I’m a longstanding, active and pretty opinionated member of the labour movement, so it goes without saying that I must have a fixed and unambiguous view on the whole drama over anti-Semitism that has dogged the Labour Party for half a decade now — and, as a result of yesterday’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn, looks set to explode into a full-scale internecine conflict.
Except that, well, I don’t. By which I do not mean that I don’t have any views at all on the issue; more that the opinions I hold are the kind which are ignored or dismissed by most in the party, because they can’t easily be co-opted by either of the two warring tribes (and therefore leads both to regard me as some kind of faintheart or enemy).
After 26 years of activity in the labour movement, there are some things about which I am sure. One is that there is a strain of the Left — mainly embedded within the far-Left — that is anti-Semitic, virulently so, in some cases. It is small, but it exists. It will often cloak its anti-Semitism in criticism of Israel. Indeed, its obsession with the transgressions of that small country, when the misdeeds of certain other nations are more numerous and at least as bad, leads one to conclude that there is something else going on. Occasionally, it will lay bare its true beliefs with swivel-eyed rantings about “Zionist” control over the media or financial system. It is, quite frankly, comprised of irreconcilable extremists who are beyond reason.
I think it reasonable to conclude that the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, and the concomitant upsurge in far-Left influence and activity, led to a growth in the number of these crackpots infecting the party’s ranks. And, from my own vantage point inside the party, I saw that they were not identified and expelled with anything like sufficient vigour.
I know, too, that while most who raised concerns about anti-Semitism inside the party were well-meaning and justified, a small number chose to weaponise the issue because they loathed Corbynism and wanted rid of it. To say so is regarded as heresy in some quarters, but you don’t have to be a Corbynite to recognise that there has been some degree of naked politicking in this debate. It is idle to pretend otherwise. This politicking by a minority has served to create something of an accusatory — and deeply unpleasant — atmosphere across the Left which, on occasion, saw legitimate vigilance and a desire to clean the stables develop into hyper-sensitivity and recrimination.
I experienced this first-hand last year. In a Twitter debate over free movement with the folk singer Mike Harding, I argued that Britain’s working class was rooted, communitarian and patriotic whereas its middle class was more rootless, cosmopolitan and bohemian. The debate had absolutely nothing to do with Jews or Jewishness in any way, but when some anorak pointed out that Jewish intellectuals were referred to as “rootless cosmopolitans” in Stalin’s Russia, I was condemned by some on the Left as an anti-Semite.
It became clear to me pretty quickly that all resistance was useless. I could have pointed out that I was a supporter of Trade Union Friends of Israel and had joined one of its delegations to the Middle East, that I had visited Auschwitz and laid a wreath on behalf of my own union, or that the Israeli ambassador had invited me to a reception celebrating the 70th anniversary of his country’s creation. But, frankly, it wasn’t worth it. Pitchforks had been drawn and minds made up. Even my own union leadership publicly denounced me. People were walking on eggshells everywhere.
So, then, just as there are some things about which I am certain, there are others about which I am not. I do not know if Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. Truly I don’t. If I believed he was, I would say so without hesitation. And as much as partisans in the debate claim to know the truth of this, I do not think they possibly can.
We know that Corbyn has consorted with undesirables, some of whom are unquestionably foul anti-Semites and from whom most decent people would run a mile. We have seen the stories about murals and wreath-laying near the graves of those linked to the Munich massacre. But we also know the Corbyn who stood against apartheid and has been a lifelong and vocal campaigner against racism. So to the question of whether Corbyn dislikes Jews for no other reason than that they are Jews, I can only respond that I am unable to make a window into the man’s soul and provide the answer for you. And I am sceptical of anyone who asserts certain knowledge on the point.
This makes some allies of mine tear their hair out in frustration. I think of two in particular, both as hostile to Blairite “centrism” as they are to the far-Left. Neither is driven by political factionalism on this question. One cannot understand how anyone could see Corbyn as anything other than a rabid anti-Semite; the other cannot fathom how anyone could see him as anything other than the victim of a wicked smear operation. Both would be pleased if I intervened publicly on their side of the argument. It isn’t going to happen.
This local dichotomy reflects the divide on the issue across the wider party over the past five years. One is either anti-Corbyn or anti-Jew. Subtlety and nuance can go whistle in this most ugly and tribal of internal clashes in which only primary colours will do.
That those who harbour feelings of hostility to Jews must be drummed out of every place within the labour movement where they reside, and that a party with deep and proud roots in Anglo-Jewry must never again be seen as a home to such individuals — no matter how small they are in number — goes without saying. While always allowing for due process, the party machine must be leaner, sharper and more efficient in despatching anti-Semites from its ranks in the future. Sir Keir Starmer will, I am certain, continue to make improvements in that regard.
The effect of this terrible affliction on the Labour Party should grieve anyone who cares about it. Indeed, it should grieve those with little affection for the party itself but who understand the importance of a viable and reputable opposition. The last thing that either the party or Britain needs at the moment is a Labour civil war. Yet, with yesterday’s decision by the general secretary, David Evans, to suspend Corbyn, that prospect seems inevitable.
One cannot help but conclude that Evans has boxed in Sir Keir in a way that raises the stakes dramatically. Any decision to reinstate Corbyn would be perceived as weakness and an affront to Jews, while his expulsion risks a veritable bloodletting. The gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down.
For the sake of my party and my country, and no less significantly for the health of the future relationship between Labour and a Jewish community that deserves so much better, I hope these people know what they are doing.