Labour leader Keir Starmer is shamelessly manipulating Jewish fears of antisemitism for the purposes of intra-party factional politics. This isn’t only useless in fighting against antisemitism – it is, itself, a form of it.
This piece originated as an extended Twitter thread and was first published in full form by Jewish Voice for Labour.
Jewish fear of antisemitism is real. Jews often have experienced antisemitism and have good reason to fear it. But what if there was a situation in which Jews were convinced there was a threat of antisemitism, which didn’t in fact have a basis in reality?
What if small amounts of relatively inconsequential antisemitism was presented as an existential threat: antisemitism that arose out of ignorance; antisemitism that could simply be put right by pointing it out to people or asking them to think about it and stop; antisemitism that amounted to a few people using the wrong words on the internet?
What if people took that and used it to whip up fear among Jews?
What if people told Jews that it meant they should fear for their lives, that they should prepare to leave the country for their safety?
What if Jews’ real fear of antisemitism was played upon in order to instrumentalise this fear against a political opponent?
What if Jews, because they were Jews, were made fearful for little reason, and this terror just made them collateral damage for some obscure political project?
There’s a word for the politics that makes Jews live in fear: antisemitism.
A cause of suffering or a moral absolute?
I know what you’re going to say: ‘There’s no such thing as inconsequential or minor antisemitism. The seriousness of all and any antisemitism is a moral absolute. And anyone who says any different must themselves be an antisemite.’ Well, let’s just say I disagree. Most of us involved in fighting antisemitism aren’t here to justify some moral absolute: we’re here because we know of the real suffering, danger, and fear that antisemitism causes and we want to put an end to it.
In doing that we need to constantly make distinctions about who is a real danger and who isn’t: there are real differences between dyed-in-the-wool antisemites who deface Jewish cemeteries, or who rail against ‘Jewish power’ in the media, or who shoot up synagogues, and people who accidentally and ignorantly find themselves repeating anti-Jewish tropes. There are differences between antisemites who might need educating, or where convincing them to change might make Jews safer, and those who at every turn become more hateful. There are different dangers associated with people who fervently believe that the world is run by a secret cabal of Jewish puppetmasters who need to be eliminated, and those who blithely talk about ‘Jewish influence’ or the ‘Israel lobby’, without thinking about what what the problems might be in that type of analysis.
In order to be effective in a struggle against antisemitism we need to be able to make these distinctions, and work out whose views can be changed and whose simply need to be opposed. The doctrine of ‘zero tolerance’ (incidentally invented by police in the United States in the 1970s as a justification for arresting and imprisoning young black people in the name of ‘community policing’), now endorsed both by the Labour Party and the EHRC, is an effort to do away with all these distinctions. It is a type of thinking that says ‘all that racism is equally bad’ and turns the question of fighting racism that was socially produced into a mere clash of moral absolutes. There are some problems with this: firstly, there’s no evidence that ‘zero tolerance’ policies work. In fact they have been widely criticised, because (quite unsurprisingly) utter moral condemnation of racists actively gets in the way of them changing their ways.
Not the best way to make a world less dangerous for Jews
Some of us fight antisemitism because we want to make a world less dangerous for Jews. Others seem to be more interested in taking someone’s worst point in order to characterise their entire existence as morally degraded (we might call this the abstraction of criminality), in order to then exile them from politics or excise their existence from any political association. Secondly, a consequence of this morally absolute thinking of antisemitism is to reduce antisemitism – which is a social problem, which arises out of society, and is not just a matter of a ‘problematic opinion’ – to an idiotic numbers game. Those who want to say that antisemitism is a serious problem are reduced to making enormous, numbered lists of antisemites and antisemitic incidents. And those who disagree about this being a sensible way to address antisemitism are accused of minimising them problem because they don’t accede to the sheer vastness of the numbers. In particular in the UK, this strategy of producing enormous numbers of antisemites and antisemitic incidents has functioned to encourage Jews to be often unreasonably afraid. And more than this, it has truly obstructed efforts to offer those who harbour antisemitic opinions to change, through education, for example.
So who is responsible for forcing Jews to live in fear of an existential threat of antisemitism? Well one answer is that antisemites are ultimately responsible. But it is also true that these fears have been whipped up not only by the media and politicians, but also by Jewish community institutions and Jewish media. Anyone who has read the Jewish Chronicle for the last five years would believe that Corbyn would enter power amid a second Kristallnacht; those who listen to the Board of Deputies, or the Jewish Leadership Council (whoever they are. And why they are apparently our leaders, nobody knows), or the Campaign Against Antisemitism, or the Community Security Trust, would think that we needed to be packing their bags and fleeing before some torrent of antisemitic violence.
But this has no basis in any reality. It ought to be the greatest shame to these institutions that when the media, the Tories, and the right wing of the Labour Party used accusations of antisemitism to attack Corbyn, they didn’t defuse the situation by offering a sober and realistic view. They refused to offer Jews who rely on them the comfort of knowing that the scale of the threat was being exaggerated for political purposes. When it turned out that the accusation of antisemitism against Corbyn ‘stuck’ it was then repeated day after day across the news media not because the news media cared about Jews, but because they cared about stopping Corbyn for wholly other reasons.
For the ‘community’ or for self-interest?
Any Jewish institution with any integrity or any care for those Jews who look to them for advice should have seen this and said this. They didn’t. In fact most of the so-called ‘community leaders’ made the decision that they too would rather have all the Jews of the UK terrified. So why did they do this? There are a mixture of reasons. Firstly, all of these institutions have been historically centrist or right wing. Secondly, they have all been historically Zionist (with the exception of the Board of Deputies, which was critical of Zionism up to the 1930s.) Thirdly, in recent decades an increasing number of British Jews – like many Jews in the diaspora – have become anti- or non-Zionist, and especially have become disaffected with the increasingly right-wing nature of Israeli politics. Many Jews are highly critical of the increased occupation of the West Bank, of the building of the wall in Palestinian territories, and of the blockade of Gaza. At the same time, with increasing secularism, many Jews have turned away from traditional community institutions that refuse to recognise them as Jewish if they are not members of synagogues.
Under these conditions, many Jewish ‘community leaders’ and community organisations seized upon this situation to try to shore up not only their relevance to British Jews (at the expense of terrifying them with the prospect of a new and violent wave of antisemitism), and to reassert the centrality of support for Israel in combatting antisemitism. These leaders have acted cynically and unscrupulously, and have shown little regard for either the real dangers of antisemitism, or for the lived experiences of British Jews.
Zero tolerance produces zero progress
In the great numbers game of the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to antisemitism, the so-called ‘new antisemitism’ hypothesis has played a crucial role. The idea is that many antisemites have recoded their antisemitism as anti-Zionism. And it may be true that some antisemites have done this. But the theorists of this idea then argue that this means that all anti-Zionism is an expression of antisemitism, or is nothing but a cover for antisemitism. There’s a name for this type of logical fallacy, in which you move illegitimately from the particular instance to the general rule: casuistry. And this casuistry has proved particularly useful to certain people in this fight: by redefining criticism of Zionism and Israel as antisemitic, it has allowed the Zionist elements of the Jewish community and leadership organisations to reassert the centrality of a defence of Israel in the struggle against antisemitism. Meanwhile, it has offered an ideological defence of Israel by tarring all opponents of Zionism with the morally absolute claim that they must be racists, and that they must be involved in Jew-hatred.
Starmer’s actions can make antisemitism flourish
So how does this make Keir Starmer an antisemite? Since taking power in the Labour Party, Starmer has said that he will root out antisemitism, and will enter into agreements with ‘The Jewish Community’. The trouble is, the community leadership have been complicit with what has happened over the last few years. He won’t speak to any of the other kind of Jews – and in fact seems convinced of the antisemitic premise that there is a unified Jewish way of thinking about these problems. In truth, Starmer only wants to speak to Jews who are on the one hand petrified with fear, or Jews on the other who have encouraged that fear. No other Jew counts for him.
His response to the EHRC’s report has been particularly egregious. The report found not only that the Labour Party had not been institutionally antisemitic, but that of the many cases they looked at, very very few were actionable. Where members had expressed antisemitic views this had normally been addressed with disciplinary proceedings, suspensions, and expulsions. And under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, following the Chakrabarti report, which the EHRC praise, these processes had in fact started to improve – all the more so after certain right-wingers like Iain McNicol were removed from looking after the disciplinary processes. Where there was a problem of ‘political interference’ in the complaints process, the majority of these were to speed up the resolution of complaints about antisemitism by censuring, suspending, and expelling members.
More widely, recent studies have shown that antisemitic sentiments declined in the Labour Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader. The entire circus of the last week has been an attempt to stop people looking at what the EHRC report actually said: that there was little antisemitism, especially by officers of the party; and that those officers who were involved had been dealt with and expelled; and while there were failures of process, moves were being made to put this right already under Corbyn’s leadership. Given the furore in the media for five years, and the 18 months that the EHRC spent looking for instances of antisemitism, this is all they found. People should read the report. It’s a lot less damning than they’d have you believe.
Meanwhile, Starmer’s tenure has been marked by the abolition of any semblance of democracy in the Labour Party. For the first four months of his leadership, democracy was ‘turned off’, with Constituency Labour Parties not allowed to hold decision-making meetings. Party Conference – the Party’s sovereign body – was cancelled for no apparent reason. Jews who questioned the much-questioned IHRA definition of antisemitism were suspended from the party. Local parties were told they too would be suspended if they even discussed these suspensions. Members were told they would be suspended if they discussed pay-outs in a legal settlement to anti-Corbynite Labour staffers who held up the complaints processes about antisemitism, in order then to blame the Corbyn leadership. And Jeremy Corbyn himself was suspended from the party – yet the party refuses to even state which rule he is supposed to have broken.
This widespread assault on democracy is bad enough in itself, but what is worse are the perpetual claim that the ‘new management’ is doing this on behalf of ‘The Jewish Community’, or in an effort to tackle antisemitism. Where Jews have spoken out against this in public, they have been bullied in the media (as with Kirsty Wark silencing and interrupting dissenting Jews on Newsnight), or they have been treated like they don’t count. A recent invitation to Starmer to have a conversation with Jews in Islington North constituency has been not even refused, but just ignored.
This is a situation in which goyim – from Keir Starmer, to Angela Rayner, to Wes Streeting, to Luke Akehurst – all claim to be acting on behalf of the Jews, when in truth they are using Jews as thin cover for their attack on socialism. They claim to want to allay fears that Jews have, while in fact they whip up fears among Jews. They have concealed all evidence that antisemitism in the Labour Party is being dealt with and declining. Meanwhile, in making Jews the perfect fall guys for their attacks on democracy and socialism, they have produced a situation in which antisemitism is more, not less, likely to flourish. This is what I call antisemitism.
Further reading on antisemitism and Labour politics
(Suggested by rs21)
Antisemitism then and now: Jewish socialist historian David Rosenberg discusses antisemitism on the right and on the left and the struggle against it, and gives an analysis of the history of Jewish communal ‘leadership’ groups like the Board of Deputies. (Part one of two.)
Reject the ten pledges: Sai Englert unpacks the ‘Ten Pledges’ that Labour Party leadership contenders were asked to comply with by the Board of Deputies at the time of the last leadership election.
No community without politics: Charlie J looks at the notion of a ‘mainstream Jewish community’, and argues that communities are always made and remade by a contestion of politics and political views.
What conspiracy theories won’t tell you: David Meienreis examines the allure of conspiracy theories, and contrasts them with a Marxist understanding of political power.
Corbynism and the Labour right: Derek Fraser looks at the real and documented role of the Labour right in sabotaging the Corbyn project.
We also recommend our pamphlet, Israel: the making of a racist state, as an accessible historical overview of the foundation of the state of Israel, and why it socialists must stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.