31 May 2019

Is Labour Institutionally Anti-Semitic?

by Aaron Bastani

(Originally posted at Le Monde Diplomatique)

Of all the charges levelled against Jeremy Corbyn since becoming Labour leader – that he is affable but ineffective, that he cares more for protest than power, that he has a history of proximity to unsavoury individuals – the greatest impact has come from the allegation of anti-semitism. Slowly that claim has percolated out, first to the assertion that much of the party’s membership are guilty of it and, more recently, that anti-capitalism itself invariably tends towards hatred of Jewish people.

While the last claim is absurd – it is hard to see how Ralph Miliband, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx were anti-semitic – there is historic context for the idea that anti-semitism has a peculiar expression among the left.

While often attributed to August Bebel the phrase ‘anti-semitism is the socialism of fools’ was a common one among 19th century socialists. The reason being it was a widely held view among elements of the emerging workers movement and society at large. For the former it proved unique, however, in binding itself to an otherwise avowedly egalitarian worldview. Here Jews were maligned as the Other – not because they were inept but because they were in control.

Corbyn’s critics claim this is now a mainstream tendency in Labour. Since 2015 the party’s membership has tripled. Among newer members, so it is argued, critique of Israel is so vehement that racism towards Jewish people has become permissible.

There is little doubt the majority of Britain’s Jews consider Corbyn himself to be an anti-semite. Last year the Board of Deputies, the primary organisation of British Jewry, claimed the Labour leader possessed, “a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities”. Evidence suggests such sentiments are widely felt. A 2018 poll by the Jewish Chronicle found 85 percent of British Jews think the Labour leader is anti-semitic, while a poll by Survation the previous year found 69 percent of British Jews believed there were “high” to “very high” levels of antisemitism in Labour. While such figures are much lower among the general public the label has stuck. Even if you disagree with the conclusion, how could anyone claiming to be a ‘lifelong anti-racist’ be viewed in such a way by a minority community?

Any meaningful answer has to separate claims regarding Corbyn and Labour. While the ascent of the Islington North MP is proving a decisive event in British politics, the wider shift that has catalysed will have a legacy long after he departs public life. What is more, it is easier to examine claims of ‘institutional anti-semitism’ in an analytical way than allegations regarding an individual. 

So does the Labour Party have a problem with anti-semitism? In terms of negative perceptions by the Jewish community such a conclusion is inescapable. In their 2017 letter to the Times writers Howard Jacobson, Simon Schama, and Simon Sebag Montefiore condemned Labour on the issue, their words capturing more general misgivings: ”We are alarmed that during the past few years, constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism”. 

The following Summer sixty-eight rabbis signed a letter condemning antisemitism in the party. A week later, in an unprecedented move, the country’s three leading Jewish papers – the Jewish Telegraph, Chronicle and News – shared an editorial and front page dedicated to Corbyn, collectively declaring that his potential rise to Prime Minister would represent an ‘existential threat’ to Britain’s Jews.

Given the party now has more than half a million members it is reasonable to presume it will inevitably include people with troubling opinions – on trans rights, racism and misogyny to name a few. The key question, then, is this: when it comes to anti-semitism are these any more pronounced than British society?

A 2017 poll commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-semitism (CAA) would indicate not. It found Labour supporters were less likely to hold antisemitic views than those of the Conservatives or UKIP. Here 32 percent of Labour supporters endorsed at least one “antisemitic attitude”as defined by the CAA – coming second to Liberal Democrats, with the figure being 40 percent among Tory voters.

Equally important is how such findings relate to polling conducted by the CAA two years earlier. Comparing the two sets of data revealed a slight decline in anti-semitism among supporters of both Labour and the Tories, particularly the former. While 22 percent of Labour voters agreed with the statement ‘Jews chase money more than other people’ in 2015, this had fallen to 14 percent in 2017. On one of the more pernicious anti-semitic tropes regarding media ownership, the more recent poll found 11 percent of Labour voters agreed with the statement, ‘Jews hold too much power in the media’ down six per cent from 2015.

Such findings are positive for Labour when placed within a national context. A 2015 poll by YouGov concluded 45 percent of Britons hold an antisemitic view of some kind, with one in four believing Jews chase money more than others. While even a small fraction supporting such a statement is troubling, the evidence indicates that rather than Labour voters being more likely to hold anti-semitic views the opposite is true.

Regarding the membership itself, where accusations of anti-semitism are increasingly aimed, the numbers are equally revealing. In February Jennie Formby, Labour’s General Secretary, informed MPs that the party had received 673 allegations of anti-Semitism by members over the preceding ten months – approximately 0.1 percent of the membership. In addition to that, 433 complaints were made regarding individuals who were not members.

Of the claims against members, 96 were immediately suspended and a further 211 were subject to investigation. At present there have been 12 expulsions. The idea such numbers illustrate ‘institutional anti-semitism’ appears hard to square. Which is why the low figure was deemed inadequate by a sceptical parliamentary party, who in turn demanded a new process overseen by an independent figure. In recent weeks it seemed Lord Falconer, a former room-mate of Tony Blair, would be given such a role. No ally of Corbyn, even his appointment has now been called into question.

The reality of complaints against Labour members is congruent with the anti-semitism suffered by former Labour MP Luciana Berger. Berger, who recently left the party with eight colleagues to start the Independent Group, spoke of being subject to sustained anti-semitic attack by party members, including in her constituency of Wavertree. Shortly before her departure she was almost subject to a vote of no-confidence by local members. While there is little doubt Ms Berger has endured appalling threats it is worth noting that a number of other MPs had been subject to similar censure by constituency parties including Chris Leslie, Joan Ryan and Kate Hoey. What is more, while four men have been sent to prison in connection with threats to Berger all have been on the far-right. 

That a potential motion of no confidence receives more media attention than the political sympathies of four incarcerated individuals is deeply troubling. That is not to say local members treated Berger in exemplary fashion – the local party’s chair, himself Jewish, referred to her as a ‘disruptive Zionist’. But in a moment of rising political tension, imprudent language is not equivalent to death threats.

Berger, to her credit, has been impressively consistent on the issue. In 2005 she resigned from the executive of the National Union of Students in protest at the union “turning a blind eye” to anti-Semitism. While doing so she claimed the “insensitivity surrounding all parties’ approach to asylum and immigration has a lot to say for the rise in not only anti-Semitism but any form of racism.” Such candour is at odds with the idea that anti-semitism uniquely affects Labour  – and entirely as a consequence of new members.

Indeed the same year Berger resigned from the NUS, Labour humoured anti-semitic tropes. Their campaign materials for the 2005 election were set to depict Michael Howard, the Conservative leader of Jewish heritage, as a Fagin-style character hypnotising the electorate. Another image would have seen his head photo-shopped onto a flying pig. While Labour’s campaign manager, Alan Milburn, refused to apologise, the materials were withdrawn. Alistair Campbell, the New Labour spin doctor, recently said Labour is “drowning in a sewer of anti-semitism”. And yet his reported response to one journalist at the time, “Fuck off and cover something important you twats”, revealed a clear disinterest on the topic.

While the statistics show no evidence of substantial anti-semitism within Labour, it is true members often care deeply about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here the claim is such views slip too readily into anti-semitism. Yet Labour’s loss of support among British Jews, particularly over Israel, is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed it started with Corbyn’s predecessor.

Despite the prospect of electing the first Jewish Prime Minister since Disraeli, Labour’s backing among Jewish communities collapsed in the final years of Ed Miliband’s leadership. The catalyst was his criticism of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when he said he could not “explain, justify, or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians”. In responseKate Bearman, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, quit the party in protest.  A few months later in October, Miliband whipped party MPs in a backbench motion on the recognition of Palestine. While a symbolic gesture with no legislative weight he paid a severe price for that, with one MP warning Miliband now had a “huge if not insurmountable challenge” to maintain support from a Jewish community so integral in helping both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Towards the end of 2014 much-loved actress Maureen Lipman publicly announced she would vote for “almost any other” party than Labour at the forthcoming election. Her reason? Miliband’s support for recognising the Palestinian state at the very moment Israel was under attack.

Lipman wasn’t alone. Ahead of the 2015 election one poll found that 69 percent of British Jews preferred the Conservatives with only 22 percent favouring Labour – a shift from the Blair years. While that polling was off, Labour would ultimately win 30% of the British Jewish vote, they finished very much second best. Two years later with Corbyn, despite a whirlwind of alleged anti-semitism, this had little impact on electoral performance, with Labour hitting the mid-20s. While one Survation poll ahead of  that election found only 13 percent of Jews were planning to vote for Labour, it had only been a single point higher for Ed Miliband according to the same company two years earlier.

The confrontation between Corbyn’s Labour and British Jews has not emerged from a vacuum. It reflects a long-term decline in Jewish support for the party, something partly to do with changing social and economic demographics, partly foreign policy. That is not to say anti-semitism does not exist in Labour – it does – but it is inaccurate to say there has been a massive drop-off in Jewish support as a result of Jeremy Corbyn. Hostility towards Corbyn should therefore be understood as partly a consequence of a heightened sense of insecurity among British Jews which predates him, and the sense Labour is no longer a reliable ally in uncertain times.

The former misgiving is well-placed. In 2017 the Community Security Trust found that anti-semitic hate incidents were at an all-time high, this continuing a trend which has seen attacks increase almost every year since the millennium. This partly helps explain why 54% of Jewish respondents felt they had no future in Britain when replying to a 2015 poll – with a quarter claiming to have recently considered emigrating.

Such strong emotions are the result of justified anxiety. Attacks against Jews in recent years, from the appalling episodes of violence in France in 2015 to the Pittsburgh shooting last year have propelled anti-semitism to the forefront of the public consciousness. 2017 saw a 34% rise in violent assaults against Jewish people in Britain while France, home to Europe’s largest disapora, saw anti-Semitic attacks increase by 74% last year. Germany, meanwhile, has seen physical violence against Jewish people increase by 60%. It may only be Spring, but 2019 has already witnessed repeated vandalism at the grave of Karl Marx and attacks on Jewish cemeteries both sides of the Channel.

This change in political temperature, also reflected in the rise of the US alt-right, is often met with a tone-deaf response from people who might otherwise be progressive. A major reason why is that the primary expressions of British racism since 1945 have targeted groups other than Jews – South Asian and West Indian immigrants and more recently Muslims – leaving the left ill-prepared for understanding and addressing anti-semitism. Far from ready to engage Jewish people about collective identity at a time of political volatility, some of the left wishes to exclusively discuss Israel. At best that is insufficient. At worst, and coupled with often frenetic use of social media and thousands of newly politicised people joining Labour, it can appear like something far more sinister. 

So what next? Even if the numbers indicate Labour is a force for good in combatting anti-semitism, appearances matter. It is inadequate for party members or representatives to continually repeat that the Jewish community is mistaken in their diagnosis. Labour must be clear that foreign policy is democratically determined but also grasp that Britain’s Jews feel an increasing sense of distance to the country they love. It is incumbent on Labour to demonstrate they are part of the solution to an issue decades in the making – not the problem.

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