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Labour’s anti-Semitism problem  

27 April 2018

Until Jeremy Corbyn takes responsibility, the issue will not go away, argues David Hirsh


The Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has received anti-Semitic abuse, speaks at a protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, in Parliament Square, last month

The Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has received anti-Semitic abuse, speaks at a protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, in Parliament Square...

FROM the outside, the fight over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party must look like one that many will wish to stay out of. Let the Israelis and the Arabs fight this one out; let Jews fight among themselves.

But this is an issue not only for Jews, but for anyone who cares about British democracy. The rise of anti-Semitic populism in the Labour Party is related to the ascendancy of xenophobic and racist populism across the mainstream of British politics.

Anyone who is in doubt that the problem is serious would do well to revisit last week’s House of Commons debate on anti-Semitism. Labour MPs — most of them women, such as Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth — spoke of the anti-Semitic abuse that they had received from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, and how it was connected to the political culture with which he is inextricably linked.

Mr Corbyn’s record does not inspire confidence, either. He said, for example, in the years before he was in the spotlight, that the genocidal anti-Semitic organisations Hamas and Hezbollah were dedicated to the good of the Palestinian people and to peace and justice; and he has been hosted by Hamas in Gaza several times, never raising a word of criticism, at least in public. He has defended, as victims of Zionist smears, among others, the Revd Stephen Sizer, the C of E priest who posted a link on social media to an article suggesting that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks (News, 6 February 2015); and Paul Eisen, the anti-Zionist who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.


AUTHENTICALLY left-wing anti-Semitism is not new. Some have long yearned for simplistic ways to explain global injustice. The Soviet Union pioneered the story that Israel, the life-raft state for Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, should be thought of as a keystone of the global system of imperialism; that Jews should be thought of as bourgeois “white” oppressors, privileged and racist.

Mr Corbyn brought a version of this politics to the centre of the Labour Party, and attracted people into the party who liked these kinds of ideas. Among them were activists such as Gerry Downing, who called for people to address “the Jewish question” concretely today, and Jackie Walker, who repeated the old slur that Jews were chief financiers of the slave trade.

Many who are invested in the Corbyn movement say that this is all a smear, made with the intention of undermining the whole movement and silencing the voices of the oppressed. I have named this strategy of absolute denial combined with the counter-accusation of Jewish conspiracy “the Livingstone Formulation”, after the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who said that Hitler supported Zionism — and who is still a member of the Labour Party.

It must be understood that the unleashing of anti-Semitism on Mr Corbyn’s watch is related to the politics of his faction, for which disproportionate and furious hostility to Israel is a defining characteristic.

Yes, the Israel-Palestine conflict is real and nasty, but it is fundamentally a small and localised fight over land. The temptation to explain anti-Semitism by reference to the bad behaviour of Israelis is difficult for some to resist, but anti-Semitism is the responsibility of the person who says or does anti-Semitic things. Anti-Semitism always said that the Jews were central to all that was bad in the world. Thinking of Israel in a similar way cannot be divorced from that tradition.


THERE is no doubt that Mr Corbyn is trying to take the sting out of the issue. Before a meeting with leaders of the Jewish community, on Tuesday, he wrote an article for the London Evening Standard which contained some of the right abstract rhetoric, but which stubbornly failed to do the two specific things that he needs to do.

First, he needs to account for his own record. If he cannot apologise for it, and explain how he got it so wrong and so often, and why he has now changed his mind, he cannot be taken seriously.

Second, the statement gives examples of anti-Semitism which everybody can recognise as anti-Semitic — “crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers”; “conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel” — as though they were unconnected to the political culture of disproportionate, irrational, and emotional hostility to Israel which nurtures and licenses them.

Mr Corbyn treats this as a matter of bad apples that can be found and expelled from the party, in much the way in which the Metropolitan Police regarded racism, in the days before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, as a moral deficiency of a few officers. But this is institutional and political anti-Semitism, not a fundamentally disciplinary issue relating to a few bad people.

Mr Corbyn seems to be incapable of explaining why this has become a particular problem under his leadership. Until he can take some responsibility, instead of always blaming others, the problem will not go away. And facing up to the anti-Semitic culture of his part of the Left is something that Mr Corbyn can never do, because it is too close to the very centre of his own political identity.


Dr David Hirsh is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London, and the author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism, published by Routledge.

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