Does the Left actually have a problem with anti-Semitism?

Recently, there has been a wave of scathing publicity and demonstrations from Jewish community groups against Labour and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. This is as a result of the supposed tolerance of antisemitism within the party, and has been met with mixed reactions.

A handful of Labour MPs have joined in the criticism of Corbyn, while his supporters have challenged the allegations as a politically motivated attack on the Corbyn project and its wider policies. Despite the doubts as to the validity of the charges of antisemitism against Labour, the furore has motivated reflection within the British left, leading some to question whether or not the left does indeed have an antisemitism problem.

The announcement in late-February of the possible readmission to Labour of Ken Livingstone, suspended from the party for claiming that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist, reignited controversy surrounding Labour’s perceived tolerance of antisemitism. In order to address these allegations made by Jewish community groups, and echoed by some Labour MPs, an analysis of the complex evolution as to why the left is smeared with the accusation of promoting antisemitism is required.

The long and multifarious narrative of antisemitism within the European context is a chronicle of the social exclusion and oppression of Jewish peoples perpetrated by mainstream society. Historically, Europe’s two main Jewish communities were the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, two unique groups, which up until the last century, were united primarily by faith and a shared experience of marginalisation.

The Sephardim of Southern Europe, who were largely barred from the guilds and trades, is remembered mainly for turning to money-lending in the absence of other opportunities. Their fundamental influence in shaping modern finance and banking was famously immortalised by Shakespeare. Shylock, the wicked money-lender whose greed, the Bard fantasised, drove him to demand a pound of flesh from insolvent debtors, characterises key elements of the historical antisemitic narrative; the Jewish people as a greedy cabal of pitiless usurers and pecuniary schemers.

The Yiddish speaking Ashkenazim who settled throughout most of Western, Northern, and Eastern Europe, also faced social and professional exclusion, becoming artisans and artists, jewellers and dealers, composers and musicians, and writers and academics. These are the Jews of The Fiddler on the Roof, who suffered pogroms and expulsions, and whose population produced some of history’s most influential philosophers and thinkers. Out of their colossal influence came the reputation of Jews as comprising a clever and clandestine league of legalistic-thinking political string-pullers, bent solely on world domination. Akin to the homogenisation of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim into an undifferentiated Jewish community over the last century, so too have the pejorative stereotypes of the two groups become combined into a unified modern blood libel; the Jews as a secret society united to achieve political and economic global domination.

The historic prohibition of Jews from mainstream professions, and the resulting intellectual tradition this prohibition raised, gave rise to the philosophical genesis of the modern secular left. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky, as well as the majority of other ‘giants’ of left, from Anarchism to the Frankfurt School, trace their roots back to Ashkenazi heritage. The massive overrepresentation of Jews in establishing the ideological foundations of the modern left makes the issue of contemporary anti-Semitism amongst the left seem historically irreconcilable.

However, with the rise of a zealous strain of nationalism during the turn of the 20th century, socialists (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) began adopting nationalist aspirations, leading to a period in which elements of the left and right became intertwined in the struggle for statehood.

Between the 1880s and the 1930s, socialists from around the globe increasingly began to adopt nationalism, autonomism, and separatism. One of the prominent socialist-leaning thinkers to adopt a nationalist cause was Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. In founding the World Zionist Organisation, which, in the pursuit of a Jewish homeland, encouraged immigration to Palestine, and coordinated an international effort to secure a Jewish state, Herzl added a central element to the issue surrounding contemporary anti-Semitism: the unification of Zionism with global Jewish collaboration. When the World Zionist Organisation funded the creation of the World Jewish Congress as the official international federation of Jewish communities. Zionists have since sought to capitalise on this ambiguity to delegitimise opposition to the Israeli state, through charges of anti-Semitism.

The formation of the World Jewish Congress was founded on the twin pillars of creating ‘a worldwide Jewish representative body based on the concept of the unity of the Jewish people’, and establishing a ‘Jewish National Home in Palestine’. This explicit connection of Jewishness to Zionism forever linked the global Jewish population, willingly or unwillingly, to the campaign to create a nation-state in Palestine. The coordination between world Jewry (represented by the World Jewish Congress) and Zionism (represented by the World Zionist Organisation) has resulted in the development of two corresponding narratives. The first represents an update to traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories concerning an international plot to achieve global domination. The coordination of a worldwide body of Jewish representatives with another seeking a nation-state added a tangible element to the narrative that Jews were actively trying to take over the world. The second narrative to emerge was a direct response to the first by Zionists, who sought to purposefully conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, in order delegitimise opposition to the Zionist project.

Both of these narratives are false, and both are substantive in informing the contemporary dispute as to whether or not the left has an anti-Semitism problem.

Another critical part in determining whether or not it is legitimate to accuse the left of tolerating anti-Semitism developed out of the troubling character and partnerships the Zionist movement developed during the 1930s and 40s, when they were in pursuit of a national homeland. The sharp rise of nationalism throughout the world during this period caused a trend of seemingly unimaginable political relationships. Connections developed within the League Against Imperialism, despite its connection to the Comintern, led directly to the future collaboration of socialist-leaning Northern Irish republicans, and left-wing Breton separatists, with Nazi Germany through partnerships developed with socialist Rhinish autonomists during the 1920s. Similar to European socialist-come-nationalist groups, so too did the nationalist inspirations of the Zionists lead to seemingly incongruous relationships.

In 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany formed an agreement with Germany to support the large-scale migration of German Jews to British Mandatory Palestine. Similar to the motivating factors behind the socialist leadership of the Irish Republic Army in Northern Ireland aligning itself with Germany under the logic that the enemy (Germany) of my enemy (Britain) is my friend, the increasing resistance of the British toward Jewish migration into Palestine encouraged European Zionists to make an agreement with Germany. The Haavara Agreement between the German state and German Zionists, which was upheld by the Eighteenth International World Zionist Congress, was not the only example of the coordination of Zionists with Germany. Two far-right wing Zionist groups that were engaged in a terrorist campaign against the British in Palestine also endeavoured to make deals with the German state in order to gain a nation-state. The Irgun and Lehi (also called the Stern Gang), led by future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who modelled themselves after the IRA and were openly sympathetic to fascism, attempted to establish an official alliance with Germany. These inconvenient historical realities, however, do not excuse Ken Livingstone’s assertion that Hitler himself was a Zionist.

Following the Holocaust, and the tumultuous birth of Israel, as well as the subsequent wars and border changes of the 1960s and 70s, the two parallel conspiracy theories continued to grow and shift. One, spread by the far-right, predicated on the age-old claims of a Jewish world conspiracy desirous of global domination enacted through control of international banking and finance and now bolstered by the state of Israel and its partnership with the American government, continued to link all Jews directly to Israel and Zionism. The other, a counter-narrative peddled by Zionists and Israeli nationalists, continued to capitalise on the concept that Jewishness and the Jewish homeland were indivisibly united in order to confound anti-Israeli arguments with anti-Semitism and argue that those who oppose Israel oppose Jews in general.

In what can only be seen as a peculiar ideological shift, historically speaking, contemporary elements of the far-right have recently adopted Israel as talisman due to the state’s perceived Islamophobia. Groups like the English Defence League began carrying Israeli flags during marches to goad counter-demonstrators who would often turn up with Palestinian flags. The championing of Israel by the far-right is directly related to the rise of the left’s criticism of Israeli expansionism and the human rights abuses committed by the state against Palestinians. An unfortunate consequence of this polarisation has been the infection of elements within the left with the far-right disease of conspiracy theories concerning the existence a Zionist Occupation Government design to establish global control. It makes ideological sense that the criticism of the power of groups such as the Rothschilds maintain over both international banking and the international Jewish Congress would appeal to the anti-capitalist sensibilities of some within the left. While support for the Palestinians, which is in line with anti-imperialist sympathies present within much of the left, has also coaxed some within it to fall prey to the notion of Israeli ultra-nationalism as being synonymous with Jewishness. It is incumbent on the left to recognise these issues and reject the temptation to buy into far-right generated conspiracies, no matter how enticing to the progressive ideology they may appear.

In response to the demand by Jewish groups that Labour deal with anti-Semitism, the left needs to commit itself to demanding explicitness and transparency in the discourse surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and reject any nebulousness from both within and without. It is imperative to be clear in the differentiation of what constitutes anti-Semitism and what comprises legitimate political, humanitarian, and anti-imperialist arguments against Israel, its government, and its policies.

It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the state of Israel, its actions, policies, or the historical and contemporary displacement of Palestinians by force. It is not anti-Semitic to historically analyse the coordination of the German state in the 30s with the Zionist Federation of Germany and radical right-wing Zionists in Palestine such as the Lehi, the Irgun, and Yitzhak Shamir. It is not anti-Semitic to decry the forced population transfer, expulsion, and concentration of Palestinians by the state of Israel. It is not anti-Semitic to oppose the illegal expansionism of Israel and its occupation, cleansing, and settlement of lands recognised by the world and international law as being Palestinian. It is not anti-Semitic to compare the treatment of Palestinians and Arab-Israelis by the Israeli state to that of blacks under South African apartheid. It is not anti-Semitic to denounce the camp-style internment of African migrants within Israel and plan to deport them back to locations unknown in Africa to which they did not originate and have no say in choosing. It is not anti-Semitic to boycott Israel itself or goods produced within it. And, it is not anti-Semitic to be wholly against Zionism and to even the question the right of the state of Israel to exist – just as it is not bigoted to question the right of other settler-states such as Canada to exist as from an Indigenous-rights or anti-colonial perspective.

It is anti-Semitic to deny or question the scope of the Holocaust. It is anti-Semitic to claim Hitler was a true Zionist as Ken Livingstone did. It is anti-Semitic to assert international finance is controlled by an Illuminati-like secret society headed by Jews seeking a ZOG world government. It is anti-Semitic to attack individual Israeli citizens living outside of the occupied territories and illegal settlements, just as it is inappropriate to attack average Americans, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders for being born on land confiscated from Indigenous peoples in the past. And, it is anti-Semitic to attack or hate all Jews because of the actions of Israel and claim every to Jew to be complicit in Zionist oppression simply due to their being Jewish.

So, does the left have an anti-Semitism problem? It depends on who you ask. According to an inquiry into anti-Semitism within the Labour Party led by Baroness Chakrabarti in 2016, the answer is no. The Chakrabarti Inquiry report found that while the Party does need to be more proactive in its rejection of bigotry, it “is not over-run by anti-Semitism.” This finding was not universally accepted within Labour, however, as, shortly after the Chakrabarti report was published, Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth rejected its findings and claimed that a Corbyn-led Labour Party was not a safe space for British Jews. Due in part to Smeeth’s comments and the Labour appointment of Chakrabarti to the House of Lords shortly after the inquiry, a cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee was convened to investigate anti-Semitism within political and organisational bodies across the UK.

The Select Committee on Anti-Semitism described the Chakrabarti Inquiry as compromised and criticised the parameters of the inquiry, stating that the definition of anti-Semitism used in the report was too loose. While the Select Committee aimed criticism at all of Britain’s major political parties, it found that “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

There also seems to be a lack of consensus within the Jewish community in Britain as to whether Labour suffers from endemic anti-Semitism. According to Maureen Lipman, a celebrity spokesperson for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, Corbyn’s anti-Semitism ‘made her a Tory’. However, Lipman has also called Corbyn a Marxist and has previously claimed to have abandoned Labour when former leader Ed Miliband – who is of Jewish heritage himself – supported a motion to recognise Palestinian statehood. It must also be noted that the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism in their own study into anti-semitism within political parties found Labour members to be less anti-semitic than Tory party members. On the other side, the left-wing and Israel-sceptic Jewish group Jewdas hosted Corbyn at their Passover Seder, claiming that in Corbyn they have a pro-Jewish ally who isn’t afraid to criticise Israel. However, Corbyn’s attendance at the Seder was immediately condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who claimed Jewdas to be a clearinghouse for “virulent anti-Semitism.”

In my own experience, there is a tendency within the radical reaches of the far-left to transcend anti-Zionism and enter into anti-Semitism. Having spent time at the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel, East London, I have witnessed first-hand the tolerance of anti-Semitism in the name of anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism that exists within pockets of the far-left. LARC is housed, ironically, in a former synagogue located a stone’s throw from where the Battle of Cable Street took place – a street fight which pitted local Jewish residents against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and is widely considered to be the first antifascist action in Britain. However, despite the building’s Jewish history, in my experience volunteering at the social centre, I observed a consensus within sections of the far-left that sanctioned anti-Semitism as long as it was enveloped within anti-zionist and/or anti-capitalist rhetoric, it was acceptable.

At present, anti-Semitism is being promoted by the right, as well as conservative Jewish groups, and elements within the mainstream media, as a being a problem that disproportionately pollutes the left. However, even staunchly pro-Israel groups such as the Community Security Trust have found that the left is no more anti-Semitic than the centre-ground, and certainly less so than the right.

Due to the lack of consensus as to whether it is fair to say that the left, in general, has an anti-Semitism problem, what is required is for both the left and those claiming that Labour is a safe-haven for anti-Semitism to enter into an honest and explicit dialogue as to what constitutes anti-Semitism so that it can be appropriately dealt with. In order to do so, both sides must disavow themselves of any narratives and conspiracy theories that may drive a wedge between the progressive left and Jewish community groups.

The left must explicitly reject any temptation from within to subscribe to the historically embedded narrative of pan-Jewish plans for a New World Order. Rehashing imagery of global Jewry populating a ZOG cabal that controls the banks and fundamentally manipulates the American and Israeli governments by way of worldwide Jewish ‘deep state’ simply discredits legitimate opposition to contemporary Israeli policy and must be vociferously cast off by the left.

On the other side, the constant equation of anti-Israeli opinion with anti-Semitism must stop. It is disingenuous and only serves to stoke the fires of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Maintaining the line that those who oppose Israel, including Jewish groups like Jewdas, do so out of anti-Semitism is counterproductive to a meaningful resolution. If pro-Israeli forces continue to reject any critique of Israel and its historical or contemporary policies as being one and the same, or inspired by, anti-Semitism, the left’s capacity to tackle genuine anti-Semitism within its ranks will be severely impeded.

In the end, what is needed to solve the debate over the left’s alleged anti-Semitism problem is consistency and explicitness on all sides. The left and Jewish community groups must reject those within their ranks who perpetuate false narratives and conspiracy theories. Only then can all sides enter into a meaningful dialogue.

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