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Does Labour have an antisemitism problem?

Does Labour have an antisemitism problem?

Paul Bickley on Labour’s latest antisemitism scandal.

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In 2012, a graffiti artist painted a mural in Shoreditch in East London. It depicts a monopoly board covered in money and balanced on the backs of workers. According to the artist, the mural is a reflection on class politics. The men surrounding the monopoly board are bankers and corporate elites. According to others, the mural is antisemitic. The men surrounding the board ‘look’ Jewish and the painting draws on the idea that Jewish elites are at the heart of the capitalist order.

The artist published a Facebook post protesting this provocative piece of art’s removal. He received support from one Jeremy Corbyn, then the humble Member of Parliament for Islington North, now the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition: “… You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”

For reasons unknown, a screenshot of this exchange emerged last week. Labour MP Luciana Berger asked her Leader’s office for an explanation. Two statements, one angry letter from Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, and one public protest later, Mr Corbyn’s office released a full and unreserved apology. He recommitted the party to a zero–tolerance approach to antisemitism, and pledged a programme of action including ‘political education’. With this letter, Mr Corbyn may have won some control over the situation, but not until after considerable damage has been done, and this in the run up to local elections in London and elsewhere.

The problem is not so much in Mr Corbyn’s Facebook post. The Labour Party has form, as they say. Two years ago, the Party was forced to run an inquiry into antisemitism. Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, had suggested that the Israel–Palestine conflict could be solved if Israel were moved to the United States. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, then dug a very deep hole defending her, choosing that moment to mount the historically dubious claim that Hitler supported Zionism. While Naz Shah almost immediately conceded that the comments were antisemitic and apologised, Livingstone has shown little contrition and repeated the claim on several occasions. He is still suspended from the Labour Party.

It did not help that the Chair of the inquiry, Shami Chakrabarti, joined the Labour Party during the course of the inquiry and was made a Labour member of the House of Lords shortly after the report was published. Nevertheless, the report and recommendations seemed temporarily to neutralise the issue. Corbyn’s initially ambivalent response to the latest accusations gives the impression that the problem was not and is still not taken particularly seriously.

Corbyn’s talk of ‘political education’, and others’ reported desire to tackle the root causes of the antsemitism might mean that there is enough will to try and exorcise Labour’s antisemitic demons. Whether that is in fact possible remains to be seen. All political parties have antisemitic elements, not least because our collective cultural and religious traditions contain more than a trace of it but it may be that antisemitism is hard wired into the left–populism that took Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the party. Labour’s problem is particularly acute for three reasons.

The first is its history and doctrines of the Party, or more to the point those of the Marxist left. Marx’s tract, On the Jewish Question, was a secular expression of the old trope that identifies Jewishness with money making (“huckstering”, in Karl’s word). He said some far less polite things over the course of his career.

This is ancient history, and would hardly be worth mentioning if the Labour Party were not at a particular stage in its evolution where it has begun to sup on a heady mix of old left nostalgia and contemporary populism, expressed in anger at the ‘neo–liberal establishment’. This is the political end of the feeling – now experienced by many people, and in many ways understandably so – that the world is organised against them. This anti–establishment politics can be productive but it is also fertile ground for all kinds of conspiratorial fantasy. Who is the establishment? The Jews, innit?

The second problem is that, in many inner–city areas, Labour has a large base in Muslim communities. In these constituencies, Israel–Palestine is a vote winning and vote losing issue and, of course, why shouldn’t it be? The question is, how do politicians respond to an appetite for engagement on that issue. It is tempting for politicians to climb down into the gutter, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This was where Naz Shah went wrong.

The third is that there are many in the Labour Party who are fiercely anti–Zionist. They want to raise (perfectly legitimate) questions about Israel’s approach to defence, security and settlements. Given everything that has happened in the Labour Party, this must be a disciplined and specific critique. That is the last thing we could say, for example, about Ken Livingstone’s from–the–hip historicising.

Clearly, the Jewish community (and others) are now deeply uncomfortable with the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism. Corbyn swept to the leadership of the Labour Party in the promise of a kinder, more compassionate politics. In this instance, it seems that first of all he must preach to the choir.

 Image from flickr available in the public domain.

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Director of Political Programme at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. @mrbickley

Posted 27 March 2018

Judaism, Labour Party, Politics

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