The British Left Can’t Tackle anti-Semitism if It Doesn’t Understand It

The hard left fails to recognize that the old lie of Jewish omnipotence – now updated to vilify Zionism and Israel – is different from other forms of racism.

Jewish Chronicle of London anti-Labour cover
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It’s an odd tick of Jeremy Corbyn’s that he can’t talk about anti-Semitism without tying in other issues.

Review the raft of generic statements the British Labour Party leader made in response to case after case of anti-Semitism within his own ranks. By and large, they are all a version of “The Labour Party is opposed to anti-Semitism and all forms of racism,” as Corbyn said on Wednesday amid the Naz Shah affair. “Where there is any racism in the party it will be dealt with and rooted out. I have been an anti-racist campaigner all my life,” he added Thursday after former London mayor Ken Livingstone claimed that Hitler supported Zionism

Corbyn is a serial offender, but he is not the only leader on the hard left incapable of seeing anti-Semitism in isolation. Malia Bouattia — the new and already besieged leader of the National Union of Students — wrote in The Guardian, in response to charges of anti-Semitism against her, “I’ve always been a strong campaigner against racism and fascism in all its forms.”

Malia Bouattia, head of  United Kingdom's National Union of Students (NUS).
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Now, if the British hard left really did believe anti-Semitism was racism, or a prejudice akin to Islamophobia, then neither Labour nor the NUS would be in this mess. Jeremy Corbyn clearly views anti-Semitism as a lesser offense — a marginal issue. “No, there is not a problem,” he said Thursday, adding unbelievably, “I suspect that much of this criticism that you are saying about a ‘crisis’ in the party actually comes from those who are nervous of the strength of the Labour Party at local level.”

Perhaps Livingstone — now suspended from Labour, pending investigation  — rather gave the game away on Thursday when, appearing on LBC, he appeared to say it was over the top to think of anti-Semitism and racism as “exactly the same thing.”

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone leaves his home in London, Britain April 29, 2016.
Peter Nichols / Reuters

But the reason the hard left is unable to rein in anti-Semitic tendencies is not that it sees anti-Semitism as another form of racism—if indeed it does. Rather, as Corbyn epitomizes, it refuses to grapple with anti-Semitism in and of itself. Anti-Semitism is indeed anti-Jewish racism—but it is also a unique form of prejudice, at once a virus and pathology.

Anti-Semitism is a condition where Jews are the eternal antithesis. The hatred against them survives by constantly mutating. Christian anti-Judaism flowed into race-and-blood anti-Semitism. The accusation that Israelis murder Palestinian children and harvest their organs  is the freshest incarnation of the old blood libel.  Jews have been held responsible for both capitalism and communism, modernity and backwardness, powerfulness and powerlessness, sexual prowess and sexual inadequacy, extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

As a hatred that manages to be pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-historical, and pseudo-scientific, anti-Semitism tends towards the conspiratorial. Playing on the theme of Jewish power, anti-Semitic myths are rife with bogus theories of hidden hands and secluded meetings, undisclosed connections, closed groups, and secret books, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” being the most obvious example. Name an event in modern history and someone, somewhere, has likely blamed Jews for it.

If the hard left understood all this, then they would be able to recognize that phrases like “Zionist-led media” (Bouattia) or “a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby” (Livingstone) are obviously anti-Semitic. Merely replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist” or ”Israeli” — wrapping anti-Semitism in the veil of anti-Israelism — does not sever these phrases' roots from the soil out of which these ideas grew: the old lie of Jewish omnipotence.

Similarly, Livingstone should have known what he was doing when he drew associations between Zionism and Nazism. “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” Setting aside the idea that Hitler had a kinder, gentler early period where he wasn’t psychotic, in mentioning Israel and Adolf Hitler in the same breath Livingstone managed, the historian Andrew Roberts observed, “to offend the maximum amount of Jews to the maximum extent.”

Livingstone said Thursday morning, “I’ve been in the Labour Party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.” Evidently, he hasn’t been listening to himself.

Within the Labour Party, and the British left at large, there are tireless campaigners against anti-Semitism. John Mann, who confronted Livingstone Thursday on his way from one shambolic media appearance to the next, is an excellent example — although there are many others. Unless the hard left faction listens to them more, and can divorce itself from its tendency to minimize anti-Semitism, then they will never been able to tackle a problem they don’t understand.

Liam Hoare, a graduate of University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, is a freelance writer on politics and literature published in The Forward, The Atlantic, and The Jewish Chronicle.  Follow him on Twitter at @lahoare.