism.” They have ample reason, given the way such allegations have been deployed, to be skeptical about accusations of antisemitism. For example, Glyn Secker of Jewish Voice for Labour was suspended from Labour, and then abruptly readmitted, on the basis of antisemitism allegations that were never explained.

A surprisingly large amount of the furor around the antisemitism scandals has thus been about arguments within the Jewish community. In part, these are about attitudes to Israel. When Valerie Cocks, the former head of Labour Friends of Israel, berated Jon Lansman as “the worst antisemite Jew I have ever seen,” adding that “the Jewish enemies” are always worse, it was about criticism of Israel. When Stephen Daisley called Gerald Kaufman a “Jewish villain” after his death, it was about criticism of Israel. As Antony Lerman points out, the vacuous tropes of the “self-hating Jew” and “Jew-washing” have long been weaponized by apologists for Israel. And, as Gary Spedding argues, this way of harassing left-wing Jews “based on their Jewishness” is no less antisemitic than if supporters of Israel were to be attacked as “Jewish enemies.”

This is why it’s so grotesque and antisemitic for the national media to play good Jew/bad Jew games. In particular, the press attacks on Jewdas (“nutters” says Andrew Neil) are fueled by the right-wing trolls at Guido Fawkes, and their “scoop” about Corbyn attending a Passover Seder with them. The website’s claim that Jewdas are not “mainstream” Jews, and thus somehow not “proper” Jews, was echoed by Labour MPs like John Woodcock. As Charlotte Nichols, summing up a range of passionate, angry responses among young Jewish leftists, wrote for LabourList: “It is not for non-Jewish people, in criticizing Corbyn’s attendance, to determine what is and isn’t a legitimate expression of the Jewish faith. Many of the criticisms I’ve seen are themselves anti-Semitic.”

However, to reduce this to Israel, important as that issue is, is to miss the point. Nichols argues that the reasons young left-wing Jews are alienated from Jewish institutional life include political failings on gender and queer identities. Jewdas’s attack on the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council was not simply about Israel. It indicted the Anglo-Jewish establishment for being timid on antisemitism when it comes from the Right, while using antisemitism allegations in Labour to sabotage its first left-wing leader.

They are hardly pulling such accusations out of their hat. The head of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, congratulated Donald Trump for winning the US presidential election, even though his campaign used antisemitic dog-whistling, and flirted with the far right. Trump, of course, subsequently blamed Jews for death threats they received, defended neo-Nazi protesters, and his administration is steeped in the deeply antisemitic Christian Zionist worldview. Steve Bannon, who used his Breitbart platform to promote vicious antisemitism, is now loudly a Christian Zionist. The Board’s withers were unwrung, although Arkush rejoiced to the moon when Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. This is to say nothing of the way in which some right-wing Zionists, such as Jonathan Hoffman of the Board, cultivate links with far-right antisemites in their battle against the Left. Naturally, Arkush’s response to this sort of critique is to accuse Jewdas of “virulent antisemitism” and of not being “all Jewish.”

The Limits of Anti-Anti-Antisemitism

Given all this, the impatience with antisemitism accusations, the reflexive distrust, is not surprising. And the irritable disdain for such allegations among some Jewish socialists, gives confidence to non-Jewish leftists to take a similar stance.

However, it is not helpful for the Left to adopt this attitude, or the performative political “toughness” that often comes with it. Defensiveness has to give way to reflexivity. On a tactical note, how effective has this “toughness” been, if it repeatedly leads to people shooting themselves (and by extension their allies) in the foot — Livingstone, Walker, and then Shawcroft? If you walk straight into the constantly whirring propellers of a hostile media with eyes wide shut, then what is the use of complaining about the “Israel Lobby”? And how effective are such methods even in combating Israel’s apologists?

A more troubling issue is that, even if antisemitism is not especially concentrated on the Left, and even declined among Labour supporters between 2015 and 2017, polls show it to be more pervasive than might have been imagined. Beyond the hardcore of antisemitism in Britain, which tends to be around 2 percent of the population, there is a surprisingly large number of people who hold to at least one antisemitic trope. For example, about a fifth of the population, and 14 percent of Labour voters, think Jews are more likely to “chase money” than others, while 14 percent of Britons, and 11 percent of Labour supporters, think Jews believe they are “better” than others. These are the results for the stereotypes that people will openly confess to; unconscious biases are likely to be more widespread.

While this research, conducted for the Campaign Against Antisemitism, confirms the CST finding that antisemitic prejudices are more prevalent on the Right, it also suggests that the Left is not exempted from antisemitism. Indeed, it is not much better than the political mean, and that is itself something to think about. As would be the case if Islamophobia were found to be prevalent on parts of the Left (which it is), this should provoke some thinking about how the organized, articulate left — not the cranks and conspiracy theorists of Twitter — has handled the issue.

It is striking that many Jewish left-wingers feel this is a problem. For example, far from denying there is an issue with antisemitism, as its right-wing critics are claiming, Jewdas challenges instances of antisemitism on the Left. Annie Kehune, one of the Jewdas collective, writes of being “fed up of having to follow ‘I’m Jewish’ with ‘but I’m not a Zionist’ in lefty groups.” Gary Spedding has written of experiencing antisemitism in the Palestine movement. Charlotte Nichols writes that “too often we feel like we need to be apologetic for being Jewish in left-wing spaces, and apologetic for being left-wing in Jewish spaces.” In small parts of the Left, I might add, the tolerance for crackpots like Gilad Atzmon or Israel Shamir, has been shameful.

Is it really, in this context, tenable to treat antisemitism in Labour as a “minor” problem? Even if the lurid fantasies of the Left as a hotbed of judeophobia don’t stack up, is it surprising that Corbyn, McDonnell, and the Momentum leadership think it is a more serious issue? Certainly it does not pervade the Left in the way that the Tories, the Labour right, and the press claim. Both the Chakrabarti and the Royall reports are quite clear that there isn’t evidence of any kind of systemic antisemitism in Labour. And there is a case for not rushing to disciplinarian solutions to antisemitism, where political education might be more effective. Neither the press nor social-media platforms are ideal sites for natural justice or for contextually nuanced, informed interpretation.

However, while every claim has to be evaluated carefully, a precondition for that is that they should be taken seriously in and of themselves, and not merely and a priori as a manifestation of the “Israel Lobby.” Aside from anything else, that questionable heuristic is grounds for a classically sectarian political practice. As I have argued, while the issue of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is vitally important, Israel is not a major source of polarization in British politics. It has, however, become a displacement, a pseudo-explanation for much larger and longer-term social processes.

On parts of the center-right, Israel is part of a chain-of-equivalents linking Corbyn, not just to antisemitism, but to terrorism, appeasement, and far-right populism in a way that indicts his whole economic and foreign-policy agenda. For some on the Left, meanwhile, the fight to defend Corbyn’s leadership has come to mean defending it against Labour Friends of Israel, the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish Labour Movement: in a word, the “Lobby.” But such groups are neither as cohesive nor as powerful as the “Lobby” thesis implies. If they were even a tithe as powerful as Unite, for example, Corbyn’s leadership might be in danger. Such groups merit criticism, but a singular focus on them cannot found a sensible politics.

It is, alternatively, possible to walk and chew gum. To refute bad-faith accusations of antisemitism, assert the simple justice of Palestinian rights, and recognize that the Left is not exempted from racism. The rise in antisemitism is not separate from the general increase in racism, and nor is it eternally marginal and out-of-power. At a time when nascent far-right movements are surfacing, with antisemitic tendencies linked to state power in Hungary and the United States, the Left has a particular responsibility to lead on this issue. It can’t do that if it’s so focused on the “Lobby” that it can’t see the problem clearly.