Every candidate for the Labour leadership has endorsed the Board of Deputies’ Ten Pledges. Sai Englert argues that what is at stake here, rather than any desire to tackle the growth of antisemitism in the UK, is the continuation of a politically motivated weaponisation of antisemitism to attack the left and the Palestine solidarity movement.
The electoral defeat of 12 December 2019 was as crushing as it was significant. Not only did Labour lose to the most vitriolically right-wing Tory leadership that we have seen in a while, but it did so while proposing highly popular and progressive economic reforms. What is more, its defeat was colossal: in terms of seats (rather than votes collected) the largest since the 1930s.
There are many reasons for this defeat, which have been covered extensively by commentators, pundits and activists alike, from the onslaught of the mainstream press and their vilification of Corbyn as a dangerous communist and/or racist, to the failure of the Labour Party to offer a credible left-wing way forward on Brexit.
These issues are hugely important, and the appropriate lessons should be learned from them. One question that has been barely covered in the post-mortem discussions however has been the five year-long assault, by both the right of the party and the mainstream press, on anti-imperialism in general and Palestine solidarity in particular, often through a cynical weaponisation of claims of antisemitism in the party.
The near total silence on this issue – including from the left – beggars belief, given the massive role it played in undermining the left-wing project inside the Labour Party, demobilising key social movements on which Corbyn’s credibility was built, and in painting the most principled anti-racist leader of any political party in the UK as a vile bigot, exonerating by extension the politics of division and hatred championed by Boris Johnson.
The silence is made all the worse by the fact that all the signs point to the fact that things are not set to get better on this front. Indeed, the Board of Deputies (BoD) has issued a ten-point pledge, which it demands all candidates for the Labour leadership sign up to. The pledge is based on perpetuating the idea that the Labour Party suffers from a structural problem with antisemitism – equated in truth with Palestine solidarity activism.
It demands that the Labour Party accepts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in full, outsource its disciplinary procedures on questions of antisemitism to an external body, and that the party recognise the ‘main representative groups’ of the Jewish community – presumably the BoD and its allies – as its counterparts in solving this issue. Taken together the pledges are an all-out assault on anti-Zionist politics in the Labour Party, given the IHRA’s and the BoD’s repeated conflation of anti-Zionism and structural critiques of Israel with antisemitism, as well as the explicit demand for the sidelining of what the Board considers to be fringe Jewish groups – read, those Jewish organisations that are anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian, or critical of Israeli policies.
It bears repeating over and over again that the idea that there is a specific problem of antisemitism in the Party has been widely debunked, including by such mainstream bodies as the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. All research shows that antisemitism is considerably more prevalent on the right, that antisemitism in Labour has in fact decreased under Corbyn’s leadership, and that the number of cases of antisemitism in the party represent an insignificantly small percentage of its massive membership. It is not for nothing that the IHRA definition moves away from recognising the structural nature of racism and instead privileges the tackling of individual, and therefore anecdotal, expressions of what it considers to be antisemitic. Were it to follow the structural approach that has dominated anti-racist work since the late 1990s, it would leave its proponents unable to operate with such devastating efficiency.
Furthermore, given the recent victory of Johnson on an openly racist ticket, one would be excused to think that the focus of the leadership of any minority in the UK should be turned to fighting it. The same is definitely true for any Jewish organisation today. Given the large incidences of antisemitism in the Tory Party, the recent unveiling of a statue by Tory MPs to the honour of an open Nazi supporting antisemite, the praise lavished on the Orbán government by a Tory adviser, as well as the support it has received from the Tories in power, or the close links between the Johnson leadership and antisemites like Steve Bannon, it is clear where the threat to Jewish communities in the UK are actually coming from. In fact, all yearly reports by the Community Security Trust come to the same conclusion: the large majority of antisemitic incidences in the UK come from the right. Yet, we should not hold our breath to see the BoD launch its campaign targeted at the Johnson government. Instead it supported his campaign and celebrated his election.
What is at stake here, rather than any desire to tackle the growth of antisemitism in the UK, is the continuation of a politically motivated weaponisation of antisemitism to attack the left and the Palestine solidarity movement. This is not for nothing. It is from the campaigns against British wars in the Middle East and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation that the left in the UK has rebuilt itself from the early 2000s onwards. It is also within those movements that key political figures on the left – not least of which is Jeremy Corbyn himself – have built their base and popular support.
In addition, the demands of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement put not only continued Israeli settler colonialism at the centre of their demands, but also the governments and companies that continue to profit from it. This includes important sections of the British establishment, starting with its military and financial industries. The growth of BDS is therefore a threat to both Israeli and Western ruling classes, who have moved aggressively to illegalise and repress the growing solidarity movement. The assault against the Corbyn-led Labour Party has been a central aspect of these efforts.
It is therefore hugely worrying to see that all candidates in the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections bar-two, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, have uncritically signed up to the BoD’s demands. This includes the left’s candidate for leader Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has doubled down in interviews on her support for the ten pledges and criticised the previous leadership on its failure to tackle antisemitism in the party effectively.
Worse, Long-Bailey has openly linked antisemitism to the Palestinian solidarity movement, thereby actively joining in with the right-wing assaults against the Palestinian liberation struggle. She wrote, for example, in the Jewish news that
We need an education programme that challenges the conspiracy theories and explains the tropes. Labour Party members who do feel strongly about Palestinian rights must also understand why Jewish people in Britain today, for whom the Holocaust is a recent memory, see the existence of a Jewish state as a source of hope and security. They must learn to recognise the racism that permeates even a party that sees itself as anti-racist.
Palestinians and their supporters are made to bear the blame for antisemitism despite the overwhelming evidence that the attacks on the Jewish community are, as they have always been, the outcome of home-grown far-right activism. In addition, support for Israel – a colonial state in the Middle East – is justified through the memory of the Holocaust – a European genocide. Instead of the attacks on Jewish communities being placed within the framework of the growing violence directed against Black, Muslim, or migrant communities, as one would expect coming from a left-wing candidate, these are placed in opposition to one another.
This astonishing failure on behalf of the left’s best chance at avoiding a full-frontal counter-movement in the party, speaks also to a broader weakness of the Corbyn leadership. It attempted to side-step the key political issues it was faced with, through bureaucratic fudges and compromise, in the hope that its economic program would serve as an effective unifying force in its race to power. This approach is characteristic of left-wing social democrats throughout history and only rarely succeeds.
In fact, the recent election demonstrates exactly that. While the Johnson campaign was all politics – Brexit, immigration, racism, nationalism – the Corbyn campaign avoided a clear line on most of these issues and allowed the Tories to set the agenda on all of them. The same is true for the antisemitism claims. Labour candidates and activists were told by party officials not only to avoid fighting back against them, but to respond to public attacks with apologies. The fightback, so the line went, would come after the election. Just as with Brexit, Labour ended up allowing itself to be painted as indecisive, unclear, and unable to respond on the issue of antisemitism while allowing the Tories’ brazen antisemitism to go undiscussed.
There is no doubt that if the right manages to take back control of the party – presumably through the leadership of Keir Starmer – the first all-out assault on the left within the party will be directed against Palestine activists under the cover of fighting antisemitism as defined by the IHRA definition. If this happens, the left candidates and their allies in the party who have remained quiet will have a lot to answer for.
That said, while much can and should be said about the weakness of the Labour top-brass in fighting back, this weakness is – as it often is – also a reflection of the lack of effective pressure from the rank and file. Indeed, despite excellent work by Palestine solidarity activists, led by Palestinian socialists themselves, inside the Labour Party to pass policy targeting, for example, British arm sales to Israel, much of the left has been unable and unwilling to challenge the attacks effectively. Supposedly left-wing pundits fell over themselves to denounce the Labour Party leadership’s supposed inaction of antisemitism, while many high-profile party and trade union activists decided it was politically unwise to be tarnished by the antisemitism scandal.
Social movements outside the party similarly got drawn into the minutiae of each claim, failing to grasp the key question at hand: the attacks aimed at weakening, disorganising, and demoralising efforts to fight Israeli apartheid and its British allies. In that it has, unfortunately, been largely effective.
If we want to be able to build enough pressure on whichever new leader of the Labour Party on these questions, we will need to rebuild in our colleges, universities, workplaces and communities a grassroots movement that makes demands on local government, administrators and bosses to break all economic, diplomatic, and institutional links with Israel and all those who profit from its dispossession of the Palestinian people. Only by rebuilding from below, can we hope to hold those at the top accountable – whether in our movement or beyond.