Efforts to confront the root and manifestation of anti-semitism in the left are being hampered by a climate of hysteria and repression fostered by Westminster, the media, and the right-wing Jewish lobby.
Such is the highly charged nature of debate over this issue that I’m compelled to start this piece with three declarations. First, I am a Jew. Second, I am a member of the Labour Party, Momentum and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Third, I believe that anti-semitism is a real and present problem within the left and the Labour Party, which must be uprooted, confronted and stamped out at every turn.
But here’s the rub. I also believe that anti-semitism within Labour and the left is nowhere near as extensive as many assert; that it is more of a problem on the right, including the Tory Party; that attention to anti-semitism in this wider political context is being deflected and skewed by a politically and ideologically-driven smear campaign against Corbyn’s Labour; and that efforts to confront the root and manifestation of anti-semitism in the left are being hampered by a climate of hysteria and repression fostered by Westminster, the media, and the right-wing Jewish lobby.
This is a view shared by many of my Jewish colleagues and comrades both within and outside of the Labour Party. It is also the view espoused by organisations such as the Jewish Socialists Group whose membership has swelled over recent years, and the Jewish Voice for Labour which, in its very short history, has become one of the largest minority platforms within the Labour movement.
Yet these voices have been, and continue to be, consistently maligned and marginalised both within the wider Jewish community and the national press. Just last week, the Guardian’s report on what Jewish leaders have to say about ‘mural-gate’ focused almost exclusively on the views and statements of the Jewish Board of Deputies, and particularly its leader, Jonathan Arkush. At one point, the article even referred to the Board as simply “the Jewish community”. In an astonishing display of dodgy journalism, no mention was made of Jewish organisations that have been outspoken against the Board; and no mention of the fact that the Board of Deputies is a highly partisan, ideologically-aligned and non-elected body consisting primarily of Tory-voting and Trump-endorsing members.
Jews who have questioned the dominant narrative on mural-gate have faced a double-edged attack. Like all who express concern about the suspect timing of a news story that has surfaced no less than three times over the last six years, on this occasion coinciding with the launch of Labour’s local election campaign, they are dismissed as being deniers of, apologists for, or worse still, complicit in Labour’s apparently rampant anti-semitism. But they also face alarmingly repressive and deeply offensive rhetorical attacks from within their own communities. My name was once published on an ominous ‘list’ of self-hating Jews drawn up by a right-wing Jewish group, simply for attending a protest against the Israeli occupation. Anyone who has participated in public meetings organised by Jewish left groups on campuses or within Parliament will know all too well the propensity for right-wing Jews to show up on force — not to raise challenging questions or participate in debate but to force the meeting to be abandoned by disrupting and shouting down anyone who dares to express a view that deviates from their own.
What lies behind this mobilisation of symbolic violence and closing down of debate is very resonant of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called ‘regimes of truth’. When the controversy over Mear One’s mural in London’s East End first surfaced in the news in 2012 — long before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party — the debate about whether or not it could be construed as anti-semitic, and whether or not censorship was an appropriate action for the authorities to take, was a relatively open one. Respected publications such as the English-language Israel daily Haaretz, and even the Daily Mail were far from equivocal in their coverage, acknowledging the contesting views of both local residents and others. Some, like the International Business Times even ran comment pieces by those who did not believe the mural was anti-semitic. This was the context in which Corbyn made a comment on Facebook — not in anyway defending or endorsing the mural as has widely been reported — but simply questioning whether censorship was the right thing to do. In the end, the decision taken by local authorities was not based on a conviction that the mural was anti-semitic, but rather that it might be, or at least the perception of some Jews that it was anti-semitic was considered sufficient justification for it to be forcibly removed.
Six years later and the commentators who led the rehashed trumped up charge against Corbyn established a new regime of truth, echoed by the Jewish Board of Deputies and other right-wing Jewish groups that were given unchallenged platforms across the national media. It was now, all of a sudden, no longer a ‘question’ over whether or not the mural was anti-semitic, or whether or not censorship was appropriate, a truth further underlined when Corbyn himself (wrongly, in my view) declared emphatically that it was anti-semitic and apologised profusely for his comment about censorship. Not only that, these commentators anticipated the inevitable concerns about smear that this latest concocted scandal would produce, and embedded in their narrative that any such ‘come back’ was now ipso facto discredited. The ‘truth’ was established, dissent barred.
It is the eve of Passover, a Jewish festival which commemorates and celebrates the emancipation of the Jewish people from slavery in Ancient Egypt. More than any other festival, it embodies and exalts the great Jewish traditions of tolerance, respect and resistance to all forms of oppression. More than any other festival, it reminds us of the true bravery and heroism of Jews throughout history who have sacrificed their lives in the struggle for freedom and justice. Jews like Denis Goldberg who went to jail alongside Nelson Mandela and sacrificed the comfort and security of white privilege in Apartheid South Africa in order to resist its racial brutality and cruelty; of those Kibbutzim pioneers in the early twentieth century who passionately pursued peace and co-operation with their Arab neighbours and later resisted the policies of land appropriation and labour exploitation pursued by the Israeli state; and of those who stood up to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, knowing they would face certain death but that their actions would send a powerful message of defiance and resistance for generations to come.
It is precisely in the spirit of this rich legacy of resistance, and in acknowledgement of the unmatched scale of human genocide that was the Shoah, many Jews in Britain have long resisted the Israeli occupation and opposed the aggressive policy of Jewish settlement expansion on Palestinian land. They have also voiced their support for Jeremy Corbyn — a politician who has spent more than 40 years on the front lines of resistance to Neo-Nazism and all forms of racism; and a leader who has introduced unprecedented measures to stamp out and crack down on all forms of anti-semitism throughout the root and branches of the Labour party and its burgeoning mass membership base; so much so that many Jews within the Party have legitimately expressed concerns of a McCarthy-like witch hunt.
Challenging anti-semitism on the left is clearly not done effectively by attempting to de-legitimise or silence critique of Israel or the banking industry or the media or any statement or expression that invokes conspiracy (however simplistic and banal). No doubt some people with anti-semitic sentiment choose to hide behind such critiques. But they are only emboldened by the attempts to silence others who legitimately hold them without any prejudice or hatred towards Jews whatsoever.
Above all, Jewish voices on the left must be acknowledged, tolerated and heard. Anything less is a betrayal of Jewish values and an affront to democratic debate both within our own communities and public life at large.