Coming to Grips With Structural Anti-Semitism
Over a year ago, I wrote a piece on this very site on the ensuing and seemingly never ending Labour Anti-semitism saga. I argued in it that the wider left, not just the Labour party need to have a serious reckoning with anti-semitism and truly confront its own ideological deficiencies on contemporary anti-semitism if it wishes to remain committed to the principle of consistent anti-racism and defence of minorities. I hoped it would be the only time I would have to write on this issue. How wrong I was.
Ever since, this saga has dragged on and on with no resolution in sight. Luciana Berger and a few other Labour MPs broke away to form the failure that was Change UK partially as a result of the anti-semitism saga. The EHRC is now investigating Labour for alleged institutional racism and barely any progress has been made in the conversation about anti-semitism, much less what can be done about it. It still seems as if we are in the diagnosis phase.
The recent reinstatement of Chris Williamson back into the Labour party after a period of suspension seems to be the latest episode in this sordid saga. Williamson was suspended in February for suggesting that Labour had “given too much ground” to its enemies on anti-semitism and has nothing to apologise for because of its anti-racist credentials. He was allowed back into the party after an investigation by the party’s National Executive Committee only to find himself put back into suspension after a backlash and outrage over his reinstatement.
Williamson is a rather odious figure. As the blogger Bob From Brockley shows in this post, Williamson has a history of defending anti-semites such as Gilad Atzmon and promoting conspiracy theories much of which have nothing to do with the question of Palestine as opposed to what the #IStandWithChrisWilliamson brigade may think.
The Williamson case demonstrates to me that the problem is not the rather tedious obsession over whether Jeremy Corbyn himself is personally harbours animosity towards Jews, or whether the Labour party is jam packed full of raging anti-semites. But that too many leftists are willing to turn a blind eye or accommodate bigoted attitudes towards Jews when it does flare up, instead of standing up to it. The Chris Williamson case is another illustration of this.
It is of course true that some of the accusations of anti-semitism have been disingenuous and ‘weaponised’ either as part of a factional struggle within the Labour party or by the Right who in wanting to portray themselves as the righteous defenders of the Jewish people will casually throw around accusations of anti-semitism against leftists for nothing more than holding perfectly legitimate opinions on the Israel/Palestine conflict, or insinuate that all forms of anti-capitalism are necessarily tainted by anti-semitism.
Likewise, It is incredibly hypocritical for the Tory party who oversaw the Windrush scandal and are embroiled in their own Islamophobia scandal using anti-semitism as a big stick to beat the left with. Boris Johnson, for instance condemned anti-semitism as a left wing “virus”, yet he is known for describing black people as “pickanninies with water melon smiles” and he described Barrack Obama’s opposition to Brexit as stemming from his “ancestral dislike” for the British empire. However, just because our adversaries are hypocrites and have double standards doesn’t mean we have to.
There is a broader discussion that must be had about anti-semitism that is bigger than Chris Williamson or even Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party and is something that requires a more deeper analysis than much of the current discussion which is rather superficial and doesn’t really get to the root of the issue.
The rise of anti-semitism on the left is very much linked to the changing character of the left in recent decades, or rather its intellectual degneration. With the narrowing of the political sphere, the decline of the international left, the global rise of identity politics and culturalism, and the mere possibility of social transformation seemed to have waned the conspiracist mindset has incrementally colonised left wing discourse where instead of a holistic structural analysis of capitalism, you get a simplistic and moralistic wordlview that seeks easy scapegoats responsible for the contradictions of global capitalism and creates a ‘theory’ of the world that is controlled by shadowy cliques and elite cabals who mischievously control society behind the scenes with their secret deals and financial conspiracies.
As the late Alexander Cockburn explained in a Counterpunch article in 2006 on how the decline of traditional Marxist political education on the left created a void that would be increasingly filled by conspiracy theories:
These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.
It doesn’t take much for this to mutate into a barely concealed anti-semitic worldview (Conspiracy theories historically have always been tainted with foul anti-semitism). In some left wing circles traditional anti-semitic tropes have been adopted, rebranded and then projected onto Israel. For example, you will find some leftists talk in extremely simplistic terms about how the ‘Israel lobby’ is controlling Western politicians and effectively calls the shots in relation to the foreign policies of various Western governments.
Moreover, some so called ‘anti-imperialists’ claim that Israel was really the driving behind the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the 2011 Syrian revolution, which to them was nothing more than a Jihadist revolt organised and funded by Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia against an ‘independent’ Arab government who refused to bow down to Zionist demands. This eerily echoes old anti-semitic tropes that the reactionary right used to (and still do) spout that the Jews are the cause of political instability and social conflict within society.
Another reason why some parts of the left have this blindspot on anti-semitism is, partially influenced by a cartoonish third worldism, Jews on some level are seen as no longer being a member of ‘the marginalised’ or the ‘wretched of the earth’ but, to put it brutally, viewed as assimilated into ‘whiteness’, endowed with the benefits of ‘white privilege’ and through Israel and Zionism are now part of ‘Team West’, the privileged and the amorphous ‘oppressor’.
There is a grain of truth to this though, after all, while Jews of course experience hate crimes they don’t face institutionalised oppression or legalised discrimination. Being Jewish today is not likely to put you at more risk of incarceration, poor housing and health outcomes, police brutality or other forms of discrimination that other minorities experience. However, there is a danger this can lead to the trivialisation of anti-semitism as nothing more than an annoying stumbling block brought up by these ‘privileged’ people against what ‘we’ really want to talk about, rather than having a structural analysis (as opposed to an identitarian one) of anti-semitism as a pseudo intellectal and quasi theoretical political ideology that offers an alternative critique of modernity and the status quo, which, will fill the void left by the retreat of traditional leftist critique.
Christopher Hitchens once said in a speech dedicated to Daniel Pearl that anti-semtism is “the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people, I learned, but as the common enemy of humanity and civilisation.” If the Left wishes to fight for equality and emancipation for all people against a resurgent far right who definitely, as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting demonstrated, a danger to Jews and everybody else then the left must comes to grips with the existence of anti-semitism among its ranks as symptomatic of its decline and defeat and the hollowing out of proper political education and critique then it won’t able to provide itself with the necessary toolkit to explain how the world and society actually works and how we might be able to change it for the better.