The UK Labour party is presently polarised between those who think allegations of anti-semitism within its ranks is a right-wing/media/Israeli conspiracy to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and those who are exasperated at Labour’s inability to issue a convincing condemnation of anti-Jewish hatred.
How on earth did Labour get into such a mess? This is a party that was once the natural home for Jewish voters – even if many who moved to the suburbs in the late 20th century jettisoned their left-wing views, a process familiar enough to all upwardly mobile folk. Nevertheless, many British Jews retained an affinity and loyalty to Labour no matter how their material circumstances changed. It was a politics rooted in their culture of compassion and caring.
Jewish and ex-Jewish thinkers and intellectuals have always been at the centre of socialist thought (Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, etc, etc). Being Jewish has always created a sense of being inside and outside society. I grew up with many Jewish kids and attended Bar Mitzvahs (including one last weekend) and other social occasions. You can see the multi-layered identity of Jewish people – patriotic to Britain, defensive but not uncritical about Israel and many still aware of their central European or Russian heritage, as victims of past pogroms.
Yet something insidious has been building up in the Labour Party in recent years. A vicious identity politics in which Jewish people are stereotyped in ways one would have only associated previously with the extreme Right. Imagery of hook-nosed Jews in cartoons are now circulated on what purport to be left-wing blogs and social media accounts. Idiotic comments have been made by a Labour councillor about Jewish “blood rituals” – the sort of language one associates with medieval hate speech against Jews.
Criticism of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians is of course valid. But scouring left-wing magazines, you won’t find the same vicious terminology applied to, for example, Assad in Syria who has presided over a monumental butchery of men, women and children that dwarfs events in Palestine. Where is the outcry on the left over Assad’s publicly announced string of executions as he re-asserts control over Syria?
That in no way lets Israel off the hook but begs the question why the language used about Israel is so inflammatory by comparison. And why it’s increasingly extended to cover the entire Jewish diaspora.
Also note the muted response in recent years to the crimes of Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq where women were enslaved and raped; gruesome public executions became the norm and local people were forced to adhere to a murderous rendition of their Muslim faith. One left-wing group even pondered whether the ISIS “caliphate” was a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries in the Middle East – a horrific and stupid statement accompanied by pseudo-historical wibblings about the Ottoman Empire, British mandate, etc, etc.
New legislation proposed in Israel to place the country’s Jewish identity over its democratic values has been condemned by many Jewish people – including a rabbi at the Bar Mitzvah I just attended. Jews are not a monolith acting in concert or as part of some global conspiracy. Yet this traditionally fascist characterisation of Jews is now a commonplace among sections of the left.
And then there is Labour’s problem with adopting the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. One issue appears to be comparing Israeli policy to the Nazis – a hyperbolic claim that recurs on certain allegedly “socialist” sites. Holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel or alleging that their loyalty is to Israel and not their home country seems to have stuck in the craw of some Labour party members.
So – as many in the Labour party are asking – how can we get out of this mess? Part of the answer lies in the party returning to traditional socialist convictions: a belief in equality for all; a rejection of ALL hate speech and a more nuanced view of the geo-politics of the Middle East. It might also help if the Left could understand the difference between a Muslim (an individual professing a faith) and an Islamist (an individual pushing a theocratic, supremacist, anti-egalitarian and often anti-semitic ideology).
Contrary to what Islamists claim, pushing all the Left’s buttons as they do, Islamism is not synonymous with Islam. Neither is it synonymous with socialist principles. Ditto not all Jewish people are Zionists or blind supporters of Israel. The Left must learn to grasp what is faith and what is politics and not confuse the two with disastrous consequences. Maybe that is a useful first step to moving forward.