There is a serious problem among UK opinion formers

May 06, 2016 10:13

George Galloway is the man who said that Jews are foreigners in Jerusalem and declared Bradford to be an "Israel-free zone". Last Thursday, he tweeted: "The Israel lobby has just destroyed the Labour Party... It is an amazing achievement. They'll be dancing in Dimona." Mr Galloway says there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party, only mendacious Israeli claims of antisemitism. He offers us an image of Jewish liars celebrating their victory over the UK Labour Party in their Israeli nuclear power plant, the seat of their secret power.

Len McCluskey, the most powerful trade union leader in Britain, and a key Jeremy Corbyn king-maker, said on Sunday about the current storm: "This is nothing more than a cynical attempt to manipulate antisemitism for political aims because this is all about constantly challenging Jeremy Corbyn's leadership." There is no antisemitism, just a conspiracy to allege it.

Some people are optimistic that finally the hidden infection of elite radical antisemitism is coming to a head.

Now that antisemitism has hit the mainstream, people hope, it is being destroyed. But they should not be in such a hurry. The current crisis is an indicator of how bad, not how good things are.

The Labour Party, the unions and the National Union of Students are now led by people who think that Jews invent antisemitism.

The idea that the Jews profit from antisemitism is an old one; it was the substance of Chapter Nine of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It is behind the cranky charge that the Zionists collaborated with Hitler to help them establish their state.

Many Labour members think that John Mann should be disciplined for treacherously raising the issue of antisemitism to harm Labour's performance in the local elections.

Some sophisticated people are saying that while an antisemite used to be a person who hates Jews, he is now a person who the Jews hate. This is a way of saying that there is no antisemitism problem; instead, we are transported back to the "Jewish Question" of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The situation with regard to antisemitism is serious, but not throughout British culture. It is serious in my world, in radical scholarship, in left and liberal politics, in the unions, among a certain set of people who think of themselves as good and enlightened; it is serious in this minority community, but it is an influential and opinion-forming community.

The situation is also serious on the obsessive fringes of the Jewish community. Naz Shah's map of Israel transported to America was created by Norman Finkelstein, the Jewish man who wrote a whole book on the "chutzpah" of "killing Arabs" while "crying antisemitism". Mr Livingstone appealed to the authority of a book written by another Jewish obsessive, Lenni Brenner, for his Nazi nonsense.

But, in mainstream Britain, there is a clear consensus emerging, both within the Jewish community and also among democratic opinion in the country more widely about contemporary antisemitism.

This consensus is articulated in strikingly similar ways by many writers and journalists, Nick Cohen, Howard Jacobson, Anthony Julius, Alan Johnson, Jonathan Freedland, David Aaronovitch, Stephen Pollard, the list goes on; they all describe the phenomenon in similar terms.

There are many academics who see things similarly. The Chief Rabbi, former chief rabbi, the rabbinical leaders of Masorti, Liberal and Reform Judaism agree on the fundamental contours of contemporary antisemitism. Politicians such as Mann, Michael Gove, Wes Streeting, Luciana Berger, Mike Freer, Ruth Deech, Sadiq Khan and many others broadly agree. The key institutions of the Jewish community agree: the Community Security Trust, Bicom, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Union of Jewish Students, even Yachad, are all on board.

The consensus is that there is a relationship between hostility to Israel and antisemitism. This consensus is not surprised to find antisemitism on the left as well as the right. It understands that the impulse to blame the Jews for all that is bad in the world has often been seductive to those who want to make the world radically better. The consensus understands how thinking of most Jews as racists, as Nazis, as pro-apartheid, licenses the treating of Jews as though they were evil. The consensus can see the connection between blood libel and some of the wild accusations levelled against Israel, of murdering children or stealing body parts.

There is consensus on the idea that antisemitism is not always associated with a hatred of Jews, that sometimes it is manifested in institutional norms and practices and in discourse or ways of thinking.

The democratic consensus on antisemitism is anti-racist, too. It sees antisemitism as related to other racisms; it refuses to scapegoat Muslims or foreigners. It wants Jews to stand with other people who are undermined by racist thought and practices.

Importantly there is also consensus on the "Livingstone Formulation" - that it is wrong to say that the problem is with the dishonest Jews who say they detect antisemitism rather than with the antisemitism itself.

The job of Labour's inquiry will be to navigate the Labour Party back into this broad, rational consensus.

But the committee may find itself pulled in another direction as well. Its members will be people who are at home in precisely the left and radical layers of Britain where there is a problem of antisemitism.

This may diminish the ability of the committee to take seriously the broad viewpoints on which mainstream scholars of antisemitism have significant agreement. To bring the Labour Party back to democratic politics could require Mr Corbyn himself to account for his political history.

What we have seen before is that people have started out with the assumption that the left is defined as the space where there is no antisemitism or racism. They then find things which look a bit like antisemitism but which cannot, by definition, be antisemitism.

Take Mr Livingstone. Everybody agrees, even the man himself, that he can be vulgar, rude and offensive. But the committee will find the next step difficult - to concede that somebody who is routinely vulgar, rude and offensive to and about Jews is doing something antisemitic.

The committee will be encouraged by some to describe the problem as a fight between supporters of Israel and Palestine in which both sides overstep the bounds of civility. Then it could position itself in the middle and find balance. Then it could avoid being accused of supporting Israel.

The mainstream consensus sees antisemitism. The antisemitic left sees the Jews playing dirty in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Anti-Zionists insist that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. But as soon as the committee concedes any particular example of such criticism to be antisemitic, the anti-Zionists will find themselves in a new world, having to make judgments between antisemitic criticism on the one hand and legitimate criticism on the other. In other words, they will find themselves in the normal terrain of democratic politics.

The committee's job will be to bring the democratic consensus on antisemitism back into the heart of the Labour Party.

May 06, 2016 10:13

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