Labour’s anti-semitism row is really about Israel

11 Apr 2018

The Labour Party has a serious problem with anti-semitism. This is now true regardless of whether you believe the vast majority of allegations being made genuinely constitute anti-semitism, or whether you believe the problem exists on a greater scale than in other parties and is not just going beneath the radar elsewhere. It is true regardless of these things because the party (from Jeremy Corbyn downwards) has up until now dealt particularly badly both with the allegations being made, the media fallout from them, and the subsequent endangering of Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community. At least some of the allegations are open-and-shut cases of anti-semitism which no right-thinking person would even consider disputing. As for the rest, they are still accusations of language or behaviour demonstrating racist and/or religious prejudice. Any such allegation has to be taken very seriously and dealt with in a timely manner, even if it may not ultimately be judged to have been an instance of anti-semitism.


Yet, despite all of this, I have been feeling uneasy about this ongoing fracas. I don’t even want to attempt to directly address the question of what proportion of these allegations are substantive. Others may feel it is easy to do this without having seen more than the worst examples of abuse. I don’t. That is partly because of the findings of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research last year. They found that those who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum are no more likely to express anti-semitic statements than the average British citizen. More surprisingly, they found the same to be true for those who self-described as “far left” in their study. But they also found that left-wing respondents were more likely to express anti-Israel sentiments, and far left respondents even more likely to do so.


How do we square this with the widespread impression that the Labour Party is currently chock-full of anti-semites? I worry that we can’t – that what is actually happening (notwithstanding my earlier comments) is a kind of moral panic confusing anti-semitism with what in many cases is merely insensitive language and behaviour, along side simple wrong-thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict among left-wing activists.      


I confess I was hesitant to stick my head above the parapet and type that last paragraph. I have long been wary of getting involved in disputes about anti-semitism, for the same reason I am also often wary of expressing my opinions on Israel-Palestine. These two subjects are perhaps impossible to disentangle from each other. They both have a polarising effect on a good deal of otherwise reasonable, intelligent folk, who tend to gravitate strongly towards simplistic, almost tribalist positions whenever they are raised in debate. Each time another round of violence flares up in the contested region, too many people instantly rush to take sides, downplaying the actions of their preferred protagonist and emphasizing the guilt of the other party. Here are two statements about the Israel-Palestine conflict which are both assented to by a significant number of people within one of these groups. I agree with neither of them.


1)    All Jewish people had a legitimate right of return to the lands their ancestors had resided in in Palestine, a right which justified the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians from their homes

2)    The modern state of Israel in 2018 has no right to exist, and ought to be absorbed into a single Palestinian state with or without the consent of Israeli citizens


These two statements cannot be considered in isolation from the row over anti-semitism because of the intense controversy surrounding the term “Zionism”. Zionism is one of many labels used in political discourse which has over time come to be stripped of any objective meaning. It originally referred to the belief that the Jewish people (assumed to be one “people”) should construct a nation in their ancestral homeland of Israel. Many people today interpret it as the belief that that nation of Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish homeland, and therefore have the right to protect itself from any threats to its existence. 

Yet this is a strange definition because it is possible to retrospectively oppose the re-establishment of Israel in 1948 and yet support its continuing existence in 2018 and beyond. Which just so happens to be my position. I don’t believe that secular liberals are compelled to support theological arguments for the right to seize possession of any piece of land ones’ distant ancestors inhabited, especially when that land has been inhabited by others for centuries. Nor do they have the right to deny those existing inhabitants their right to self-determination. Religious toleration does not trump the protection of other human rights. 


None of this is changed by the events of the Holocaust. One injustice does not cancel out another (and no, I don’t believe these were comparable events either in scale, or the kind of hurt caused or in the philosophies behind them, merely that both the Shoah and the Nakba were injustices). 


But if one injustice does not cancel out another then it would clearly be wrong if as many as seven decades later we tried to clumsily rewrite history by forcibly displacing the new set of inhabitants, and in turn denying their right to self-determination. This means that if we accept the aforementioned definition of Zionism, it would have to follow that a long-term observer of events in Israel-Palestine with consistent principles on self-determination would have magically transformed from an anti-Zionist into a Zionist at some point in the last seventy years, without at any point having been committed to the idea of an ethnically or religiously determined “homeland” for anyone. This is conceptually absurd.


There are also other ridiculous modern usages of the word “Zionism.” Some opponents of successive Israeli governments have used it to refer to whatever policies those governments have been engaged in. Still others have simply chosen to use it as a synonym for “Jew.” 


I do not envy Labour’s disputes panel, who are faced with this linguistic soup. Trying to establish the intent behind each usage of the label “Zionist” in order to determine whether the accused has engaged in racism and/or religious prejudice is no small task. Context is often key, but even here things may not be clear-cut. A reference to “the Zionist lobby” could either be a deliberate attempt to invoke the racial stereotype of a controlling Jewish interest lobby pulling the strings of global puppets in politics and the media, or it could simply be a reference to the large number of individuals and organizations that consistently support the Israeli government and military, even in some of their most controversial acts. 


If you want racists to fall into language traps you have set for them by saying things that were not originally racist, then you’d better prepare to catch an awful lot of non-racists in your traps as well (thereby undermining freedom of speech). You’d also better be prepared to keep setting new traps, since the racists will get wise to the shifting rules and simply come up with new ways of expressing their vitriol.  


It is an uncomfortable truth that the religious teachings of mainstream Judaism deliberately conflate ethnicity, religion and nationality. Generations of Jews have been taught that by being born to ethnically Jewish ancestors they are one of God’s chosen people. They have also been taught that this identity entitles them to call the ancient territory of Israel their home, rather than their birthplace or current residence. It is not surprising that someone who holds these views may consider anyone opposed to the idea of a Jewish homeland as racially and religiously prejudiced. But just because they conflate ethnicity, religion and nationality does not mean their disputant does.


Defenders of the secular, liberal order are faced with the difficult task of protecting Jews from racism and religious discrimination, and protecting the right of modern Israelis to self-determine their nationality whilst simultaneously arguing that versions of nationalism based on religious or ethnic identity are abhorrent. It is paramount that we do not give up doing either of these things, but I think it is evident that too many people have been able to exploit the conflations in the thinking of many (not all) Jews to engage in underhand anti-semitism. I think there are also others who are simply confused by these conflations. They are unsure where the Jew ends and the Israeli, Brit, Zionist, anti-Zionist, theist, agnostic or atheist begins. That is one reason why specific education on anti-semitism and Jewish history needs to be provided to Labour members. This must be in special, dedicated sessions that should nevertheless form part of a package of wider training on racism and religious prejudice.


None of this is to say that anti-semitism is not a serious problem in the Labour Party. But the strength of the public and media perception that something stinks in the party at the moment is not entirely to do with anti-semitism. It is at least in part being caused by the fact that many left-wing activists are stuck in 1948 and cannot see how the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine question have changed since that time. Given this fact, it is not surprising that some of them are saying wildly inappropriate, offensive and outrageous things about Israel, and about those who identify strongly with that nation (many of whom happen to be Jewish). Some of these things being said knowingly express racist or religious prejudice, some of them do so because the person saying them is being careless with language, but some of what is being said (I have no idea how much) is not anti-semitic, it is merely a clumsy, outdated form of anti-Zionism – a cause so antiquated that even its name has outlived its use.

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