The Lie of Anti-Semitism

Jeremy Corbyn at Support Gaza protest. London, August 2014.

There is no upsurge of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. There is a moral panic being instigated by the media due, to a handful of cases, almost all of which took place before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in the summer of 2015. In fact, the Corbyn leadership has demonstrated it is not afraid to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism against Labour figures, including allies like Ken Livingstone. But this is not all there is to say.

The perfect storm over anti-Semitism and Labour has been building for a long time. Every wing of the British media establishment has taken part – from the BBC and the Guardian to the Telegraph and the Spectator. The Naz Shah case, and Ken Livingstone’s intervention, is just the latest to be picked up. The British press has manufactured this scandal in a bid to create a crisis and, in turn, undermine Corbyn. But this hysteria also represents the high emotional stakes in Israel among the commentariat.

The Anglosphere is culturally and politically invested in Israel in a way which other world powers are not. Make no doubt about it, this is the result of settler colonialism. Israel fits into the imperial ambitions of Western powers. The American intellectual class fell in love with Israel after the 1967 war, which came as a welcome sign that the world was not in total disarray. So the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a coincidental part of our political discourse – it is necessarily a part of the way the conflict is understood in the West.

For these reasons, we might say Ken Livingstone ran into the Shah scandal like a bull into a china shop. We still may not have heard the last vase smash as it hits the floor. Plenty of leftists have pointed out the Haavara agreement, the Nazi plans to deport European Jews to Madagascar and elsewhere. However, the facts of Nazi Germany are not really relevant or helpful here. The real controversy is over Livingstone’s use of the term ‘Zionism’ to describe Nazi policy. Laying out the historical record cannot dispel the outrage (much of it phony). The damage is done.

Sadly, honest voices like Jamie Stern-Weiner are lost in the storm. Vilification campaigns are successful because it is virtually impossible to resist mudslinging. If you explain yourself, deny the claims or even apologise, you’re screwed. It’s too late. It’s never enough. There is no way of adequately deflecting, let alone dodging, the mud. You’re always guilty in the eyes of some people. Even before this, Livingstone was rated as an anti-Semite by certain people thanks to the media.

Even if we presume innocence, it’s worth examining why Livingstone’s use of the term ‘Zionism’ was problematic. First off, Zionism is a broad church, much like feminism or conservatism, so it’s hardly a clearly defined target to begin with. For example, Noam Chomsky was a Zionist youth organiser and Alan Dershowitz was apart of the same Hebrew summer camp. But Chomsky’s childhood Zionism would not recognised by the devotees of the state of Israel. There is a big difference between the left-wing, anti-statist currents of the 1930s and present day right-wing Israeli nationalism.

That’s not to say that Zionism did not always suffer from major, and potentially unreconcilable contradictions. Left-wing nationalism, for example, as rarely, if ever given way to non-nationalism. This is what the left-wing problem with Zionism is at its root all about. Politically, the ideology has failed to be secular, becoming increasingly violent and ethnocratic. The British left’s version is compounded by the UK’s history as an imperial power, whose policies created the regional divisions, in the Middle East, at the root of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is why term “Zionism” is so loaded, and why, in a British context it is especially toxic. It connotes support for a status quo that goes to the heart of a history of ruinous foreign policy, and, in its contemporary form, the chauvinism of settlers towards an indigenous people. This is why the Blairite goon John Mann was so furious with Ken Livingstone. The presuppositions are evident: Israeli policy is so morally immaculate, it can only be opposed by closet Nazis.

Of course, the obvious point cannot be made too often: not all Zionists are Jews, neither are all Jews Zionists. Yet this game is played by the Israeli right, and its reactionary Diaspora boosters. Never mind the fact that Christian Zionism, for example, is a huge movement with deep roots, while anti-Zionism has a long history among, err, Jews. Note the American Christian right tend to be fanatical supporters of Israeli colonialism, but they do so as they yearn for the Rapture and end for Jewish people worldwide. But this anti-Semitism is rarely called out, if ever.

As much as it is absurd to conflate Zionism with Jewishness, the Z-word can be dangerous for progressives to use carelessly. In many ways, it would be much better for leftists to talk about Israeli or Jewish nationalism today. Precision of language is vital here. Clear distinctions have to be maintained. Not only because the misuse of the term ‘Zionist’ can easily be painted as anti-Semitic, but because it can be received as such by actual racists. This means the Left should deepen its vocabulary about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Too often do we hear talk of the ‘Israel lobby’, or even the ‘Jewish lobby’, and this is not unproblematic. The only reason why lobbyists are welcomed in Washington and London is because there is an underlying interest in the first place. In other words, US policy favours Israel due to its own interests in the Middle East, not because of Israeli interference in American political life. The Left should not presuppose Western innocence in all of this, as if the US is being led astray by foreign interests. This is not inherently anti-Semitic, but it is seriously flawed.

As Didi Herman argues, the Left should probably stop using the word ‘Zionism’ and try to grasp the problems at hand in clear terms. By using ‘Zionism’, the Left opens itself up to right-wing offensives and infiltration by genuine anti-Semites. At the same time, there is little engagement with Jewish nationalism as a historic movement and the reasons for its appeal. It was once that the Left was avowedly pro-Zionist and many supported Israel up to the 1967 war, whereas today leftists are eager to pronounce themselves anti-Zionists. But posturing does not always translate into good politics.

Speaking of posturing, the self-described ‘anti-totalitarian Left’ is heavily involved in the smear machine. Many of these soi-disant leftists and liberals supported the invasion of Iraq on supposed progressive grounds.

They see Israel as a Western liberal democracy encircled by Arab dictatorships and Islamic fascist regimes. Therefore, all criticism of Israel is painted as anti-Jewish. The reality is much less convenient for this herd of independent minds.

Localising anti-Jewish prejudice on the Left is a form of externalisation. Much like child sexual abuse, we’re meant to believe it’s always someone else who is guilty of it. The terrible truth is sexual violence is far more common and banal. And the same can be said of Judeophobia. It’s not the preserve of student activists, intellectuals and conspiracists. The global financial crisis set the conditions in place for a resurgence of racism. Anti-Semitism is the handmade of Islamophobia. To assume that it would not reemerge now is to not take anti-immigrant politics seriously.

As for the Labour Party in particular, there is little to no anti-Semitism among its ranks. The last leader, Ed Miliband is of Belgian Jewish heritage – his father, a refugee from Nazism served in WW2 – yet the British press was comfortable mocking him for his inability to enjoy a bacon sandwich. His father Ralph Miliband was a refugee from the Nazi onslaught, and the right-wing press insinuated the man was ‘disloyal’ to Britain. There was no discussion of anti-Jewish undercurrents in the midst of this.

Jew-bashing is an old game for the Right. The times haven’t changed so much. As Sam Kriss argues, the contemporary Right is now philo-Semitic – it is fascinated by Israel and by Jews – but this supposed love is really its opposite. Jews who criticise Israel are deemed insufficiently Jewish. This is why Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik drew a line between ‘loyal’ and ‘disloyal’ Jews (Zionists in the one hand, left-liberals in the other). A Jewish state is one kind of solution for the anti-Semite, as Jews are taken, in this view, as essentially deracinated.

The Right is trying to destroy Jeremy Corbyn by any means necessary. The coalition includes the Blairites, the Conservatives and the media. Guido Fawkes started this scandal by digging up Naz Shah’s Facebook posts from August 2014, and the media quickly took it up. This was before she was selected to run against George Galloway in Bradford West. It was also long before Jeremy Corbyn triumphed over the attempts to renew the New Labour project. So it should be obvious why there is a moral panic now of all times.

Actually the media has been pushing this line for a long-term. The BBC’s John Ware, who writes for Standpoint magazine, produced a documentary attacking Corbyn as supporting anti-Semites and terrorists. The good news is Corbyn has overcome every attack on his character. This scandal may be harder to trounce thanks to Livingstone’s comments. It’s possible the local elections could be hit by this, but it’s also true Labour is facing the prospect of long-term decline anyway. Corbyn may not be able to save the party. But the Blairites lack anyone capable of filling the void.

At the same time, it’s less likely to sway Londoners away from Sadiq Khan and to the shameful, racist campaign mounted by Zac Goldsmith. The Khan campaign has kept to its ‘soft left’ script and made simple, uncontroversial pledges. It’s possible we’ll see the Corbyn vote turnout for the mayoral vote, while Labour takes serious losses in the local elections. Neither would necessarily be turned by the events of the past week. Not that this would ever be acknowledged by the BBC.

Photograph courtesy of the Weekly Bull. Published under a Creative Commons license.