Debating how to tackle left anti-semitism

Submitted by Matthew on 25 May, 2016 - 11:02 Author: Cathy Nugent

See here for an audio recording of the debate

On Thursday 19 May, Workers’ Liberty debated Richard Angell, the Director of Progress, on how best to fight left anti-semitism.

Angell has proposed an eight-point list of proposals which, he said, was about “getting this issue under control”.* These proposals include “training for the Labour’s national executive in modern anti-semitism and unconscious bias”, “new capacity for the Compliance Unit” and that “anti-semitism must lead to a lifetime ban”. Defending this last point, Angell said he was supporting a call made by John McDonnell, and it was only a potential power; he did not envisage a lifetime ban for everyone found guilty of anti-semitism.

Speaking for Workers’ Liberty, I argued this issue was being used by the right in the Labour Party and by the Tories to discredit the new left leadership of the Labour Party and put a break on left developments in the Party. Evidence for this is the way Jackie Walker, the vice-chair of Momentum, had old Facebook exchanges (half thought-out — as is the way of such things) dragged up and used to suspend her from the Party.

However the best way to tackle this attack would not be to pretend that the problem of anti-semitism doesn’t exist. Of course many people genuinely do not recognise what is being talked about here. All the more reason to confront it politically.

And this is why Angell’s proposals would ultimately be ineffective — because there is little agreement (let alone recognition) on what “modern anti-semitism” is. Further, the Compliance Unit is not something that inspires confidence. It enforces party rules with capricious malice. It bans from membership socialists (such as myself), for being socialists (i.e. supporters of Workers’ Liberty). We need an extensive debate, and at the grassroots of the labour movement.

Workers’ Liberty’s position is that, for the most part (although not entirely) left-anti-semitism is not racism. Rather it is a set of ideas which flow from demonisation of Israel, and an objection to its very existence as a national entity. The programme is in contrast to those of us on the left who propose radical and revolutionary change in Israel and want to see an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

The programme to “smash Israel” comes directly from Stalinist anti-Zionist campaigns by the Soviet Union, particularly those which gained wider currency in the 1970s onwards.

“Smash Israel” here means an end to the political entity that expresses the national identity of Jewish Israelis. The “left-anti-semitism” that flows from that programme includes, to put it crudely: Zionism is only the ideology of the Israeli state, it cannot also be an expression of Jewish national identity, or identification with the idea of Israel (as opposed to the policies of its successive governments); all Jews who are Zionist are expressing the ideology of the Israeli state; all Zionists are thereby collectively responsible for what that state does.

Racism creeps into this argument when, for instance, the power of Israel is exaggerated. This is new version, but a version, of the myths of the huge power of Jews in the world featured in classic anti-semitism.

Unfortunately, among some members of the audience at the debate there was a sealed-up lack of recognition of the problems inherent in these themes.

We have a long way to go, which underlies the point that we must use these circumstances, whatever the initial trouble they cause to the left, to debate and educate, rather than introducing new disciplinary measures.

Richard Angell denied making a push on this issue to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership (but did not rule out such an attack in the future). True, Angell has a record of concern on anti-semitism, but he is also a bourgeois politician. In sofar as he expressed politics on these issues, there was a problem with his emphasis.

Specifically Angell endorsed the “Macpherson principle”. This refers to one of the recommendations of the enquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder. In this context it means that an “anti-Semitic incident” is any incident “perceived” to be so by “the victim or any other person”.

I did not have a chance to comment on this in the debate, and I do think there is a problem.

On the one hand of course reports of generalised hostility or individual instances of anti-semitism should be treated sympathetically. (And one does wonder whether the “nothing to see here” people on the left in Labour realise how hard-faced they come across.)

On the other hand in order to assess any complaint of any kind of injury we need to establish general principles. I’m sure there is a lot of room for debate on the difference between political anti-semitism as I have described it above, and racist anti-semitism. Should the levels of criticism about these forms of “injury” be treated differently? I think so, but I might be wrong.

If we do not have this kind of critical in-depth discussion, we will not be able to tackle anti-semitism and moreover, our debates on the political situation in the Middle East will be poisoned.

* See We need this action plan to tackle anti-semitism within Labour

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