Antisemitism in the U.K.

July 5, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Antisemitism in the British left was the subject of the latest webinar from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

Joan Ryan

It featured Joan Ryan, a Labour MP for 17 years until she left the party last year over its antisemitism, and David Hirsh, an academic and author of the book Contemporary Left Antisemitism, and a long time Labour member until he, too, left the party over its antisemitism.

Ryan explained she had reached the stage where she couldn’t ask people to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, because she couldn’t bear the thought of an antisemite at Number 10 Downing Street. She sees fighting antisemitism as a non-negotiable moral imperative, and when a young Jewish MP like Luciana Berger was driven out by antisemitism, she couldn’t stay.

Hirsh left the Labour Party because he thought it was clear that Corbyn’s beliefs were Stalinist or proto-totalitarian, and democrats need to understand that they can’t be unified with anti-democrats and antisemites.

Ryan first came into contact with the Jewish community when working on projects with Holocaust survivors, and then, she says, understood what the true cost and danger of antisemitism can really be.

She said she wasn’t as aware until elected to parliament “how serious anti-Zionism was and what a terrible deep scar it is in the Labour Party, and really, I doubt that the Labour Party will ever be able to be united and get over this problem until it tackles this obsessional obsessive hatred that seems to be part of the Labour Party – hatred for Israel. And I came to the conclusion over the past four years that one of the lessons we have to learn is you can’t fight antisemitism unless you also fight anti-Zionism.” She believes this would be a real struggle in the Labour Party.

She added, “we have to recognise, very clearly, that antisemitism is racism, and we have all got a vested interest if we want a decent society in standing up, and standing together, and I think it’s very important that non-Jews should make clear how they feel about this, and that this is an issue for all of us.”

Hirsh noted that the antisemitism that had been on the far left had moved into the mainstream. He sees antisemitism as a form of anti-democratic politics which includes populism. He says people who embrace anti-democratic politics need an enemy, and using Jews is too tempting for them to resist.

Asked if the new Labour leader Keir Starmer might lead to a shift on antisemitism in the Labour party, Ryan replied that he is a step in the right direction and has been saying the right things, such as his early “genuine, profound apology” to the Jewish community. That alone won’t solve the problem though, and Labour may go back to where they were with the underlying issue. For example, new Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has made two speeches, both about Israel and the Palestinians. Ryan questions why, with so much else going on in the world, that has been the topic of her only two speeches.

She adds that Starmer does seem to want to tear antisemitism out of the party, but she worries many will stand up against antisemitism, but not anti-Zionism. So Labour will sack its Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey for retweeting an antisemitic tweet, claiming Israel taught US police choking techniques, but then wants to boycott West Bank settlements if there’s annexation.  The Labour Party, she says, needs to rebalance its Middle East policy.

Hirsh agrees that you can’t fight antisemitism without understanding its relationship to anti-Zionism. Corbyn always said he was fighting antisemitism and asked why that wasn’t enough, but he could never identify the antisemitism he opposed, that for forty years Jews had been portrayed as oppressors and the keystone of capitalism, because that was his politics.

By the same token, Rebecca Long-Baily wasn’t sacked for one inaccurate retweet. For four years she had been central to the antisemitic movement that had taken over the Labour Party and failed to understand the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. There is still an amazing amount of kickback from the left saying you can be sacked just for criticising Israel, he noted.

He adds that the problem of antisemitism moving into the mainstream is also a problem on the British right.

Ryan observed that when Corbyn became leader, there were an estimated 4,000 – 4,500 hard left activists who joined Labour, but lots more from the soft left who flooded in for other philosophical reasons. The attitude to Israel has, however, become deeply embedded.

The problem was how many people in Labour who don’t actually hate Israel just kept their heads down, didn’t speak out and allowed themselves to become morally compromised, which shows that the activism of the far left can end in a dangerous place.

Hirsh responded that if you start with the idea that Israel is the centre of racism and imperialism, it’s easy to see how that creates antisemitic ideas. Whenever the far left has strength, it grasps for easy emotional ways to take power, so antisemitism is tempting.

Now, most understand that Labour can’t win an election with antisemitism in its ranks, but don’t really understand the nature of it. They, therefore, think it comes down to that you can’t win an election if you oppose Jews, which frightens him.

Ryan doesn’t rule out going back to Labour, but she wants to see more than that reassures her first, because there is a lot more to do, so she doesn’t want it to seem that she is saying everything is ok, while for Hirst, having been treated like an alien in his party because he is Jewish and supports Israel is very painful, so he is not willing to return at the moment.

Asked about the effect of the anti-Zionist stance of the UK chapter of Black Lives Matter, Hirsh noted that their tweets included that even the soft left in the UK was being gagged – clearly a reference to alleged Jewish power and control. He supports what BLM stands for, but the politics of the groups taking leadership of the campaign is a problem. He finds that campaigns including those that support the Palestinians are run by people who don’t embrace democratic politics.

Asked to provide advice for the Australian Labor Party on how avoid what happened to British Labour, Ryan said it’s crucial to recognise how important leadership is. Jeremy Corbyn’s group were seen as cranks and as marginal, but he was tolerated by the party as an MP and just dismissed, but then they were able to seize the leadership and become mainstream in the party, which was very dangerous.

She added there was the issue that “people don’t really understand what they’re dealing with – what this antisemitism and anti-Zionism really is and is about, but also we didn’t find ways to articulate why it is wrong to be anti-Zionist, and to talk about it, and the people we were up against were very easily able to articulate their view and say, ‘it’s all a smear, it’s all just to stop criticism of Israel,’ and it was a much more difficult argument that we had to make…one of the key lessons, right back at the beginning, is you stand up to antisemitism immediately, as soon as it happens. You don’t dismiss it as crank, you don’t let it ride, you don’t view it as perhaps not very serious. It’s always serious, and you always stand up to it.”

Hirsh observed that boycott arguments are much easier to make than those opposed, and it’s important to understand the seductive nature of anti-democratic politics. It’s important to arm and toughen up younger people to equip them to argue against anti-Zionists, to create a tough and sharp culture for democracy, and against totalitarianism and Nazism and antisemitism, and make the defence of democracy something exciting to be involved in.

Asked about whether there are the same issues in the US Democratic Party, Hirsh said that there are some antisemitic currents in the Democrats that they need to oppose, but it’s not like UK Labour.

Finally, asked if there is hope, Hirsh answered that there is. Most people on the planet want to live in democratic, free states safe from state terror.

Ryan said the British election result was evidence of why there is hope, because lots of people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and lots of people said that the biggest election issue for them was that Corbyn was toxic, and the British people rejected him.

The MPs who left the party drew back the curtain, and people could see what Corbyn was like. The UK had dodged the bullet of having an antisemitic, undemocratic, hard-left Prime Minister.


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