Earlier this week, I got a direct message from a US columnist I’ve worked with in the past. It read: “Has Labour lost its mind? Was the party always this anti-Semitic or is it just blind fealty to Corbyn? Everything about his support within the party is bewildering to me.” Well, quite.
Almost simultaneously, The New Yorker published Sam Knight’s latest letter from London, which was his take on “Jeremy Corbyn’s Anti-Semitism Crisis”—though, as luck would have it, the magazine must have gone to press just before the latest convulsion in that crisis, which occurred last Friday when The Daily Mail published photographs of Corbyn in 2014, the year before he became Labour Party leader, apparently involved in a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial in Tunis for members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist group that carried out the infamous 1972 attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. (For those interested in the specifics, Jonathan Freedland provides a useful tally in The Guardian.)
From a journalist’s point of view, Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis is the gift that keeps on giving. The controversy was already a year old or so in 2016, when the British author of a book on the subject, Dave Rich, wrote a commentary for The Times (I was Rich’s editor on that). And readers of the Review recently received a comprehensive catch-up on the story from Geoffrey Wheatcroft.
There is no sign of the crisis abating, for which the responsibility lies largely with Corbyn himself. As ever, with his responses to previous episodes in the “Anti-Semitism Crisis,” he has given an equivocal account of his conduct that has satisfied no one. “I was present at that wreath-laying, I don’t think I was actually involved in it,” he told a Sky News interviewer. Not fully an explanation, nor an apology; not quite a denial, nor yet a full-throated defense. The main effect in Britain is to leave Corbyn’s critics stewing in their outrage, Corbyn loyalists fuming with righteous anger at the smears of their Dear Leader, and British Jews feeling utterly dismayed and alienated from Labour. The main impression abroad must surely be—as for my American columnist—to reinforce a growing sense that there can be no smoke without fire, and that the party of Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Barbara Castle must have been taken over by anti-Zionist zealots and Jew-hating bigots.
The difficulty with this story is that, in proper perspective, it is absurd. Labour does have a problem with Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the party, but, as I told my American friend, the Labour Party is not that anti-Semitic. The controversy is, in reality, a displacement of a deeper, more systemic political rift in the party. And, in vital ways, that’s a far more significant obstacle than the administrative-disciplinary issue of rooting out a small minority of Holocaust equivocators and vitriolic anti-Zionists.
The problem is thus real, but also a giant distraction. This is an argument for the need to reframe our understanding of why anti-Semitism seems to loom so large in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The true story is that the fight between Corbyn skeptics and Corbyn fans over Jews and Israel has become a ruinous proxy for what is, in its essence, a struggle between social-democrats and socialists for the soul of the party.
None of this is to minimize the issue of actually-existing anti-Semitism in Britain, within the Labour Party and without. Nor is it an apologia for Corbyn himself. He is fully the author of his troubles; he has a tin ear for the legitimate concerns of British Jews and has consistently handled the problem badly. No one seriously believes that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite, nor disbelieves his protestations that he is a lifelong anti-racist. It is necessary to understand, though, that his mishandling of the anti-Semitism crisis is not a display of incompetence; it comes from his being unwilling and, in fact, unable to disavow one iota of the hard-left ideology, including reflexive solidarity with any group describing itself as a national liberation movement, to which he has adhered all his adult life. His foot-dragging on this issue is thus a feature, not a bug.
Corbyn aside, there is certainly anti-Semitism in Britain, but it remains predominantly a phenomenon of the traditional polite-snob anti-Semite—found more in England’s shires, suburbs, and golf clubs than on its metropolitan streets. One partial exception to this is the strong anti-Israel feeling, which sometimes shades recklessly into what certainly sounds like Jew-hate, among a minority of hotheaded British Muslims.
Another, related exception is that among the huge wave of mainly young, more left-wing people who joined Labour in the last five years and helped to elect Corbyn as leader, there is a new stridency and passion on the Israel-Palestine issue—particularly aligned with support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. (For a brilliant exposition of the politics of the BDS movement, see Nathan Thrall’s recent Long Read in The Guardian.) As Israeli politics have moved rightward under pressure from pro-settler politicians committed to an ethno-nationalist state and gradual annexation of the occupied territories, the voices of condemnation from activists have become louder. And some of the noisiest are failing to make distinction between criticizing the current Israeli government and its policies and rejecting outright the whole Zionist enterprise—which is, in effect, to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish homeland. And when the anti-Zionist rhetoric reaches a pitch where the insult “Zio” is simply code for “Jew,” we are fully in the zone of left-wing anti-Semitism.
How widespread is this in the grassroots culture of Corbyn’s Labour? It is hard to tell with full assurance from hearsay knowledge gleaned from social media. But is there sometimes tension in inner-city Labour Party branches between Jewish and Muslim members, and between Momentum activists and old-school moderates, particularly over Israel? Definitely. Has it led to some ugly episodes and unacceptable intimidation in the recent past? Undoubtedly. Does Corbyn’s Labour Party have a sound record of disciplining such infractions? Clearly not. But has the Labour Party been taken over by anti-Semites? That’s ridiculous.
What is not ridiculous to say is that there has been a takeover in Labour. The old anti-imperialist left of Corbyn’s day has found a new lease of life. A fringe that was, for decades, mainly outside the Labour Party, with an impotent rump of parliamentary supporters that included Corbyn, now has an unassailable majority on the party’s national executive committee. And Corbyn’s circle of advisers reflects and reinforces the moral absolutism of his political instincts. The anti-imperialist left is, in short, running the show.
The name of Seumas Milne, a former Guardian journalist now Labour’s head of strategy and communications, often emerges in this connection. His case illuminates precisely the ideological direction of Corbyn’s Labour. Milne has a brilliant intellect and there is vanishingly little he does not know about anti-Semitism, its traps and tropes. (I know this because I owe a good deal of my own education on the subject to him, a former colleague.) Milne himself would never have fallen into his boss’s grossest errors—of failing to notice, for example, that a London mural whose removal Corbyn protested in a recently-resurfaced 2012 Facebook posting contained shockingly obvious and explicit anti-Semitic stereotypes. But Milne is in lockstep with Corbyn in cleaving to the hard left’s anti-imperialist line that whatever the faults of authoritarians such as Putin, Assad, and Maduro, they are at least enemies of American hegemony, and the crimes of the United States and Israel are infinitely worse.
The success of the leftist takeover of Labour was sealed in 2016, shortly after the Brexit referendum—in which Corbyn, a long-time Euroskeptic himself, had campaigned for Remain with what many of his own MPs saw as a near-treasonous half-heartedness. A parliamentary vote of no-confidence led to a renewed leadership contest, which Corbyn won again, with overwhelming support from the party’s grassroots members. That defeat of the pro-Remain moderate wing of the parliamentary party, lacking an organic base in the constituency rank and file and largely seen by the influx of new members as Blairite hangovers, was humiliating and decisive. This has left Labour’s majority of Remain voters essentially disenfranchised within the party, completely powerless and politically blocked for as long as Corbyn is leader—and he is now committed to a bizarre “soft Brexit” policy, which mainly amounts to a pseudo-oppositional stance of hoping to do nothing while Theresa May’s government screws up.
It is a generalization, but broadly true, that the Remain wing of the party is social-democratic: moderate on economic policy and centrist on foreign policy, which means balancing Atlanticism with pro-Europeanism. But neither of those positions, which imply broadly friendly relations with Israel based on the tenuous notion of a future two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, is acceptable to the anti-imperialist left now in charge.
Having failed to oust Corbyn, Labour’s social-democrats are thus in internal exile, banished to a Siberia of political impotence. But for one weapon: Corbyn’s vulnerability on his long record of palling about with the representatives of various armed resistance movements—which he unquestionably saw as freedom fighters, but which 98 percent of regular voters would think of as terrorists. The whole trajectory of the anti-imperialist left—which has included, at certain times and places, those who spoke of a “World Zionist Conspiracy”—inevitably demands of its adherents the conviction that most of what goes wrong in the world is caused by US foreign policy, a central tenet of which is axiomatic support for Israel.
To call Corbyn’s past chumminess with, say, Hamas representatives a weapon suggests that Corbyn’s opponents inside the Labour Party have instrumentalized the issue of anti-Semitism in a cynical way. I mostly don’t believe that is the case. Many Labour Party members, including Jewish members, as well as British Jews generally, have been gravely offended by Corbyn’s missteps and are in perfect good faith in voicing their objections. (Although the right-wing-dominated British press has had a series of field days attacking Corbyn on the issue, many ordinary voters may simply find it all baffling. Which is very forgivable, since who, really, wants to have a PhD level of expertise on anti-Semitism?)
But it is not necessary for the Labour Party’s social-democrats to be acting in bad faith for them to be engaged in a misdirected symbolic politics over anti-Semitism. It is surreal for the Labour Party to be tearing itself apart over quasi-theological questions about which clauses from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism it will adopt and which it won’t. I admire the stand recently taken by Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, to urge the full adoption of the IHRA rubric, as opposed to the Corbyn clique’s preference for cherry-picking, but the sheer scale of negative energy now generated by this controversy, itself but an appendix to the larger dispute over anti-Semitism, is staggering. (Watson has faced a barrage of social media calls for his resignation.)
This is not a case of the narcissism of small differences—abiding affliction though this is for the left—but of the total substitution of such small differences for one really consequential big difference, which is the direction of the Labour Party itself and whether that future will be determined by the electorally-plausible soft left or the doctrinaire hard left.
A great irony in all of this concerns the nature of anti-Semitism itself. A common feature of anti-Semites is precisely their unhealthy preoccupation or obsession with Jews, Judaism, and Israel—all conflated and muddled together. It is characteristic of their anti-Semitism that, in this warped worldview, Israel and Jews matter too much, in a deeply creepy way. Why, one might reasonably ask of Labour members, both pro- and anti-Corbyn, is this area of the party’s foreign policy different from all others? To borrow a rhetorical strategy from the pro-Israel proponents of the arguments of “the New Anti-Semitism”: “What about Darfur?” (Or Yemen, or Myanmar, or Congo…)
In much the same way, it is also a feature of anti-Semitism to blame Jews for all manner of ills for which, in reality, they bear no special responsibility. The classic example is the Nazi trope of attacking Jews for propagating both Bolshevism and capitalism. It is this type of scapegoating—and the vulnerability of the anti-capitalist left to its line of reasoning—that led the nineteenth-century German radical August Bebel to call anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”
In this moment, displacement is what this argument is. I would be the last person to give Jeremy Corbyn a pass on his political choices, past or present. But they must be seen for what they are: not the actions of a closet anti-Semite, but the result of a career spent as a sectarian anti-imperialist socialist. If you think Corbyn and his supporters are anti-Semitic, you’re actually missing the larger problem with the whole ideology: the Manichean simplicities of its “my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend-ism” and the intellectual dishonesty of its whataboutist deflections. Thus Labour’s leader overlooks the fact that Hamas runs a repressive, socially conservative, deeply patriarchal, authoritarian Islamist government in a one-party statelet—because it’s “the resistance” to the American-Zionist project.
If what you’re mainly interested in, as a British voter, is the renationalization of the railways, which is a perfectly sensible policy given the disastrous legacy of Thatcherite privatization, Corbyn offers that. Unfortunately, though, you also get his solidarity with Hamas. And, into the bargain, a possibly inadvertent tribute to the Black September killers.
The long-running melodrama over Labour and anti-Semitism has been destructive to all the parties involved, with the exception of the right-wing press and Labour’s political opponents on the right. The cost of the internecine conflict is grave. Labour has probably lost a generation, at least, of Jewish voters. Given the relatively small size of Britain’s Jewish community, that may not be so electorally significant in the near term, but in reputational terms alone, it is a disaster. The price of Corbyn’s ideological purity has been terribly high; and British Jews are the collateral damage—its victims, even.
For all that, Americans should stop worrying that Britain’s Labour Party has been taken over by the Brownshirts. They probably should be concerned that a potential British prime minister, at some level, believes what his Hezbollah friends told him about America being the Great Satan. But “potential” is a very relative term; they should be more worried about the potential Conservative successors to Prime Minister Theresa May: waiting in the wings are the self-seeking Trump-lite Boris Johnson and the Edwardian-in-jackboots Jacob Rees-Mogg.
As for Corbyn’s Labour opponents in Britain, the anti-Semitism crisis has renewed a fantasy-politics game occasioned first by his crypto-Leave, later by his “soft Brexit,” policies, which is that the Remainer dissidents should split and form a new, third party. A similar plan did not, ultimately, go well for the Social Democrat signers of the Limehouse Declaration in 1981, the last time the Labour Party lurched toward a hard-left dead-end (on that occasion, the “Bennism” of Tony Benn). Britain’s first-past-the-post elections make, ineluctably, for a two-party-dominated parliamentary system. Labour is one of those parties, and it is Britain’s social-democratic party. Socialists will always be members of that party, and will try to pull it left, and so they should. But social-democrats should not now, or ever, use a disproportionate dispute over anti-Semitism as an alibi for giving up that inheritance.