‘Parts of it are excellent’: Owen Jones’ article on antisemitism

Jones makes some good points in his latest piece in the Guardian. In condemning antisemitism he manages to go beyond mere assertions of the awfulness of racism. Although he invokes the Holocaust he doesn’t do so in isolation, but usefully situates it within the long and complex history of antisemitism in Europe.

And it wasn’t some mid-20th century aberration that came out of nowhere, a bafflingly horrific episode in human history resulting from sudden mass insanity. This was the culmination of hundreds of years of antisemitism: pogromsblood libel, scapegoating.

He also correctly identifies different kinds of antisemites – far right fascists, Islamist fundamentalists, and more subtle examples on the left as well as the right.

Several common tropes of antisemitic discourse are pinpointed effectively. Those who raise semantic quibbles about the term ‘antisemitism’ are rightly dismissed, as are those who blame antisemitism on the actions of Israel or mutter about the ‘Jewish lobby’. And Jones succinctly describes the Livingstone formulalation, the way in which those concerned about antisemitism are accused of acting in bad faith:

[S]ome passionate supporters of Palestinian justice deny antisemitism exists and regard all accusations of it as an attempt to shut down criticism of Israel. While they would never dream of denying the existence of racism against, say, black people or Muslims, they treat antisemitism as a political device constructed by militant supporters of Israeli occupation. And in doing so, they fail to properly scrutinise it within their own ranks; there are those who are soft on it.

But there are also problems here. It felt as though Jones was (in part) instrumentalising his eloquent and well informed critique of antisemitism in order to defuse criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn. The very many well documented and much discussed problems are glossed over as mere chance encounters. Corbyn is implicitly excluded from those leftists who ‘fail to properly scrutinise it within their own ranks … those who are soft on it.’

The article closes with a call to all on the left to recognize and stamp out antisemitism.

It is a menace: not just in its overt forms, but in subtler, pernicious forms too. There’s no excuse for the left to downplay it, or to pretend it doesn’t exist within its own ranks. Rather than being defensive, the left should seize any opportunity to confront the cancer of antisemitism and eradicate it for good.

Very forthright. But it’s rather undermined by the preceding sentence.

Antisemitism is too serious to become a convenient means to undermine political opponents.

This could be seen as a variant on the Livingstone formulation Jones dissected just a few paragraphs earlier. Presumably he is targeting those on the right or centre-left rather than (primarily) Israel advocates here. But the dynamic is still the same.   Those who articulate concerns about Corbyn’s associations are acting in bad faith. (Another problem is that the casual reader who hasn’t been following this closely would assume that Corbyn had been widely accused of being personally antisemitic.)

When I first read that sentence from Jones I immediately thought of Alan Johnson, someone who supports many of Corbyn’s ideas but is very troubled by his record on this issue. Expressing those concerns was certainly not, for him, ‘a convenient means to undermine political opponents’. What about those on the centre right? They’ll take a dim view of Corbyn’s whole programme of course, but that doesn’t mean that their anxieties about this issue are insincere or unwarranted. Jones engages directly with no specific criticism of Corbyn. And instead of trying to demonstrate that his detractors are mistaken he accuses them of dishonesty and of trivialising antisemitism.

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