How to misread Labour’s anti-Semitism


In the furor around the anti-Semitism plaguing the British Labour Party, I’ve noticed two distinct forms of defense of the party and its far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The first defense, favored by those for whom Corbyn is a Socialist equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard, is to dismiss any accusations as a hoax aimed at destroying their leader’s prospects of becoming Britain’s next prime minister. The second, which may be wrong-headed but is at least intellectually sincere, is that there is indeed a problem, but that including anti-Zionism in contemporary anti-Semitism only makes the problem worse.

Numerous examples of both defenses have appeared in the last week. To take an instance of the first, according to pro-Palestinian commentator David Hearst in Middle East Eye, the definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is actually a “weapon” intended to “terrify all politicians … from having any contact with Palestinian organizations.” Because Corbyn has resisted the depiction of anti-Zionism as a mutation of anti-Semitism, Hearst argued, the hostile reaction of the British press leaves only the question of “how much dirtier the campaign to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is going to get.”

A more nuanced approach appeared, ironically, on Al Jazeera. “[T]o be honest I assumed that the issue of anti-Semitism was something that was exclusively associated with the far-right,” confessed Steven Fielding, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham. He continued: “What has surprised me is the alacrity with which supporters of Jeremy Corbyn — and sometimes very close and prominent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn — have been guilty of, at best, indulging in unconsciously anti-Semitic tropes.”

That theme was taken up in a longer article by Ian Almond, who teaches at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar. Briefly recounting his childhood in England, Almond recalled his shock “when, at the age of 12, my teacher told me the word ‘joo’ … which I had thought to mean to lie or cheat, was actually ‘Jew’ and was anti-Semitic.” He went on to assert that “anti-Semitism is so entrenched in our society, so depressingly persistent, that to trivialize it is to trivialize the blueprint of prejudice itself. It is a barometer of moral cowardice: when someone doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own faults or problems, they blame the Jews.”

Nothing to disagree with there, as Almond clearly grasps the critical role that anti-Semitism has played. The problem is that his understanding is restricted to its vulgar, crude form: ugly myths about Jews and the transatlantic slave trade, or Internet tirades about “the Rothschilds.” It does not occur to him that what is sold under the label of “criticism of Israel” frequently draws on anti-Semitic notions of “Jewish power.”

The best illustration of this is the very same argument that Almond chooses to defend; namely, that Israel is a “racist endeavor.” As early as 1965, Soviet diplomats at the United Nations were bracketing Zionism with Nazism; a decade later, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution spearheaded by a coalition of communist and authoritarian member states that equated Zionism with apartheid. Publishing houses in Moscow pumped out cheap booklets that ended up on Western university campuses, in which the reader learned that Zionism was a natural extension of the “Jewish exclusivism” fostered by the Talmud. Similar propaganda appeared in the Arab media, usually accompanied by cartoons of hook-nosed Israeli soldiers driving innocent Palestinians from their homes.

One might counter that not everyone who presents Israel as a “racist endeavor” is driven by the same motives that the USSR was. Perhaps. But one is still forced to rely on the same arguments.

If Israel should, as Almond advocates, be presented as a “settler-colonial” project to school students encountering it for the first time, how is that to be done in a way that doesn’t jeopardize local Jewish communities?

If Israel is portrayed as a rogue state whose inhabitants have fabricated their historic and spiritual links to the territory they now occupy, how can the argument avoid anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish wealth, political influence and exclusivism?

If the Palestinians are to be portrayed as ongoing victims of ethnic cleansing by Jews, how can one neatly separate opposition to Zionism from anti-Semitism?

The short answer is that you can’t.

That’s because the “racist endeavor” portrait of Israel, however much one encounters it in Middle East Studies departments, is grounded on the anti-Semitic trope of a distinctly “Jewish” dishonesty — in which disingenuous appeals for public sympathy, ruthless political lobbying, and the strategic use of wealth and military might are the essential elements in the story of Israel’s creation, as well as its ongoing existence.

If Almond and those who agree with him want to protect Diaspora Jewish communities and achieve concrete progress for the Palestinians, they should ask themselves whether their discourse about Israel is helping either of those goals.