Ivor Gaber

Why my antisemitism antenna keeps twitching

Why does Israel-bashing arouse unique passions in the Labour Party?

October 02, 2017 16:41

Let me begin with a declaration of interest so that readers know, as they say, where I am coming from. 

I am Jewish by birth and an atheist by belief. I was one of the original signatories to the declaration of Jews for Justice for the Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices, so I can hardly be described as a friend of the current Israeli Government or any of its immediate predecessors.

But why, at every Labour conference I have attended as a journalist and observer, does my trusty antisemitism antenna almost always start twitching?

I am no Jewish snowflake. I have sat in meeting after meeting where platform speakers have made legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government - both this one and Labour's before, and have offered, in the main, thoughtful insights into the origins of the state of Israel and of the whole Zionist mission.

But then, as soon as the discussion is opened to the audience, my discomfort begins.

Take Jeremy Corbyn's closing conference speech at this year’s conference for example. In the section on foreign affairs he spoke about the Saudi onslaught on Yemen, the oppression of the Rohingyas and the death toll in the Congo. Each reference received polite applause. Then he mentioned Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the polite applause exploded into yelps of agreement and a standing ovation.


Going back as far as I can recall, and that's to the Labour conference of 1978, even during the Blair years the Israel/Palestine dispute always received more attention than any other foreign issue. This year the foreign affairs debate was dominated by Labour's stance on Brexit. The only other issue discussed was - you've guessed it - Israel/Palestine. 

Attention is one thing; that's fine, though one is always tempted  to ask what about all the other countries deserving approbation- Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Zimbabwe etc? - but there's always been more than just attention to Israeli/Palestine. 

There's a quality to the audience responses and some of the speeches  which is, not to overstate it, visceral. Clearly, Israeli governments over time have been guilty of treating the Palestinians in all manner of condemnatory ways; those of us who follow these matters closely probably know more about the behaviour of Israeli administrations than most of those who join in the general condemnation of the state.

But it's more than just the reaction of the crowd. Speakers at the rostrum denounce Israel with a passion demonstrably  greater than that which they muster to denounce any other government.

Again why?

I do not buy the argument that because many of these speeches are made by Jews  they can somehow be legitimised. There is often cogency to their arguments, but not to the emotionalism they bring to a subject which is already over-charged with emotion. There is no greater encouragement to the hysteria than the opening lines  of an anti-Zionist speech that begins "As a Jew …”. And let's not forget there  were some  Jews who initially supported Hitler until he started murdering them. And who can forget Lenin's notion of "useful idiots"? 

I was at the launch of the newly formed Jewish Labour Voices at Brighton last week. I was curious to hear where the group stood. I heard some thoughtful contributions from the platform but once the meeting  was opened to the floor the old antenna twitch began all over again. 

I was also taken aback by the announcement from the platform that non-Jews were also welcome to join. Now I’ve got nothing against non-Jews - indeed “some of my best friends..." - but isn't it a touch curious that an organisation that describes itself as "a network of Jewish members of the Labour Party" could end up with a majority membership of non-Jews?

But I did get something positive from the meeting. Professor Avi Shlam, an Israeli based at Oxford University, outlined his own position. He’d served proudly in the Israeli Defence Force in1967 when Israel faced an existential threat from its Arab neighbours (at an insignificant level I was there too - as a volunteer, picking apples).  After the lightening victory in the Six Day War  he (and I)  assumed that Israel would reach an early settlement and withdraw to its pre-67 borders. It didn’t but I remain a supporter of the absolute right of the state to exist within its internationally recognised borders. If this makes me a Zionist it is a badge I am happy to wear.

Jews have played a proud part in the history of the Labour Movement, indeed Poale Zion, now the Jewish Labour Movement, was one of the founders of the party. This issue has the potential to tear Labour apart and could cost it valuable votes and seats in the next elections, and not just in the ‘bagel belt’ in North London.

The new policy agreed at the conference is a good start but it’s just the bare bones. The Labour leadership now needs to make the fine words a daily reality.

But now Len McCluskey and Ken Loach have said that they’d never experienced antisemitism in the Labour Party, I realise I must be mistaken – or maybe they are?

Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex

October 02, 2017 16:41

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive