Jews, the British Labour Party, and How We Fell Out

6th December 2018

This is the text of a speech that I delivered to the Society of Czech Jewish Academics

I would like to start with an observation that would not, now, shock anybody at all in the United Kingdom, but which genuinely surprised British Jews who were active in Left wing politics. Whereas in most of Western Europe, political antisemitism and the scapegoating of Jews is a phenomenon which is chiefly associated with Right wing populists and neo Nazis, in the United Kingdom, it is now blossoming on the mainstream of the Left, and specifically within the Labour Party.

On reflection, perhaps that statement isn’t shocking at all. Indeed, the fact that so many on the British political Left found it surprising is a significant part of the reason that antisemitism came to define the political Left in the first place.

There are two features which might be said to define British Left wing politics, and figure large in its mythology. The first is that the Left is the citadel of anti-racism. The second is that the Left has a monopoly on virtue. Neither of these myths are true.

However, the consequences of these delusions are as follows. When racism emerged on the Left in Britain, it was either minimised, or explained away as an aberration. By contrast, racism on the Right is regarded, including by those who are themselves active in centre Right politics, as a natural danger, a stumbling block to be avoided. For that reason, centre Right politicians have long been alert to the dangers of antisemitism, and have taken steps to establish a cordon sanitaire, excluding antisemites from positions of power and influence, and quickly expelling those who breach that boundary.

The Left, by contrast, has falsely believed itself to be innoculated against antisemitism. When antisemitism arose, therefore, the first reaction was to affect that the issue was irrelevant, confined to the fringes of Left politics, or something which was so wholly unlikely that its existence could be discounted altogether, or when it became undeniable, that allegations were made in bad faith, in order to prevent the electoral triumph of Jeremy Corbyn and the dawning of a new era of fairness and prosperity. There was, quite simply, a failure to get to grips with the nature and the scale of the problem, until it was too late.

Before I move on to the second part of this talk, I want to make an important observation. I am Director of Policy at Quilliam: an organisation which fights generally against political and religious extremism, with a historic focus on problems which have arisen within European Muslim populations. You might therefore expect me to be arguing that the presence of Muslims with antisemitic attitudes is an important driver of the situation in which we find ourselves. This is not the case.

It is absolutely true that there is a Muslim antisemitism problem. However, it is a huge misreading of the situation to assume that Left antisemitism is primarily a product of domestic Muslim political activity, or an attempt to appeal to Muslim voters. This is a problem which is a product of British, Left wing perspectives and attitudes.

British Muslims are not to blame for what has happened in the Labour Party. Muslims make up a mere 5% of the population of the United Kingdom. They are dwarfed in number by those on the Left who manifest antisemitic attitudes. All you need to do is to look at the roster of names of those reported to the Labour Party for antisemitism, and that will become very clear to you.

However, there is a connection between antisemitism within Islamist politics and what has happened in the British Labour Party, and it is as follows. The part of the Left which has now taken over the Labour Party emerged from various parts of the Left ecosystem, of which one was the so-called anti-War movement. The Stop the War Coalition was a coalition between Stalinists, Trotskyites and Islamists, whose chair was the Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. That coalition was bound together by opposition to Western and American power. It brought British Left activists into close cooperation with organisations aligned to the south Asian Islamist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, and with the Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, played a supporting role.

These organisations were treated as part of an international coalition against what the Left regarded as ‘imperialism’. In this political milieu, Israel was regarded as an imperialist, colonialist venture, to be opposed in every way, and ultimately to be dismantled. When the overt and conspiratorial antisemitism of the various Islamist groups was pointed out by concerned critics, the response of Jeremy Corbyn was to host Hamas and Hezbollah activists in the House of Commons, and to call them his ‘friends’. Their antisemitism was treated as mere rhetoric, or the cry of the oppressed, rather than the all-explaining worldview that it is.

By this means, the Left got into the habit of ignoring or minimising antisemitism. When it came to doing the same in relation to antisemitism arising in their own ranks, amongst predominantly white British political activists, they were already well practiced in the art of the reflexive, dismissive response.

All that has now changed. Indeed, in the conspiracist worldview of some of the worst Left antisemites, many of whom are also cheerleaders for Putin and Assad, Sunni Muslims are themselves the subject of deep suspicion. Any Muslim opposition to Assad is conflated with ISIS, and ISIS itself is widely believed to be a creation of Mossad. A Sunni Islamist would not now be favourably looked upon by this part of the Left. The Red-Green coalition is now dead.

In the second part of this talk, I’d like to discuss some of the milestones in the march of the British Left towards its current embrace of an antisemitic politics. I would also like to consider what this development tells us about the nature of the culture of the British Left, at the moment, and as a whole.

It is difficult to know where to start, when talking about Left antisemitism in Britain today. I am conscious that I am speaking in Prague, as part of a panel consisting of academics from central and Eastern Europe, where antisemitism has long been a notable feature of the culture of parts of both the Left and the Right of politics. But because I am myself a product of the cultural British Left, I still find it surprising.

It is certainly possible to find examples of antisemitism which stretch back to the beginnings of the Labour Party. Labour’s first MP, for example, Keir Hardie, published a newspaper called “Labour Leader”, which as far back as 1891 told its readers that “hook-nosed Rothschilds” were the prime movers behind Britain’s “imperialist wars”. Hardie was not an outlier, in embracing a conspiratorial antisemitic attitude towards Jews. Such explanations of both international and domestic affairs were not uncommon on the British Left, as they were on the broader European Left of the 19th Century. Most of you will be familiar with the wilder pronouncements on the subject of Jews of both Marx and Proudhon. The latter declared in 1847:

“The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. H. Heine, A. Weill, and others are nothing but secret spies ; Rothschild, Crémieux, Marx, Fould, wicked, bilious, envious, bitter, etc. etc. beings who hate us. The Jew must disappear by steel or by fusion or by expulsion.”

The dangers of antisemitism arising in the context of socialism were well understood as far back as the 19th century, when the German social democrat, August Bebel, described antisemitism as the ‘Socialism of Fools’.

It wouldn’t be entirely true to say that there had been no examples of antisemitism within the Labour Party prior to the accession of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 to the leadership of the Labour Party, they were relatively rare. For example, in the years immediately following the Second World War, the Labour minister Ernest Bevin was accused of antisemitism by his colleague and fellow MP, Richard Crossman. There were, from time to time, statements by Labour activists and politicians which gave rise to a suspicion of antisemitism. Martin Linton’s unfortunate choice of language, where he talked about the power of the “long tentacles of Israel” that was corrupting British political life. Tam Dayell, the Father of the House, who blamed the Iraq War on the influence of “a cabal of Jewish advisers”.

But these were rare and exceptional scandals, noticed by relatively few, and with minimal impact on the wider political conversation.

I should say a little bit at this point about the relationship between Jews and the Labour Party in those far distant, halcyon days. Jews have, of course, historically been active in all political parties. But the Labour Party was held in special affection by many Jews. Indeed, from 1906, the Labour Party had an an affiliated Socialist Society, then called Poale Zion, now the Jewish Labour Movement. You might be a successful and well to do professional or businessman, but chances are, you’d still be a member of or at least vote Labour. Labour was, after all, the party of anti-racism and of fair play for all.

All of that changed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party in 2015.

How best to sum up the current situation? In the words of Russell Smith-Becker, who served as Treasurer of Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency Labour party:

‘The Labour party has become somewhere antisemites feel comfortable and where many Jews feel uncomfortable’.

How then has antisemitism become part of what is now – I don’t think we can deny this – a part of mainstream Left thinking? In getting to grips with that question, I have found the work of the young sociologist, Matt Bolton, particularly helpful. Bolton talks about a phenomenon he calls the ‘personalised critique of capitalism’. The starting point is Marx’s description and critique of the financial system, which seeks to provide a systemic description of and explanation of economic exploitation. Simplified and bastardised, that thesis is easily transformed into a search for specific, personalised villains. Plutocratic bankers wearing top hats, grinding the poor into the ground easily shift into images of hook nosed, cosmopolitan Jews, tugging on the strings of power.

Perhaps the best example of that trend within Left-wing thinking was provided by Jeremy Corbyn himself. In 2012, a street artist calling himself Mear One, painted a mural showing predominantly Jewish bankers, playing monopoly on the backs of the poor. The Mayor of the London Borough in which the mural appeared – Lutfur Rahman, who himself had controversial links with local Islamist politicians – declared it antisemitic and had it painted over. But Jeremy Corbyn saw nothing wrong with it, and spoke out on Facebook against its removal.

Here are a few other examples of Jews playing the role of the bad guys in this personalised critique of capitalism:

  • A council candidate expressed the view that “it’s the super rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world”
  • A National Policy Forum member, wrote that Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson “received £50,000+ from Jewish donors. At least Judas only got 30 pieces of silver.”
  • A Labour Council candidate also used that “30 pieces of silver” line in order to discuss what he described as a “Zionist coup” and went on to claim that ‘Rothschilds Zionists run
  • Israel and world governments’. He resigned but his resignation was unanimously rejected.
  • A Councillor in Tyneside shared an image of banker Jacob Rothschild – which had a caption stating “these people…invisibly control the world”

In the Marxist understanding of the world, imperialism is recognised as a product of the manner in which the capitalist class captures the foreign policy of the state. Therefore, in a debased form, the personalised critique of capitalism has similarly given rise to a personalised critique of imperialism. Let me give you a few examples.

Two council candidates  in separate posts, implied that Israel had created or was backing ISIS.

  • A Labour diversity officer, posted a cartoon which made the same allegation. That view was also shared by the deputy mayor of Kensington, Beinazir Lasharie, who also implied that Jews were behind 9/11
  • A parliamentary candidate and Mayor argued that the Muslim Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi was “buying oil from ISIS to sell to Israel”
  • A Labour councillor posted that “Israel was created by the Rothschilds & what they are doing to the Palestinian people now is EXACTLY what they intend for the world” He accompanied his post with a particularly nasty racist caricature of a Jew: his hands soaked in blood
  • Another councillor shared a post in which he opined that “There are only 9 countries in the world without a Rothschild central bank: Russia, China, Iceland, Cuba, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Hungary. Isn’t it funny we are always at war with these countries?”

We then come to a separate category of antisemitic discourse: the denial, inversion, or applauding of the Shoah.

  • A Councillor in Luton, described Hitler as “the greatest man in history”
  • A Councillor in Oxford compared Israel to Nazi Germany, as did many many others.
  • A councillor from Bognor, posted a picture of a child killed in Syria, and expressed the view that “Hitler had a point” and that Zionists should be “put in concentration camps”
  • A former Councillor in Norfolk, circulated Holocaust denial material.

There have literally been over a thousand complaints, each involving similar rhetoric, to the Labour Party’s compliance department. There are so many that, instead of giving a structured talk, I could simply have read them out to you. I wouldn’t even be a fraction in to the total before my time was up.

The result of reporting these individuals to Labour has been, to put it politely, mixed. Some have resigned. Some have been expelled. Many others have been cleared. But the largest category of cases are those which await adjudication.

There are two Labour activists who have loomed large in the saga of the Labour antisemitism scandal, and whose cases remained under consideration by Labour for a painfully long time. The first is Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, who had a long history of association with extreme and antisemitic causes, and who had once abused a Jewish journalist in racialised terms in public. When he claimed that Hitler and ‘the Zionists’ had been in league with each other – a familiar far Left canard – he was suspended, and eventually resigned from the Labour Party, as a favour to the Party.

The second is Jackie Walker, a high profile Labour activist, who notoriously claimed that Jews were the ‘chief financiers of the slave trade’: a lie which was popularised by Louis Farrakhan. She remains a dominant figure within Momentum: the group which was formed by those on the far Left as a vehicle for taking over the Labour Party. Ironically, Momentum is now engaged in a pretty distasteful row over the role of its founder, John Lansman an anti-Zionist far Left politician. As you can imagine, the attacks on Lansman by other Momentum members have themselves been characterised by antisemitism. Walker’s case has yet to be adjudicated on by the Labour Party.

We might add a third unresolved case: Jeremy Corbyn himself. At the beginning of the crisis, it was customary to say that Corbyn was not an antisemite, or to argue that his own state or mind was a secondary consideration to his actions. But that self-denying ordinance was breached by the Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, who called him an antisemite, and was then suspended from the party, only to be reinstated following a threat of legal action. We don’t have time here to consider the senses in which Jeremy Corbyn might be described as an antisemite. But you might be amused to find out what it was that finally resulted in the general conclusion that he is an antisemite. Jeremy Corbyn addressed an old school friend of mine, Richard Millett, telling him that he did not understand British ‘irony’, despite having lived in Britain all his life. The implication was that Richard was not really British.

The reaction of the Labour Party to this crisis has been instructive. The first step was to conduct an inquiry, in which the prominent civil liberties campaigner, Shami Chakrabarti was drafted in to produce a report. The report was regarded as a whitewash, which failed to engage with either the nature or the scale of the problem. Thereafter, Jeremy Corbyn appointed her to the House of Lords: which created the impression that she had been rewarded for letting Labour off the hook.

The second was a proposal to adopt within the Labour Party the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of Antisemitism. Labour had, in fact, previously resolved to adopt that definition. However, the lead up to the formal adoption was hugely depressing, and itself gave rise to further outbursts of antisemitic rhetoric. First, Labour attempted to create its own series of illustrations of antisemitism which were widely regarded as a watering down of the full definition. An alliance which included a number of people suspended from Labour for antisemitism toured the country, campaigning against this move. Then, when the definition was finally adopted, Jeremy Corbyn attempted but failed to include a guidance note of his own making, which also appeared to contradict the requirements of the IHRA definition.

Finally, Labour offered training in antisemitism to Labour Party branches. That training was to be offered by the Jewish Labour Movement. However, in response, those branches which were controlled by Jeremy Corbyn supporters chose instead to affiliate to a tiny fringe group established by anti-Zionists on the far Left: misleadingly called Jewish Voice for Labour, whose members included a significant number of non-Jews. In one constituency, Birkenhead, the offer of training was turned down on the grounds that members believed that the Jewish Labour Movement had “links with Isis and the Israeli government”.

So, there we have it. The relationship between the Labour Party and British Jews is in ruins. It won’t recover for a generation or more.

I’d like to make a handful of points, to sum up the situation, in conclusion.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Labour’s antisemitism problem – although serious in itself – is a symptom of wider developments within British and European politics. There has, in general, been a shift towards hyper-polarisation in political debate involving the anathematisation of political opponents. Not only in relation to matters involving Jews, but more generally, politics has shifted towards an embrace of a variety of crank causes, which have come to dominate political discourse. It is now common to see conspiracy theories that do not involve Jews proffered as an explanation for domestic and world events. Antisemitism is only one of the symptoms of a broader malaise.

Antisemitism is never about Jews, and what they do. But when it emerges, it speaks volumes about the conditions which created it.

To understand why antisemitism has arisen within the Left, in Britain, today, requires us to consider the manner in which an ecosystem of crank politics came together to create a cohesive political force, and then took over the Labour Party. That is a subject well outside the scope of this conference, but it is essential that we understand it, if we are to oppose it effectively.

Secondly, although there is as yet no realistic prospect of the defeat of antisemitism within the British Left, the crisis has brought into existence a coalition of individuals who have devoted themselves, selflessly, to the unpleasant and demoralising business of rooting it out. Those individuals are, for the most part, not Jewish. They are, rather, social democrats who have realised that the threat of antisemitism is an indicator of a malaise within our political culture in general.

So I leave you with this thought. If we can create a parallel ecosystem of social democratic politics, which values democracy, equality, and fundamental human rights that can challenge the dominant political culture of crank politics, then there is a way out of this mess.

If we fail to do that, then we are in for a pretty unpleasant future.