Chris Williamson: accusations of antisemitism are “proxy wars and bullshit”

This is a guest post by James Mendelsohn.

In recent years, some on the left have suggested that accusations of antisemitism are raised dishonestly. Ken Livingstone has done so repeatedly.  Last year, Diane Abbott dismissed allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party as “smears”. Len McCluskey similarly castigated a supposedly “cynical attempt to manipulate anti-Semitism for political aims”.
Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North and the Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, has now followed this trend. Speaking to The Guardian, Williamson said that controversies over Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism within Labour were “proxy wars and bullshit”:

“I’m not saying it never ever happens but it is a really dirty, lowdown trick, particularly the antisemitism smears. Many people in the Jewish community are appalled by what they see as the weaponisation of antisemitism for political ends.

“It is pretty repellent to use that to attack somebody like Jeremy Corbyn, who has spent his whole life fighting for social justice and standing up for the underdog.

“But I feel people have stopped listening to the smears and lies and dirty tricks…”

Williamson does not engage with the abundant, specific evidence of antisemitism within Labour. He instead claims that those who raise concerns do so dishonestly, for political gain. His tone is strident: “proxy wars and bullshit… a really dirty, lowdown trick… smears and lies and dirty tricks”. Given the large fall in support for Labour among British Jews, his assertion that “many” within the Jewish community are “appalled” by the apparent “weaponisation of antisemitism” is questionable. He disregards the fact that both the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council have raised concerns, as have the Community Security Trust. Indeed, he implicitly accuses them of doing so dishonestly. Williamson generalises that Corbyn “has spent his whole life fighting for social justice and standing up for the underdog” but again ignores the specific evidence of Corbyn’s poor track record on antisemitism.
Responding to criticism of these comments, Williamson said:

“I absolutely did not and never would blame the victims of antisemitism or any form of racism and bigotry.

“Antisemitism is utterly repugnant and a scourge on society, which is why I stand in absolute solidarity with anyone who is subjected to antisemitic abuse. The point I was trying to make is that accusations have on occasions been used for factional or party political ends.”

Williamson’s response is unsatisfactory. He again fails to engage with the specific evidence of antisemitism within Labour. His own track record is concerning: responding to allegations of antisemitism within the Oxford University Labour Club, Williamson tweeted, “I hope they won’t find any such evidence” and switched to invoking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When challenged to call out antisemitism on another occasion, Williamson told his challenger to “pipe down”. It seems that there is a pattern of Williamson stigmatising, dismissing and impugning the motives of those who raise concerns about antisemitism.

As yet, there has been little response to Williamson’s remarks from beyond the Jewish community. Williamson has not apologised or withdrawn his accusations. Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor (to my knowledge) any other senior Labour figure has commented.

This muted response is not unique to Labour; articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail refer back to Williamson’s interview with The Guardian but do not mention Williamson’s comments about antisemitism. Better things should be expected from a supposedly antiracist party whose leader professes his revulsion of antisemitism. Whether there will be a stronger response to Williamson’s remarks, remains to be seen.

Contemporary Left Antisemitism – David Hirsh’s Manchester book launch

Hear David Hirsh talk about the book, ask questions, buy a signed copy

Sunday, September 24, 2017 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM

Follow this link for more details and to get your free ticket. (no admittance without a ticket).

Antisemitism on the left is difficult to recognize because it does not come dressed in a Nazi uniform and it does not openly proclaim its hatred or fear of Jews. This book looks at the kind of antisemitism which is tolerated in apparently democratic spaces.  It tells the story of the rise of the Jeremy Corbyn and his faction in the Labour Party; and it explains the controversy around Ken Livingstone. It analyses how criticism of Israel can mushroom into antisemitism and it looks at struggles over how antisemitism is defined. It focuses on ways in which those who raise the issue of antisemitism are often accused of doing so in bad faith in an attempt to silence or to smear. Hostility to Israel has become a signifier of identity, connected to opposition to imperialism, neo-liberalism and global capitalism; the ‘community of the good’ takes on toxic ways of imagining most living Jewish people.

The book combines narrative and case study with sociological analysis and theory to understand the controversial and contested phenomenon of antisemitism on the left.  It is not a critique of the left but a contemporary history of how things may go wrong.  It stands in the tradition of those on the left who have always understood and opposed the temptation to picture the evils of capitalism, modernity and imperialism as being intimately connected to the Jews and to their imputed behaviour.

Follow this link for some nice endorsements of the book

Follow this link to see details of other events David Hirsh is doing.  

 

Jewish issues again at UCU Congress 2017

Motions about Jewish issues are standard at UCU Congress. This year saw another attempt to undermine protection for Jews from the kind of antisemitism which disguises itself as anti-Zionism. The motion – 57 of the Business of the Equality Committee – was about free speech and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. It began “Congress notes UCU’s exemplary anti-racist work”, which was strange in the light of what followed.

Before I report how the motion went down in Congress I’ll indulge in a bit of free speech myself.

The first thing to say is that there was no motion that UCU adopt the working definition, and yet UCU was pre-emptively trying to ban it. I was aware of this motion because our branch officers tried to push it through in early March. Amazingly they found it appropriate to bump it from the middle to the end of the meeting [see update below]. I believe the presence of three of us in particular, sitting at the front (and refusing to be in the officers’ Stand Up to Racism photo) caused this awkwardness, since the chair observed in a non-welcoming way that the antisemitism motion was the only reason we had decided to attend. In my case that is absolutely correct – and here is why he is responsible.

Jewish-related motions are instigated by officers controlling some branches. The pretext of this one is free speech, but the same campaigners have been undermining free speech for years in the form of the boycott campaign against Israeli (and only Israeli) academia. Of course I find fault with that on grounds of relevance and sinister priorities, but there’s more to it. Their hostile interest in Jewish issues is so bizarre (compare it with all the motions warmly supporting other equalities groups) that any trust I may have once had in them on the bigger issues and motions is a distant memory. They didn’t even circulate the IHRA definition of antisemitism they expected us to condemn in 90 seconds.

Higher education workers who don’t feel involved in this matter or who don’t care about the labour movement just laugh at this weakness of UCU’s. I find it appalling though, because it means that in a rushed meeting cluttered with another Jewish-related motion, the text received a day in advance signalling that the role of members is not to think very hard, our union is actually giving us extra work to do. Because when you can’t trust your leaders fact-checking and scrutiny is what you have to do. And if there’s no time to do that extra work, then voting becomes problematic – so why bother attending when it’s so clear that the officers view members as fodder. Considering the attendance was short of quorate at that meeting, I doubt I’m the only person to feel this way.

In case I’m misunderstood, I’m coming at this as a non-nationalist and volunteer UCU department rep. I’m in favour of a working definition of antisemitism and I have little patience with objections to this IHRA one since it’s full of ‘may’ and ‘might’ and ‘taking into account the overall context’. In other words, it provides some valuable pointers to the forms contemporary antisemitism can take, and leaves the rest up for consideration and debate. So if it has been wielded by Jewish-interest groups (badly scared by the malignancy of the loudest Palestine solidarity campaigning in this country) to try to shut down events where Israel is criticised, then that is regrettable and to be opposed in its own right. But I can’t see that it is the fault of this highly qualified definition. It’s the venue authorities who are responsible for distinguishing between free speech and racism. And Palestine solidarity campaigners need to be better.

At Congress Sarah Annes Brown, professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin (who I think holds a less favourable view of the working definition than mine) spoke against the motion. Her statement:

“I acknowledge that there is some evidence of the IHRA definition being invoked in the context of preventing some university based events going ahead. In the interests of free speech it would be reasonable to conduct research about this.

However I would like Congress to consider whether it is necessary or desirable to disassociate itself from the definition completely in order to do this, to make it anathema in the way the QUB amendment suggests.

This whole issue has been a very polarising debate for years. I’d like to urge more nuance and a focus on what is really important here – protecting free speech. I quite understand why people have misgivings about the definition and some of the ways it seems to have been used. But it concerns me when people accuse those who think differently of acting in bad faith, as seems to be the case in a letter in the Guardian signed by many academics.

‘It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.’

The definition has been backed by Jeremy Corbyn and has been adopted by the NUS and the Union of Jewish Students. The government’s adoption has been welcomed by mainstream Jewish groups such as the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies. That’s not a reason for embracing it or ignoring any possible bad impacts, but it might perhaps give pause before an absolute repudiation.”

Update: A spiteful amendment (57A2) to the motion referred to Ronnie Fraser’s earlier legal case against UCU as “spurious accusations of antisemitism”. This prompted another delegate to speak up in objection to that, since she found it a disingenuous and offensive representation of the case and recognised the likelihood that UCU would treat any concerns about antisemitism as spurious. Her intervention changed a number of minds.

Unnaturally but predictably, the motion and the amendment were overwhelmingly carried by UCU delegates.  The other anti-racist, solidarity and inclusion motions, of which there were several, were carried or in a few cases, remitted. Isn’t it great that UCU is only soft on antisemitism.

~~~

Update 

From one of the members opposing the motion in my branch:

“My only quibble is that the attempt to ram the motion through the branch meeting is even worse than you have indicated.

The chair didn’t just want to push it through in 90 seconds while there were three of us opposing it. After you had both left because you had 2pm meetings, with the meeting already overrunning (it was gone 2pm) and people waiting outside for their lecture (a huge breach of both institution and branch protocol) he still wanted to push it through, and only my vociferous objection prevented it from happening.

He then tried the tactic of ‘you’d better vote for this because otherwise there will be something worse at conference’.

Most encouragingly, the feeling of the meeting seemed to be supportive of my argument that a hugely controversial and divisive motion like this needed the time to be debated properly.”

From a non-Jewish left Zionist to Ken Livingstone

Jack Omer-Jackaman has written an open letter to Ken Livingstone. From it,

“Labour has always had a contested, pluralistic approach to Zionism. It was, after all, the party of both Harold Wilson and Ernest Bevin; of Dick Crossmanand Christopher Mayhew. In recent years, though, it is Mayhew’s successors who have shouted loudest and, in the context of anti-Zionism experienced as anti-Semitism I have described, this makes Labour’s “Jewish Problem” harder to dodge. It is to anti-Zionism itself, then, that I now turn.”

Read on.

Scott Nelson & a weirdly related miscellany

Assuming his appeal is unsuccessful, prominent activist Scott Nelson aka @TheMockneyRebel has been expelled from the Labour Party after making a number of statements implicating Jews, “Jewish blood”, &c in various things he doesn’t like and scoffing when antisemitism was mentioned. Mathilda Murday and Soupy have collected some offending tweets. If you are inclined to comment about this below, keep in mind they’ve been threatened with litigation so mind your Ps & Qs. Nelson is penitent and as of about an hour ago, defiant at the same time (retweeting supporters who say antisemitism is nonexistent and a right wing smear). I am guessing the appeal will be considered by Labour’s National Executive Committee; if so it can be thought of as a benchmark. At the moment Corbyn-aligned Momentum people do not control the official organs of the Labour Party, but they have said that they intend to. In response, new alignments such as Open Labour are currently forming to bolster Labour democracy against populism and mitigate Corbyn’s anticipated failure to engage the wider electorate. My feeling is that if the outreaching parts of Labour make their presence felt, it will continue to put out people like Scott Nelson. If not then I have doubts that Momentum has the will, although Corbyn supporters exist who do recognise a problem and will do what they can, so hopefully I’m wrong about that. Worrying about antisemitism is one of those things where you win if you’re wrong.

I should also say I don’t think Labour have explicitly implicated antisemitism in the expulsion, and it is only one of several issues people have raised concerning Scott Nelson. One major divide in different parts of the left is the issue of whether to treat bigotry similarly if expressed by somebody privileged or somebody marginalised. This tension between relativist and universalist views is concentrated in situations like this one in which a disabled UKIP member objects to disablism on the part of Nelson (who is also disabled). Being universalist, Engage resists bigotry regardless of the objectionable politics of those who may be subjected to it (I find UKIP deeply threatening and politically moribund), or the extent to which we may identify with the perpetrator (without hesitation I’d hold my nose and take Corbynite Labour over the Conservatives in a two horse race).

Now to the weirdly related miscellany.

Campaigners against antisemitism often endure a range of unpleasant emotions which come with pursuing the issue both through big organisations and with individuals. They include a sense of futility against the machine, the chipping away of our self-esteem in the face of prejudice, and, if we’re unlucky, a sense of hatred we have no way of confirming because the hater is clever, directed against us personally because we are identified as Jewish.  It all plays with your head. I think you will be struck by the overlap with the experiences of Adam Pearson in the excellent BBC3 documentary The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime. His starting point is an estimated 63,000 hate crimes against disabled people in England and Wales in one recent year, and the failure to prosecute these effectively. He speaks with disabled people, YouTube, legal professionals, and the police, and participates in a social psychology experiment. The action he embarks on is a promising direction, too. I very much recommend watching it.

The second miscellany is a recent LSE European Institute podcast, French sociologist Michel Wieviorka‘s talk ‘Europe’s Perfect Storm: racism, anti-Semitism, terrorism and resurgent nationalism‘. In it he weaves together several currents of European thinking in the past 30 years. He treats racism, antisemitism, terrorism and nationalism as expressions of evil which he observes to have revived in new, changed forms in in the 1980s, in what had been until then humanist Europe. Listen to this for an examination of how plural xenophobia has become, and how it is related to a decrease in trust of establishment authorities.

The final miscellany (HT @patlockley) is a piece in Dissent by Susie Linfield on left-wing Zionism.

“In its early decades Israel combined socialist, or social-democratic, politics with democratic freedoms. It was a poor and deeply egalitarian country; it was the praxis of left-wing Zionism. As Fred Halliday wrote, until 1967 “Israel enjoyed enormous authority, not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not . . . but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living.” But Israel has changed.”

“The task for American leftists is to support democratic, anti-occupation, two-state groups in any ways we can, including publications, conferences, visits, and, where appropriate, donations (even if we can’t match Sheldon Adelson). There are numerous such organizations, from the well-established New Israel Fund to smaller ones like Ta’ayush (in Arabic, “Living Together”) and Women Wage Peace, all of whose members include Arabs and Jews.

A statement to sign on antisemitism

Shalom Lappin, Brian Bix, Eve Garrard, Matthew Kramer, Hillel Steiner and Stephen De Wijze have a wide-ranging statement on contemporary European antisemitism which they invite you to sign.

It begins by summarising the the recent increase in antisemitism. It then highlights the complacency of those who don’t recognise how antisemitism interferes with the lives of Jews, especially those who participate in organised Jewish life or as Jews in wider public life.

At the heart of the statement is a rebuke to “many who flatteringly present themselves as liberals, human rights advocates, and progressives” who recognise and react sharply to the antisemitic threat of the white nativist far right, but are prepared to accept bigoted positions on Jews coming from the Islamist far right. Turning to politics about the Middle East, the statement gives several cases of exceptional treatment of Israel’s conduct and exceptional treatment of Jews in relation to Israel. It sets out and counters the defences most often made by progressives charged with being soft on antisemitism, before concluding with advice against fragmented discreet appeals to the authorities and a call to people committed to liberal democratic values not to treat antisemitism as a Jewish issue but to include it in a universal fight against racism and bigotry.

I think the statement is a good, needed rallying point, and a benchmark, which is why I signed. To sign yourself, click on the About link at the top and scroll to the green button.

50 Days in the Summer: Gaza, political protest and antisemitism in the UK

This very clear and measured report was commissioned to assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism. Ben Gidley, a Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, explores the impact of events in the Middle East on antisemitic discourse in the UK.

It seems certain that last July’s spike in antisemitic incidents was connected to Operation Protective Edge. This report sets out to investigate trickier questions about the nature and degree of antisemitic discourse associated with protests against Israel, and the effects of the way the media reported both on the conflict and the demonstrations (p.2).

The report emphasises the importance of context in determining antisemitism. Whereas a Palestinian flag is not antisemitic if carried in a protest outside the Israeli embassy, the presence of the same flag would have a clear antisemitic charge outside a kosher deli or synagogue (p.4)

Some cases are more complex. Gidley suggests that the phrase ‘child murderers’, if directed at Israel, is ‘potentially legitimate criticism’ (p. 5). But it may trigger sensitivities due to the antisemitic blood libel trope. Inevitably there are grey areas where sincere disagreement or misunderstanding may occur.

In fact most of the placards visible at demonstrations against Israel were not antisemitic, the report concludes (p. 6). However there were some exceptions, mostly focused on familiar tropes:

Variations on the historic blood libel, malicious uses of Holocaust comparison, attributions of Jewish collective responsibility or dual loyalty, and images of Jewish power.

Many children did die in Gaza, and it’s not surprising that Israel’s critics focus on this issue. However, it’s equally unsurprising that ‘British Jews, sensitive to the use of the blood libel in triggering pogroms historically, may be likely to experience accusations of antisemitism through this lens.’ (p. 7) And, when the phrase ‘child murderers’ moves away from the street protest and is pinned onto a synagogue – then clearly the boundary has been crossed.

Holocaust comparisons are another common vector for antisemitism. ‘Holocaust inversion’ casts Israel as the new Nazis, Palestinians as the new Jews, and, just a little more subtly but hardly less offensively, Jews are blamed for not learning the correct lessons from the Holocaust (p. 8).

There’s some very precise analysis of the mechanisms at work in the cross-pollination between far left anti-Zionism and far-right antisemitism.

In many cases, anti-Israel activists in perfectly good faith recirculate material from far right provenance. Thus casual and unwitting low-level forms of antisemitism circulating in the wider culture can reinforce and draw people towards more ideological forms of antisemitism.

Presumably this re-circulation occurs without antisemitic intent, but it legitimates and normalises ideologically antisemitic discourse. Those already exposed to casual forms of Holocaust inversion in anti-Israel context are more receptive to Holocaust denial; those already exposed to casual forms of Jewish power allegation are more receptive to complex ideologically driven conspiracy theories. (p. 10)

Gidley then expands on the importance of recognizing that actions or words may have no antisemitic intent yet still be ‘objectively’ antisemitic in their impact (p. 11).

In its discussion of the media, the report emphasises the need for the Jewish press to report antisemitism responsibly, and not use hyperbole to create unnecessary tension. But it also rightly insists on the need for ‘mainstream Britiain to understand and take seriously the insecurity of the community.’ (p. 13)

Finally, a worrying tendency to overlook or dismiss accusations of antisemitism is analyzed, and identified as a particular danger when Israel receives such disproportionate scrutiny in the media, particularly the left wing media.

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