Labour and antisemitism: yes, it’s a real problem

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 6:42 Author: Cathy Nugent
labour antisemitism

The BBC Panorama programme (10 July) about Labour’s antisemitism problem has intensified the Party’s internal row.

Unfortunately, because the programme was not well done, and because Labour’s response has been to “shoot the messenger” as Emily Thornberry rightly put it when criticising that reaction, the renewed row has brought very little light so far.

Thornberry said: “I think that we shouldn’t be going for the messengers, we should be looking at the message. I think that is what is important.

“Nobody can pretend that there isn’t an ongoing problem within the Labour Party about antisemitism, about our processes for dealing with it.”

Twitter is always a forum where any kind of intellectual or moral light finds it hard to shine. The row over the Panorama documentary, as played out on Twitter, has been no exception. After Tom Watson put the boot into Labour’s General Secretary Jennie Formby, currently undergoing treatment for cancer and signed off sick, the predictable response included 3,000-plus replies to a Tom Watson tweet, telling him to do one, echoing Len McCluskey’s unparliamentary language at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

The silliest response from the (non-Labour) right has to be Rachel Riley’s tweet that a brass band playing the Hebrew folk song Hava Negila at Durham was “as tasteful as showing Black Panther at a Klan rally”. The band plays a variety of tunes from around the world every year.

The reaction to Panorama from Corbyn-loyal antisemitism deniers has been stunningly poor. It has displayed the standard responses to all complaints of antisemitism in Labour. First, that the number of cases is tiny. Secondly, that Panorama shows not a jot of evidence. Three, you can’t trust the messenger.

Numbers are tiny? A few months ago Jennie Formby gave an interim report on the number of antisemitism cases that Labour’s Complaints Department had processed and where action had been taken. Labour itself continues to repeat the number as a tiny percentage (less than 1%) of the membership, as if it is a known fact which will stand for all time.

But “less than 1%” is some thousands. And it is an interim figure, produced when there is known to be a big backlog of complaints! Putting “the tiny percentage” into circulation, to be repeated across Twitter so many thousand times, seems to me to be a hostage to fortune. Who knows what the actual figures of antisemitic incidents will be if, and when, they eventually come out?

No evidence? Arguing there is “not one jot of evidence”, in face of all the news reports and sharing of screenshots across social media, is the equivalent of: “I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears and shout I can’t hear you.”

It is difficult to know where to suggest such wilfully unobservant people go to for “evidence” that they won’t consider tainted by the unreliability of “right-wingness” and “Zionism”. But they can begin with Socialists Against Antisemitism (website saasuk.org, and Facebook page), who have a growing collection of evidence.

Unreliable witnesses? One of the Jewish Labour members who appeared on the Panorama programme, Ella Rose, has been called out by Asa Whinstanley of the Electronic Intifada (31.1k followers on Twitter) as being an unreliable witness because back in 2015-16 she worked as a public affairs officer for the Israeli Embassy (before becoming a director of the Jewish Labour Movement).

Not my dream job, but does that mean she has not been the victim of antisemitism? No one can possibly know that!

Where does this “bad faith thinking” come from which leads people to conclude that she and other Jewish Labour members on the programme must be lying, or at least exaggerating? That’s what the Labour Party said about former staff members on the programme...

The problem here is much deeper than bad faith or a lack of empathy or faulty logic. There is also a political problem of definitions.

Labour presents the issue of antisemitism as one of simple “racism”. Hence, it is often said Corbyn is an anti-racist, so he can’t be antisemitic. But beyond the Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists, antisemitism on the left is usually an issue of absolute anti-Zionism rather than theories about a Jewish “race”.

Absolute anti-Zionism is a virulent political hostility to Israel (to its very existence, as opposed to its current government). Because, given the still-recent history of the Holocaust, most Jews have some affinity with Israel, this root-and-branch hostility to Israel is always going to communicate hostility to Jews in general, in a variety of contexts.

Absolute anti-Zionism teaches its supporters that when Jews are open and proud about their affinity with Israel and therefore self-described as Zionist – people like Ella Rose – they can never tell the truth. And the conclusion echoes the old trope that Jews are chronically untrustworthy, devious, conspiring.

The Labour leadership have a duty to set the tone of the conversation on this issue, and they are currently failing spectacularly. Whatever the rights about defending themselves against the likes of Watson, they have escalated an often ludicrous but always nasty and ignorant exchange of hate on social media.

That can and will spill over in real live Labour Parties, where it will make it difficult to have a rational exchange of views and assessments.

Labour needs to change tack, and soon.

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