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Jeremy Corbyn Hasn’t Got an “Anti-Semitism Problem,” His Opponents Do

Labour has a “Jewish problem.” Or so it has been widely alleged. Headline after headline in recent weeks has claimed that the party, in whose last-but-one leadership election both front-runners were Jewish, has become infested with anti-Semitism. The outbreak has been blamed on the veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn and the mass influx of new members who were inspired by his leadership to join. With a long-time Palestine solidarity campaigner at the helm, the party is now said to be attracting “anti-Semites like flies to a cesspit”. Respected commentators warn that the Jewish community is “fast reaching the glum conclusion that Labour has become a cold house for Jews”, while within the party, these are reportedly “difficult times to be a Jewish member”. With “Labour’s merger with the far right proceeding at speed”, pundits have urged public recognition of a sobering truth: “anti-Semitism is now firmly embedded in the Labour party’s DNA. . . . Labour is a racist party now.” 
 
These are extraordinary claims to level against the United Kingdom’s principal party of opposition, and they have generated an extraordinary amount of media coverage, albeit no serious investigation. The common premise underlying this torrent of articles, think-pieces and polemics—that anti-Semitism is a growing problem within the Labour Party—is rapidly congealing into conventional wisdom. Yet this basic claim is devoid of factual basis. The allegations against Corbyn and the Labour Party are underpinned by an almost comical paucity of evidence, while what evidence does exist not only fails to justify the claims being made, but has itself been systematically misrepresented. There are no grounds for supposing either that anti-Semitism is significant within the Labour Party, or that its prevalence is increasing. But, under mounting pressure, the Labour leadership’s response to the accusations has regressed from dismissive to defensive, to the point where policy interventions from such noted anti-Semitism experts as Richard Angell of (Blairite pressure group) Progress are reportedly being treated as serious, good-faith contributions. 

The political logic behind this retreat is understandable, but there is no reason for others to play along. The enraging and—for genuine opponents of anti-Semitism—dismaying truth is this: a miserable assortment of chancers, cynics and careerists is exploiting Jewish suffering to prosecute petty vendettas, wage factional warfare and discredit legitimate criticism of Israel. In the process, they are poisoning relations between British Jews and movements for social justice; fomenting anti-Semitism while claiming to combat it; and libelling the tens of thousands of people, many of them young, idealistic and embarking upon their first foray into politics, who joined Labour in the past year determined to make the world a less cruel and despairing place for the impoverished, the subjugated and the dispossessed.

If Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, it lies not with Corbyn, but his unprincipled and reckless opponents.  

The case against Corbyn has two variants. The stronger alleges that under Corbyn’s watch anti-Semitism has become pervasive in Labour. The weaker holds that anti-Semitism in the party has sharply increased since Corbyn’s election. In either case, Corbyn stands accused of tolerating, acquiescing in and thereby encouraging anti-Semitism. Let’s take each of these claims in turn.

Is Anti-Semitism Pervasive in the Labour Party?

The core evidence that anti-Semitism is a significant problem within the Labour Party comprises allegedly anti-Semitic statements made on social media by eight low- to mid-level party members and an MP, as well as claims of widespread anti-Semitism within a university Labour club. This evidence is collated in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Labour’s “anti-Semitism problem”
      

Alleged offender

Alleged offence

Gerry Downing,

party member

  • Downing’s Trotskyist publication, Socialist Fight, published an article, to which Downing tweeted a link, entitled “Why Marxists must address the Jewish Question”. The article argues, inter alia, that “elements of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie . . . have played a vanguard role for the capitalist offensive against the workers”.
  • Downing tweeted links to other articles on Socialist Fight which used dodgy, and frankly mindless phrases like “Jewish-Zionist Bourgeoisie”.

Vicki Kirby,

vice-chair Woking Constituency Labour
Party (CLP)

  Tweeted:

  • “What do you know abt Jews? They’ve got big noses and support spurs lol”.
  • “That awkward moment when you realize you’ve taken this whole ‘I’m a jew’ charade too far”.
  • “point abt Jews is that they OCCUPY Palestine. Used to live together, now slaughter the oppressed”.
  • “Who is the Zionist God? I am starting to think it may be Hitler. #FreePalestine”.
  • “lol we invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher”.
  • “Apparently you can ask IS/ISIS/ISIL questions on ask.fm. Anyone thought of asking them why theyre not attacking the real oppressors #Israel”.

Beinazir Lasharie, Labour councillor

  Commented on Facebook:

  • “Many people know about who was behind 9/11 and also who is behind ISIS. I’ve nothing against Jews . . . just sharing it!”
  • “I’ve heard some compelling evidence about ISIS being originated from Zionists!”

Bob Campbell,

party member

  On Facebook:

  • Posted: “ISIS is run by Israel”.
  • Shared a photo claiming ISIS hasn’t attacked Israel “[b]ecause the dog doesn’t bite its own tail”.
  • Shared a picture of a rat with a Star of David and the caption, “the real plague”.

Tony Greenstein, party member

  Tweeted the phrases “Zio idiots” and “Zionist scum”.

Khadim Hussain, Labour councillor and former Lord Mayor of Bradford

Facebook:

  • Shared a photo referring to “6 million Zionists”, rather than six million Jews, having been killed by Hitler.
  • Implied, in a post, that Israel created ISIS.

Scott Nelson,

party member

  Tweeted, of Tesco and Marks & Spencer, “They have Jewish blood”.

Aysegul Gurbuz, Labour councillor

  Tweeted, inter alia, that “my man” Hitler was the “greatest man in history” and that “[the] Jews are so powerful in the US it’s disgusting”.

Naz Shah,

Labour MP

  On Facebook:

  • Shared an image which suggested resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict by “relocat[ing]… Israel into United States”, accompanied by the comment, “Problem solved and save u bank charges for £3 BILLION you transfer yearly”.
  • Commented below the image: “Only problem with that is Israel would need to return all the land and farms it has stolen and give the Palestinians rights which is not possible: (therefore I will tweet Barack Obama and David Cameron and put this idea to them?” and “Save them some pocket money?”
  • Urged others to vote in an online poll to condemn Israeli war crimes in Gaza, saying, “The Jews are rallying to the poll”.

  On Twitter:

  • Linked to an article which compared Zionism to al-Qaeda and claimed that “Zionism used this and the colonial period to groom other modernised men and women of Jewish descent to exert political influence at the highest levels of public office”.

Oxford University Labour
Club (OULC)

  According to former OULC co-chair Alex Chalmers, who resigned in February 2016, “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews”.

 

The chasm between this proffered evidence and the sweeping condemnations that have appeared in the press, and which are sampled above, is truly vast. Even were all the above charges true, what would it prove? The social media postings of a handful of mostly junior party members have no necessary representative significance, and plainly do not demonstrate widespread anti-Semitism. Indeed, given that an estimated seven-to-ten percent of the UK population doesn’t like Jews, the wonder would be if Labour, which with a total membership of some 400,000 is Britain’s largest political party, did not harbour a small number of anti-Semites within its ranks.  

In fact, the gulf between accusation and evidence is even wider than it first appears. Take the case of Labour councillor Beinazir Lasharie. According to right-wing gossip blog Guido Fawkes, Lasharie “was suspended for writing that ‘Jews’ were behind 9/11 and ISIS has been reinstated to the party.” Another Fawkes headline referred to Lasharie as the “’Jews did 9/11’ councillor”. But in the Facebook post to which Fawkes was referring, Lasharie’s only mention of “Jews” was to declare that she has “nothing against” them. Fawkes also quoted a Facebook comment by Lasharie stating: “I’ve heard some compelling evidence about Isis being originated from zionists!” But, so far from being anti-Semitic, this remark was made in the context of rebutting and criticising anti-Semitism. Lasharie’s full comment read: “Jews are not zionists lets get that straight just like Muslims are NOT Isis, in fact I’ve heard some compelling evidence about Isis being originated from zionists!” The Guido Fawkes blogger lifted the second part of this sentence without quoting the first. Nor did he—or any of the newspapers which uncritically repeated his allegations—report Lasharie’s insistence elsewhere in that same thread that “we can’t call Jews zionists because not all of them are.” 

The case against Tony Greenstein, meanwhile, rests upon tweets that make no reference to Jews. On 2 April 2016, the Daily Telegraph reported on “the latest anti-Semitism controversy to hit the Party in recent weeks”: the readmission of “a previously barred activist” who “refers to his critics as ‘Zio idiots’ and ‘Zionist scum,’” claimed that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis, and “compared Israel’s views on inter-racial marriage to the Nazi party’s Nuremberg laws on race.” The allegations were repeated by The Times, which described Greenstein’s comments as “the latest incident of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist behaviour to have affected Labour”. Quite apart from the fact that none of Greenstein’s alleged comments is anti-Semitic, Greenstein is a Jewish socialist and long-time anti-fascist campaigner who—even his critics within the Jewish community agree—has led efforts to expunge anti-Semitism from the Palestine solidarity movement. The hour must be late indeed if anti-Semitism has spread to veteran Jewish anti-fascists.

The most high-profile “anti-Semitism” case to date implicates Labour MP Naz Shah. In 2014, before Shah became an MP, she reposted an image on Facebook suggesting that the Israel-Palestine conflict be resolved by relocating Israel to the United States. Obviously, there is no prospect of something like this happening; it was a Facebook meme, not a UN draft resolution. Shah was well aware of this, as her accompanying comments (“I will tweet Barack Obama and David Cameron and put this idea to them”) indicate. The tongue-in-cheek proposal may have been tasteless, but that doesn’t make it anti-Semitic. And to present it as, Labour MP endorses “chilling ‘transportation’ policy,’” or, Labour MP “[backs] plan to ‘relocate Israelis to America,’” or “Labour MP backed moving Israel to US in anti-Semitism row,” as if Shah had put her name to a Nazi-like deportation scheme, is obscene.

Shah was further accused of tweeting a link to a “blog post comparing Zionism to al-Qaeda” and accusing “Zionists of ‘grooming’ Jews to ‘exert political influence at the highest levels of public office.’” The article in question reads:

In my view Zionism like Al Qaeda was and is a political movement layered with religious symbolism that was (in the case of Zionism) responding to a millennia and more of European pogroms, persecution by people who were fuelled by hatred and need to find any excuse to persecute Jews. Zionism used this and the colonial period to groom other modernised men and women of Jewish decent to exert political influence at the highest levels of public office by using the guilt of the pogroms and offered a solution to the “Jewish Question” in Europe. 

Zionism is compared to al-Qaeda in the sense that both are politico-religious movements; that is the only mention of al-Qaeda in the piece. The claim in the paragraph above appears to be that the Zionist movement leveraged anti-Semitism, which the author emphasises was real, brutal and pervasive, to win Jewish support, and exploited European guilt over anti-Jewish persecution to persuade colonial elites to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. There is nothing remotely anti-Semitic about any of this. The article also explicitly distinguishes Israel and Zionism from Judaism.

The only substantive allegation of anti-Semitism against Shah is that, during Israel’s 2014 Gaza massacre, she urged her Facebook contacts to vote in an online poll about whether Israel was committing war crimes. With the results leaning heavily towards the negative, Shah warned her followers that “[t]he Jews are rallying to the poll”. No doubt, Shah should have referred to “Israel’s apologists” rather than “the Jews”, and for this, it is right that she has apologised. But the response—a Telegraph editorial headlined “Labour’s disgusting anti-Semitism” condemned Shah’s comments as “shocking”, “truly disturbing”, “repellent” and “quintessentially anti-Semitic”, while John Mann MP and the BBC’s Andrew Neil compared Shah to Eichmann—has been beyond hysterical. It also merits notice that, while Shah has been suspended over a two-year old Facebook post imagining the relocation of Israel to the United States, many Labour and other MPs in good standing make it their business to defend and facilitate Israel’s active and on-going dispossession of the Palestinians. Truly, it is cause for wonder, which is the bigger sin, Shah chastising “Jews” for denying Israel’s criminal conduct in Gaza, or the perpetrators of and apologists for these crimes. Attempts to use Shah to discredit Corbyn are also somewhat undermined by the fact that her problematic comments were made before Corbyn became Labour Party leader, while in the 2015 leadership election, Shah endorsed Yvette Cooper.

The anti-Semitism scandal at the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) is important for Corbyn’s critics. Whereas the other cases implicate individuals, the OULC controversy implicates an institutional culture. Thus, Jonathan Freedland writes of Gerry Downing and Vicki Kirby that "[i]t’d be so much easier if there were just two rogue cases. But when Alex Chalmers quit his post at Oxford’s Labour club, he said he’d concluded that many had “some kind of problem with Jews."

On 15 February 2016, the vice-chair of the OULC, Alex Chalmers, resigned, claiming that “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews”. The specific charges levelled against OULC members by Chalmers and others included: using the epithet “Zio”; expressing solidarity with Hamas; dismissing anti-Semitism as “just the Zionists crying wolf”; singing a Hamas song called “Rockets over Tel Aviv”; stating that OULC should not associate with any Jew who fails to publicly denounce Zionism; alleging that U.S. foreign policy is controlled by the “Zionist Lobby” and, when asked whether “Zionist” meant “Jewish”, falling “very silent”; and warning that “we should be aware of the influence wielded over elections by high net-worth Jewish individuals.”

The veracity of these claims cannot at this point be established, since most were made anonymously and without accompanying evidence. But there are solid grounds for scepticism. First, the only verifiable allegation—and also the most shocking one (most of the others would not constitute anti-Semitism even if true)—is a fabrication. It was claimed that an OULC member had been “formally disciplined by their college for organising a group of students to harass a Jewish student and shout ‘filthy Zionist’ whenever they saw her”. But according to the (late) Principal of that college, the student in question was never the subject of complaint or disciplinary proceedings, for anti-Semitism or anything else. Second, there may well be ulterior motives at work. Chalmers is a former intern at BICOM, an Israel lobby group that has sought to redefine anti-Semitism to encompass criticism of Israel, while the occasion for Chalmers’s resignation was the OULC’s vote to endorse Israel Apartheid Week. Furthermore, the OULC has been at the centre of a bitter struggle between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions of the party’s youth wing. The composition of the OULC was transformed by Corbyn’s leadership campaign and subsequent victory. The Labour Right was demoted almost overnight to minority status, and it is from this aggrieved quarter that many of the allegations of anti-Semitism against left-wing OULC members have issued. Third, the claim that Oxford’s broader student left is pervasively anti-Semitic is, prima facie, highly implausible. None of the OULC and student left activists this author contacted recognised the description. More generally, the student left is hyper politically correct, at times to a fault. Are large numbers of politically correct left-wing students really going around Oxford spouting Jew-hatred? A contemporaneous article by a former president of the Oxford University Jewish Society alleging that “the student left” in Oxford is “institutionally anti-Semitic” gives further cause for doubt, failing as it does to provide remotely convincing evidence for the claim. Fourth, it is hardly unknown for students to concoct false charges of anti-Semitism. In March, the president-elect of Stirling University’s Labour club was suspended as a result of false accusations (she was quickly reinstated), while earlier this month, there was a concerted effort to use trumped up charges of anti-Semitism to derail Malia Bouattia’s candidacy for president of the National Union of Students. 

To reiterate, this author is not in a position to determine how many of the specific charges against OULC members are true. But neither was Jonathan Freedland, who specifically repeated the one OULC allegation that is checkable—and false; John Mann MP, who condemned “rife” and “[o]vert” anti-Semitism “amongst certain elements at Oxford” and demanded the suspension of the entire OULC; or Henry Zeffman, who, after speaking with Chalmers, ventured that “being a Labour member” might be “incompatible with being a Jew”. Vanishingly few commentaries and reports about the scandal mentioned any of the multiple grounds for scepticism about the claims, even as they uncritically repeated a demonstrably false smear.

Has Labour Party Anti-Semitism Increased under Corbyn? 

It might be argued that, even if anti-Semitism remains confined to a small minority of party members, the frequency with which new cases of anti-Semitism have been uncovered in recent weeks reveals that its prevalence is increasing. But, first, of the nine incidents of alleged anti-Semitism detailed above, at least three took place before Corbyn became leader, while virtually all implicate people who became Labour members prior to Corbyn’s leadership. Second, the frequency of allegations appearing in recent weeks more plausibly reflects, not rising anti-Semitism in Labour, but a concerted effort to uncover and publicise such evidence. The political and media storm around Labour anti-Semitism no more evidences a spike in Labour Party anti-Semitism, than the recent political and media frenzy over the Prime Minister’s tax affairs evidenced an April spike in tax avoidance.

Some of Corbyn’s critics appear aware of the flimsiness of their case, advancing their accusations through convoluted circumlocutions like, “[it] is undeniable that there seems to be an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment in the Labour party” and “it’s clear” that Labour “might” have an anti-Semitism problem. Jonathan Freedland observes that, “Thanks to Corbyn, the Labour party is expanding” and alleges that among these new members can be found “people with hostile views of Jews.” True enough, if a party’s membership doubles, the absolute number of anti-Semites within it may increase. So, too, the number of Islamophobes, fattists, ageists, disablists, self-haters, sociopaths and journalists. Without knowing the scale of the increase, this tells us nothing. According to Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), “it appears that within [the Corbyn-inspired] . . . surge in members there is a pocket of people that do harbour these problematic views”. Newmark won’t even state with certainty that this “pocket” exists, still less estimate its size. But why make clear accusations, for whose accuracy you can be held accountable, when you can make vacuous non-statements and trust to innuendo to accomplish the rest?

Others have been less cautious. Rod Liddle insists there are “thousands more” like Vicki Kirby, organised into a “vibrant anti-Semitic wing” of the party. So then why does everyone keep mentioning Vicki Kirby? Liddle’s article opens, “Attacked any Jews recently? Hurry up or they’ll all be gone”. This was published by The Times, which in a separate editorial warned that, “Faced with” the “noisome buffoonery” of the likes of Kirby and Downing, “there is a danger of underreaction”. Danger averted. “Generally, I think it’s a mistake to look at nuts and imagine they’re a trend”, Hugo Rifkind explains. “The thing is, there is a trend”. QED. It is now “a regular occurrence to find an anti-Semite hiding in the Labour woodwork”, laments Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard. “The examples go on and on”—indeed, soon we won’t be able to count them on our fingers. Pollard acknowledges that “Downing has been expelled from the party and Kirby suspended”. “But”, he adds, “they are the tip of an iceberg”. Doesn’t he mean an ice cube? Surveying the darkening clouds, Pollard is reminded of “1930s Germany”. One wonders why he didn’t recall 2014—the last time he was moved to draw the 1930s parallel.

Has Corbyn Been Soft on Anti-Semitism?

It might be rejoined that what matters is not the number of alleged anti-Semitic incidents, nor even their frequency, but the Corbyn leadership’s “tardy and tentative” response to them. The JLC’s Jeremy Newmark alleges that Corbyn has overseen a “resurgence of the acceptance of anti-Semitism”, while a Times editorial condemns Corbyn’s “insouciance, indifference and indulgence when faced with evidence of an ancient and odious hatred”. These claims are baseless. Corbyn has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism in the most emphatic terms, both as an MP and as Labour leader. In response to allegations of anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour Club, Labour instituted a formal inquiry chaired by a figure who commands the respect of Corbyn’s harshest critics. Labour members accused of anti-Semitism have been immediately suspended or expelled, and in no case has it been shown that a member suspended or expelled for anti-Semitism has subsequently been readmitted to the party. It has not been shown that Labour under Corbyn has dealt with allegations of anti-Semitism any less swiftly or severely than the party did under Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Nor has it been demonstrated that Labour’s disciplinary mechanisms have processed anti-Semitism allegations differently to allegations of other forms of racism or prejudice. 

In order to prove the Corbyn leadership’s tolerance of anti-Semitism, Jonathan Freedland cites the cases of Vicki Kirby and Gerry Downing:

Thanks to Corbyn, the Labour party is expanding, attracting many leftists who would previously have rejected it or been rejected by it. Among those are people with hostile views of Jews. Two of them [Kirby and Downing] have been kicked out, but only after they had first been readmitted and once their cases attracted unwelcome external scrutiny.

First, both Kirby and Downing joined Labour prior to Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Second, Kirby was readmitted to the party before Corbyn became leader, during the reign of that notorious anti-Semite, Ed Miliband. Third, Kirby’s initial suspension was reportedly on the basis of crudely anti-Israel, rather than anti-Semitic, tweets; her tweets about Jews only surfaced, at any rate publicly, after she had been readmitted. Fourth, Downing was first suspended on the grounds of public support for another party, not anti-Semitism; the anti-Semitism allegations surfaced only after his readmission. In short, neither Kirby nor Downing was readmitted after being suspended for anti-Semitism; both were suspended or expelled as soon as allegations of anti-Semitism were aired (at any rate, in public), and neither has since been readmitted. Apart from that, Freedland makes a compelling point.
 

Table 2. “Tardy and tentative”? How Labour Deals with Anti-Semitism

Alleged offender

Time elapsed after anti-Semitism allegations first publicly aired before alleged offender was suspended or expelled

Gerry Downing

Same day.

Vicki Kirby

Next day.

Beinazir Lasharie

Next day.

Bob Campbell

Before.

Tony Greenstein

Before.

Khadim Hussain

Same day.

Scott Nelson

Next day.

Aysegul Gurbuz

Before.

Naz Shah

Next day.

 

Some question why anti-Semites were admitted to the party in the first place. But at the grassroots level, political parties are very broad tents. Labour’s Compliance Unit does not comb through the social media accounts of every aspiring member for potentially offensive tweets and Facebook posts. Rather, the party’s disciplinary processes for lower-level members are—as a rule—reactive, kicking in once a complaint has been received. For example, in February 2016 it emerged that notorious paedophile Tom O’Carroll had joined Labour after Corbyn became leader. In the wake of scandalised press reports, O’Carroll was suspended. Doesn’t this prove that Corbyn’s Labour has a ‘paedophilia problem’? True, O’Carroll was suspended from the party—but only after his case attracted public scrutiny and only after Labour initially responded to the story by refusing to comment. What explains Corbyn’s “timid and tardy” response? Isn’t it obvious we need a 200-point plan from Richard Angell of Progress to tackle this crisis? In fact, isn’t it past time for a public inquiry into left-wing paedophilia?

Several critics, scraping the barrel, argue that, even if Corbyn himself has condemned anti-Semitism, and even if anti-Semites have been suspended or expelled from the party, still, the real question is, “[w]hy are anti-Semites so drawn to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party” in the first place? (For that matter, why are leading paedophiles so drawn to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?) For this argument to work, it would need to be shown, first, that anti-Semites are particularly attracted to Labour as against other political parties; second, that Labour has become more attractive to anti-Semites since Corbyn was elected leader; and third, that anti-Semites have joined Labour on account of their anti-Semitism. The argument is premised on the assumption that, if someone has at some point made an anti-Semitic comment, it follows that anti-Semitism is what gets them out of bed in the morning, and is the basis on which they determine their political allegiance. But this is not necessarily true; and if it were in fact true of the most of the individuals who have been accused, then Corbyn’s critics would not have needed to go hunting for isolated comments on social media, often several years old, to prove their case.

To summarise. It has been claimed that, as a result of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the UK’s largest political party and a pillar of mainstream British politics is increasingly, and perhaps pervasively, anti-Semitic. The evidence for these claims comprises anonymous and unproven (or else proven false) allegations of anti-Semitism within a single university Labour club, plus a handful of alleged anti-Semitic tweets and Facebook posts, some of which date back years, overwhelmingly from low- and mid-level party members, almost all of whom joined Labour before Corbyn’s leadership campaign, almost none of whom were close to the Corbyn leadership or prominent in the Corbyn-aligned Momentum movement and all of whom were suspended or expelled from the party as soon as allegations of anti-Semitism were aired. 

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research has lamented “the hyperbole, bias and conjecture that litter public discourse” on anti-Semitism. The allegations of widespread or increasing anti-Semitism in the Labour Party offer ample evidence of all three. They are based on wild generalisations from a small number of cases, most of which have themselves been misrepresented, either to fabricate anti-Semitism where none exists; to unfairly taint Corbyn and his supporters by association; or simply gratuitously, one presumes out of habit. But while sensationalist and sloppy journalism has abetted the propagation of these falsehoods, the accusations have snowballed because they serve, and are being opportunistically seized upon to advance, real political interests. Briefly stated, the taboo against anti-Semitism is being exploited by three distinct, but overlapping, groups: the Right, which hopes to attack Labour while directing attention away from the Conservative Party’s internal tensions and unpopular policies; pro-Israel activists, who hope to unseat a prominent critic of Israel and to discredit Palestine solidarity activism; and the Labour Right, which hopes to weaken a popular movement that has, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, wrested from it control of the party. 

Postscript

Ken Livingstone’s intervention in defence of suspended Labour MP Naz Shah was a political disaster. He should have pointed out some of what Shah posted was wrong; but that the reaction has been hysterical; that Shah is by all credible accounts not an ant-Semite; and that, while anti-Semitism must always be taken seriously, claims that Labour has an "anti-Semitism problem" are devoid of factual basis. Instead, he decided to bring up Hitler and Zionism.  The result is that a prominent Corbyn ally has been suspended, while the “anti-Semitism” smear campaign has advanced to within an inch of Corbyn himself.

But while Livingstone’s comments were politically inept, claims that they were anti-Semitic—or even that they exposed Livingstone as a “Nazi apologist”—are absurd. Here is what Livingstone said: "[When] Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. This was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

He subsequently clarified:

Back in 1932 when Hitler won the election that brought him to power, his policy then was to deport all Germany’s Jews to Israel. That’s not because he was a Zionist, it is because he hated Jews. And he then had a dialogue with the leaders of the Zionist movement, private, not him personally but his officials, privately discussing whether or not to proceed with that policy. In the end, of course, he didn’t – he chose instead to kill six million Jews.

There are several historical inaccuracies in these statements, but the basic point—that in the early- and mid-1930s the Nazi regime and the Zionist movement engaged in talks and reached agreements to expedite the emigration of German Jews to Palestine—is commonplace in mainstream scholarship. 

As early as 1933, the Nazi administration began discussing and implementing measures to promote “Jewish emigration from Germany”, while government ministries facilitated the work of Germany’s Zionist Federation. According to historian Francis R. Nicosia, there was “[t]hroughout the 1930s . . . almost unanimous support in German government and Nazi party circles for promoting Zionism among German Jews, and Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine”. Here is one account: 

The SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the [Nazi] party’s intelligence service . . . stated the matter clearly in 1934: to encourage the departure of the Jews from Germany, it was necessary to develop in them the consciousness of a separate identity.  Zionist organisations therefore received favoured treatment; their interests coincided here with those of a regime only too happy to see the proliferation of Hebrew schools, sporting clubs, and professional retraining courses geared to emigration to Palestine.  One of the Nuremberg laws, that concerning “the sanctity of Germany blood and honour” which forbade the Jews to display the swastika, expressly authorised them to fly the blue and white Zionist flag stamped with the Star of David.

Meanwhile, the responses of “some Zionist leaders” in Palestine to the new regime in Germany “were not negative”, reflecting ‘a widespread hope that the Nazi policy of furthering Jewish emigration from Germany offered great opportunities for the Yishuv’. Indeed, “some of the earliest ideas and policy initiatives for the effective achievement of the Nazi goal of Jewish emigration came from Jewish, that is, Zionist, sources, and not from the Nazis themselves”. The Haavara (Transfer) Agreement of August 1933 was one example.  This accord permitted Jewish emigrants to Palestine to transfer with them part of their assets; as a result, “some one hundred million Reichsmarks were transferred to Palestine” and “most of the sixty thousand German Jews” who arrived in Palestine between 1933 and 1939 were able to secure “a minimal basis for their material existence.” 

To be sure, Nazi-Zionist cooperation was “instrumental” rather than heartfelt: Zionists sought German Jewish capital to build up the Yishuv and believed emigration was ultimately the only hope for German Jews; while the Nazi regime desired Jewish emigration in itself and also expected the transfer agreement to yield political and economic benefits. This convergence of interests provided the basis for talks and a measure of cooperation until Nazi policy turned from emigration to extermination.

Mann accused Livingstone of “rewriting history”.  He might try reading some.

Livingstone’s other comments from the two interviews yesterday have been misrepresented in what has become the standard fashion.  (In the verbatim quotes below, itallics indicate a question from the presenter.) 

1. What do you think “over the top” really means? When I say, “was it [i.e. Naz Shah’s comments] anti-Semitic?” and you say “no it wasn’t, categorically no, anyone who says it was is a liar, but it was ‘over the top’”—over the top of what?   Well, I mean, basically, you think of anti-Semitism and racism as exactly the same thing. And criticising the Government of South Africa, which is pretty unpleasant and corrupt, doesn’t make me a racist; and it doesn’t make me anti-Semitic when I criticise the brutal mistreatment by the Israeli government.

The right-wing gossip blog Guido Fawkes, which is apparently unable to publish a sentence without an egregious falsehood, cherry-picked the first line of Livingstone’s response and interpreted it as follows: “Ken: anti-Semitism is not racism”. In spoken presentations, sentences are often imprecise, and meanings can be misconstrued. (For instance, Prime Minister David Cameron today demanded that the Labour Party “recognise that anti-Semitism is like racism”. Like racism?—somebody call John Mann!) But in context, it is obvious that Livingstone was saying the precise opposite to what Fawkes alleges: that in determining the line between legitimate and illegitimate (“over the top”) remarks, one ought to treat anti-Semitism just like racism; and therefore, just as criticising South Africa does not make one a racist, so criticising Israel does not make one an anti-Semite.

2. What worries me is this blurring of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel undermines the importance of tackling anti-Semitism.  Someone who is anti-Semitic isn’t just hostile to the Jews living in Israel, they’re hostile to their neighbor in Golders Green, or the neighbor in Stoke Newington. It’s a personal loathing just like people who hate black people.

Presumably, what was going through Livingstone’s mind here was: if a person is really anti-Semitic, rather than just opposed to Israeli policies, wouldn’t they also hate Jews in the UK? This may be clumsily expressed, but in what universe is it anti-Semitic? 

Livingstone did err in refusing to acknowledge that Shah’s use of the phrase “the Jews” to warn about the results of an online poll (see here for details) was wrong. This aside, the attacks against him—like the allegations of Labour Party anti-Semitism more broadly—are without foundation.

The only truly outrageous comments in Livingstone’s interview were made by presenter Vanessa Feltz. At the outset of the exchange, Feltz led listeners to believe that Naz Shah MP had defended Hitler’s actions as “legal”. This is simply false. In 2014, before she was an MP, Shah shared the following image on Facebook: 
 

The quote is from that notorious anti-Semite, Martin Luther King, Jr. In context, it reads as follows: "We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal”. It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany."

I suppose, in the midst of this hysteria, it does need saying: King was defending civil disobedience, not Hitler.

It is easy to laugh at all this. But it really isn’t funny. After all, if Ken Livingstone is truly a modern-day Himmler, and if Naz Shah is truly akin to Eichmann, then might not their supporters and constituents conclude that maybe Himmler and Eichmann weren’t so bad? This crude and opportunistic exploitation of anti-Semitism cheapens the memory of the Nazi holocaust and creates new anti-Semites who are sick and tired of the browbeating and bullying tactics. Let’s be clear. The problem is not that those prosecuting this dishonest and cynical smear campaign against the elected Labour leadership are oversensitive to anti-Semitism. It’s that they are so profoundly contemptuous of Jewish suffering that, for the sake of their petty vendettas and tawdry factional jostling, they put at risk the living and traduce the dead.

[This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net. Footnotes to this article can be consulted with the original publication. (The postscript, again without footnotes, was originally published on Jamie Stern-Weiner’s personal website)]

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