Proud past: Cable Street mural, depicting the 1936 stand by locals and the left against Oswald Mosley’s antisemitic blackshirts. Image © Louis Berk / Alamy Stock Photo

Divided we fall: learning the right lessons from Labour’s antisemitism crisis

It’s perverse—and ahistorical—to force a choice between battling anti-black racism and fighting antisemitism
November 2, 2021

It is hard to summon the strength to revisit the miserable story of Labour’s antisemitism crisis, now that it no longer dominates the political news as it did through 2018 and 2019. But it is important to do so. First, because it has potentially disturbing implications for progressive politics and the struggle against racism in the years ahead. Second, because although you no longer hear about it, there remains a sense that it has not gone away but merely changed form. 

Indeed, the crisis splits into two main periods, divided by the change in the party’s leadership. As leader, Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having done things that were likely to offend Jews, and sometimes this criticism was true (for example, his rushed and disastrous support on Facebook for Mear One’s Freedom for Humanity mural in Tower Hamlets). Corbyn was suspended from Labour in October 2020 for his less than enthusiastic response to the damning EHRC report into the party’s handing of antisemitism. The former leader remains banished from the Labour benches.

The criticisms of Corbyn when he was leader encouraged a response similiar to many online conflicts, where those accused of some wrong respond by determinedly carrying on with exactly the behaviour of which they are accused. Labour parliamentary candidates shared posts speaking of “Zionist Masters.” One council candidate reposted material on social media calling the Holocaust a “hoax.” Thousands of Labour supporters engaged in conspiracist language, calling Jewish MPs who were critical of Corbyn traitors, claiming that they were more loyal to Israel than the left.

By the time Keir Starmer took over in 2020, the worst of this behaviour had ended. However, in order to prevent the recurrence of it (or at least the associated press criticism of it which, as one study found, ran to 6,000 articles between 2015 and 2019), the party has not only maintained but sped up investigations, recruiting 50 agency workers since the start of the summer. If previously there had been some interest in investigating whether or not behaviour had been racist, now the focus is squarely on excluding the new leadership’s factional opponents. One part of the continued antisemitism investigations is the present round of so-called “auto-exclusions,” which have focused on two groups. The first are members of four Labour left-wing factions, by far the largest of which is a descendant of the Militant of the 1980s, which has no history of antisemitism. The second main group are people who have said that any part of Labour’s probe is exaggerated.

Given that Jeremy Corbyn received the vocal support of many left-wing Jews, enthused by his support for Palestinian rights and often especially wary of the way that Israel and some of its supporters invoke antisemitism to brush off criticism of that country, the campaign against those alleging hyperbole has led to the disproportionate expulsion of left-wing Jews. A study published in August 2021 found that 35 Jewish people had been investigated.

One is Heather Mendick, who until recently was secretary of the Hackney South and Shoreditch Constituency Labour Party. She describes having suffered many months of harassment from members of the party, focused on her status as a Jewish supporter of Corbyn. The party refused to investigate her complaints. Finally, Mendick was sent a letter telling her that she was being investigated for 14 tweets in which she accused parts of the party of weaponising antisemitism for factional reasons. In her account, she says she “received the email accusing me, a Jewish person, of antisemitism on Erev Rosh Hashanah when Jews believe that G-d writes our fate for the coming year in the book of life or book of death. The email requested a response during the 10 days of repentance before Yom Kippur, the day when G-d seals our fate.” 

While the press has lost interest in the story, the suffering of Jewish people at Labour’s hands continues, yet it is a different set of Jewish people suffering now—not the Jewish Labour right whose complaints were amplified by the national press, but the friendless Jewish left.

Amid this ugly, faction-ridden tale, one strand of commentary threatens to make things worse. It presents the party’s difficulties under Corbyn as caused by a surfeit of a kind of anti-racism from which Jews, seen as “white,” were always excluded. The absurd conclusion to this line of thought is that to deal with antisemitism, Labour needs to water down its commitment to wider anti-racism.

Prominent commentator Melanie Phillips suggests that the left ignores anti-Jewish prejudice because of an assumption that Jews are white. Not all are, she acknowledges, “but the belief that they are means they can never be considered victims.” The insistence that Jews are victims is matched, in Phillips’s case, with an equally firm conviction that others cannot truly be victims of racism. “Islamophobia,” she told readers of the Jewish Chronicle this year, “was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood to mimic antisemitism… [it] appropriates to itself the unique attribute of antisemitism—that it is deranged—in order falsely to label any adverse comment about the Islamic world as a form of mental disorder.”

Another article, by Zoe Strimpel in the Spectator last year, insists that anti-racist movements saw Jews as part of a colonialist and racist Zionist conspiracy, manifested in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. “It’s no wonder that the Black Lives Matter movement has a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism. Jews, after all, are easily elided with ideas of the monstrous Jewish state, as Corbyn’s party made clear.” The piece insisted BLM’s failings were both “sinister” and “unavoidable.” What it seemed to be saying was that anti-racists have never been able—and maybe could never be able—to understand the Jews. They were just doomed, at best, to tolerate antisemitism. 

Yet prejudice doesn’t only run in one direction. Think of the anti-Corbyn Labour staffers whose private messages were leaked in spring 2020. Several denigrated black MPs on Labour’s left. They wrote that “[Diane] Abbott is truly repulsive,” and that she “literally makes me sick.” They were no more flattering about fellow black MPs Clive Lewis or Dawn Butler. Many of these officials were going to the press daily, stressing their contempt for antisemitism. Good—but what about anti-black racism? (I use that term as short-hand for discrimination against any people of colour.) 

Often, on the Labour left, you could see the equivalent problem: an inability to understand antisemitism, unless it was repackaged to seem akin to anti-black racism, and treated as a less serious example of that prejudice. In Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s Left Out, there is an interview with Andrew Murray, a Unite official who worked for Corbyn. He told them: “Racism in British society since the Second World War… means discrimination at work, discrimination in housing, hounding by the police on the streets, discrimination and disadvantage in education, demonisation and mischaracterisation in the mass media… The fascists I knew in the 1970s didn’t go out Jew-hunting, they went out Paki-bashing.”

At least Murray was by then being self-critical and moving towards the realisation that different kinds of racism might emerge for different reasons. But the attitude that he was describing in which you had to select between fighting different kinds of racism was depressingly widespread. 

One of the strange features of the saga is the great contrast between developments in the United States, where arguments for solidarity are commonly heard, and here—where the approach has been to separate out different minorities and insist that the interests of one must be traded against another.

In the US, when Black Lives Matter was reborn in May 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, dozens of Jewish groups spoke out in favour of the protests. This included Jewish campaigns for social justice (T’ruah, and Keshet), campaigns associated with Reform Judaism (the Religious Action Center), movements against antisemitism (the Anti-Defamation League),  politically liberal campaigns (such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), as well as the Rabbinical Assembly (an association of rabbis from the Conservative and Masorti strands of Judaism) and even the Orthodox Union.

In America, which under Donald Trump witnessed the most violent antisemitic attacks in the country’s history (the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue killings, in which 11 people died), Jewish opinion has consolidated leftwards, with a solid four out of five Jewish voters identifying as “soft” or “strong” Democrats in summer 2020. Some 75 per cent of American Jews saw the far right as a serious threat to Jews, whereas only 32 per cent felt the same about the left. Meanwhile, in the UK, as the press keeps on telling us, the perception has been almost exactly the reverse. (No serious analysis has suggested that there is a far left violent threat that compares with that from the antisemitic far right, whose virulence was confirmed by a Community Safety Trust probe into online “Hate Fuel” last year.)

“The great writers of the anti-racist tradition were frequently fierce opponents of antisemitism”

But the belief appears to be widespread in Britain that the interests of Jewish people on the one hand and black people on the other must necessarily be opposed. You can notice and reject anti-Jewish racism; you can notice and reject anti-black racism; you cannot do both. Indeed, the more you do one, the less capable you are of the other. 

Those remarks from Murray about reducing racism purely to economic disadvantage and street violence show one potential entry point into this error on the left. On the right, meanwhile, the lapse into this position begins with the singular insistence on Jewish communal interests, saying that they must come before everyone else’s. Such a politics almost celebrates tearing up the remaining links between Jewish and black opinion on the grounds that no one else can be trusted to support Jews. But there is a paradox here. Such a philosophy is strictly, on its own terms, an anti-racism: it begins from the premise that Jewish people have been the victims of hatred for centuries. On the other hand, it is suspicious, even hostile, to the politics of safety or liberation should any other group of people also demand them.

It’s a bleak analysis, but—happily—it’s entirely awry. The great writers of the anti-racist tradition were themselves frequently fierce opponents of antisemitism, although—encouraging for hopes of enlightenment and reconciliation today—it sometimes took them some time to realise it. Let me give three examples. 

Aimé Césaire was a communist poet and activist from Martinique whose 1950 pamphlet, Discourse on Colonialism, had as its theme the relationship between the European colonial powers and the collapse of Europe into fascism. Much of what interested Césaire was the way in which colonialism had dehumanised both the victims of empire and its rulers, who had been encouraged into race hatred and violence. Racism, he insisted, had made Europeans accomplices to murder, a process that they ignored because, until the Holocaust, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.

So far, you might think that Césaire sounds like an anti-racist indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, which was to be understood only as a secondary phenomenon. But this is what he had to say about the Holocaust, and the period of European blindness about the threat posed by fascism that preceded it: “People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind—it’s Nazism, it will pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms.”

“The supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism”: here was a black writer willing to centre his understanding of history—and of the evils of racism—as much around the experience of the Jews as around the black people of Africa or the Caribbean.

Or think of the historian and inspiration for many later waves of black liberation, WEB Du Bois. His 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk referred to Jews as either “enterprising” or as “unscrupulous.” Fifty years later, however, by which time Du Bois had also worked with Jewish radicals and travelled to postwar Poland and seen the rubble left by Nazi occupation, he grasped that parts of his book should never have been published: “I did not, when writing, realise that by stressing the name of the group instead of what some members of the [group] may have done, I was unjustly maligning a people in exactly the same way my folk were then and are now falsely accused.” For an intellectual of Du Bois’s stature to acknowledge his fault and apologise is a sign of the seriousness with which he took anti-Jewish racism.

Another Du Bois piece, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto” reflected on the “utter destruction” he saw in Poland. Visiting had caused him to reconsider anti-black racism: “The problem of slavery, emancipation and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing… It was not even a matter of colour and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the colour line had been a real and efficient cause of misery.”

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Solidarity cutting across the “colour line”—WEB Du Bois. Image © IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

He began to see that racism could draw on different imagined characteristics, taking forms unlike those Du Bois himself had experienced: “[T]he race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of colour and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people.”

Finally, think of the novelist and essayist James Baldwin, who sought to make sense of the New York in which he had grown up and in which many black families had seen their interests as pitted against those of the Jews. 

Baldwin described a black Christian fascination with the Jews, combined with a keen knowledge of the long Jewish history of suffering as told in the Old Testament. “The hymns, the texts, and the most favoured legends of the devout Negro are all Old Testament and therefore Jewish in origin.” 

Baldwin’s father had been a preacher, and he grew up in a Christian tradition capable of flitting between “the pressure of life in Harlem, the conduct of the Italian-Ethiopian war” and the story of the Jewish flight from Egypt. “The more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for a Moses.” Baldwin was keen to understand antisemitism, and the way Jews were being turned into a “symbol” for “hatred” in ways that could only set back black emancipation.

Elsewhere Baldwin tried to speak to the white authors of the late 1960s, who refused to acknowledge how far black oppression continued after the Civil Rights Act. “Very few Americans, and very few Jews, have the courage to recognise that the America of which they dream, and boast, is not the America in which the Negro lives. It is a country which the Negro has never seen.”

“We have sorely needed an anti-racist politics that does not treat Jews as legitimate collateral damage”

From there, however, he went on to insist that antisemitism was a form of racism no less brutal than any other. And if it prospered, such prejudice could only end in the suffering of innocents: “All racist positions baffle and appal me… One must ask oneself, if one decides that black or white or Jewish people are, by definition, to be despised, is one willing to murder a black or white or Jewish baby: for that is where the position leads.” If that insight was good for the diverse and in many respects divided New York of the postwar world, then why not for London or Manchester today? 

Ever since we saw the first signs of a growing antisemitism on the British left, we have sorely needed an anti-racist politics that does not treat Jews as legitimate collateral damage in the more important struggle between whites and blacks or Muslims—but that instead is alive to the variety and complexity of Jewish experience. And that treats all forms of racism to the same unforgiving hostility.

It should not have been so hard for solidarity to flourish; and even now it is not too late.