Labour, Don’t Miss This Chance to Bring anti-Semitism Under Control

The U.K. party’s first-ever attempt to get a handle on its anti-Semitism problem seems to misrepresent Jewish opinion and Zionism, and also seems not to grasp why the problem arose in the first place. But there is still hope.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn shakes hands with Rabbi Mendy Korer at an anti-racism rally in London, July 2, 2016.
Neil Hall, Reuters

Jeremy Corbyn’s latest gaffe — in inadvertently comparing Israel with ISIS  — diverted attention away from the Chakrabarti Inquiry’s findings into anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour party.  This not only distracted the public gaze away from Shami Chakrabarti’s determined attempt to plough a rational course through the minefield of defining anti-Semitic innuendo, but also concealed the report’s ambiguity regarding the kind of educational programs and training needed to deal with the problem.

The Chakrabarti report was a first-ever attempt to curb the party’s anti-Zionism from tipping over into the cesspool of anti-Semitism. It certainly condemned the use of “Zionist” as a euphemism for “Jew,” and recommended that the pejorative “Zio” have no place in Labour party discourse. However it seemed perplexed when it came to understanding Zionism itself. Chakrabarti left well alone by simply referring to “the rich range of self-descriptions of both Jewishness or Zionism.” 

Yet an understanding of Zionism — flaws and all — is fundamental to combatting ignorance and the descent into anti-Jewish prejudice.

More than 90 percent of Jews in the U.K. consider identification with Israel as a component of their Jewish identity, according to a wide-ranging survey of British Jewish attitudes toward Israel conducted by City University at the end of last year. It indicated that although a majority of British Jews voted for David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2015, when it came to Israel, the community was decidedly liberal — even though this is not reflected by Jewish representative organizations.

The vast majority of respondents agreed that a two-state solution was the only way for Israel to achieve peace with its neighbors. A majority agreed that Israel was an occupying power in the West Bank, and that Israel should give up land for peace. Some 75 percent opposed settlement expansion. The survey also found that hawks over-estimated their importance and influence, while doves underestimated themselves.

Yet despite holding such liberal views, the respondents were highly supportive of Israel’s security. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the respondents believed that 70 percent of those who selectively condemned Israel’s actions, exhibited anti-Semitic motives. Even for those critics who felt that Israeli actions were disproportionate, 52 percent of respondents still believed that anti-Semitism was a factor motivating British criticism. 

While the Chakrabarti report did infer that many British Jews were critical of Israeli government policy, it simultaneously mentioned the disillusionment of “left-wing British Jewry” with the same policies — as if such disillusionment were solely the prerogative of the left. It further commented that some were “personally redefining their Zionism in ways that appear to grant less support to the State of Israel and more solidarity to fellow Jewish people the world over.”

What exactly does this mean? How do you redefine Zionism by distancing yourself from the State of Israel — rather than the policies of its government — and moving toward a Diaspora nationalism? This quote actually seems to refer to the peripheral views of Jews on the far left — part of that 7 percent who do not view identification with Israel as a component of their Jewishness: Accidental, acculturated, assimilated and ideologically non-Zionist Jews. Such people would tend to be more sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn than the overwhelming majority of British Jews. Did the report therefore grant unwarranted importance to a peripheral opinion among British Jews simply because this opinion is promoted vocally within the Labour party?

The composition of the Labour party has dramatically changed since its defeat in the 2010 election. With the backing of the trade unions, Ed Miliband was unexpectedly hoisted into the leader’s seat in place of the more moderate favorite — his brother, David. 

In 2013, Ed Miliband, introduced a new system of party membership, which enabled an influx of hundreds of thousands of new members. For many young people, this was a golden opportunity to rid Labour of the men in blue suits and return the party to its traditional values of representing working people. Jeremy Corbyn on Labour’s far left was seen as the receptacle in which ordinary people placed their hopes and desires for a better future. For many others, however, it presented the welcome prospect of allowing the far left to find a home in Labour.

In most European countries, the soft and hard left have their own, separate parties. In the U.K., the far left has been highly unsuccessful in creating electable parties, as the British Communist party’s history demonstrates. The absence of proportional representation has increased the pressure on the far left. The Labour party therefore became a logical target from the 1930s onward. Yet as history records, the Labour party, perhaps reflecting an innate British reluctance to rock the boat, has resisted all attempts to change its essentially democratic socialist nature. The predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party failed dismally in the 1960s, while the Militant Tendency faction was driven out from Labour in the 1980s. 

While the change in party membership launched by Ed Miliband propelled the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn to the party leadership in 2015, it also provided a psychological green light to purveyors of ignorance and racism to speak publicly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. While such views had been dominant on the fringes of the far left in the 1960s, 50 years later they had moved to the center of Labour party politics. Social media acted as a loudspeaker. What had been frowned upon in the past was now deemed acceptable, due to the changing ideological composition of the Labour party. This was the continuation of a broad historical process that began with the period of decolonization and liberation movements in the 1960s, when it became easier for members of such activist groups to identify with the Palestinian struggle than with the Israelis — even before the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ensuing settlement drive on the West Bank. 

Is the current situation therefore merely the isolated actions of a few foolish individuals who deserve to be disciplined — as most current party members believe? Or is it the culmination of a historical process that has been given greater legitimacy during the past year? 

If it is the latter, then there is no quick fix for the Labour party. The solution is education, debate and dialogue, which takes time. 

The Chakrabati report recommends the formation of a working group to examine “comprehensive education and training needs across the party.” If this education process isolates anti-Semitism from Jewish history and the development of Zionism and subsumes it into the staid general rhetoric of anti-racism, then this well-intentioned exercise will have failed in its task. If an explanation of Zionist ideology is glossed over, then Zionism’s status as a slogan or soundbite will remain. Conveying the complexity of the Jewish past does not mean imposing a viewpoint, but it should lead to self-education and to recognizing anti-Semitism immediately for what it is.

Anti-Semitism is not a given for the Labour party, or for any movement which defines itself as democratic and socialist. After all, the British Labour party identified with Jewish aspirations for a homeland in Palestine following the publication of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. Between 1917 and 1945, the party conference reaffirmed its support for a Jewish national home on no less than 11 occasions. All of this — and much more — is unknown today. The far left of 2016 moreover does not wish it to be known. 

The broad outline of the Chakrabarti inquiry is now public knowledge, but its details are open to interpretation. If a discourse on Zionism — its history, motivations and factions — is omitted from the proposed educational program, then the outcome will be more public relations than public reality — and this sad saga will continue.