On antisemitism, Labour must chart a different path
Imagine, if you can, the following scenario. You are a young woman from one of the most densely crowded places in the world, a tiny strip of land blockaded by one of the most powerful armies in the world. Your sewage system barely functions; you scramble for electricity a few hours a day; unemployment and suicide are rife. Your cities are crammed with refugees chased from their homes by the military power that hovers over you always – gunning you down if you protest, and periodically drowning your homes and schools and even universities in a sea of bombs from on high. Imagine that you make it out to study at a university abroad, and the price you are forced to pay is uncertainty about when you can come home to visit your family and then get out again to study: your life is lived still at the whims of your occupier.
One might think that this humiliation would be greeted at least with international sympathy, with widespread disgust at wanton cruelties, but now imagine instead that however far you run you can never quite relax or be free. If you talk of your family in public – of what they suffer – you might be condemned for it, not back home but here in Britain. For so long even to utter your nationality was to invite scorn and loathing; the Palestinians do not exist, Golda Meir had insisted. Your identity is whitewashed. You turn up at your student union to ask your university to stop investing in the arms companies that bomb your neighbourhood, and you find that other students shut you up with protestations that you make them feel ‘unsafe’, simply by asking not to be bombed. This is exactly the scenario I witnessed as an undergraduate student. I couldn’t help feeling a kind of embarrassment when I saw it. As a young Jew I am not expected to curtsy to people who see me as a demographic threat, those people are outcasts in polite society, but Palestinians must endure just this kind of quiet, respectable loathing every day of the week. They matter less, and so for years they have battled with extraordinary dedication simply for the right to be present, to be heard, to be treated as human beings with the ability to live in dignity. Palestinians are usually invisible.
Labour’s latest antisemitism saga exemplifies this reality. Uproar now concentrates on Labour’s changes to a text on antisemitism put out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The text is flimsy – hence the Austrian government can stick to it while planning to ban kosher meat in a sign of nasty antisemitism – and Labour has added to it significantly to make it more robust. But its lead author has also worried about current uses of the IHRA text, because of one clause which Labour has removed: the insistence that it is antisemitic to call Israel intrinsically racist. Those words tell stateless and dispossessed Palestinians that they are forbidden from calling the state that dispossessed them racist from its violent foundation. If they do, they’ll be the real racists. Labour MPs now declaim that fighting antisemitism means adopting this IHRA text. It is a miserable exemplar of this whole dreadful debate, where people on all sides have felt the need to choose between silencing Jews and silencing Palestinians. That is a false choice.
There are two groups of victims in this debate. It’s worth restating that. While most are blind to the existence of the Palestinians, some ultra-Corbynites have turned denying antisemitism into a left-wing principle. Eager to fight a factional attack on Corbyn, the likes of Pete Willsman and Chris Williamson barely stop to notice the biggest group anxious about antisemitism – not cynical ‘Blairites’ or ‘Zionists’ but British Jews with honest concerns. They thus fail to apply (what should be) a left-wing intuition, that bigotry is not marginal or rare but deeply embedded in hierarchical societies since the easiest response to experiences of suffering is to imagine a conspiratorial hand wrecking the world. That is how antisemitism proliferates. As a mechanism for avoiding the conclusion that society is fundamentally unhealthy by blaming a few outsiders for all its problems instead, antisemitism sits at the core of the Western tradition. Many who think themselves noble and progressive might fall just a little into this seductive thinking. In the name of attacking Corbyn, Britain’s political mainstream has suddenly learned that lesson – it is difficult today to imagine the tabloids mocking a Jewish politician for failing to eat a bacon sandwich, now that the subtle innuendos through which antisemitism spreads are under scrutiny.
If politicians now demanded that Orthodox Jews changed their dress-code they would surely be called racists, though a decade ago Jack Straw asked Muslim women to do that and he remains a respected figure. If politicians said Jews should be at the bottom of the pecking order when allocating council housing there would be a furore, yet Margaret Hodge said that about migrants and is considered an anti-racist. One of the greatest canards of this antisemitism debate has been the frequent assertion that Labour was ever an ‘anti-racist’ party. The dog-whistles of Straw and Hodge show how far Blairism was from that, and the dog-whistles of Jackie Walker and Ken Livingstone show how far we still have to go in the age of Corbyn. It should be the job of the left to challenge complacency and to insist that prejudice is ubiquitous and often veiled behind tropes, that British Jews are subject to it, and that our politics fights the suffocating force of discrimination and champions human freedom without exceptions.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he studies modern European political thought.
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