Bordering Tolerance: British Left Confronts Anti-Semitism
“The idea that Labour and anti-Semitism are in the same sentence is a shocking state of affairs,” former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told a crowd in London in November.
For the past year, the Labour Party, Britain’s center-left political party, has been forced to address anti-Semitism within its ranks.
As of September, the Labour Party had suspended around 20 members for anti-Semitic rhetoric. Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, has referred to Hezbollah and Hamas as “friends” and voiced support for a Palestinian activist who believes in blood libel—the myth that Jews use Christian blood to make matzo. Corbyn’s words accompany Labour members’ uses of slurs and anti-Semitic tropes, including stereotypes meant to delegitimize Israel and claims that Jews instigated the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Labour leadership now faces public pressure to confront anti-Semitism throughout the party. According to a study by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, nine out of ten British Jews believe that the Labour party is soft on anti-Semitism.
This trend of anti-Semitism is not limited to party leadership. The Oxford Labour Club (OULC), one of the party’s academic chapters, also came under fire for anti-Semitism early this year.
“A large proportion of both the OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews,” Oxford student Alex Chalmers wrote on his Facebook page in February. The post served as Chalmers’ public resignation as Co-Chair of Oxford’s Labour party club, claiming the organization fostered anti-Semitism. “I had hoped during my tenure as Co-Chair to move the club away from some of its more intolerant tendencies: Sadly, it only continued to move away from me,” he said.
Former President of Oxford University Jewish Society Aaron Simons echoed these sentiments in an interview with The Politic. “It became quite clear to me during my second and third year that left-wing spaces on campus were increasingly hostile to Jews,” he said.
“The use of neo-Nazi slur ‘Zio’ [an abbreviation of ‘Zionist’] was widespread, and even continued after its provenance was pointed out. When Jewish students tried to speak up, we were frequently met with suspicion and open hostility, and nearly always accused of being disingenuous,” he continued.
“I know of Jewish students who have been told Auschwitz is a ‘cash cow’ and who witnessed Labour Club members mock the Jewish mourners at the funeral of the victims of the Paris kosher supermarket attack,” Simons said.
Jewish Oxford student Daniel Kodsi, an editor for Oxford’s independent student newspaper, Cherwell, who covered Labour anti-Semitism last spring emphasized to The Politic that many Oxford students fail to recognize anti-Semitism when it emerges.
At Oxford, Kodsi said, “I don’t think that there is much active anti-Semitism; there certainly isn’t a culture of anti-Semitism.”
“But Oxford does seem to be possessed by a certain complacency towards anti-Semitism which I think could lend itself to discrimination should push ever come to shove over issues like Zionism or Israel,” Kodsi reflected.
Only a handful of Labour has recently come under fire for anti-Semitism. Indeed, the failure to acknowledge racist remarks can lead to a culture in which anti-Semitism has the potential to persist. According to Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the study of Anti-Semitism at the University of London, this failure stands at the heart of Labour’s issue with anti-Semitism.
“Where I think there is an issue, is not merely over the number of documented anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated by members of the Labour party, but also over the capacity of some members of the party and of far left political culture to tolerate those incidents,” said Feldman in an interview with The Politic.
Paradoxically, Labour’s relationship with Jews and Israelis shares a history of cooperation and support. When Israel was founded in 1948, the Labour party saw the Jewish state as a unique opportunity to institutionalize socialist policies at the national level.
“During its early history, Israel as a state was led by socialists. [Founding Israeli Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion came out of a socialist background and created socialist institutions,” David Sorkin, professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University, told The Politic. “Israel was seen as a bright star on the socialist firmament.”
Furthermore, the Labour party claims to support oppressed groups and ideas of tolerance and equality. The notion of tolerance is so ingrained in the Labour party that written on the back of party membership cards is a reminder to strive for a world “where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”
Here Labour faces a difficult problem: How can a party that claims to fight for the rights of the oppressed be caught in so many anti-Semitism scandals?
“As an issue, [anti-Semitism] has certainly been exposed in all kinds of different ways as a direct consequence of Jeremy Corbyn,” explained Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, in an interview with The Politic.
Corbyn was elected leader of the party last fall after Ed Miliband, his more moderate predecessor, lost the 2015 general election to former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. After Miliband’s defeat, thousands of grassroots supporters backed Corbyn, a more radical and anti-establishment candidate.
In ascending Labour’s leadership, Corbyn nudged the party’s far-left political wing into the spotlight.
“He’s not a mainstream Labour party figure,” Fielding said.
“[Corbyn] spent his time as a backbench Labour MP with people who got involved in all types of different campaigns. The concerns of these people were very much anti-capitalist, anti-western, anti-United States, with Zionism being seen as an imperialist ideology,” Fielding continued. “When he entered the Labour party, many of these people entered the Labour Party, too.”
But these types of Labour politics are not new. Rather, Corbyn’s rise to power represents a revival of far-left politics within Labour and harkens back to debates over the legitimacy of Israel.
In the 1960s, following the Six Day War in which Israel claimed territory in the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Sinai Peninsula, the Labour Party split on the issue of Israel-Palestine. The hard right of the party supported Israel while the hard left criticized the country as an occupying force in the Middle East.
Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank have further colored Labour’s view of the state. The policies of Israel are seen by many Labour members as oppressive towards Palestinians. Therefore, being opposed to a Jewish state, or “anti-Zionist,” is a way for party members to publicly reject the oppression of Palestinians by Israel.
“The left of the Labour Party views skepticism of Israel as a form of anti-racism, and so under that thinking, to be [anti-Zionist], it is therefore impossible to be anti-Semitic because you are, by definition, anti-racist,” said Richard Johnson, a Ph.D student at Oxford and a Labour member in an interview with The Politic.
Within the party, centrist Blairites often duel with Corbyn’s far-left movement. Like the polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, Labour members are rushing to the far right and far left of their party. Being pro-Palestine or pro-Israel is a way of classifying yourself within the party.
“In the ‘80s, when we had a very similar faction between the left and right of the party, the Israel-Palestine question started to become a proxy for those debates,” Johnson explained. “They are viewing Israel-Palestine as a proxy for left and right dominance within the party.”
These party tensions surrounding Israel-Palestine can easily boil over into the employment of anti-Semitic tropes in criticizing the state Israel.
For the pro-Palestine far-left, there also exists confusion about what constitutes anti-Semitism. This makes identifying and criticizing anti-Semitism in the Labour party a difficult task.
“Corbyn has been a ceaseless campaigner over the years as a backbencher against racism, but as [the Home Affairs Committee on anti-Semitism] states, perhaps doesn’t have quite a clear understanding of post-1945 anti-Semitism,” wrote David Winnick, member of parliament for Walsall North, in an email to The Politic.
This disconnect relates to the rise of Israel, and of Jews, as an international power. To Feldman, the failure of some people in the Labour Party to identify anti-Semitism when it arises is the consequence of their associating racism with power.
This association, Feldman said, is not wrong but incomplete.
“In the past, it was easier for people on the left to recognize anti-Semitism,” he said. “So what’s changed? Jews now have their own state and have emerged from powerlessness to power.”
Some Labour members and others on the left can find it hard to recognize racism against Jews because of the privileges afforded to them. “The idea that racism is power leaves people ill-equipped to spot racism when it is directed against a group that is coded as ‘white’ and who, overall, are more affluent than the average and identify with a powerful state in the Middle East,” Feldman explained.
Labour’s dedication to fighting the oppression of all marginalized peoples can also engender negligence in monitoring anti-Semitism and recognizing Jews as a minority group.
Fielding said, “I think [Corbyn] genuinely believes that whatever is said or done, verbally, it pales in significance with how Muslims may be subjected to Islamophobia and how black and west Indian people in the inner cities are treated by police.”
“There’s a hierarchy and the Jews are at the back,” he said.
Dov Boonin, the current president of the Oxford Jewish Society, agreed. “It seems to be an inability to recognize Jews as an oppressed minority,” he said.
“There’s this mindset of looking out for oppressed minorities, and they’re very careful with black students or students from lower-class backgrounds, women, or potential oppressed minorities. But I feel like there exists sometimes a failure to appreciate Jews as an oppressed minority,” Boonin continued. “When you fail to recognize that, you fail to check your actions.”
“I didn’t get anti-Semitism as racism,” said Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West who was suspended for anti-Semitism. “I had never come across it. I think what I had was an ignorance.”
The Labour party suspended Shah this spring following a series of posts on her personal Facebook in which she likened Israel to Nazi Germany, shared a satirical cartoon which recommended Israelis relocate to the United States, and reposted an article comparing Israel to Al-Qaeda.
At the same time, however, the far-left contends that the Palestinians are an oppressed group.
“They are so convinced of their own righteousness and their status as anti-racists that they cannot conceive of the possibility that left-wing anti-Semitism exists,” Simons said.
Simply put, Labour members believe themselves impervious to anti-Semitism due to their rejection of Israel as an oppressive state and of Zionism as a racist institution.
An example of this logic can be seen in the case of former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. The Labour party suspended Livingstone in April after implying that Hitler was a Zionist.
“[Livingstone] presented Zionism as a racist institution,” said Johnson. The rationale becomes, he explained, “How can I be anti-Semitic or racist if I’m opposing something that Hitler supported?”
This opposition to Israel combined with adamant support for the Palestinian people means that many Labour members struggle to toe the line between being pro-Palestine and anti-Semitic.
“These people genuinely feel themselves to be talking on behalf of the oppressed, in this case the Palestinians,” said Fielding. “That then merges into general statements about Jews.”
Sorkin said the line between criticism of Israel and discrimination against Jews is difficult to walk. “You cross the line to anti-Semitism when you question the legitimacy of the state. Or you cross the line when in criticizing the policies of the states, you begin to evoke what are clearly anti-Semitic tropes and images and clichés,” Sorkin explained.
Kodsi elaborated on the blending of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism within British left culture. “There is just a sheer failure on the left, not just at Oxford, to recognize that anti-Zionism is not wholly distinct from anti-Semitism,” Kodsi said.
“This is perhaps most clearly borne out by how completely historically Jewish stereotypes have become Zionist stereotypes—where once one would shout out ‘filthy Jew!’, one now shouts out ‘Zio!’”
However, despite statements made by some Labour members and MPs, Labour’s official policy supports the existence of Israel by way of a two-state solution. This resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would mean that a sovereign Palestinian state could exist independently of a sovereign Israeli state, which share a common border.
Amidst accusations of anti-Semitism, Labour could be clearer about this policy.
“One of the really important things to get across is that Labour Party policy, which Corbyn has reiterated, is in favor of a two-state solution. Now you can’t have a two-state solution without a state of Israel,” Fielding said.
“So there is no sense in which official Labour party policy de-legitimizes the state of Israel. On the contrary, official Labour Party policy assumes the legitimacy of the state of Israel,” he explained.
Johnson noted that Labour must also start to listen to Jews if they want to rid themselves of anti-Semitism.
“The leadership needs to do a better job of listening to the Jewish community in Britain. I find it upsetting, just hearing from Jewish friends who are [Labour] members or work in the party who feel unwelcome,” he continued.
Johnson said Jews in Britain have not seen Corbyn come out strongly against anti-Semitism.
“They see these comments in the press, and then they expect the leader of the Labour party to come out robustly against it. Corbyn kind of dragged his feet on Naz Shah; he certainly did with Ken Livingstone,” he said.
Already, it seems Labour has started out on the wrong foot in attacking anti-Semitism within the party. Last spring, the party announced an investigation led by Shami Chakrabarti into allegations of anti-Semitism following anti-Semitic displays by Livingstone, Shah, and other Labour members and MPs. The report found evidence of an “occasionally toxic environment” within the party and “ignorant attitudes.” Though the inquiry made marginal recommendations on the elimination of anti-Semitic slurs within the party, it had little to say about how potentially deep-rooted this anti-Semitism might be.
Many are skeptical of the authenticity of the report, especially when Chakrabarti, the chairwoman of the inquiry, was subsequently offered a peerage and is now a close aide of Corbyn.
To make matters worse, Corbyn made remarks interpreted as anti-Semitic at the announcement of the anti-Semitism inquiry.
“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations,” he told the crowd. Though perhaps well-intended, this equation between the state of Israel and the Islamic State showed to many that Labour has a long way to go before the party is free from accusations of anti-Semitism within its ranks.
Moving forward, the Labour party has its work cut out to address more structural prejudices in the party.
“[Anti-semitism] is possibly more structural now that Jeremy Corbyn has become leader and brought into the party people with these particular views of Israel, which I think people do express with anti-Semitic tropes,” Fielding said.
“I think some of them do actually believe that Jews have a certain view and can be associated with the state of Israel in very simplistic ways,” he said.
“It’s not just Corbyn—it is far bigger than that,” Simons agreed.
“I used to think that the problem could be solved if Jews spoke out, but now I don’t think there’s any possibility for change, given the unwillingness to admit there is even a problem,” he continued.
Though the Labour party might continue to struggle with anti-Semitism for years to come, at Oxford, there is still hope. Following the OULC anti-Semitism scandal, Boonin has been working to narrow the gap between Jews and Labour at Oxford.
His strategy is twofold. “One, make Jews aware that they would be welcome in the Labour Club and also make sure that, within the Labour Club, Jews are actually welcome.”