On 3 October, the Steering Committee of the Labour left group Momentum voted by a majority (which included Solidarity supporter Jill Mountford) to remove Jackie Walker as the group’s vice-chair.
The grounds were her “ill-informed, ill-judged, and offensive” statements at a Jewish Labour Movement fringe event at Labour conference, and her “irresponsible” behaviour in continuing to promote herself and the content of those statements to the media.
Walker said Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January, which principally commemorates the Nazis’ planned, industrialised mass murder of Europe’s Jews, should also refer to other genocides. In fact, it does; and, anyway, as someone pointed out, the objection is like going to a funeral for a murdered family and complaining that the ceremony does not give equal attention to all other murder victims. Or like responding to “Black Lives Matter” by saying it should be “All lives matter”.
Walker also questioned people being concerned about Jewish schools having to organise extra security, saying that all schools have security. After such events as the murders at a Toulouse school in 2012, by a killer who said he did it just because the children were Jewish, this was at the very least obtuse.
Violent antisemitic incidents in Europe ran at about 150 a year in the 1970s and 80s; since the 1990s they have risen to between 500 and 1,000 a year. In France, for example, 51% of all the racist acts recorded in 2014 targeted that country’s 0.8% minority of Jews.
Walker’s response, and that of many of her supporters, has been to say that the issue of antisemitism is being “exaggerated for political purposes”.
The response shows an underlying problem. When other victims of prejudice complain about racism, anti-Muslim behaviour, sexism, homophobia, the first reaction is to examine the cause of complaint.
Too often, and including on the left, the first reaction to complaints of antisemitism — unless they are about gross neo-Nazi-type acts — is to impugn the motives of the complainers. They are assumed to be powerful people with no real grievance, using the complaint to deflect criticisms of Israeli government actions.
Supporters of Walker picketed the Momentum committee meeting with placards saying “Free speech on Israel”. Momentum was doing nothing to limit her free speech (she remains on the committee, and the committee opposed her being expelled from the Labour Party); only deselecting her from the vice-chair post it elected her to some months ago. And none of Walker’s complained-about statements mentioned Israel.
The Facebook post for which Walker was suspended from the Labour Party in May this year (then quickly reinstated) did not mention Israel either: it complained about insufficient attention to African suffering through the slave trade, and said: “Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean”.
Walker explains this as a meditation on her personal background. It is hardly just that. In any case, it is not about Israel.
But when Jews complain about antisemitism, they get the reply: “You are just trying to stop criticism of Israel”.
That reaction is not exactly racist, but it is antisemitic. It often comes from people who reject any notion of Jews having “racial” traits. It sometimes comes from Jews angry with Israel. Nevertheless, its gist is an attitude to Jews worldwide which tells them any complaint or sensitivity on their part is automatically suspect as “Zionist”; and “Zionism” is seen not as a more-or-less instinctive identification with Israel, but as racism.
Thus a widely-publicised leaflet from the “Jewish Anti-Zionist Network” at the Momentum event run parallel to Labour Party conference called for the expulsion of the “Jewish Labour Movement” group (formerly Poale Zion) from the Labour Party. The JAN is also campaigning to stop an upcoming Jewish Film Festival in Britain, on the grounds that it gets funding from Israel.
The problem of antisemitism on the left is not at all new, or created by the Corbyn surge, as some right-wingers claim. The current strand of left antisemitism was first promoted, from the late 1940s, by the Stalinist parties. For decades they published reams demonising Israel as uniquely imperialist and racist and illegitimate, equating Zionism with Nazism, and so on.
From the late 1960s those attitudes also infected the anti-Stalinist left. In the 1980s Jewish student societies were banned on some university campuses on the grounds that, by refusing to condemn Israel totally, they were “Zionist” and therefore racist.
It is good that this demonisation of Zionism and this automatic deflection of complaints of antisemitism are now being challenged.
It remains true, as we wrote when Walker was first suspended by Labour — she has now been suspended again — that: “The Labour Party now has a regime of capricious and arbitrary instant exclusions. This paper and its predecessor Socialist Organiser have argued that anti-semitism in the labour movement needs to be rooted out. But this Red-Queen-in-Alice-in-Wonderland off-with-their-heads regime is not the way to do it... It is the sort of response in mirror image that the hysterical left in student unions have sometimes employed against those Jews they deem not hostile enough to Israel and thus Zionist and racist.
“The Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and therefore are entitled to the support of honest socialists and consistent democrats. Is heated support for the Palestinians from now on to be incompatible with Labour Party membership? Is indignant, or exaggerated, or hysterical denunciation of specific Israeli acts to be branded racist, incompatible with membership in the new Labour Party?”
A regime of instant off-with-their-heads, even if it were less capricious than that of the Labour machine’s “Compliance Unit”, will muddy rather than clarify the necessary discussion. Jill Mountford, at the Momentum Steering Committee, tried unsucessfully to strengthen the committee’s stance into opposition to Walker being suspended from Labour (as well as being expelled).
Bureaucratism on the left hinders proper discussion, too. Members of Momentum’s Steering Committee heard that their committee was to meet first from the mass media, along with a threat from the TSSA union to expel Momentum from its office space in the union’s premises if the committee did not instantly remove Walker from her post. They received an email from the chair of Momentum suggesting that he had already removed Walker, though only the committee has the right to do that.
The cause of cleansing the left is best served by discussion and education, in which, to be sure, stubborn prejudice and insensitivity must bring discredit.