What Labour's antisemitism crisis tells us about Britain

The harsh truth for British minorities is that true acceptance means abandoning the parts of your identity that don’t fit, writes Will Self
November 8, 2020

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party created a furore—at least, in the party itself. There have also been dramatic headlines—and a very prominent scalp. Jeremy Corbyn, rather than accept the contents of the report, doubled down on the position he’s maintained throughout this long and winding saga. For Corbyn, while there were some party members who were loose-lipped and some party officials who were cloth-eared, the imbroglio remained epiphenomenal: the real criminals and bigots were, as ever, the capitalist interest and its media lackeys, who blew the issue way out of proportion—thereby fashioning a stick with which to beat the left wing of Labour into submission.

The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, accepted the report without caveats. Yet his suspension of Corbyn from the party for his remarks on the report’s findings—in particular, Corbyn’s implicit denial that officials close to him had interfered with the party’s complaints procedures regarding antisemitism—would suggest that this is only the continuation of the long-running battle between the left and right of the party, one that stretches back to the time of Starmer’s namesake Keir Hardie’s incumbency in the 1900s. Starmer is keen, however, to act as if the EHRC’s report is the beginning of the end—if not the end itself—and that under his leadership there will be zero tolerance of discrimination in any of its forms.

Good luck with that, Sir Keir. Do I believe there are antisemites in the Labour Party to this day? Of course there are—just as there are Islamophobes, those who judge people on the basis of their skin colour, and a fair few who object to any sexual orientation that isn’t heteronormative, and any gender that isn’t cis. I gained a brief and heady trending status on social media in the spring of last year, when I antagonised Mark Francois MP—then deputy chair of the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tories—by saying on the BBC that every racist and antisemite in Britain had voted to leave the European Union. It was mere rhetoric, of course. Plenty of racists and antisemites voted to stay in the EU as well; while those in the Leave contingent may have been Labour supporters, Tories, partisans of just about any stripe—or none. Few things are older than antisemitism, and contrary to some recent suggestions it is far from new on the left. Dig into the diaries of the most respectable Labour figures of the past, and you find Ernest Bevin moaning about Jewish survivors of the then-recent Holocaust “elbowing their way to the front of the queue,” and Hugh Dalton agreeing with Clement Attlee that it would be a mistake to allow too many of the “Chosen People” into his government. Moreover, Starmer’s namesake Hardie objected to Lithuanian miners coming into Scotland—some of whom, presumably, were Jewish—on the grounds that they were “plague-ridden.”

What then to make of the grim situation the Labour Party has more recently got itself into over antisemitism, with Corbyn only the latest of its members, officials and MPs all seemingly queuing up to defenestrate themselves or be defenestrated. First there was Ken Livingstone and MP Naz Shah. Livingstone eventually quit the party over accusations of antisemitism, while maintaining to this day he was the victim of a witch hunt; Shah apologised for the original offensive Facebook post from 2014, built bridges, and has stuck it out. Then, in 2019, nine Labour MPs quit the party by the other door, saying they were unable to remain members given the atmosphere of intolerance engendered by Corbyn, who they perceived as soft on antisemitism to the point of being blind to its tropes—including a notorious mural in East London depicting hook-nosed and malevolent financiers. That same month, the party made public its own measures against those who had infringed its new guidelines on hate speech (introduced in 2017): 350 members had been expelled, left voluntarily, or been otherwise censured—a tiny fraction of the party’s overall membership. Now the ECHR report has spoken of “a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”


Despite Labour suffering an election loss last December so disastrous that it might well be facing an existential crisis, antisemitism—and forms of prejudice more generally—remain an itch that must be scratched until bloody. One way of looking at the new impasse is to see it as a continuation of the old left-right divide in Labour using a new vocabulary of slurs and insults—instead of lambasting rightists as Blairites, they’ve become crypto-Zionists; while instead of being Trots or even crypto-tankies, the left are antisemites. Another way of conceiving the party’s pained auto-cannibalism is that it’s a battle for Muslim votes—which are now more numerous than those of Jews. The shift from being noisily concerned with Islamophobia to dog-whistling antisemitism is apparent rather than real: both are an attempt, itself based on generalising assumptions about Muslim prejudices, to corral the same group of voters.

One of the problems here is that support for Israel—at a bare minimum recognition of the state’s right, as currently constituted, to even exist—has become increasingly contentious over recent decades. The state was born out of armed conflict and the expropriation of Palestinian land, yet a residual aura of progressiveness and egalitarianism still clung to the Israeli project well into the 1970s. Since then, however, the blatancy of Israel’s land-grabs and its repression of Palestinian rights have coincided with the increase of the British Muslim population generally thought to be hostile to Israel. Let me be clear: I don’t believe anyone to be in the right here—there are only different shades of wrong on all sides. However, Labour Party activists—in common with those with radically different politics—seek binary moral choices, both to reinforce their own sense of being doughty campaigners for human rights and social justice, and to facilitate that campaigning with simple slogans. They can also find it easy to, in the words of the old Irish proverb, “travel on another man’s wound.”

If opposition to Israel is conceived of almost as an extension of Holocaust denial, this becomes part of the same crude black-and-white thinking. Israel seeks to actively promote this idea by trying to discredit anti-Zionists. Supporters of Israel are indeed mired in a bizarre sense of exceptionalism: I well remember the extraordinary expression on the face of the right-wing, pro-Zionist commentator Melanie Phillips when, on Question Time, I put it to her that if she believed British Muslims should take an oath of loyalty to the British state, so should British Jews. Her outrage was, I think, only in part to do with the tragic history of European Jewry—it was also, paradoxically, a function of the success of Jewish assimilation in Britain rendering any thought of dual loyalties inconceivable to her. Jews here have married out for three generations now at a rate of about 50 per cent. Jewish and English genotypes, such as they exist, don’t result in markedly different phenotypes.

[su_pullquote]"I antagonised Mark Francois MP by saying that every racist and antisemite had voted to leave the EU. It was mere rhetoric"[/su_pullquote]

Which is presumably why Phillips didn’t realise I myself was of Jewish heritage. Nor did she react in the way many British people do when they learn this, which is to tilt their heads ever-so-slightly and then say something like: “Yes, yes, of course—I see it now.” Not to rhetorically underscore one antisemitic trope with a Jewish rhetorical one, but: I kid you not. To this day, if I tell a British middle-class gentile that I’m half Jewish, they’ll without fail snap back: “Your mother or your father?” And when I concede it was my mother, they’ll re-snap: “that makes you Jewish, then!” To which I’ll wearily counter: “Only according to Jews—you wouldn’t say that to someone with maternal but not paternal African or Chinese heritage.”

You might think my own experience of prejudice is pretty trivial—and it certainly is compared to the racism, both institutional and personal, that people with black and brown skins experience in Britain. Yet in such remarks—intended as philosemitic, but which are really just another form of othering—we can see the true ambit of difference. Melanie Phillips was outraged at the idea that British Zionists might have divided loyalties, presumably because, for her, assimilation has been sufficient for this to be unthinkable. It’s a long time since Irgun terrorists bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing members of the British secretariat, while acts of terror committed by Muslim extremists are very much ongoing. Yet just as British Jewish identity continues to be affected by the actions of the Israeli state, so British Muslim identity is similarly impacted by the activities of state and non-state formations that make claims on their allegiance.


Identities are polymorphous quite as much as perverse. There’s nothing stranger, surely, than insisting on belonging to a culture—whether its membership is defined by religion, ethnicity or something quite arbitrary—the values of which you decline to embrace. Yet this is something we hear often nowadays: people stridently insisting that they be recognised as identified with some particular group, simply in order to insist that we then discount its significance when it comes to making any substantive judgment about them.

Listening to an episode of Radio 4’s The Listening Project, a programme for which friends or acquaintances record a conversation, I was struck by an exchange between Alana, a black British woman of Caribbean heritage, and Penny, a British Jewish woman. Penny, responding to Alana’s plea for more black history to be taught in schools, noted that: “There’s a difference between being embraced for your heritage, or what you do, and there being an undue spotlight.” She went on to relate how one of her children, attending a secondary school where she was the only Jewish pupil, was asked to stand up in assembly and tell the others about Jewish New Year. To Penny this was “horrifying”—and Alana backed her up with sympathetic and shocked noises. Penny continued: “She’s 12 years old, and her interpretation of Jewish New Year is probably like any random secular British Christian child… One person doesn’t represent the whole religion, or the group or the race…”

At this, Alana broke in: “Tell it to the people in the back row!” which rather raises the question which identity these “people” espouse—the covert assumption being that they must be members of a racist white majority. Moreover, while by no means expecting 12-year-olds to be completely versed in the particularities of their culture, inasmuch as that culture exists, is it unreasonable to expect them to possess such knowledge? Penny went on to talk about how growing up in Golders Green in a “secular” Jewish household, her family always distinguished itself from “those Jews,” meaning the Orthodox community who dress distinctively and cleave to values quite different to those of a “secular British Christian”—and isn’t it significant that for Penny, such is the attenuation of religious identity generally, she came out with this oxymoron quite unconsciously.

The oxymoron encapsulates a troubling contradiction: there can be no such thing as a true multi-culture, if by this is meant a society in which numerous groups of citizens with markedly different values coexist because of a supervening single value of toleration. The supervening value of western liberal democracies has never really been toleration, which isn’t as such a value, but rather the turning of a blind eye to incompatible values. No, the supervening western liberal value is progress, figured as an increasing divestment of superstition—whether these be religious beliefs or social practices. Put bluntly: you’re welcome in The Great British Bake Off tent wearing a hijab, but not full niqab. What makes you a member of a liberal, democratic and inclusive culture is your increasing willingness to allude to—rather than fervently embrace—the markers of your difference: to be the 12-year-old, nominally Jewish girl who knows nothing of Jewish New Year, rather than one of “those” Jews.

[su_pullquote]"The real dirty secret of liberal democracies is that they have survived by allowing for cultural as well as economic mobility"[/su_pullquote]

Jewish assimilation in Britain has by and large been a success: the large numbers of Jews who arrived in the last decades of the 19th and first of the 20th centuries, fleeing pogroms unleashed in the Pale of Settlement, were initially viewed with great suspicion—not least by Jews of German origin (and Sephardic ones), who had preceded them and were already assimilating. But by the time I was growing up in the Hampstead Garden Suburb in the 1960s, the English Jews who lived around us were—to an untutored eye—pretty much indistinguishable from the English host culture. My strident, New York Jewish mother was fond of quoting the antisemite GK Chesterton: “The Jews are like everyone else—but more so.” Which she then glossed: “That means that English Jews are like the English—but more so, and how dull is that?”

About the last time I can remember any old-fashioned dog-whistle antisemitism being played out in public life was in the 1980s, during the trial of Ernest Saunders et al for the insider-trading of Guinness shares. That the so-called “Guinness Four” were all Jews was hinted at rather than directly stated. My mother’s impression of the “colourlessness” (her term) of English Jews was only confirmed by the similarity—both to each other, and the majority gentile population—in terms of mien, manner and, crucially, values of such Tory politicians as Nigel Lawson, Michael Howard, Leon Brittan, Keith Joseph, Edwina Currie and Malcolm Rifkind (to name only a few). Naturally, the same can be observed of the Labour benches during this period and up until the present day. More recently, it is indeed the case that Jews such as Jon Lansman, the founder of the Corbyn ginger group Momentum, are sufficiently assimilated that their political allegiance trumps their supposed cultural affiliation. 

Looked at in this allegedly progressive way, the Labour Party’s current fankle is hopefully only a way station en route to greater ideological purity—after all, in a properly socialist society there’s no place for those who are happy to be defined by bloodline and tradition, any more than there is for those who think salvation lies in submission to Allah. And in this, the party is only a synecdoche of the wider society; because the conflict between Jewish Labour Party members who have perceived the apparatus as inherently antisemitic, and those who view such Jews (and their supporters) as reactionary crypto-Zionists, is in no way different to that being played out between those liberals who demand the inclusion of multiple—and increasingly fissiparous—identities, and those more traditional ones who insist there be “open debate” concerning such matters. The latter position—as the more extreme supporters of heterogenous identities are quick to point out—rests on a large premise that has been poorly buried: the irreconcilability of multiple cultures within a single society.


So, where do we go from here? If a genuinely progressive attitude consists in anything at all, it’s in a willingness to talk these things out, rather than resorting to invective or violence. Yet just as liberal democracies have survived by affording at least some class mobility, so their real dirty secret is that they have also survived by allowing for cultural mobility: the separation of “those” Jews from the main. The presence of the Holocaust, often cited as the unanswerable justification for multiculturalism, is far more significant than the uses made of it by some Zionists to reinforce Jewish exceptionalism. For members of the African diaspora, the chattel slavery that accompanied European expansionism plays the same role.

Yet what both examples really exemplify is that the liberal project has hit the buffers—which is why those in search of the impossible have taken to trying to re-engineer the past. The pandemic has only returned us to the reality revealed by the financial collapse of 2007-8: there’s no rising tide anymore in the overfished oceans of the west, and all boats cannot, therefore, be lifted. The Jews, as a minority that has benefited in the past from assimilation, are now suffering in no small part from the rage of others, and their vicarious cheerleaders, who can no longer meaningfully aspire to such inclusion. For the price of assimilation—the necessary correlate of acceptance—will always be deracination.