Antisemitism, then and now: Part 2 of 2

Labour Party antisemitism
Jewish refugees being detained at Croydon Airport, 1939

This is Part 2 of an extended interview with David Rosenberg, of the Jewish Socialists’ Group. Click here for Part 1.

ML: We’ve touched on this a bit already, but every time accusations of antisemitism are utilized against Jeremy Corbyn, it seems like this has two simultaneous effects. On the one hand, it does direct damage to Corbyn and it demoralizes and discredits his supporters, but on the other it also effects an internal revision and restriction of Jewish political identity as something exclusively conservative and pro-Israel. What’s it been like for you personally trying to battle both of these trends simultaneously over the last couple of years?

DR: It has been difficult and uncomfortable, but at the same time I think it’s complicated. What I think is this: there is a small number of real instances of antisemitism that have been expressed by members of the Labour Party. It’s not an endemic problem or anything like that, but I do think there are some real cases and those real cases have generally been dealt with. But, the existence of those cases has given credence, it’s given a pretext to those forces in the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community, whose main goals are to put Corbyn under great pressure and also to silence any proper discussion of Israel/Palestine. I think there’s a lot of cynical opportunism involved in this whole campaign against Corbyn around the antisemitism. I mean, the people attacking him know, as well as I do, that if you lined up all the politicians in Parliament in a line from most racist to least racist, Jeremy Corbyn would be right there at the head of the least racist. They know that as well, but they tried very hard at first to throw mud at him, and it didn’t stick. So then it becomes, ‘Oh, he tolerates antisemitism’, or he eats with people, or he once had a Facebook conversation… It becomes very tenuous and trivial, but it gets picked up by the media. The role of the media in this has been really terrible. I don’t think it’s been particularly to do with Palestine, I think it’s basic right-versus-left issues. You’ve had a convergence of different interests: you’ve got the Tory Party, the Tory media; the people who call themselves the leaders of the Jewish community, who are mainly Tory-supporting; and then you’ve got the pro-Israel lobbyist types and their contacts within the political parties. So, you know, I don’t think there is a coordinated conspiracy or anything like that, but I do think there’s a great convergence of interests that has meant different forces can sort of dovetail together in what they do.

There’s a few things that really worry me about it. I think there is, in society at large, real, growing antisemitism. I’ve come across it personally, but also witnessed, in the last couple of years, more instances of antisemitism than I probably witnessed in the previous 58 years. There are reasons for that. Antisemitism has very deep roots in many European societies, including Britain. Eighty years ago there was a fascist movement in Britain that was able to mobilize support from all classes of the population – Oswald Mosley’s movement in the ’30s wasn’t confined to particular groups. There has been a recent rise in racism and xenophobia. I think antisemitism is rising in tandem with them, as part of that.

The far right, organisationally, are fairly pathetic, but what they are good at is flooding the Internet with antisemitic material, and some of it is more sophisticated than other bits. What is really worrying is, that material is being shared more in the mainstream of society, including among some people on the left, who will share something on Facebook they think is in support of the Palestinians. And then you have to message them and say: do you realize you just said something that’s one click from neo-Nazi sites? I’ve had to message a number of Facebook friends over the last couple of years to point that out to them. They’re normally very shocked when I do. But some will argue the toss and say, ‘Oh, is that really antisemitic?’ And to me that’s quite worrying. And as to the fascist groups – the way they the way they understand the world is still essentially through the “world Jewish conspiracy” idea. Although their work on the ground might be more openly Islamophobic – and they’ll pick on particular groups; they can shift their targets quite a lot, they can accumulate targets very quickly – the glue that holds their theory of the world together is still the old antisemitic conspiracy theory and that is becoming a little bit more open and apparent. You have to go back to the 1960s to find groups of fascists who will come out on a demonstration on the street with a banner saying ‘Hitler was right’ – but you’ve had that in the last couple of years. In a way that is also to do with the demise of to be BNP, and strangely enough, the BNP was a kind of constraining factor on some of the small further-right grouplets, as the BNP had a kind of semi-parliamentary strategy alongside their other work, but now that has completely imploded. Now, groups on the far right are just there doing what they really want to do – outside of any kind of block or established political structures. So they can be much more open about their actual ideology. And also if you look at what’s happening in Eastern Europe at the moment, and also parts of Central Europe – there is interaction between the British fascists and fascists in Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, and so on. So there are objective reasons, often, as to why antisemitism is growing and to me it’s only the left that has the answers to that, but it is the left that is being attacked as the principal antisemites, in what I think is a very cynical and opportunistic campaign.

ML: That leads me on quite nicely onto the next question, which is – obviously, many of the individuals conveying these claims – at the level of politics and in the media – are cynical, but presumably the claims are being taken seriously by many Jewish people and have succeeded to some extent in creating a genuine worry, at least in some people’s minds, about Corbyn. Do you think that is a fair statement?

Labour activist Marc Wadsworth was expelled from the party in April after heavily disputed claims of antisemitic behaviour towards MP Ruth Smeeth

DR: Yes. I think the demonstration that took place in Parliament Square had two main elements to it. You had ordinary Jewish people who had been conditioned by reading about it every week in the papers, including the Jewish papers, into the impression that it’s the left that is antisemitic, it’s Corbyn and people around Corbyn. They have started to believe that stuff, even though it’s really lacking in evidence. They have imbibed enough of it to believe it, and when they’re told there’s going to be a demonstration that will give voice to this – some of those people will respond. I mean we’re not talking about big numbers. I wasn’t able to be there on the counter-demonstration to that, but I’ve spoken to quite a few people who were there and the figures for how many were demonstrating in the Square – it was probably not more than a thousand, and probably a couple of hundred or so on the counter-demonstration. And really, a thousand is not a particularly big number when the media has been going on about it non-stop. But I think a number of those people who were there were just ordinary members of the Jewish population who have become convinced there is a problem, and this is a way of doing something about it. They were there in good faith.

The people running it, on the other hand, did it as a very cynical political intervention, with the local election campaigns in mind. Jonathan Arkush, who is the president of the Board of Deputies – he’s not only a Zionist and a conservative, he’s a very right-wing Zionist and a very right-wing conservative. So the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council knew exactly what they were doing. They tell the press that it’s a terrible thing that ‘we’ve had to do this’ – but no, they were delighted to be doing it and they were making an intervention that they thought would weaken Corbyn and the Labour Party, just at the point when Labour was launching its local elections campaign. […] So to me, there were those two elements there in that situation – and in a way, the challenge for people on the Jewish left is that we have to find a way of having that discussion with those people who are being manipulated into supporting that kind of protest action. People who are not necessarily hard-line, anti-Corbyn people, but have been convinced that there is a problem and they’re addressing that problem. And that’s difficult – how to do that? But I think at the same time, what we’ve tried to do in the JSG is try to expose the motives behind it and really expose the hypocrisy around it in the sense that the Tories’ connections with real antisemites are on a much more serious level, with hardcore racists – both domestically and internationally.

In 2009, I think it was, David Cameron took the Tories out of the European People’s Party group. They were in the European Parliament and helped found a new group [the European Conservatives and Reformists] that was further to the right, where the main partner is the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the governing party in Poland, who are pushing very strong antisemitic themes at the moment – and they are their main partners. I mean there’s about 20 different political groups involved in this European group, but the biggest blocks are the Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice Party, but also within that block you’ve got Latvian and Bulgarian groups. The Latvian group goes on a March every year in to remember the Latvian SS and commemorate them. The Bulgarians do something similar. The Danish People’s Party are very hard line anti-immigrant, although they’re very pro-Israel. The Jewish establishment here can be incredibly forgiving of antisemitic politicians if they’re also pro-Israel, and that is something obviously the left cannot be forgiving of at all. I mean, we’re against right-wingers whether they’re in Israel or these other countries.

So that’s on the European level. Domestically – I don’t know if you are familiar at all to with a group called the Traditional Britain Group?

ML: I’m not, no.

DR: They grew out of people that had once been involved with the Monday Club. The Monday Club had a kind of fluid relationship with people on the far right beyond the Conservatives, and this Traditional Britain Group does a similar thing. There are many Tories involved in it, clustered around a guy called Gregory Lauder Frost, who’s an old-time Holocaust denier and antisemite. He is very connected with far-right groups and individuals on the far right. If you look at their website, the Traditional Britain Group and find a bit where it says ‘recommended reading’, basically among the books they are recommending are Mosley’s autobiography, and various fascist publications. What they do is they invite people over to seminars; they invite a lot of the “alt-right” people and the identitarians – these kind of new, more middle-class far-right intellectuals. Richard Spencer, who is a key white supremacist in the US, he has been invited over by them in the last couple of years. So these are Tories that are doing this, and at the same time the Tory Party is saying all the problems with antisemitism are in Labour. But what they’re actually talking about in terms of Labour are rogue Facebook posts and things like that, whereas here are real relationships with people that are, you know, in the frontline of pushing racist, fascist and antisemitic agendas. That is who they’re connected with – and [recently], Boris Johnson sent congratulations to the Hungarian Prime Minister, who was re-elected, and a major part of his campaign has been an antisemitic campaign against George Soros. And what’s been said in that campaign is classic “Jewish conspiracy” stuff. It’s a question of how to get a voice for that somewhere in the media, and get people also in the wider Jewish community more aware of that, that’s the challenge.

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, seen here at the Cambridge Union, is among those in the party with links to the far-right Traditional Britain Group | Cantab12 / WikiCommons

ML: One more question if I can. We’ve obviously talked about how there’s a problem with antisemitism on the left – there’s a problem with antisemitism across society, and the left is a part of that – so what do you think the best, most useful way we can be combative against that is?

DR: I think people have to be very, very clear in the terms they use. For example, I’m an anti-Zionist, but I normally talk about criticising Israeli government policy, Israeli military policy, Zionist ideology, as an ideology that justifies an ethnic supremacy within Israeli society and within the domination of the Occupied Territories, etc. But there’s often a lot of loose talk about “Israel” or “Israelis” among people on the left, and that just feeds the right-wing attack, as they can pick up on that stuff. So I think there’s that distinction, [as there are] people on the left in Israel who are doing lots of good things. And if that were amplified a bit more on the left, it would mean that when people on the right are saying, “You lot are all anti-Israel”, they can say “No, actually, these are the Israeli groups who we think are doing very good things”, you know. So in a way, because the left hasn’t amplified that very much, it’s made it a bit easy for the right. I’m an anti-Zionist, if you like, in two different ways. I’m an anti-Zionist in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, because I think Zionism has justified the building of a society that ethnically cleansed the Palestinians and discriminates against them, etc. And there are people on the Israeli left who talk about Israel needing to become a society for all its citizens on an equal basis, and in a way that means the end of Zionism, because it’s a society that would take away that privilege.

I don’t think that everyone who has called themselves a Zionist at any time in their life has wanted, necessarily, the situation that you have now in Israel. There were a number of people who, for a long time, for significant parts of their lives, defined themselves as socialist Zionists, who felt that, after the war, because of the refugee crisis affecting the survivors, that there was a case for a Jewish homeland. The problem was that that Jewish homeland was on somebody else’s land and involved excluding and discriminating against the people that were there. There are a lot of people I know who I’d call “1948 Zionists”, who are actually very progressive on a lot of other political questions, that have kind of got stuck in a groove on that particular issue and don’t find it easy to get out of it. And also, I don’t think Zionism is comparable, in the sense that, although it’s ended up like, for example, apartheid South Africa, I don’t think there was anything like the same degree of intention around that by a lot of the people that ended up there and were part of that society. But it was built on a fundamental injustice, and that injustice has got greater and greater and greater. So I think on the left there is not always an appreciation of the contradictions of it within that history. Treating Israelis as a set of evil people that always intended to be evil – it’s not much help to hold that sort of perspective, and a lot of Jews who have become non-Zionists or anti-Zionists – for instance in Britain and America – had a phase in their life where they were Zionists. Things happened that changed their perspective. I was involved with a Zionist youth group for a couple of years, when I was about 16 years old – it made a certain sense to me. I was already fairly left-wing politically and but then I came to different conclusions further down the line. It didn’t take that long, it was over the course of a few years. Sometimes there can be a very hard and fast attitude towards Jewish people in Britain that don’t declare themselves as kind of critical enough of what Israel is doing. People just sort of write them off as automatically right-wing, and a lot of those people are not automatically right-wing.

I also think that if the left are also seen as the people who will tackle antisemitism and have been relied on for that, it will make the left more credible. It’s about trying to get people to be more critical and challenging around this role, as I think the left hasn’t really played this role very much. There’s been some groups and some campaigns that have been fairly good around it, but I think there has been an attitude within the anti-racist movement that antisemitism is a bit of a thing of the past rather than the present, and that other forms of racism are now more important because they’re more frequent, instead of seeing the whole constellation of racism and where antisemitism fits within that. I’m quite involved with some Stand Up To Racism work, Unite Against Fascism work. I think within that myself and other people have had some impact and I think those groups do take it seriously, but I think there had been quite long periods where antisemitism was not taken seriously enough on the left. And you still get some people on the left that will create hierarchies of oppression, which is very unhelpful. So I think addressing those things can make a difference. I think one of the problems that Jeremy faces – and I’ve known Jeremy Corbyn for more than 30 years personally, and I know he’s very clued up on all these issues – but I don’t know how clued up the rest of the Labour Party politicians are, including people on the left. Some of them seem quite reluctant and lacking in confidence to speak out on these issues. So that can leave him a little bit out on a limb. I think that’s a problem. I think we do need some of the other left Labour MPs to step up and be very clear in their positions on antisemitism, and also they must be upfront about their support for Palestinian rights and the Palestinian cause – and make it clear that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two completely different things.


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