The Labour party’s antisemitism problem appears to be here to stay. And one reason for that lies deep beneath any one day’s news. It is not just that the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is riddled with antisemites from top to bottom: people who have existed in the party and its surrounding areas for years but who have only now had a light shone upon them. It is much, much more than that. The problem is that there remains a set of fundamental misunderstandings on the political Left over what antisemitism is and where it comes from.
In May, I wrote for this website about the roots of this misunderstanding, which are there for anyone with ears to hear. It is there when Jeremy Corbyn and his followers claim that they will “defeat” or “end” antisemitism; as though one of the world’s oldest hatreds is some medical problem which can be solved with the right medicine. Or if enough ‘will’ is deployed. As I said back then, most Jews will laugh darkly at the idea that you can ever ‘eradicate’ antisemitism.
But the misunderstanding is telling. And it leads to the problem underlying the latest eruption of charges and embarrassments within UK Labour. One of the causes – which can be heard among all of the cheerleaders on the Corbynite Left – is that antisemitism is basically a right-wing disease and something which ‘anti-fascists’ of the kind that Corbynites like to fancy themselves as being could not possibly fall into.
You can hear it in the more honest disputes and debates on the Labour Left: “How dare they use this accusation against us? Don’t they realise this is the sort of stick we use to beat them?”
Of all the simplistic readings of history that prevail in our time, this is one of the most disheartening. Which is why I am forever recommending that people – especially young people – read a book by the distinguished, liberal, New York-based writer Paul Berman.
Best known for his post-9/11 work, Terror and Liberalism (2003), my own favourite work of Berman’s has long been his follow-up book from 2005: Power and the Idealists. That book – which is scandalously currently out of print and only available (like so many of the best books) second-hand – undoubtedly suffers from its subtitle: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath. In 2005, the name of the German Foreign Minister still rang bells. Not many bells ring outside Germany today when you sound that name.
Berman’s book relates an extraordinary and very important part of post-War history. He describes the movement of a generation of people who were in the orbit of the subtitle-character of his book, who were all deeply and committed members of the German Left.
That generation of German politicians and thinkers, of which Fischer was a part, had in Berman’s telling one absolute rule above all others. One single, defining political and moral point by which to orient themselves. It was this: they were not going to be like their fathers. They were not going to be Nazis. This may seem like an obvious positioning point for a German growing up in the Fifties and Sixties. But it was a crucial one. And as deep an instinct as anyone could imbibe from politics.
However, history and fate play strange tricks. And, as Berman relates, this one guiding light turned out not to perform the task those who held it had hoped. A number of things happen. The call of the global dispossessed goes up. The cry of the underdog goes out. Time moves on. Things – and people – change.
To cut a long and important story short (and I really do urge people to read the book and absorb every painful detail of this), some of those in Fischer’s orbit take a particular interest in the Palestinian cause. They become fixated on the actions of the Israelis – far more than on the actions of any other foreign cause, in spite of a globe positively brimming with foreign causes.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as various ‘Palestinian Liberation’ movements get underway, these find some fervent support on the German Left. Some of the terror-chic which was undoubtedly part of the appeal can still be felt in the residual plaudits still sometimes given to people like the foul Leila Khaled.
Some of these German leftists get involved with their pet cause. Some become intimately involved. And before you know it, some are involved with the groups that are busy committing terror against the Jewish State. Specifically in the hijacking of Israeli and other aircrafts. At the culmination of the book, one of these figures finds himself on a plane he has helped to hijack where his role includes sorting passengers out between the Jews and non-Jews.
The one thing they had hoped not to become was the thing they had turned out to have become. At the top of another ramp, another German, in another place and at another time, is busily carrying out another ‘selection’.
I do not recommend this book or retell this tale in order to say that antisemitism comes from the Left or the Right, or from one place more than the another. I mention it to try to explain the deep but central truth, which is that antisemitism can come from anywhere – with a rider that the place it may be most likely to come from at times is from among those who think that they are immune to it. From people who think that is the thing that they will not be. That that is a thing they could never be. Because they are the good guys. They are the decent ones. They are the ‘anti-fascists’, so how could they possibly be fascists?
When Jeremy Corbyn campaigned for Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami – writing character references for them and generally acting as their defender – I have little doubt that in his own mind he was doing something virtuous. Perhaps he honestly did believe that their plot to put car bombs outside the Israeli embassy in London and outside the building of a Jewish charity in London was some kind of charitable act.
But if he did, he was as ignorant as it is possible to be – not only of the actions of the people he was defending but of the fact that antisemitism can creep up on the ‘virtuous’ and the un-virtuous alike. And that the man who considers himself virtuous is the more likely vessel through which this most foul virus might pass in this age.
This is just one of the deep truths which the British Left could do with facing up to. But they will not. Because this is not an age of introspection. It is an age of grandstanding, and wide-scale self-deceit.