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Ancient Hatreds Mix With Modern Radicalism on Britain's Left

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British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in Liverpool on September 26, 2016.
British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in Liverpool on September 26, 2016. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / AP

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism, by Dave Rich. 
Biteback (£12.99)

Anti-Semitism in Britain has always been hard to define. As the character playing British-Jewish athlete Harold Abraham says in “Chariots of Fire,” you can “catch it on the edge of a remark.”

In recent years, hidden in the guise of “anti-Zionism” and shrouded with “anti-racism,” particularly on the far-left of British politics, it has become even harder to differentiate the ancient hatred from more modern ideologies. 

Dave Rich, one of the most perceptive researchers of extremism and racism in 21st century Britain, does an able job of charting the metamorphosis of anti-Semitism within the British left in his new book “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.”

In his day job at the Community Security Trust, the organization working to protect British Jews, Rich assesses current threats from anti-Semitism. In the book, he focuses on one source of this ancient hatred, tracing its roots and newer manifestations.

As Rich points out at the start, not only were British Jews usually at home in Britain’s old working-class left, but these circles also considered the Jewish State to be a worthy endeavour. And why not?

What could be more progressive than a state founded by East European Socialists, for a nation that had been exiled and persecuted by just about every empire in history and was now returning to its ancient homeland in defiance of the British Empire? 

As an added bonus for hardcore leftists, the newly-founded Israel had the blessing of the Soviet Union. The book quotes the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, criticizing the Arab nations in 1948 for invading Israel and trying to suppress “the national liberation movement in Palestine.” But that was never going to last.

Despite their socialist outlook, Israel’s founding fathers saw their natural alliance as being with the democratic west, and the Kremlin was soon to ally itself with the rising tide of Arab nationalism, as Rich notes. 

The cover of "The Left's Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism."

Meanwhile, in the USSR and other Soviet satellites, prominent Jewish figures and doctors were being arrested and charged in anti-Semitic show-trials, accused of subversive activities on behalf of shadowy foreign networks.

For the first time, “Zionism” was mentioned as a byword for Jewish perfidy and treason. The Stalinist narrative of dangerous Zionist plotters burrowing away, undermining internationalist solidarity, would outlive Stalin and slowly begin to filter into the discourse of the hard left in the west.

As “anti-imperialist” struggles such as those in Algeria, Vietnam and Apartheid South Africa caught the imagination of young activists, Israelis were re-branded.

No longer were they brave pioneers liberating their homeland, but neo-colonialist oppressors dispossessing the indigenous Palestinians, as Rich recounts. 

The tone and vocabulary of the British left’s criticism of the Jewish state echoed an anti-Jewish sentiment that had existed within the European left from its early days, Rich points out. It wasn’t just Karl Marx, who believed Jews were money-worshipping hucksters who would have to abandon their Jewish identity, as his own father had, to properly join the rest of society. Some of the leading lights in the early British Labour movement held similar views.

Even Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, to this day regarded as a secular saint by party members, wrote that “modern imperialism is really run by half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish.”

Dave Rich.Credit: Courtesy

Nevertheless throughout much of the last century, British Jews, many of whom were still firmly rooted in the working classes, felt at home in Labour, Rich says. 

It would take the rise of a new form of leftism in the 1960s, inspired by “anti-imperialist” theorists like Frantz Fanon, educated and sponsored by Communist front organizations to start changing that, Rich chronicles.

In the Manichean worldview that divided nations into good and evil, Israel was placed firmly in the evil column, along with the United States and the rest of the capitalist imperial powers, and Zionism became a particular form of racism. Jews had to totally repudiate any form of Jewish nationalism to belong to this political sphere, which became known as the “new left,” Rich says.

Rich naturally focuses on developments on the British left, but his book’s one weakness is that it fails to address how the increasing antipathy toward Jews and Israel on one end of the political spectrum, was partly a reaction to what was happening on the other end – namely the conservative movement under Margaret Thatcher opening up to Jews.

It wasn’t just the British left betraying the Jews. British Jewry was steadily becoming more upper-middle and less working class, and more pro-Israel, a process Rich should have detailed more. And as assimilation and intermarriage made more inroads into the community, those still openly identifying as Jewish tended to be more religious. 

This didn’t necessarily mean a falling-out with the Labour Party during periods when it was led by ardently pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist figures like Harold Wilson and later Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It did mean that the party’s increasingly vocal hard-left wing made Jewish members feel they had to constantly be on their guard. And of course, there was a welcoming Tory alternative for Jewish voters who felt less wedded to their parents’ socialism.

In this vein, Rich surprisingly does not mention Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. When Thatcher was starting out in politics in the 1950s, there was still more than a lingering spirit of anti-Semitism within her own party. As the parliament member representing the London suburb of Finchley, perhaps the constituency with highest proportion of Jewish voters,

Thatcher was an admirer of what she saw as Jewish work ethic and a culture of communal solidarity without waiting for government handouts. As prime minister, she appointed Jews to the most senior posts in her cabinet, leading one patrician former Tory prime minister to sniff that it had “more old Estonians than old Etonians.”

She was also an early supporter of Israel, becoming the first serving British prime minister to visit the country. Twenty-six years after leaving Downing Street and three years after her death, she is still reviled by the hard left. At the conference held last month by Momentum, the pro-Corbyn movement, “I still hate Thatcher” T-shirts were on sale.

Thatcher did more than any other British leader to bring Jews into the heart of the British establishment, and on a subconscious level at least, this was reflected in a sentiment on the hard left -which defines itself largely through its hatred of “the establishment” - that the Jews had become class traitors. 
Rich’s book deftly characterizes what sets anti-Semitism apart from other forms of racism, and how it is exhibited among the British left.

As Rich emphasizes, one of the peculiarities of anti-Semitism is that unlike most other forms of racism, which generally regards its targets as inferior and backward, ever since the 19th century Jews have been hated for their success and been accused of secretly ruling the world. The binary of left-wing “anti-racism” can only conceive of oppressed and oppressors. 

A prime example of this thinking is in the remarks made by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2012, during a meeting with Jewish Labour Party members, as Rich notes. For more than four decades, Livingstone has been the most prominent of the Labour far-leftists whose anti-Zionism often veers into statements that most British Jews regard as anti-Semitic.

Campaigning for reelection as mayor, Livingstone told the audience that he didn’t expect many Jews to vote for him as they belonged to a wealthy community. Incredibly, the meeting had been convened to find ways for Livingstone to improve his relations with London’s Jews. Livingstone, who lost that race, claimed earlier this year that “many Jews” agree with him that Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s.

Rich’s book is based on his Ph.D., which he received from the University of London last year, on the growth of left-wing anti-Zionism in Britain from the 1960s through the 1980s and its effect on relations between Jews and the left.

Given that some of the most striking events to impact these relations - the surprising election of Livingstone’s comrade Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader and the sudden prominence now being given to the anti-Semitic tendencies of some of Corbyn’s allies and followers – occurred within the past few years it makes sense that Rich broadened his thesis’ scope and transformed it into a book.

But while the Corbyn ascendancy has focused the media’s attention on his camp’s disturbing ideology, Rich doesn’t clearly answer the question of whether the far-left’s hostile attitude to Israel has actually made anti-Semitism and the situation of British Jews any worse.

One surprising discovery for most readers is that for all the talk of anti-Israel activity on university campuses today, it was much worse in the 1970s. Buoyed by the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, there was a concerted campaign by student movements dominated by radical left-wing activists to force Jewish student unions to either abandon any Israel-related activities or be denied cooperation and funding on campus. 

In some cases, it resulted in the dissolution of local Jewish student unions. While there is no shortage of nasty intimidation on British campuses today, some of which veers toward anti-Semitism, it doesn’t come close to that nowadays. Interestingly, very few of the anti-Israel student leaders of the 1970s went on to become key figures in British politics.

They either disappeared from politics altogether, remained on the radical fringes (some made a transition from the far left to the far right) or jettisoned most of their extreme ideology as they grew up.

While the far left has become increasingly anti-Israel and by extension, is displaying more anti-Jewish tendencies, it has also become more marginalized. At the same time, British Jews have never been more successful and Israel’s relations with the U.K. in just about every field of economic, diplomatic and security cooperation have steadily improved. 

It may be hard to believe Rich’s argument that the far left is marginalized in Britain, when one of its veterans is now the leader of the main opposition party. Nearly every bit of polling data from the last year proves that instead of mainstreaming his ideology in British politics, Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has served to marginalize the Labour Party and make it unelectable.

Corbyn’s views on Israel and his tin ear to anti-Semitism on the left may not be one of the main reasons Corbynite Labour is destined to remain in the wilderness of the opposition, but it is certainly a symptom of their unelectability. 

The left’s Jewish problem is a fascinating story of how ancient hatreds evolved and adapted to modern radical ideology. But how significant are all the gradations between the varieties of anti-Zionism and left-wing groupuscles in wider British public life?

Rich’s book demonstrates how anti-Semitism, just like other radical politics in Britain, has been a failure and remained on the margins.

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