Owen Smith, the AWL and “left anti-semitism”

Submitted by cathy n on 9 September, 2016 - 10:12 Author: Cathy Nugent

On BBC Question Time (Labour leadership debate, 8 September) Owen Smith, in the stream-of-consciousness style that has come to typify Smith's approach to political debate, links the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (as part of the “hard left in our Party” “flooding into the Party”) to those on the left who “associate anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism”, “anti-Israel” perspectives (sic). That is, he implicitly called us anti-semitic.

This incoherent tirade against the “hard left” was a disgraceful intervention into an important issue that deserves serious, well-informed debate.

Smith's comments referred back to an earlier exchange with Jeremy Corbyn in the programme in which he accused Corbyn of not doing enough to make the Party a safe place for Jewish members; and the hard left (which would, he implied include the AWL, were causing this problem). There were other accusations streamed into Smith's tirade, but let's focus on the accusation of anti-semitism.

You don't have to know very much about what the AWL stands for, agree with the AWL's two-state position on Israel-Palestine, or even be very left-wing to be aware that any accusation of “left anti-semitism” against us, however half-stated, is ludicrous. We have spent many years exposing, analysing and fighting this phenomena and it has not won us many friends on the organised hard left!

To give Smith the benefit of the doubt he appeared to be “winging it”. Here was a man who had probably only half-digested his team's briefing. Very possibly he most wanted to have a dig at Corbyn's association with the SWP in the Stop the War Campaign. And everything about his intervention was garbled. But no doubt Smith thinks confident delivery makes up for ignorance. And he, his team, and for that matter most of the British media care nothing about properly representing the views of the AWL (over weeks of being the butt of "anti-Trotskyite" smear campaigns no journalist has rung us up even just to check facts).

But Smith also seems to care very little about serious discussion of “left anti-semitism” and that's a far more serious problem. In the interests of trying to promote a serious discussion, a necessary prerequisite of trying to do something about anti-semitism in all its forms, let's straighten out some facts.

Most left-wing anti-semites are not racist.

Most left-wing critics of Israel and Zionism are not anti-semites (and Israel frequently deserves criticism).

Left-wing anti-semitism is a phenomena that is rooted in policy. In the first place criticism of Israel is used as argument against the right of Israel to exist at all.

Other arguments which flow from this policy display exceptional hostility to Israel — far beyond justified opposition to Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians.

This brings with it exceptional hostility to most Jews everywhere, and particularly Jewish citizens of Israel – who identify with Israel and defend its right to exist.

This generalised hostility can, in some cases be extreme, or display a great deal of ignorance, or shade into classical anti-semitic tropes (e.g. claims that all Israeli Jews are wealthy).

All of this can and must be challenged.

The AWL have been writing about and opposing this phenomena for some thirty years. That includes criticism of the Socialist Workers Party analysing the Stalinist roots of “left-wing anti-semitism”, interviewing like-minded scholars and opposing the awful positions taken by the left as a result of these attitudes, such as the 1980s banning of Jewish Societies in student unions on the grounds that “Zionism is racism”.

In recent months we have commented about how to tackle the problem in the Labour Party. We are broadly supportive of the proposals made by Shami Chakrabarti about how to deal with both incidents of anti-semitism and the debate and around this issue. She argued for a spirit of free speech, education and a measured range of sanctions, and, as far as it goes, that is about right. Smith and people around him are trying to trash that report in their “scorched earth” battle against Corbyn. In the process they are misrepresenting everything on this issue — not just the AWL's reputation, but also the substance of the issue.

For this reason Smith is not just another shallow careerist politician; he is also dangerous.

• Please follow the links in this article to read more about what we think.

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