Anti-Semitism Is the Labour Party's Real Problem, Not Its Leader

Jeremy Corbyn has led Labour for six months; the left wing’s obsession with Zionism and its drift into conspiracy-theory thinking has been around for more than two decades.

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Political circles in Britain are buzzing with talk of left-wing anti-Semitism. Some fret that even the Labour Party now has a problem with Jews.This heated chatter is a response to some pretty awful behavior on the part of Labour bigwigs and student activists. Labour, now run by Old Left ruffian and Israel critic, Jeremy Corbyn, has recently admitted, and then lethargically expelled, individuals with dodgy views about Jews. And at Oxford University last month, the co-chairman of the Labour Club resigned, claiming some club members have a “problem with Jews”. With their promiscuous use of the derogatory term “Zios” to describe anyone who likes Israel, student Labour activists seem to have some iffy ideas.

Cue much criticism from Labour high-flyers and some left-wing commentators. Lord Levy, a Labour peer and major fundraiser for the party under Blair, says he might leave Labour if it doesn’t stop all this anti-Semitism. Even the Guardian and Observer, known for their odd obsession with Israel, have published pieces saying: “Labour and the left have an anti-Semitism problem.” 

I have a question for these people, for my fellow British lefties suddenly talking about left-wing anti-Semitism: Where have you been? Where were you in 2009, when at a Hyde Park demo against Israel’s conflict with Gaza a man in a ‘Jew’ mask — big nose, distorted teeth — pretended to eat a doll covered in fake blood? Where were you that same year when leftie activists smashed up a Starbucks in London on the basis that its Jewish founders are friends of Israel? Where were you in 2014, when at leftie protests against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge people waved grotesque placards likening Zionism to Nazism or with images of Jews puppeteering Western politicians?Where have you been as pro-Israel student meetings have been shut down by hollering lefties over the past 10 years? As activists have demanded the expulsion from Britain of Israeli actors, dancers, academics?

As someone who has written extensively about such incidents, I’d really like to know where my fellow leftists were. It was lonely, believe me. Lots of right-wingers called out the left’s weird obsession with “Zios”; very few leftists did.The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland now wants to know why the left’s “hatred of Israel is so intense” in comparison with the “animus directed at any other state”. Jon, mate, have you been asleep for the past decade? The left has had that double standard for years.

This isn’t about saying “I beat you guys to the punch”. It’s about addressing a serious problem with the belated discussion of left-wing anti-Semitism — which is that it seems intimately bound up with a desire to oust the man currently leading respectable leftists’ beloved Labour: Jeremy Corbyn.The anti-Semitism question is being weaponized by anti-Corbyn Labourites as part of their disdain for his leadership. The noble enterprise of challenging anti-Semitism has been bent to the petty infighting of Labourites.

This is clear both from the lateness of the concern with anti-Semitism and the intensity with which it is focused on Corbyn. One can’t helping feeling that he, not anti-Semitism, is the true target. Yet there’s no evidence Corbyn is anti-Semitic. Yes, he foolishly hung out with Hamas and has in shared platforms with questionable “anti-Zionists”. But I believe that springs from his opposition to Israel. I think his stance on Israel is obsessive and wrong. But racist? I don’t buy it.

The end result of the mixing-up of opposition to Corbyn with the discussion of left-wing anti-Semitism is that Corbyn’s critics ironically come up with conspiracy theories of their own.

We have a clash of conspiracy theories now. On one side, there are the foul theories of those obsessed with “Zios”, who insist the media and global finance are controlled by Israel (Jews). And on the other side there’s a new conspiracy theory that says Labour has been taken over by anti-Semites and is no longer a safe space for Jews.

We must stick to evidence. The truth is that the number of anti-“Zio” people expelled from Labour is small, and the Oxford Labour Club’s warped talk on Israel is not that different to much of the mainstream media’s berating of all things Israeli. A Corbynite importing of anti-“Zio” thinking to the left? Please. Corbyn has led Labour for six months; left-wing weirdness about Zionists has been around for two decades.

Okay, fine, so the penny has just dropped for some leftists. What now? Well, now they must grow up and realize that tackling anti-Semitism is a more serious task than scoring points against Corbyn. And they must engage in a serious intellectual excavation of the foundations of today’s strange leftie obsession with Zionism. This is about so much more than Corbyn, or even the far left. It’s about the whole left’s drift into conspiracy-theory thinking; its adoption of a shallow, shrill form of anti-capitalism; its swapping of a serious critique of capitalist society in favor of engaging in handwringing over what left-wing author Owen Jones hysterically calls the “shadowy and labyrinth system that dominates our lives”. The left’s swirling turn has created fertile ground for the return of the oldest conspiracy theory of all: that “Zios” are puppeteering our economies and governments and lives.

How much easier to say “Corbyn has made Jew-hatred fashionable” than to have a serious moral reckoning with the shift that has been happening on the left in Europe for decades. Using anti-Semitism to hurt Corbyn does a double disservice: it avoids the serious debate we need about where these ideas have come from and how we might intellectually defeat them; and, tragically, it is likely to make some people even more cynical about claims of anti-Semitism, instead viewing them as political fodder.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of the online magazine Spiked and a writer for the Spectator in the U.K. Follow him on Twitter: @Spikedonline