Opinion

'Hysterical' Jews and 'Frenzied' Women: Depressing Echoes of Labour’s anti-Semitism Debacle in Westminster Sex Scandals

What links the boors in British politics and media weaponising what they call a sexual harassment 'witch-hunt' and the bigots weaponizing anti-Semitism 'smears'? That familiar ploy: victim-blaming

The Houses of Parliament from the south bank of the River Thames, London. November 5, 2017
NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP

Something feels familiar about the current sexual misconduct scandals at the heart of British politics.

It’s not just the trigger words: "malicious" accusations and "smears" (by women), fuelling a supposed "witch-hunt" (against male MPs). There’s also the air of sneering disbelief and the unsavory backlash that make it all too redolent of a previous political scandal.

The anti-Semitism accusations that roiled the Labour party - and are ongoing -  following Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise 2015 elevation to leader played out with similar depressing inevitability. The same partisan vocabulary, the same faux outrage followed swiftly by a backlash of victim-blaming.  

In the same way that all those misguided Jewish people were supposedly willfully conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, that they couldn't tell 'real' anti-Semitism when they saw it, we are now being lectured that a hand on a knee, a grope of one’s private parts, a drunken lunge in the pub don’t amount to "real" sexual harassment.

A slew of Conservative MPs and ministers are under investigation or have been suspended for alleged sexual misconduct. So far it’s the governing Tories who have suffered the most tangible attrition - with the Minister of Defense one of the first to go.

But, unlike the anti-Semitism furore, it’s doubtful that this will remain party political. Labour cannot be far behind – Corbyn has already defended as "reasonable" promoting former shadow minister Kelvin Hopkins, despite being aware that he had been reprimanded for inappropriate behavior towards a party activist.

Britain's Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, October 3, 2017
Hannah Mckay/REUTERS

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has encouraged both women and men to speak out against sexual misconduct. In Westminster, previously open secrets are being aired in public and there has been genuine outrage both inside the Houses of Parliament, in the media and among the British public, as well as the usual reputation management and hastily-convened commissions of enquiry.

The current scandal has even been given a jazzy name: Pestminster

But there is also a nasty current of denialism, both within political circles and within the wider media.

Just as those Jews complaining about anti-Semitism in politics are accused of wanting to silence dissent, the women raising their voices about the awful ubiquity of sexual harassment want to crush men and establish a sexual mores Inquisition to stamp out the joi de vivre from every workplace.

One Daily Mail columnist called it "a kind of mindless frenzy redolent of 17th-century witch-hunts." 

Another Mail contributor, cunningly managing to elide Islamophobia and misogyny, offered the following sage comment: "What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests? A niqab." 

He declared that the  female "flapping denouncers" were both akin to militant Islamists and the shock troops of militant women who "see men as the enemy, the ‘patriarchy’, to be overthrown by all means necessary, and replaced by a feminized society...Their objectives moved a lot closer last week."

It’s true that the right and left-wing press will be busy gleefully digging up dirt on their rivals to smear them, not necessarily because individual journalists care so much about women’s safety in the workplace, but because it serves as a convenient stick with which to beat their adversaries. The same was true over the anti-Semitism scandals.

But the fact that political opponents will use this to score points against their rivals doesn’t make sexual harassment less real across party lines, just as it didn’t make anti-Semitism on the left a convenient fiction.

What was particularly enervating about the anti-Semitism scandals was how Jewish people who dared take offense were endlessly patronized with explanations of what "real" anti-Semitism looked like. We were told that anti-Semitism only really counted if it emanated from a card-carrying neo-Nazi. Pretty much everything else could be couched as "legitimate criticism of Israel", even when Israel wasn't even vaguely a factor.

British opposition Labour party MP for Luton North, Kelvin Hopkins, speaking at the launch of the "Labour Leave" campaign in central London on January 20, 2016
LEON NEAL/AFP

Cue the same undermining strategy, this time for women. It takes the form of declaring that sexual assault is also only "real" if it involves an unknown assailant down a dark alley. I can’t be alone in feeling a sense of profound weariness at the unedifying spectacle of a series of men explaining to women what does and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment.

For a flavor of what has been dismissed as harmless office rough-and-tumble, defense secretary Michael Fallon resigned after allegedly serially lunging at and groping female journalists, another MP rubbed his crotch against a young activist, another asked an assistant to buy sex toys. This Monday, PM Theresa May herself noted that she was aware of more - as yet unreported-on - sexual harassment allegations involving MPs.

Of course, it’s not just the mansplainers. Just as Ken Livingstone et al could bring in a host of Jewish anti-Zionists as character witnesses, a particularly unsisterly host of female commentators have rolled up to insist that those complaining of harassment are simply fragile crybabies unsuited to the rough and tumble of politics (and perhaps, of workplaces in general).

And there are a wealth of male lawmakers who’ll back those commentators up, such as Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who opined that he feared the controversy and the heightened sensibilities in its wake would deter talented young people from entering politics altogether, adding, "It’s getting to the stage where you can’t do anything that’s half-normal."

Just like the accusations that Jews cried wolf over anti-Semitism, women are now accused of making accusations in bad faith. Those accused are the real victims; that also sounds familiar.

Modern-day Jews, we were told, can’t really be victims of prejudice as we are now all white, wealthy one-per-centers, firmly on the side of privilege and, frankly, imperialism. As for women, well, there’s even a (second!) female prime minster. If anything, the argument seems to go, the pendulum of power has swung too far the other way.

Roaring with inadvertent comedy, one recent piece by Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph was headlined: "This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us."

No-one would deny that anti-Semitism exists on the right of British politics, too. But the problems in Labour were flavored by a particular solipsism that deems the left to be the prime and untouchable guardians of anti-racism and human rights. It will be interesting to see if the same self-delusion applies to women’s rights and sexual harassment, too.

What happens next? More heads are likely to roll. Labour MP John Mann has said the current upheaval could lead to at least a dozen bye-elections. The Conservatives could very easily lose their already slim majority. As PM Theresa May’s ratings have fallen, Corbyn’s have risen. The sexual harassment accusations may well have further-reaching consequences  - and apparently more popular resonance - than those of anti-Semitism.

But overarching both phenomena has been the willful victim-blaming, the persistent denial of real experience. Neither anti-Semitism nor misogyny are "exaggerated" or "hysteria" to be exploited for political purposes, or a trivial distraction from "real" issues.

Both are real, and challenging them, incident-by-incident and institutionally, serves to improve political discourse and participation, not to stifle them.