My doubts about Oxford Labour antisemitism claim

By Jon Lansman, February 25, 2016

Last week, the JC led with a story of alleged antisemitism at Oxford University Labour Club. National newspapers picked up the story and ministers and shadow cabinet members were drawn into the furore. Another outrage exposed, job well done?

I take charges of antisemitism very seriously indeed. I may have been described as a "Corbynista" by the JC - and shunned as such by a fellow guest over a Shabbos dinner - but what I learned from my parents about antisemitism and the Holocaust was the starting point of my political journey.

The conclusions I drew were universalist rather than specific to Jews. I wanted to fight injustice and oppression and hatred whoever were the victims. But my Jewish identity and antisemitism are at the core of my left Labour politics and so I welcome an investigation into antisemitism at Oxford University.

If there is antisemitism anywhere, on the right or left, it should be condemned. The charges have been made and we need a proper impartial enquiry. If it is true that Labour students "have some kind of problem with Jews", we certainly need to know. Racism, including antisemitism, is not new in the Labour movement: it was not until the 1980s that the efforts to eradicate it became serious, and that was thanks in part to Ken Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council.

But knowing two of the individuals at the centre of the current row, and regarding neither of them as being in any way antisemitic, I am concerned about the way the charges have been brought and how judgements are being made about them.

In combating antisemitism, charges must be carefully constructed and proportionate. I am entirely willing to criticise people on the left, as I have done with Ken Livingstone, for sloppy use of language: for using the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing. Doing so is always ill-advised and counter-productive. Sometimes it can be an indicator of antisemitism. That can only be judged in context and is often not the case.

If the context fails to demonstrate that the intent is antisemitic, then to levy the charge of antisemitism is at best to diminish and at worst to trivialise a serious matter. If admonishment is still due, it should be for a significantly lesser offence.

And then there is the matter of Israel and Zionism. In a democracy, there must be a space in which, for Jew and non-Jew, criticism of both Israel and Zionism is possible.

I would normally advise against using comparisons of current Israeli policy with apartheid. It is a tactic that is guaranteed to alienate potential Jewish supporters even if there are some valid comparisons. But should we condemn Haaretz.com editor Bradley Burston as a self-hating Jew for doing so?

Zionism has come a long way in my political lifetime. As a very young man, I was somewhat in awe of Jewish MP Ian Mikardo - a major figure of both the Labour left and Labour Zionism, which then still appeared to be the dominant strand in both Israel and Britain.

Now it is right-wing Zionism that is dominant in both countries, though a bit less so in Britain, at least among Jewish Zionists. Its leaders have other reasons for castigating Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, and there is no shortage of commentators or politicians who have little interest in combating antisemitism in Britain to lap this up.

Even within the Labour Party, some people have factional reasons for stoking the flames of the bandwagon that Haaretz called the "Oxford firestorm". Oxford University Labour Club, it turns out, is a key battle ground between the Corbynistas and the Blairites for control of Labour's youth section.

Former Jewish Leadership Council CEO Jeremy Newmark is right to argue that we should be concerned not only about "Holocaust denial" but also about "antisemitism denial". But not at the expense of allowing the trivialisation of antisemitism through its opportunistic misuse as a political football, in the way that Benjamin Netanyahu did when he claimed it was a Palestinian who inspired Hitler to carry out the Holocaust.

Jon Lansman is founder of the Momentum group and was a key figure in Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader

Last updated: 9:47am, February 25 2016