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.  

 

Dave Rich: The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

In The Left’s Jewish Problem Dave Rich offers a careful and scholarly (but unfailingly readable) intervention into the highly charged topic of the left’s relationship with antisemitism – a meticulous genealogy of the movements and ideological skirmishes that lie behind the most recent and familiar manifestations of the problem:

As this book will explain, while Corbyn’s rise to the leadership precipitated the Labour Party’s problem with anti-Semitism, the political trends on the left that brought that problem about long predate Corbyn’s leadership, and stretch well beyond the Labour Party. His rise is a symbol of the problem; whether he survives or not, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left of British politics is unlikely to go away.

Rich reminds us that the British left used to view Israel favourably. Zionism was associated with socialism and, through its conflict with a British occupying force, was perceived as anti-colonial in nature. ‘The cause of Israel is the cause of democratic socialism’ asserted a Tribune writer in 1955. What changed? Rich cautions against overstating the role played by active antisemitism, but demonstrates some of the ways in which antisemitic tropes were able to infect the discourse, and the thinking, of people who saw themselves as part of an antiracist struggle.

An important factor in Israel’s perceived shift from socialist underdog to colonial oppressor was the Six Day War. This polarised opinion, exacerbating nascent left wing hostility to Israel, but strengthening an identity with Zionism amongst British and American Jews. Another significant factor was the rise of the New Left, less interested in bread and butter socialist concerns, driven instead by identity politics, single issue pressure groups and anti-American sentiment. Through this lens, Israel began to be seen as a colonial imposition on the Middle East.

Many of today’s familiar anti-Israel tropes began to circulate in the late 1950s and 1960s. The PLO compared Zionism to Nazism and the Algerian National Liberation Front blamed Israel’s creation on the monopoly of finance and media held by ‘magnate Jews’. Rich explains in detail how another trope – the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa – gained so much traction. Surprisingly, the Young Liberals play a major part in this story. The relationship between this group and the wider Liberal Party was bizarrely disjunctive in the 1960s. Their vice-chairman Bernard Greaves, for example, ‘dismiss[ed] Parliament as a hindrance to “the revolutionary transformation of society”’.

Some members flirted with Communism and others engaged in violent direct action as part of their campaign against apartheid. Among the key players was Peter Hellyer, Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals. Through his campaigning he made connections with Palestinian and other Arab activists and this political environment exposed him to Soviet and Egyptian anti-Zionist – and antisemitic – propaganda. As Rich explains, the Soviet Union was a particularly important vector for anti-Zionist discourse. Examining these 1960s networks, and the way ideas circulated within them (rather like tracing the transmission of a virus) helps explain not just the preoccupations of today’s left but the precise arguments and images they instinctively reach for.

The British Anti-Zionist Organisation (BAZO) was seen as one of the more extreme groups. ‘It argued that Zionists collaborated with Nazis during the Second World War and that they encouraged anti-Semitism to the benefit of Israel.’ If that sounds familiar, so will the names of several of its members – Tony Greenstein, George Galloway, Richard Burden. Another significant grouping was Matzpen – but this Israeli anti-Zionist movement was viewed with disfavour by some, such as Ghada Karmi, because it acknowledged a place for a separate Jewish grouping within the socialist federation they proposed for the region. This particular fault line prompted charges of tribalism against anti-Zionist Jewish activists – accusations since nastily amplified by Gilad Atzmon.

While the anti-Apartheid movement functioned as a gateway to zealous anti-Israel campaigning, the NUS’s No Platform policy, intended to repel fascism and racism, became weaponised against Zionism and (in an ironic twist) had a discriminatory impact on university Jewish societies. These were deemed to be racist unless they renounced any expression of a Zionist identity. The impulse to outlaw abhorrent speakers is understandable. John Randall, a former NUS president, insisted:

There are some boundaries that a civilised society adopts, and there are some behaviours that clearly lie outside those boundaries.

But as Rich dryly comments:

As Jewish students would discover, the flaw in the policy is that those boundaries are movable.

This is just one of many moments in the book where the reader may experience an uncanny sense of déjà vu. In the 1971 words of Kate Hoey, vice-president of the NUS we can read a foreshadowing of the stance taken by current NUS President, Malia Bouattia.

Unquestionably the mass media has given no prominence to the Palestinian case which is understandable because of the Zionist influence among the people who control it.

Although much in this book was unfamiliar to me, all too familiar was the sense of disbelief and frustration that so many on the left, sensitive to other forms of prejudice, have a seemingly limitless capacity for glossing over or blanking out antisemitism except on the right. Here’s one example of this selective obtuseness. Jeremy Corbyn (who refused to campaign alongside David Cameron to Remain) shared a platform with Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Hezbollah supporter who posted Holocaust denial material on his website. When complaints were raised, Corbyn’s response was careless and arrogant.

I refuse to be dragged into this stuff that somehow or other because we’re pro-Palestinian, we’re antisemitic. It’s a nonsense.

This is an example of a manoeuvre I see increasingly often – the invocation of Israel/Palestine to shut down accusations of antisemitism that have nothing to do with that topic.

Although the possibility of a left-wing antisemitism just doesn’t seem to compute for Corbyn and his ilk, the problem’s roots can be traced back to the early years of socialism in the nineteenth century. Jews became strongly identified with capitalism and there grew up the idea of ‘a specifically Jewish network of power and wealth that needed to be broken.’ Capitalism and Jewish power become dangerously interchangeable ideas, both perceived as barriers to a just society. The left needs to face up to its patchy record on this front, rather than brush it under the carpet. Here Rich reminds us of just one blot on our copybook.

The Trades Union Congress in 1900 passed a resolution decrying the war as one ‘to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.’

I wholeheartedly recommend this illuminating and timely study – there are so many more examples and observations I’m tempted to quote, but I’ll end with some strikingly prescient words from Jeremy Thorpe, speaking in 1968:

Britain suffers little from the disgrace of anti-Semitism. But the amiable weakness for the underdog, which is part of our national character, can all too easily allow us to become sentimental about political problems, while the perverse British characteristic of preferring our foes to our friends often corrupts our judgment.

 

On being targeted for a harassment campaign by ‘anti-Zionists’ – Marko Attila Hoare

This is a guest post by Marko Attila Hoare.

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Last autumn, a group of ‘anti-Zionists’ launched a harassment campaign against me. Charles Frith, a notorious Holocaust denier and particularly vicious Jew-hater, who had over 32,000 Twitter followers until Twitter suspended his account, telephoned my employers, Kingston University, posing as a job-seeker. After finding out the name of my immediate manager from an unsuspecting colleague, he sent a series of abusive and defamatory emails to me and my senior colleagues, accusing me, among other things, of ‘Zionism’, and turning Kingston into a centre for ‘child abuse’. Frith is someone who refers to the ‘fake 6m Holohoax figures’. He has tweeted that ‘the Auschwitz chambers were delousing stations in Germany and France’; that ‘Israel’s Mossad did 9/11’; that ‘Jewish Al-Sisi Runs Egypt; Now an Israeli-Occupied Territory’. He has blogged that the figure of six million Holocaust dead was fabricated before World War II, and that the real figure is ‘somewhere in between half a million to a million’. He has referred to David Cameron as a ‘Rothschild-Zionist tea boy’ and accused a senior British Jewish journalist of ‘milk(ing) the Holocaust gravy train like a 6 million lottery payout’. His last email to my university colleagues contained a disgusting war-porn picture, apparently of a graphically mutilated child, which he claimed was ‘Zionism in action’.

Frith had been set on me by his political fellow-travellers. One of these was Damian James Read, who Tweets under the name ‘@CockneyActivist’. Read is a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and apparently a Labour Party member, and he likes posting pictures of himself online, dressed in Palestinian flags. When David Cameron tweeted in remembrance of the ‘millions murdered in the holocaust’, Read tweeted back that ‘I think you mean 300,000. An horrific event I agree. But not 6 million is it’.  Read is on record as claiming that ‘our economy’ is controlled by ‘the Rothschilds[and refers to the ‘Zionist controlled media’.[He asked rhetorically on Twitter ‘Is it true that the BBC is in fact a dept of the Israel Embassy ? Is that why so many Zionist [sic] seem to have been given top jobs ?’He has ‘liked’ a tweet saying ‘Fuck the Zionist Jewish Apartheid State’ another complaining that the ‘6 million figure seems to have been repeated ad nauseum throught 20thC. Nazis blamed’; and a third saying, in relation to Israel, ‘it’s God chosen [sic] people. God told they [sic] could commit genocide with impunity just like the Nazis’. Read claims he contacted Kingston University, asking them to investigate my online activities. He and his Twitter gang bombarded the Kingston University twitter account with defamatory tweets about me.

The pretext that Read and Frith gave for fixating on me, was that they suspected that I was a pseudonymous blogger called ‘Soupy One’, who blogs about left-wing anti-Semitism. What was remarkable was how little it took to move from a suspicion to launching their harassment campaign, and how little they ultimately cared whether their suspicion was justified or not. Read decided I was ‘Soupy One’ because one of the latter’s posts tagged my name, and Read – not the sharpest knife in the drawer – thought the tag was the post author’s name. His second piece of ‘evidence’ was that someone online – the Spectator columnist Douglas Murray – had claimed that Soupy One was based at Kingston University and threatened to report on him to his employers, although Murray was unable or unwilling to substantiate the claim when challenged to do so, and would not confirm which Kinston staff member he had in mind. Needless to say, I am not ‘Soupy One’, whose views I do not entirely share.

Not only was this a sorry pretext for Read and his friends to harass someone, but the targets themselves seemed almost random. I am not a prominent or hardline supporter of the State of Israel. I have blogged in support of UN recognition of Palestine’s independence, and condemned Operation Protective Edge without reservation. The ‘Soupy One’ blog itself seems an unworthy target; a pseudonymous blog with fewer than two thousand Twitter followers. What quickly became clear to me was that these people did not much care whether I was ‘Soupy One’ or not. Nor whether or not I was a ‘ZIonist’. Nor what my actual views on Israel and Palestine really were. They inhabit a dystopian fantasy universe governed by Zionism’s omnipresence, in which their own ‘revolutionary’, anti-Zionist goals override ordinary considerations of morality.

In fact, I was not completely innocent of having done anything to provoke them. I have consistently condemned anti-Semitism, including the left-wing ‘anti-Zionist’ variety. I teach the history of the Holocaust. Last year, I appeared in the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s annual commemorative programme, screened in Westminster and broadcast on BBC2, and wrote a post for its blog on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. But perhaps most relevant is the fact that last summer, without thinking much of it, I shared an article about the anti-Semitic activities at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of the ‘musician’ Alison Chabloz, and suggested that her gigs should be boycotted. Chabloz has denied the existence of the gas chambers, claimed Anne Frank’s diary was a fabrication,[publicly performed the quenelle in order to bait ‘Zionists’ and shared online a video of herself mocking Holocaust survivors. She was quick to blame Jo Cox’s murder on the Zionists. Her anti-Semitism is so vicious and her Holocaust denial so blatant that Artists 4 Palestine UK actually removed her name from their website. She responded to my tweet about her by fabricating the story that I was ‘Soupy One’, then proceeded to spread the story on Twitter.

Naturally, Kingston University did not look favourably on the campaign against me. Even if the accusation had been true, blogging pseudonymously about anti-Semitism is hardly an activity to which any self-respecting university would object. In Kingston’s case, our vice-chancellor, Julius Weinberg has taken a very hardline position in defence of free speech, and has made clear that, as the child of a German Jewish survivor, diversity is embedded in his belief system. If any of my harassers received any reply from anyone at Kingston, it certainly didn’t uphold their complaint.

Yet this was not the end of the matter. Some weeks later, another of Read’s online cronies who had congratulated him for his attacks on me, Jason Schumann (‘@debatingculture’), took up the cudgel. Schumann has tweeted that ‘Jews are evil’; he believes that the figures of six million Holocaust victims is a ‘lie’ intended to magnify Jewish suffering, and has suggested that the real figure may be 2-3 million. He has written a storify slide-show entitled ‘The Shoah must go on’, claiming the history of the Nazi Holocaust is being used to brainwash the ‘sheeple’. He claims that ‘The holocaust of WWII has become an industry; based on lies; pursuit of profit, and giving a false but deliberate and polished sense of victim status’. After an Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police visited Auschwitz and spoke about the Holocaust, Schumann accused the ‘Zionist lobby’ of ‘brainwashing and indoctrinating’ the Met. He has tweeted repeatedly about how Jeremy Corbyn has been ‘vilified by the Jewish media’. He has accused LBC of ‘shilling for Israhell’, asking ‘how many shekels ?’ He has described the Home Secretary’s funding of the CST’s campaign against anti-Semitism as ‘Grade A arse licking to the Zionist lobby at the behest of Israhell !’ This charming individual is also on record for calling female Twitter users words including ‘cunt’, ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘bint and spastic.

In January, Schumann sent me abusive tweets, and after I called him out on his unsavoury views on Jews and the Holocaust, he threatened to sue me unless I retracted and apologised, then sent a threatening and defamatory letter about me to my university. Naturally, I did not retract or apologise and Kingston University was not interested in his ‘complaint’. I received help from an eminent solicitor with past experience in dealing with him personally and others of his kind, who wrote him a letter in response to his legal threat, after which he backed off. He has, in fact, repeatedly threatened on Twitter to sue people who have called him out, but never actually followed through.

Ironically, the same Schumann has repeatedly accused ‘Zionists’ and Israel (or ‘Israhell’, as he frequently calls it) of using ‘lawfare’ to silence critics of Zionism. Similarly, when I called Read out on his harassment of me, he attempted to justify himself with ‘I have only done what has been done to me and others.’These ‘anti-Zionists’  have created in their mind an image of what their ‘Zionist enemy’ is like, then emulate its supposed behaviour on the grounds that ‘if they can, we can too’. Historians of anti-Semitism are only too familiar with this form of projection.

This experience has really woken me up to just how poisonous part of the radical subculture that cloaks itself under ‘Palestine solidarity’ has become. It comprises a self-referencing clique divorced from the real world, whose vicious extremism is an end in itself. Their activism has little to do with the Palestinians, about whom none of them clearly gives a damn. They are obsessed by a different ethnic group. No prizes for guessing which.

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.

Refusing the dichotomy

What if we’re wrong: litmus tests on Israel and Palestine by Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, which I’m posting in the spirit of paying attention to bridge builders and thoughtful people.

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