Left-wing anti-Semitism is not an invention of the Corbynistas — it's been bubbling under the surface for decades
An anti-Semitic remark is today more likely to leave the mouth of a left-wing politician or activist than come from even the most unreconstructed of conservatives. In a world that is neatly divided into oppressors and the oppressed, “Jews do not deserve to be treated as victims,” as Dave Rich puts it in his new book The Left’s Jewish Problem. Or as a revolting letter published in the Morning Star in 2002 bluntly phrased it, “the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps”.
Left-wing anti-Semitism has come to national attention since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. Since then up to 20 Labour members, including an MP and a former mayor of London, have been suspended by Labour for anti-Semitism. There have also been three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within the party. A senior activist in the Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum has claimed that Jews were the “chief financiers of the slave trade”. Meanwhile Beinazir Lasharie, a Labour Party councillor who was suspended from the party in 2015, posted links on her Facebook page to videos claiming to show that Israel was behind Islamic State.
Left-wing anti-Semitism is typically blamed on the hard Left, and with some justification. The decision by the Soviet Union to label Zionism a form of racism in the 1960s and 1970s has found its echo in the racist no-platforming of Jewish societies imposed by self-proclaimed anti-racists on university campuses across Britain. However, left-wing anti-Semitism is as much a product of soggy liberalism — with its hand-wringing about “the other” — as it is derived from Stalinism. As Rich puts it, “The spread of anti-Zionism on the Left . . . was kick-started by Young Liberal and Arab nationalist activists . . . [who] used the language of anti-colonialism and human rights.”
This anti-Semitism is, then, not an invention of the Corbynistas, but rather something which has been bubbling away under the surface on the Left for decades. It is the result of the coming together of old Soviet notions of the Jews not being an authentic people and the New Left belief that, as Rich puts it, “Israel is a Western colonial implant in the Middle East.”
But anti-Semites have evidently imbibed a feeling of empowerment from the rise to prominence of Corbyn, a man whose political assumptions are largely taken from the anti-colonialist and anti-Zionist New Left. These assumptions, while not necessarily anti-Semitic in isolation, lend themselves rather easily to an anti-Semitic outlook. They typically run as follows: only dispossessed minorities can experience racism; the Holocaust was simply one genocide among many; and the world can be divided neatly into lightness and dark, with all that is good and virtuous on one side and the devil on the other.
Thus if racism is largely about power, the Jews are portrayed as uniquely powerful as a way of dodging charges of anti-Semitism when rallying against Israel. The scale and genocidal nature of the Holocaust is downplayed (or Zionists must be found to be at least partly responsible for it) because a full recognition of its horror might lead to an admission that Israeli society was forged in its shadow. The New Left shows little interest in the Western working class, and so humanity’s liberation must come from the “global south”, which encompasses anti-Semitic groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Inter alia, assumptions of this sort lead to the deliberate or accidental promotion of anti-Semitic tropes.
However, the root of a part of the left’s unwillingness to deal with its anti-Semitism problem — or to even acknowledge that such a problem exists — is found in its self-image as uncompromisingly anti-racist. As Corbyn’s office recently put it in response to reports that his supporters were engaged in the verbal abuse of political opponents, “No one responsible for abuse is a genuine supporter of Jeremy.” A similar line was taken by the Morning Star, for which Corbyn wrote a regular column until he became leader, when the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone erroneously claimed that Hitler supported Zionism. The newspaper responded by saying that Livingstone’s remarks could not possibly be anti-Semitic because the Left was, by definition, anti-fascist. It is the old No True Scotsman fallacy distilled in fresh bottles. The party is always right and therefore anyone who is wrong is outside the party.
There is probably a degree of prejudice in all of us, and the most dangerous thing a person can do is convince themselves that they have been completely inoculated against it. The age we live in — when a mob can descend like the tightening of a noose on any person who misspeaks — is itself hardly propitious for the sort of honesty and self-reflection required to root out bigotry from the politics of either Left or Right. As with other forms of irrational prejudice, anti-Semitism will almost certainly persist within the Labour Party for as long as it is viewed as a malady which afflicts a separate and alien category of human being.