Antisemitism and the British Labour Movement – David Hirsh


This is the talk that David Hirsh will give tonight in Amsterdam

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Locatie: CREA Amsterdam, Muziekzaal
Adres: Nieuwe Achtergracht 170 Amsterdam
Datum: Donderdag 9 juni 2016
Tijd: Inloop 19:00 uur, programma: 19:30 – 22:00 uur
Entree: Gratis, aanmelding verplicht via of 070-3646862

Yesterday two gunmen opened fire in a restaurant in Tel Aviv.  Four diners were killed and three others were seriously hurt.  Video of the attack is circulating widely on the internet.

Housam Badran, a Hamas spokemsn said that this was the ‘first of many surprises’ planned against Israeli forces during the month of Ramadan.  Both Fatah and Islamic Jihad have described the attack as a ‘natural reaction to Israeli crimes’.

Before Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party he famously referred to Hamas officials as ‘friends’.  When challenged on this, Corbyn said that this was just diplomatic language and that he was trying to help the peace process.

But he was not telling the truth.  In the same speech, still available on YouTube, Corbyn is heard saying that he believes both Hamas and Hezbollah are dedicated to ‘bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.’  Corbyn  has been hosted on a number of trips to Gaza by Hamas.

Jeremy Corbyn supports Hamas politically; he believes the violence and the antisemitism of Hamas is an expression of resistance to Israeli colonialism.  Corbyn is aware that the founding document of Hamas explicitly opposes peace talks.  He is also aware that in the same explicitly antisemitic Charter, Hamas is clear about its support for the shooting of Jews.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Communications Seuamas Milne, a longtime supporter of Stalinist politics, once responded to claims concerning the antisemitism of Hamas that

Hamas and the support it attracts is only the current expression of a spirit of Palestinian national resistance to oppression and dispossession going back decades.

The picture offered is that what is real is the timeless democratic resistance of the Palestinian people; at any one time, the antisemitic form that it takes is not significant.

Gerry Downing, a Labour Party member who has now been suspended after he called for a ‘re-opening of the Jewish Question’ argued that the attacks of 9/11 were manifestations of the

justified outrage of the oppressed as opposed to the outrage of the oppressor, one violence is that of the slave and the other is that of the slave-owner. One is progressive, no matter how distorted its actions are, and must never be “condemned”…

Judith Butler, an influential philosopher and social theorist famously said that

understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.

She later clarified: ‘They are “left” in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone.’  Judith Butler inadvertently puts her finger on a key point.

One element of the socialist and critical tradition, opposition to colonialism and imperialism, is raised to a new ‘–ism’ itself, anti-imperialism. From being one element of the tradition, anti-imperialism became an absolute principle, predominating over other left wing and democratic principles such as self-liberation, equality, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, liberty, women’s rights, lesbian and gay rights and national self-determination. This process is related to a resurgence of antisemitism on the left.

Much importance is ascribed to the ‘call’ of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) for a boycott of Israel.  This ‘call’ explicitly says that the ‘vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics,’ that is to say individuals, have contributed to, or have been ‘complicit in through their silence,’ the Israeli human rights abuses which are the reasons given for boycott.  While PACBI maintains the fiction of the ‘Institutional Boycott’ of Israel, in fact it lays the basis for thinking of all Israeli individuals as being responsible for the crimes, real or imagined, of the Israeli state.

One of the victims of the attack last night was an academic at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Dr. Michael Feige.   We remember that in 2002 Hamas killed 9 people in a bomb attack on a canteen at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

There is a relationship between boycotting Israelis and shooting Israelis; both rely on similar understandings of the relationship of the individual to the state; and of the essential malignancy of Israel.

It is often said in discussion in Britain that Israel is an apartheid state.  Last night one of the gunmen was shot by Israeli security forces.  His life was saved in an Israeli hospital where he was treated alongside some of his victims.  Israeli hospitals are staffed by mixed teams of Jewish, Arab and Muslim doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Malia Bouattia is the newly elected President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK, which is one of the largest youth movements in the world.  Bouattia has condemned the Israel-Palestine peace process as ‘strengthening the colonial project’; she has argued that ‘to consider that Palestine will be free only by means of fundraising, non-violent protest and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is problematic…[These] can be misunderstood as the alternative to resistance by the Palestinian people.’  By resistance, in this context, it is clear that Bouattia is referring to the stabbing, bombing, running-over and shooting of Israelis.

The politics of hating Israel is allied to the toleration of antisemitism.  This current has existed in dusty corners of the obsessive left for decades.  What is new today is the emergence of this politics into the mainstream left.

Last summer, Jeremy Corbyn swept to power in the Labour Party — in spite of his political support for Hamas and Hezbollah. It did him no damage when it emerged that he had leapt to the defence of Raed Salah, the blood libeller, and Steven Sizer, the 9/11 conspiracist.  When people realised that Corbyn had worked for the Iranian state’s antisemitic TV propaganda channel, nobody seemed to mind.  Labour now has a leader who supports the campaign for a boycott of Israel and who prefers anti-Israel politics to the politics of peace.

This Spring there has been an intensified focus in the mainstream media on antisemitism within the Labour movement.  When the leaders of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions stood for democratic politics, when they unequivocally supported Israel’s right to exist, when they opposed antisemitism, the existence of some antisemitism on the fringes of the movement was not really a big story.  Now that the leader himself embraces this kind of politics, every explicit example that can be found is being raised in the mainstream as a problem for the Labour Party as a whole.

There is a relationship between the political culture of Israel-hatred and the examples of easy to recognise antisemitism bubbling up to the surface.

In 2014, Vicki Kirby, a Labour Parliamentary candidate, was warned by the party for posting antisemitic tweets: ‘We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher,’ she wrote.

She also asked why ISIS was not attacking the ‘real oppressor’, ‘evil’ Israel. Kirby had been reinstated as a party member and she was active in the Corbyn support network Momentum.

Oxford University Labour Club has been torn apart in the last year by Israel-haters who succeeded in drumming out their co-chair Alex Chalmers. Chalmers wrote that a large proportion of club members had ‘some kind of problem with Jews’. There was a culture in which the politics of peace between Israel and the Palestinians was mocked as ‘Zio’. A politics of war against Israel was considered more appropriate and the ‘Zios’ were routinely baited with the song ‘Rockets over Tel Aviv’. Jewish students were treated as defenders of racism and apartheid and attempts were made to deny ‘Zio’ members the right to vote in club business. Alex Chalmers wrote that the antisemitic incidents he witnessed were less troubling than the culture which allowed such behaviour to become normalised.

The Palestinian campaign to kill Israeli civilians in the streets has hardly impacted either the news or the political agenda in the Britain.

In 2012 the key institutions of the Jewish community said that the University and College Union had a problem with institutional antisemitism. Members who opposed the boycott, and the antisemitism which came in its wake, were routinely denounced as supporters of Israeli racism; a string of respected academics resigned from the union in disgust at the treatment they had received; the union stood stonily aloof as Jewish members were denounced as Nazis, as the Torah was portrayed as the source of Israeli racism and as opposition to the boycott was said to be allied to the forces of global capitalism.

Last week the union passed a new boycott motion, complete with paranoid clauses about the power of Israel and ‘Zionism’ on campus.  There are no Jews left in the decision making structures of the union who are willing or able to oppose the boycott campaign; they have been driven out or silenced.

Fears are now mounting that what Jews experienced in the UCU was neither an isolated incident nor an exaggeration, but a prototype of what was to come in the wider labour and progressive movement.

Jewish life in the UK is still rich and free. In spite of legitimate fear of terrorist attack and in spite of the fact that Jewish communal buildings are marked by the fluorescent vests of the Community Security Trust, Jews are not subjected to significant violence on the streets.

Antisemitism in Britain today is largely an elite phenomenon. It does not figure hugely in the popular press and in mass culture. It is, so far, a phenomenon about ways of thinking rather than physical violence.  But, as Hannah Arendt warned us, the elite searches for a mob.

Contemporary antisemitism is carried by people who believe themselves to be opponents of antisemitism; it is neither transparent nor obvious. The antisemites take the high ground, they feel virtuous and courageous. It is an antisemitism which makes Jews feel fearful and lonely, which makes us doubt ourselves and our own judgment. We accuse ourselves of inwardness and of paranoia and our instincts for self-preservation are disrupted and confused. But antisemitism is not a subjective feeling of hatred towards Jews, it is an objective social phenomenon and it can be defined and recognised by those who understand how it works and how it manifests itself.

Antisemitism is recognized by what is said and done, not by the purity of a person’s soul.

Everybody agrees that there is a distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism.  The problem is that this truism is often interpreted such that everything is judged to be criticism and nothing is judged to be antisemitism.

If some things are recognised as legitimate criticism and others are recognised as demonizing or antisemitic, then we are brought back into the democratic realm of rational politics.  The task then is by debate and discussion to find consensus on how to draw the boundaries.

If, on the other hand, some people in practice insist that every example brought before them is legitimate criticism then we remain outside the world of democratic and rational politics.

Those who insist that nothing is antisemitic, that everything is just ‘criticism’, tend to try to construct the whole problem as a battle between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine.  They want us to take sides with the ‘oppressed’ in this battle and against the ‘oppressors’.

Some on the edges of the trouble looking in are tempted to see it as a bad tempered and un-civil struggle, between two sets of angry ‘foreigners’ within our movement.  This is tempting because it assigns blame in a seemingly balanced way on all sides while also absolving the poor old Brits who have to try to ensure fair play and comradely good manners.

Incidentally, we see an analogous problem in judging what is criticism of Islam, what is opposition to Islamism and what is Islamophobia.  Islamophobes love to declare that all they are doing is criticising Islam; Islamists enjoy portraying genuine criticism of their politics as Islamophobic.

In order to judge what is antisemitic and what is legitimate criticism it is necessary to judge the politics of a situation as a whole, taking into account the context.

For example, some might say that the analogy of Israel with apartheid South Africa is antisemitic while others might say that it is legitimate.  The problem is that it could easily be either.  It could be a serious and rational debate about similarities and differences; on the other hand a Jewish society on campus might be harassed, banned and isolated over a period of time as apartheid, racist and supremacist; this could constitute an antisemitic way of relating to Jewish students.  The apartheid analogy is often deployed in a way which encourages people to think less rather than more, in the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global community.

We have seen it said often that the claim that Labour has an antisemitism problem is invented by Zionists, Tories and Blairites to damage the Corbyn faction and the Party.

Some say that there is an antisemitism problem; others respond that there is a Jewish problem; at least a problem concerning the overwhelming majority of Jews who are defined in a hostile way as ‘Zionist’ or apologists for Israel.

There is a long history of antisemites trying to make a ‘Jewish Question’ part of public debate; antiracists have always responded by insisting that the ‘Jewish Question’ is a racist question and the real problem is a problem of antisemitism.

Is there a woman problem or a problem of sexism?

Is there a black problem or a problem of racism?

Naz Shah is a Muslim Labour MP.  She was brought up politically in the Islamist/Trotskyist Respect Party; she then joined Labour and is well known for having defeated the more or less explicitly antisemitic George Galloway in Bradford West.  In April it emerged that during the time of the last Gaza conflict in 2014, Naz Shah had published an image on facebook which portrayed ‘Apartheid’ Israel as being similar to ‘Hitler’.  She had warned that ‘The Jews’ were ‘rallying’ against a claim that Israel was committing war crimes.   And she had published on facebook a plan to ethnically cleanse all the Jews from Israel and send them to Nebraska, complete with an estimate of ‘transportation’ costs.

Naz Shah made an apology for her actions; an apology which seemed to be much more serious than the standard politician’s apology.  She said that she had been ignorant and she wanted to learn; she said that she wanted to understand antisemitism and she wanted to bring her new understanding back into the Muslim community.  Since then Naz Shah has been doing that; including a long and serious and lengthy meeting with the congregation at her local synagogue.

By contrast, while Naz Shah was coming to terms with her own political history, Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, was appearing in the media defending her and declaring that she had nothing to apologize for.

In March, Livingstone said that in his 45 years in the Labour Party he had never once seen any antisemitism.

In April Livingstone said that Hitler supported Zionism.  Most people know that Zionism was a response to antisemitism; most people know that Hitler wasn’t in the business of responding to antisemitism but was himself an antisemite.

Livingstone smears Jews, at least those who refuse to identify as antizionist, by saying that they are like Nazis.  He encourages people on the left and in the student movement to relate to the overwhelming majority of Jews as though they were Nazis.

Back in 2006 Ken Livingstone got into an argument with a Jewish journalist, Oliver Feingold. Feingold asked Livingstone for a comment about a birthday party from which he had just emerged. Livingstone got angry and Feingold responded that he was ‘only doing his job’. Livingstone latched onto this phrase, replying that Feingold was like a Nazi war criminal. Feingold told him that he was Jewish and he objected to that.  Livingstone persisted.

Livingstone is a bit obsessed by Nazis; he loves to think through everything by analogy to Nazism.

When the conversation was published, some accused Livingstone of antisemitism.  Livingstone spotted a political opportunity. He wrote an article in The Guardian criticising the occupation of the West Bank in which he wrote:

For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been.

This Livingstone Formulation is a response to a charge of antisemitism. It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made. It is a mirror which bounces back onto an accuser a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) conspiracy.

Firstly, the Livingstone Formulation conflates anything allegedly antisemitic, in this case repeatedly insulting a Jewish reporter by comparing him to a Nazi, into the category of legitimate criticism of Israel.

Secondly, it goes further than accusing people who raise the issue of antisemitism of being wrong; it accuses them of being wrong on purpose; of crying wolf, of playing the antisemitism card. It alleges an intent, often a collective intent and so a conspiracy, to mobilize Jewish victim-power for illegitimate purposes.

Jews may have good reason for raising the issue of antisemitism, as black people have for raising the issue of racism and as women do for raising the issue of sexism.  Indeed if people who have a long and intense memory of antisemitism racism or sexism occasionally recognise something as threatening which others may judge is not, the usual way is to relate with empathy rather than with aggressive accusations of bad faith.

Indeed people whose primary concern is to support Israel may still have good reason to raise the issue of antisemitism; they may feel that Israel was and is necessary because of antisemitism; they may feel that Israel is threatened by antisemitic movements amongst its neighbours; they may feel that the construction of Israel as the pariah nation is analogous to the construction of the Jews as the pariah people; they may feel that talk about the decisive power of the ‘Israel lobby’ reflects older the older trope of Jewish power.

There are four problems with the Livingstone Formulation as a response to concern about antisemitism:

  1. It is a way of avoiding discussion of the actual issue of antisemitism which has been raised by deflecting attention onto the imputed motive for raising it.
  2. It often functions as a form of antisemitic conspiracy theory in itself. It does not accuse Jews of being wrong – they could all be wrong independently and there is no shame in being wrong; but it accuses them of acting dishonestly, following a common, secret plan to try to help Israel in this disgraceful way.
  3. It is a key mode of bullying. When a Jewish person raises the issue of antisemitism, instead of being heard respectfully, they are often themselves accused of acting dishonestly, as an agent of a foreign power, as an agent of a foreign faction or as an agent of a foreign party.
  4. It trains our youth to recognise a claim of antisemitism as an indicator of Zionist dishonesty. It acts as a barrier to the education of our youth in recognising and understanding antisemitism.

When I named the Livingstone Formulation back in 2006 I was a little worried; I thought perhaps it was a bit arbitrary to give it his name.   But in recent weeks Livingstone has really embraced the identity which I named after him; he has really made it his own.

In 1981, when he was already leader of the Greater London Council, Livingstone became editor of a Newspaper called Labour Herald.  The Workers Revolutionary Party was an antisemitic Trotskyist group.  Labour Herald was financed by the WRP, which was in turn financed by Colonel Gadafi and other Arab Nationalist dictators.

Already in the 80s, Livingstone’s paper was running cartoons depicting the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, wearing a Nazi uniform and doing a straight arm salute.  Portraying the Jews as Nazis is deep in Livingstone.

Later, as Mayor of London, Livingstone hosted Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi at City Hall.  Livingstone insisted that Qaradawi was ‘one of the leading progressive voices in the Muslim world’.  Qaradawi is the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian affiliate.  Qaradawi speaks in favour of wife-beating, Female Genital Mutilation and the execution of gay people.  He says that Hitler put the Jews in their place; he described the Holocaust as both exaggerated and also as divine punishment.

In 2012, a group of Jewish Labour supporters sat down with Livingstone to try and come to some agreement so that they could back him in the Mayoral election.  They reported that at ‘various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner.’  They also raised the issue of Livingstone having taken money for fronting a programme on the antisemitic Iranian propaganda channel Press TV.  Livingstone told the group that Jews are rich and so are not likely anyway to vote Labour.

Ken Livingstone says antisemitic things; he leaps to the defence of antisemites and antisemitic movements; he supports the positions of political antisemitism; he gave his name to a particular variant of antisemitic conspiracy theory whereby those who stand up against antisemitism are accused of doing so in bad faith; he recycles antisemitic tropes. He loves getting into a fight with the Jews. He crosses the street to pile in. He’s hungry for the spotlight in this fight.

Ken Livingstone and a significant minority of people in the UK still do not see that there is a problem of antisemitism on the left.

They see a right wing Zionist witch-hunt against good people who oppose austerity, imperialism, the Israeli occupation and Islamophobia. They are enraged by the injustice of the antisemitism ‘smear’. They are entrenched in their position that the influence of Israel, and the Jews who support it, is toxic. They are worried how this influence seems to seep into the dominant ideology of the ruling class and the mainstream media. Their blood boils more and more intensely about Israel, its human rights abuses, its vulgarity, and the racism that is to be found there; their anger is mixed with shame at this European Colonial outpost, created under British rule. They see Islamophobia, imported from Israel and America, as the poison of the post national Europe hope. They feel that everybody has learnt the lessons of the Holocaust except for the Zionists, who, having rejected Christian forgiveness and love, find themselves stuck more and more in the Nazi era.

The way that Corbyn found to deal with the antisemitism crisis was by announcing a committee of inquiry into the problem in the Party.  It is sitting this summer and is due to report in the Autumn.

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths, University of London