LABOUR’S “CRISIS OF ANTISEMITISM”? A RED HERRING? by Kenneth Surin Duke University
For a few weeks the UK rightwing press was in a froth over “antisemitism” in the Labour Party. Even papers not supposedly trapped in the right’s ideological maws, such as the Guardian and Independent, succumbed, nearly all treating this purported “crisis” as if its basis was a matter of solid and incontrovertible fact. While it would be foolish to swear blind that the left has no antisemites in its midst, this repeated refrain of “crisis” had some notable features.
Ever since Labour chose a leadership committed to returning it to its roots as a party of the social-democratic “left”, the rightwing media, and the querulous pro-Blair faction within Labour which views this return to social democracy with palpable dismay, sought to orchestrate a view of the new leadership as an unsteady ship driven haplessly from one crisis to another by the capricious winds of “leftwing dogma”.
There was the silly matter of Corbyn’s not bowing to the queen and his not singing the national anthem; then the renewal of Trident (when generals supposed to stay out of politics broadcast their disapproval of Corbyn); then there was the “reluctance” to authorize the use of force in Syria; then an alleged unwillingness on Corbyn’s part to show “muscular” leadership on Brexit; then an allegedly injudicious readiness on the part of Corbyn and senior Labour figures to appear with the junior doctors on their picket lines; then fun made of the fact that he gets his clothes from a flea market and not a bespoke tailor; and so forth.
The supposedly middle-of-the-road newspapers always made clear editorially their opposition to Corbyn’s rise to the leadership, preferring right-wing or “centrist” candidates instead. But adding fuel at every step to the charges of a pervasive antisemitism within the party’s top echelon was a step further. Why is this being done, and on so concerted a scale?
One very apparent reason has to do with assisting Israel and its allies in their attempts to discredit opposition to its policies on Palestine and its people. Israel and these allies have depicted, long and consistently, any kind of opposition to Israel as a Zionist state, and to its concomitant criminal and inhumane treatment of the Palestinians, as a form of antisemitism.
The newly-elected president of the National Union of Students, the Muslim Malia Bouattia, discovered this firsthand, as did Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan, who also happens to be a Muslim. The formulations used by the suspended Muslim MP Naz Shah and the London ex-mayor Ken Livingstone may have been clumsy, but the brouhaha surrounding them precluded any considered assessment of the basis for their claims.
Livingstone, in the remarks that engulfed him in controversy, adverted to the 1933 Haavara Agreement between Nazi Germany and German Zionists to repatriate German Jews to Palestine. So there is undeniable evidence that Hitler supported a Zionist “solution” to his “Jewish problem” before he embarked on far deadlier methods. While this may be true, Livingstone’s failure to contextualise the terms of this Agreement, which basically required German Jews leaving for Palestine to surrender all their property to the Nazis, a monstrous injustice in itself, cast him on some very sharp rocks.
Livingstone needed to say that this Agreement, while it was certainly enjoined by the German Zionists who entered into it, was a horribly one-sided imposition on a people wondering if they had any future in their own country. Yes, the Agreement was a Nazi prospectus for aiding the Zionist colonization of Palestine (and to say this as a statement of bald historical fact is not in itself antisemitic), but Livingstone’s occlusion of the Agreement’s vital historical context was for some highly problematic.
Livingstone said subsequently in an attempt at clarification that supporting a “Zionist option” for nefarious reasons did not make Hitler a Zionist, but the damage had already been done by people hell-bent on giving any anti-Zionist a good kicking.
Livingstone’s defenders (and I am among them) may wonder if a similar failure to contextualize his remarks would have landed him in a right old mess had this not been an issue connected with Israel. After all, the Tory MP Aidan Burley and Prince Harry, both with a media-documented fondness for decking themselves out in Nazi regalia, were not harangued by righteous right-wingers when photographs of them posing as Nazis appeared in the media. Burley and Harry were only “doing stuff” in fancy dress, so it was all just a bit of fun (and what’s wrong with that?).
The oddity of the fuss over Naz Shah’s claim that Israel be transposed to the United States is that her words echo precisely the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, when he considered a number of locations including Uganda, Argentina and Alaska to form a Zionist state of Israel. Alaska is a US state; so what Shah proposed, polemically, was given serious consideration by the doyen of the Zionist movement himself!
Given where Israel has been lodged since 1948, Shah’s claim is certainly anti-Zionist, but given that it reflects what Herzl himself was actually up to in the decades before 1948, it may be a stretch the length of the Appalachian Trail to consider it antisemitic.
This hullabaloo has all the marks of a cynical deflection strategy used on behalf of Zionist Israel, when of course no commotion is made while Palestinians who have lived for centuries in the same property are evicted in brutal and summary fashion so that settlers from Brooklyn or the former USSR can move in.
Corbyn can rest assured that exponents of this deflection strategy will seek to use it again against those who are anti-Zionists in his party. Even a few days ago it was used against him at the launch of the report of the investigation of antisemitism in the Labour party conducted by Shami Chakrabarti. Speaking from prepared remarks, Corbyn said that “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”.
He was immediately accused of saying that Israel is “equivalent” to ISIS by people unable or unwilling to distinguish between a comparison and reasoning based on analogy.
If I say “X is bigger than/longer than/cleverer than/as bad as, etc., Y”, I’m making a comparison.
If, however I say “Having the Ebola virus is likely to reduce your life expectancy and driving too fast is likely to reduce your life expectancy as well” (pretty much the line of reasoning pursued by Corbyn), I’m not claiming an “equivalence” between the Ebola virus and driving too fast, but establishing an analogy between them — driving too fast is analogous to the Ebola virus inasmuch as the same predicate “is likely to reduce your life expectancy” can be applied both to the virus and to excessively fast driving.
And who in their right mind would say that the Ebola virus and excessively fast driving are somehow “equivalent” to each other (the accusation levelled at Corbyn by Zionist critics), except in an alternative universe?
Hardly anyone who is fair-minded, reasonably intelligent, and not a Zionist, will have problems with Corbyn’s analogy on how we should not victimize Jews and Muslims alike.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image of Jeremy Corbyn en.wikipedia.org