Opinion

British Left's anti-Semitism Problem Didn't Start With Corbyn. It's Been Festering for a Century

Anti-Semitism has been a recurrent feature of radical and socialist politics in Britain. We need more than denunciations and expulsions to confront how the left talks about capitalism, race and Jews

Britain's Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Dundee, Scotland, Britain March 9, 2018
\ RUSSELL CHEYNE/ REUTERS

Scandals provoked by accusations of anti-Semitism have become a recurrent feature of British politics. As the latest tumult subsides we have an opportunity to reflect on the issues that underlie these controversies.  

One lesson of the last two weeks is that people who swear they are militant opponents of anti-Semitism "in all its forms" too often turn out to have friends – real friends, comrades, Facebook friends  – who are happy to spread anti-Jewish slurs or imagine the basic facts of the Holocaust are up for debate

For this reason when Labour Party leaders insist there will be no place for anti-Semites in the Party, their words don’t measure up to the problem. Too many believe they face a handful of anti-Semites, a bunch of interlopers.

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Others acknowledge the problem is more widespread but then trot out evasive phrases about "unconscious anti-Semitism," or vaguely suggest we educate people to recognise anti-Semitic tropes.

The problems go deeper than Labour leaders have been willing to admit. Even though we conventionally associate anti-Semitism with the right and fascism especially, the political culture of the Left has long been a source of anti-Semitism.

A more recent development is that some avowed anti-racists are seemingly unable to recognise anti-Semitism when it stares them in the face. They dismiss it instead as a smear perpetrated by "Blairites" and Zionists.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a Jewish community demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

While the disciplinary reforms recommended by Shami Chakrabarti may help overcome these problems, the Labour Party requires more than denunciations and expulsions. It also needs reflection, education and above all leadership.

A helpful place to start is the important distinction between "anti-Semites" and "anti-Semitism."

We find it at the heart of George Orwell’s writing on the subject. In October 1948 Orwell wrote to his publisher, "I think [Jean-Paul] Sartre is a bag of wind and I’m going to give him a big boot." It was Sartre’s Portrait of the Anti-Semite (better known in English as Anti-Semite and Jew) which had provoked Orwell.

Sartre’s book was organised around the idea that the "anti-Semite" was an identifiable type: bourgeois, reactionary, uncomfortable in the modern world.  Orwell, by contrast, in his essay on "Antisemitism in Britain", published in April 1945, presents a very different view.

Anti-Semitism (not the anti-Semite), he insists, is present across all classes and is pervasive in British literary culture from Chaucer to Shakespeare to T.S Eliot and Aldous Huxley. Anti-Semitism, Orwell proposed, is a shared problem, not a pathology confined to a particular type.

Mural of George Orwell. Southwold, Suffolk, UK
geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

He drew a striking conclusion from this insight: "The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?' But 'why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?'"

Labour politicians would do well to emulate Orwell’s honest introspection and contemplate the movement to which they have given their lives. Doing so means coming to terms not only with Jews and anti-Semitism but also capitalism and race.

Anti-Semitism has been recurrent feature of radical and socialist politics in Britain from the 19th century's William Cobbett to the present day. We find it in the Chartist movement in the 1840s and in the pages of Keir Hardie’s Labour Leader, which in 1891 proclaimed that imperialist wars were being planned to suit the interests of "hook-nosed Rothschilds."

Jews were good when outcast, a long way away and suffering from Tsarist oppression. But many of the same socialists and radicals who protested against pogroms were first in line to pronounce the Boer War an expression of Jewish conspiracy.

In failing to acknowledge this inheritance, Labour leaders disavow a painful and dishonorable aspect of the movement’s past. And as events in recent weeks have shown, these problems have not died away.

Across the political spectrum protagonists continue to categorise Jews as "good" and "bad". The habit is clearly visible on the Left. Here, too often, Jews find that having the "correct" view on Israel/Palestine and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a precondition for getting a hearing on anti-Semitism.

A key feature of modern anti-Semitism has been the racialized projection of "the Jew", an archetype which stands above and in conflict with the working class. Throughout the history of the left, certain anti-capitalist visions generated by socialists have overlapped and combined with this strain of anti-Semitism.

What makes anti-Semitism particularly attractive and dangerous for the left is that it can appear oppositional. It provides an easy personification of oppression in the face of less tangible, global forms of domination.

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Which takes us to the mural in Tower Hamlets; the cause of so much controversy last month. Entitled Freedom For Humanity, the mural depicts six men, some with exaggerated "Jewish" features, at a table dictating the 'New World Order'. In 2012, when the local council ordered the mural’s removal, Jeremy Corbyn signalled his opposition on Facebook.

When asked to clarify his message, the artist Mear One claimed the mural depicted "class and privilege," nothing more. In fact it offered a vision of class stained through with modern anti-Semitism: a critique of capitalism in which the forces of global power are rendered "Jewish."

Kalen Ockerman's mural titled “Freedom for Humanity” on a wall near Brick Lane in London’s East End
Kalen Ockerman

Everyone, including now Corbyn himself, recognises this. Yet for all the attention it received, one thing seems to have eluded almost all commentators: the mural not only depicts Jews and Jewishness, but places them in opposition to the pain and suffering of black and brown bodies.   

The mural controversy illustrates the ambiguous position Jews occupy within contemporary anti-racist politics.

If the left limits itself to a conception of racism which focuses solely on white privilege, it will continue to find it difficult to recognise Jews as its victims. Similarly, if European racism is understood only as a consequence of colonialism, we ignore the history of racialized exclusions within Europe itself.

We need to place colonial racisms alongside anti-Semitism, and recognise how the two intersect and sometimes diverge.

American scholar and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois did just this when he came face-to-face with the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto shortly after the war. It was “particularly hard for me to learn”, said Du Bois of the rubble in Warsaw, that this "was not even solely a matter of color." These reflections by Du Bois remind us today that color-coded definitions of racism cannot account for the history of anti-Semitism.

This difficulty is deepened by the success of Jewish integration in contemporary Britain. Overwhelmingly a middle-class community, disproportionately represented in 'top professions,' lauded by the political elite and with a growing tendency to vote Conservative, British Jews are poorly positioned to evoke sympathy from those anti-racists who imagine that poverty, exclusion and racism always line up neatly together.

Celebratory crowd outside the Dizengoff House (now called Independence Hall) to hear the declaration and signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence, May 14, 1948
Wikimedia

And then there is the question of Israel/Palestine, which has poisoned the Labour Party debate on anti-Semitism in recent years and continues to do so today. The great majority of British Jews feel an attachment to Israel, constituted as Jewish state. This, of course, creates a further problem for those parts of the Left invested in a distinction between Jewish identity and Zionism as a political ideology.

Attempts to fold Zionism into the history of European imperialism and settler-colonialism bring into sharp view the ongoing racism and injustice endured by Palestinians. At the same time, however, they obscure the fact that Zionism was in part a response to murderous racism experienced by Jews inside Europe.

This tragic dynamic was captured powerfully by Hannah Arendt: "The solution to the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people."

Israel today is a complex entity: while some focus solely on its democratic credentials, others point to its history of dispossession and occupation. It advertises its promotion of LGBTQI rights but remains a bastion of state-sponsored ethnic and religious privilege.

Jewish statehood has generated a complicated history that sometimes makes it difficult for the left to even recognise anti-Semitism in Britain, let alone combat it.

Then-MP Jeremy Corbyn marches from Downing Street to the Israeli embassy in support of Palestinian demands that the Israeli government stop the bombing of Gaza. 19th July 2014
© keith wells/Demotix/Corbis

Labour needs to learn and reflect on how racisms of different sorts have figured in its own past and continues to shape the present. It should be possible to decry global inequality and support justice for the Palestinians without likening Israelis to Nazis, invoking the Jews’ special conspiratorial power or holding diaspora Jews directly responsible for the actions of the Israeli state.

The challenge for the Labour Party’s leadership is to oppose racism unconditionally and without exception, including when its targets are Jews, most of whom do not support the party and who do identify with the State of Israel.

There is also a challenge for the Jewish community, especially its leaders. Their alertness to anti-Semitism in Britain should lead them to support anti-racist campaigns more generally. It might also allow them, even as they identify with Israel, to recognize and censure the racialized inequalities within and beyond its recognised boundaries.

In their different spheres, both the Labour Party and the leaders of the Jewish community should understand that anti-racism is not divisible.

David Feldman is Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London where he is also a Professor of History. He was a Vice Chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and other forms of racism in the British Labour Party.

Brendan McGeever is lecturer in the sociology of racialization and Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the Acting Associate Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, and is author of the forthcoming monograph The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Twitter: @b_mcgeever