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Antisemitism crisis in Labour

A conversation between Daniel Randall and David Renton

The claims of antisemitism levied against the British Labour Party, particularly under the former leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, have been raging for a number of years. The Labour right-wing and its allies in the bourgeois press repeatedly attacked Corbyn and effectively undermined his leadership, using this cudgel. Zionists have cynically targeted the British Left, using these claims to push back against the growing support for the Palestinian movement and silence all criticism of Israel.

While some on the Left argue that these claims are entirely a product of right-wing ideological warfare or are overblown, the widespread allegations of antisemitic acts in the United Kingdom in recent years demand closer examination. In his November 2020 interview with Tempest, David Renton noted that while

[i]t’s hard to be accurate about how widespread anti-Semitism is within Labour. We know that when asked something like a quarter of all British people admit to holding old-style anti-Semitic thoughts….[and t]he proportion is not noticeably lower among Labour voters although it is much higher, as you’d expect among [the] far-right.

Renton further notes that “[p]rior to Corbyn’s election, effectively no [Labour Party] members were disciplined for anti-Semitic language; since then the number has increased dramatically and is presently standing at a rate equivalent to five hundred expulsions a year.”

In Renton’s recently published book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn from It, he looks at scores of the most prominent recent examples, including the allegations following the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Report. His interlocutor in the following piece, Daniel Randall, has his own book Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, scheduled for publication on September 23, 2021. What follows is a dialogue between them, trying to bring out some of the lessons for the internationalist Left.

Daniel Randall: Your book is a dissection of the major events of “Labour’s antisemitism crisis” under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, from 2015-2019/20. Can you give a chronology of those events for readers who may be unfamiliar with them?

David Renton:Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, our main opposition party, in September 2015. Right from the start, he faced accusations of anti-Jewish racism. But he was popular, he had just won the leadership contest with a healthy 60 percent of the vote. Also, it felt as if these were criticisms of him for campaigning for Palestinian rights. Therefore, he and the Labour left were able to ignore them. Labour lost the 2017 election, but narrowly and with Labour increasing its vote faster than at any time since 1945. At this point, it felt as if Corbyn was the next Prime Minister and the Left close to power.

In March 2018, a Jewish Labour MP Lucianna Berger asked Corbyn about his support for an American artist Mear One who had painted a street mural in east London, ‘Freedom for Humanity’. If you look at the mural for any length of time, it clearly embodies any number of antisemitic visual messages: an idea of Jews as the financial masters of the world. Corbyn had seen the photograph and posted a quick, mis-spelled message of support for the artist. Between spring 2018 and the end of 2019, the press ran constant stories about the Labour Party, accusing it or its members of antisemitism.

“LUCIANA BERGER on anti-semitism and leaving Labour party”; Art by dou_ble _you

In my book I go through the scandals. There are places where I say they weren’t true – for example, the press confected a story about Corbyn laying a wreath to the terrorists who attacked the 1972 Olympics. But there are also places where I say ordinary Labour members were worse than the press conveyed, including in the treatment of Lucianna Berger. She had long been the victim of abuse from the far right, but by the end of 2018, there was a similar level of vitriol against her from the Left, with numbers of Corbyn supporters calling her a traitor or worse. Two left-wingers received criminal sentences for harassing her. By the time of the 2019 general election the Corbyn movement was in retreat, over Brexit, and other issues. He lost the 2019 election and his replacement as Labour leader Keir Starmer, has since taken the party to the right.

Renton: Now a question for you, Daniel. There have been other movements on the left accused of antisemitism (like Bernie Sanders in 2019) where the allegation has fallen flat. But with Labour, from the point of view of millions of voters, this story felt believable. What was it about the British Left that made us vulnerable to criticism?

Randall: The British Left and labour movements have our own particular history with antisemitism, going back to trade union agitation to restrict Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But there were two specific, more recent, factors that made it likely there would be an “antisemitism crisis” around “Corbynism” in particular. Firstly, the pulling into, or back into, the Labour Party of older leftists formed in a 1970s and 80s Left dominated by a campist anti-imperialism with a particular attitude to Israel and Zionism. In the case of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP), an influential current throughout the 70s and 80s, that campism had an explicitly antisemitic form. You go into some detail in your book about comments by the former London mayor Ken Livingstone; the formative collaboration of Livingstone’s early political career was with the WRP.

The second source of vulnerability was a failure to move beyond shallow, populist responses to the 2008 crash. Populist misunderstandings of what capitalism is and how it functions are given an ideological frame by antisemitism, and with the way the Internet transformed the transmission of ideas it was easier for conspiracy-theorist and antisemitic ideas to circulate.

I don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite, but he was part of the problem, simply because of who he was politically. His socialism is moralistic, thinking in terms of good (downtrodden and disadvantaged) and bad (powerful and oppressive) people. That lends itself both to shallow populism, and to campism, which replicates the “good and bad people” framework on the terrain of international politics. In addition, he chose to put into key positions in his office people like Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne who were dyed-in-the-wool campists and Stalinists.

Randall: Broadening the focus slightly, I want to ask a question about what you write about the relationship between antisemitism and racism more generally, both in terms of their shared features and the distinctions between them. Could you say something on this issue?

Renton: People often make the mistake of talking about antisemitism as if it’s something that’s so large it’s almost mysterious: that it’s been around forever and yet it’s always at the same level of intensity, so that the world is never more than one small incident away from the start of a second Holocaust. The way we talk about it can hide the reality that, at its simplest, antisemitism is a word for racism directed at Jews.

This is only the first step towards understanding it. Because of the history of the ways racism has been used against Jewish people it is also, of course, unlike colour-based racism, Islamophobia, etc. But once you grasp the commonality of racism and antisemitism, other things follow – that anti-racists have a stake in fighting antisemitism, just as we do in fighting anti-black and other racism; and that people who want to fight antisemitism have an interest in resisting other forms of prejudice as well. That doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to live up to our politics, but that we should strive to.

During the Labour Party crisis, there were all sorts of people who were determined to split anti-racists and people fighting antisemitism apart – columnists in the right-wing press, even some on the Left who wanted to say that antisemitism only belongs to the past. That Jewish people are all white and middle-class, even though that’s not true. Part of the way I try to challenge those accounts is by talking about the generosity shown towards Jewish suffering by authors in the black radical tradition, the likes of WEB Du Bois, Aimé Césaire and James Baldwin. They had a method of solidarity, and we need to relearn it.

Renton: Coming back to Corbynism and the Left, one thing you try to do in your book is explain why you think there is a recurring problem of antisemitism on the Left. What are the experiences that shape the Left – not just in Britain but internationally – which mean that this is something we have to guard against?

Randall: Antisemitism must be understood as what the late Marxist academic Moishe Postone called “an ideology and form of thought”, an attempt to explain the world. It’s not merely hatred of or hostility to Jews.

Almost any form of bigotry can appear on the Left, and there are many instances of attempts to make particular bigotries serve a left-wing worldview. But the particular ideological form of antisemitism means it has a distinct potential to toxify left-wing politics. This is because it is, in Postone’s terms, “pseudo-emancipatory”, and presents itself as “antihegemonic” – that is, opposed to the powers that be.

I see manifestations of antisemitism on the Left as consisting of three main historical strands. Firstly, a primitive strand, based on conflations of Jews with finance and a conception of capitalism as in some sense a specifically Jewish endeavour — the stuff that’s sometimes labelled “the socialism of fools.”

A 1906 cartoon protesting against barriers to refugees and migrants; Image from Labour Campaign for Free Movement

Secondly, Stalinism’s antisemitic campaigns, denouncing Jews as an anti-national, “cosmopolitan” element. The  third strand flows out of that, with Stalinist antisemitism from the 1950s focusing very heavily on “anti-Zionism”. So the third strand is a particular form of anti-Zionism, that sees Zionism as a uniquely reactionary form of nationalism and Israel as a uniquely reactionary state. That third stand is bound up with what’s been called “campist” anti-imperialism, which lauds reactionary and antisemitic forces on the basis that their “anti-imperialism” and “anti-Zionism” makes them progressive. Postone said that contemporary left antisemitism could be called “the anti-imperialism of fools”; that’s the best way of understanding it, in my view. All three strands, in different ways, continue to influence aspects of left-wing thought. My book is an attempt to unpick that.

Randall: Our books also cover issues around the Left’s relationship to Jewish communities, both historically and today. We both refer to a 2015 study showing that British Jewish opinion was strongly “pro-Israel” and “Zionist”, but also strongly anti-settlement, anti-occupation, and supportive of the Palestinians’ right to nationhood and self-determination. You suggest this was an untapped source of potential engagement between the mainstream of Jewish communities and the Left in Britain, an opportunity essentially squandered when the Left’s botched responses to the antisemitism crises created an antagonistic framework that has proved incredibly hard to break out of. I largely agree. What would that engagement have looked like?

Renton: I give examples like the young activists in the pro-Corbyn campaign, Momentum, who organised against the conspiracy theorist David Icke, and made education videos against antisemitism – some of which reached millions of viewers. Probably the closest thing my book has to heroes are the left socialists and anarchists of Jewdas, who spoke out against antisemitism but were also proud and unapologetic in their defence of Corbyn (and their vision of a society beyond capitalism). I cite also sorts of other activists, from Jon Lansman on Labour’s National Executive Committee down to the likes of the journalist Rachel Shabi, who tried to maintain links with Jewish communities.

Right at the start of Corbyn’s leadership, Lansman gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle, the nearest thing we have to an official paper of the Jewish community. He described going to Israel after the 1973 war to stay with relatives. Lansman emphasised his Jewish heritage and described how his pro-Palestinian perspective had come about not from ignorance of the region but from the time he had spent in Israel: “I worked on a kibbutz in the Negev and my aunt lived in Beersheva. It was actually a very politicising experience. When I did my barmitzvah I saw myself as a Zionist and I think after I went there, I felt it less.” Lansman tried to signal to readers of the paper that there was a space for them in Corbyn’s Labour and that they should think about the party sympathetically.

There were things Lansman said then, and later, which were more moderate than I’d have been. But on the point of principle, I agree with him: Labour needed to have a dialogue with the Jewish Chronicle and its readers, rather than complaining that these were right-wing people, peddlers of “fake news” and not serious about antisemitism. Later, there pro-Corbyn activists who denounced Lansman, calling him a “Zionist snake”, saying that he had “joined the withchunt”, but he was right to talk to the Jewish mainstream.

Renton: Many of Corbyn’s critics are on, or perceived to be on, the Labour right, or to Labour’s right, for example from Conservative-supporting papers. For people on the Labour left, it sometimes felt as if it was easy to dodge their criticism. After all, they were on the “other side”. Why do you say that the Left should have been listening to them?

Randall: If someone on the right says, “there’s an issue with antisemitism on the Left”, simply calling attention to the fact they might be saying it cynically or hypocritically doesn’t answer the charge.

In our books, we both address a statement made by Britain’s Chief Rabbi in 2019, implicitly calling on people not to vote Labour because of antisemitism in the party. I’m an atheist, a secularist, I’m anti-communalist; the Chief Rabbi, an unelected cleric, an establishment figure and, as far as we can judge, probably on the right, is very much someone I consider a political opponent. But we both conclude attempts to dismiss his statement by reference to assumptions about his wider politics – essentially, “he’s an Israel-supporting Tory, he’s only saying all this to attack the Left and stop a pro-Palestinian prime minister from being elected” – were wrong. We both disagreed with his statement, we both campaigned for a Corbyn-led Labour government. But I think we both felt the statement had to be engaged with “on its own terms”, so to speak, not dismissed because of who was making it.

It’s legitimate to talk about right-wing hypocrisy and selective opposition to bigotry. Your book has some excellent material about antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry in the Tory party. But you’re highlighting that, it seems to me, to round out an analysis of contemporary antisemitism and racism, across right and Left, not as a kind of “look over there!” distraction.

Fundamentally the reason we need to take antisemitism in our own movement seriously is because of its distinct potential, already discussed, to distort and toxify left-wing ideas. This would be the case even if Corbyn’s critics on the centre and right had never “noticed” it or made an issue out of it. It’s a problem for us, the Left, first and foremost.

Randall: Looking ahead, then, to what we can do about any of this, you locate some of the problems in the way left-wing discourse and political culture has been transformed by politics substantially “going online”. I strongly agree that this is a real problem. What do you see as the antidote? Relatedly, what particular role do you see for the organised far left, which (hopefully, anyway) has a more developed ideological perspective and critique, as an educational element, and to what extent do you think far left groups need to interrogate and alter some of their own political common sense on these issues in order to play that role?

Renton: One of the reasons Corbyn was so successful is that he brought into the Labour Party hundreds of thousands of people who do their politics mainly online. This began with the membership contests, which anyone could join by paying a small membership fee. But Labour didn’t seem to know what to do with these members – its branches are physical, and in-person spaces. In some of the unofficial pro-Corbyn groups, you found people jostling together, new members, sometimes with people who spent most of their time online hanging out with conspiracy theorists. And of course – since this is much the same time as the rise of Trump, there was a lot more antisemitism and aggression online than there had been. People needed to have arguments with the racists – sometimes they did, but not always.

One of the messages of my book is that Labour’s centrists keep away from these sorts of angry, depoliticised spaces but the Left shouldn’t have, and didn’t. We needed to be there, and we needed to be much more confident in pushing back against the people who were sharing Rothschilds memes or stories about George Soros or denying the Holocaust.

Renton: We don’t agree on everything. You support a two-state settlement in Israel/Palestine, whereas I think we are living in the two state solution now and any other foreseeable version of it will leave the occupation intact. Doing that debate justice would need a whole new discussion in itself. But one thing that struck me when reading your book was that you had made a real effort to quote a range of Palestinian voices. I was wondering, having gone through that process of trying to see the conflict through different eyes – what did you learn? And if we don’t all do that repeatedly, isn’t there a danger that our criticism of antisemitism ends up ignoring, or even policing, the victims of that conflict?

Randall: There are sometimes attempts to use allegations of antisemitism, and sometimes real instances of it, as a means of censuring and censoring almost any criticism of Israel. Although I’m more sympathetic than you to the IHRA’s formulations, I think we’d agree that the way it’s often used now, particularly in academia, is an affront to free speech. I quote the Palestinian socialist Ayman Odeh on how the right to self-determination has to include the right to what he calls “self-definition”, the right of a people to tell its own story. Using a supposed critique of antisemitism to restrict Palestinians’ right to describe the realities of the Nakba, for example, is “policing” of a counterproductive and reactionary kind.

However, one can find some significant self-“policing”, and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, in radical Palestinian and wider Arab discourse. If you read Edward Said on the question of what attitude the Palestinian movement should take to Israelis and their nationhood, he doesn’t say, “we’re the victims, so we can say anything about Israel, Zionism, the Jews, it’s all equally valid.” On the contrary, he’s very explicit that some political approaches are harmful to the Palestinian cause, and not merely because they’re bad PR, but because they’re not compatible with emancipatory ends – even if they appear to target “the oppressor”. So he says Israeli Jews should not be thought of as an enemy people, he denounces the “foolish and wasteful policy” of using terms like “the Zionist entity”, he argues for a sensitivity to the experiences of the Holocaust in the Israeli Jewish national story.

Revolutionary Portraits: Edward Said; Photo by Gary Stevens

I want to confront the thinking on the Left that believes the more maximally “anti-Israel” you are, the more “pro-Palestinian” you’re being, even if you’re expressing that as chauvinism or antisemitism. The influential Argentinian Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno said, “Arab racism against Israel is progressive” because “it destroys the Zionist state”. He said the Left’s programme should be summarised by the slogan “Zionists out of Palestine”, by which he meant the pre-1948 territory. That’s the extreme expression of some of the politics I’m trying to confront. The politics of Said, of Darwish, and of the contemporary Palestinian socialists I reference, such as Odeh, are simply not characterised by that kind of chauvinism — and, unlike Moreno and most of those who vicariously adopt chauvinism across the western Left, they are people who actually experienced oppression at the hands of the Israeli state.

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Daniel Randall & David Renton View All

Daniel Randall’s book, Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, will be published by No Pasaran Media/Whitefox on 23 September.

David Renton’s book, Labour's Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, was published by Routledge in August.