The hard-Left has achieved something the far-Right has been trying to achieve for many years: it has made antisemitism acceptable.
Until recently such a statement would have seemed far-fetched. Yet the applause that greeted Labour MP Chris Williamson as he informed an audience of Momentum activists that his party had been “too apologetic” in its approach to antisemitism proves otherwise.
Labour has since, reluctantly, suspended Williamson, reversing an initial decision not to after a backlash by MPs and the deputy Labour leader.
Despite the retrospective distancing exercise by Left-wing commentators, the Labour MP for Derby North is really an outrider for the Labour leadership. He is a one-man basket of atrocious opinions, but they are opinions that chime with the hard-Left milieu from which Corbyn himself emerged. Williamson has defended the dictatorship in Cuba. He has denied that people in Venezuela – who are currently facing an economic catastrophe – are “genuinely starving”. And he has promoted a pro-Assadist blogger who called the murdered MP Jo Cox a “warmongering Blairite”.
It is difficult to decide which of these is the more monstrous opinion to hold let alone to espouse, but it seems reasonable to suggest that a political party that was not undergoing a profound moral crisis would seek to drive someone who held such views to the margins. Instead – even as the latest scandal surrounding antisemitism unfolds – it has been reported that Jeremy Corbyn “did all he could” to stop Williamson from being suspended by the Labour Party.
But it is on the issue of antisemitism that Labour’s descent into morally dubious territory has been most stark, culminating in nine Labour MPs quitting the party last month over its perceived botched handling of antisemitism claims. This comes on the back of a row last year over the Labour leadership’s initial refusal to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
Since 2015, a large number of cases of antisemitic abuse by Labour activists have been reported, with Jacky Walker, a senior activist in the Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum, claiming that Jews were the “chief financiers of the slave trade” (Walker was invited last month to speak at the House of Commons by none other than Chris Williamson).
How the Labour Party – a ‘proud anti-racist party’, as Labourites are so fond of saying – came to be derided as “institutionally antisemitic” by one of its Jewish MPs is a story that predates the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
In fact, the far-Left has had a strained relationship with the mainstream Jewish community in Britain for several decades. In the 1980s for example, Left-wing ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigners fought to ban Jewish student societies from forming unless they explicitly rejected the state of Israel.
This old Left view of Israel as a colonial enterprise continues to find a residual echo on the contemporary Left. As Dave Rich puts it in his book The Left’s Jewish Problem, for much of the far-Left “Israel is a Western colonial implant in the Middle East”.
What gives contemporary Left-antisemitism its potency is its mixing of older antisemitic narratives about Zionism with populist tropes which seek to blame society’s ills on a shadowy ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’. Capitalism is not a set of economic relations which we all live under; instead it is something that is “rigged” – Jeremy Corbyn’s term – by malevolent rich people.
With ready-made tropes about Jewish world domination never more than a few clicks away online, populist ‘anti-elitism’ rhetoric – of either the Left or Right – easily lends itself to antisemitism. Portray capitalism as a sinister cabal of individuals controlling the economy, and antisemites invoke long-standing tropes about Jews controlling the banks.
What Jeremy Corbyn has done – a man whose political assumptions are largely derived from the anti-colonialist and anti-Zionist New Left – is to embolden those who were previously confined to the political fringes. And he has done this partly by his own sorry example.
Corbyn has publicly defended an antisemitic mural, has blamed a terrorist attack in Egypt on the “hand of Israel”, and has palled around with antisemitic political movements, describing them as his “friends”. He also claimed in a speech that British Jews did not understand “English irony” – comments that won the stamp of approval from far-Right ex-politician Nick Griffin.
Another major reason the Left is finding it so hard to expunge antisemitism from its ranks is its division of the world into sharp moral categories of good and evil. Williamson touched on this in his speech to Momentum activists. “A party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party,” Williamson told the room with incredulity in his voice. We are the good guys, Williamson seemed to be implying; and how could the good guys possibly harbour prejudice?
In his book Contemporary Left Antisemitism, the academic David Hirsh refers to those with this mindset as the “community of the good”. Hirsh cites the example of the French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou to make his case. When accused of antisemitism, Badiou replied revealingly that there “could be no such thing as a far-Left antisemitism – an absurd oxymoron”. The former mayor of London Ken Livingston similarly claimed to have “never heard anyone say anything antisemitic” in over 47 years as a member of the Labour Party. By definition, there could be no bigotry within the community of the good.
This binary division of the world into the good and the bad is not something that is strictly confined to the Left. Our entire political discourse around racism has come to rest upon a separation of the world into those who are irredeemably racist and those who are not, which misses the rather obvious point that racism is a learned behaviour and can therefore be unlearned.
As a society we have come to favour blanket condemnation and ex-communication in our treatment of prejudice, as if such attitudes were fixed, a product of a corrupted and irredeemable soul.
This is perhaps understandable. It is, after all, important to take a stand against racism, and the easiest way to do so is to denounce the individual racist. The problem begins when we start to see the racist as a separate and almost alien type of human being – as someone fundamentally different from ourselves.
Invert this process and a select group of individuals – in this case the section of the far-Left that has taken over the Labour Party – can readily believe themselves to be morally pure. To be on the Left is thus to be beyond reproach for racism and antisemitism. Per Badiou, it is impossible to be Left-wing and antisemitic.
George Orwell once wrote that “Saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent.” Those on the hard-Left who see themselves – and their political party – as saintly and beyond moral reproach should be more self-critical.
For until the Labour Left is able to conceive of a ‘progressive’ bigotry – a bigotry which couches itself in ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric, and which emanates from those committed activists who show up unfailingly at meetings to ‘fight the Tories’ – then the Corbyn movement will not root out antisemitism.