The recent debate on antisemitism which took place in the House of Commons was heavily oversubscribed with many more MPs wanting to speak than there was time available. As one of those who missed out, this is roughly what I was planning to say:
I am not Jewish and neither have I grown up with the shadow of antisemitism as an ever-present spectre. I did, however, experience a snapshot of what it is like to be on the receiving end of potentially violent antisemitism when, a few years ago, I was the target of threats from a far-right fantasist in my constituency. He had convinced himself both that I am Jewish and that my advocacy of Palestinian rights mean that I am some sort of sinister double agent for the State of Israel. It started with threatening phone messages and it continued later with online abuse and threats. The perpetrator was twice arrested and twice convicted, once resulting in a custodial sentence.
What happened to me was no more than a snapshot of the sustained barrage of more extreme and sustained abuse and threats received by Jewish Parliamentary colleagues like Luciana Berger. But it means I know a bit about how it can feel and the impact such threats can have, not only on those of us publicly in the firing line, but on our staff and our families too.
While the threats I received were from someone on the Far-Right, what I want to focus on here is the question of antisemitism on the Left. And that is about facing up to something profoundly challenging. After all, opposition to racism is at the core of how we define ourselves on the left of politics. Surely, we would never give house-room to an ideology that was the cornerstone of Nazism? It is the antithesis of everything that we should and do stand for.
But address the issue we must. As a starting point, we could all do a lot worse than look at the piece published recently in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, written by David Feldman and Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. The article traces how, uncomfortable as it may be for us to recognise and address, a thread of antisemitism has been present in parts of the Left for many decades. Central to Feldman and McGeever’s analysis is an observation that Left politics have historically relied too much on a one dimensional perspective that sees racism almost exclusively in terms of white supremacy born out of principally European colonialism and the legacy of colonialism. Of course, these have all been key factors in the growth and persistence of racism. The problem comes when you slip into believing that these are the only kinds of racism and when you start to forget the history of racialized exclusions within Europe, and indeed within the UK, itself: exclusions that the history of antisemitism shows can be more complex than relations between haves and have nots.
Relevant too is the habit on parts of the Left to characterise the complex range of factors that underpin inequality in the developed world and the power relations of colonialism by reference to personalised examples of “us and them”. Down the line, personalisation becomes a substitute for analysis and you are left with conspiracy theories of international elites acting as the general staff of international inequality.
Mix in this with a one dimensional, colour-coded view of racism and you are left with a dangerous cocktail. It is a cocktail in which you can end up painting pictures of those elites – literally in the case of Kalen Ockerman’s “anti-capitalist” mural in Brick Lane – which project caricatures as grotesquely antisemitic as anything that could come have out of the populist fascist Right. The comedian, David Baddiel, put his finger on it in the Sunday Times when he asked whether, as a Jew, “Am I stinking vermin or am I running the world? The racists think it’s both.” All of us on the Left have a responsibility to recognise that such conspiracy theories born of overly simplistic them-and-us politics have led to currents of antisemitism on the Left that exist to this day. We must be better than that.
And as someone who believes passionately in justice for the Palestinians, I know that kind of sloppy thinking can infect the debate on Israel and Palestine too.
Zionism has a complex history and there are widely differing definitions of what the term even means, not least amongst Jews themselves. None of that, however, excuses either the use of the term “Zionist” as an insult rather than a description, or peddling theories of Zionist conspiracies as lazy substitutes for serious analysis of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Those theories are profoundly threatening to Jewish people themselves, particularly if they feel a personal identity with Israel that exists irrespective of what they may think about this or that Government of Israel and its policies. Holding Jewish people collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel is as antisemitic as holding Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of Muslim-majority states is Islamophobic. All of us whose advocacy for Palestine is based on respect for equal rights for all must reject these conspiracy theories for what they are and the danger they represent. And we have a responsibility to call out the online and other abuse through which those conspiracy theories are too often expressed.
I also know that conspiracy theories exist on both sides of arguments about Israel and Palestine and that the abuse they spawn are often mirror images of each other. For theories of Zionist conspiracies, substitute theories global Leftist/Muslim conspiracies using Palestine advocacy as a cover for sinister ambitions to drive Israeli Jews into the sea and you get the picture. According to those conspiracy theories, I have been told I am a “Jew Hater” and that my presence at Holocaust Memorial events “Defiles the memory of the dead”. A couple of years ago, I put together these and some other examples of the online abuse I receive on social media in response to my advocacy of Palestinian rights. Take a look and I think you will see what I mean. There have been many more such examples since.
Antisemitism does have a malign presence in parts of the Left and in some campaigns defining themselves as anti-Zionist. Unjustified allegations of antisemitism are also used to discredit advocates of Palestinian rights and to close down criticism of Israel’s actions. Sadly, those allegations do not only feature in the abusive outpourings of online trolls. They are also an unpleasant aspect of the international public diplomacy employed by the current Government of Israel. One example is the allegation that mechanisms recognised as legitimate to hold other states to account for breaches of international law – such as economic sanctions – become antisemitic by definition if applied to Israel for similar reasons.
The article from Feldman and McGeever referred to earlier not only rightly urges Labour to understand and address the culture of antisemitism which exists in parts of the Left. It also highlights the importance of people not feeling constrained from speaking out over Israel’s policies. Indeed they express the hope that the alertness of Jewish Leaders in the UK to antisemitism “Might also allow them, even as they identify with Israel, to recognise and censure the racialized inequalities within and beyond its recognized borders.”
Irrespective of whatever views any of us have on Israel and Palestine, We all share a common responsibility to confront and eradicate antisemitism. And we all share a responsibility to call out the conspiracy theories which breed prejudice - wherever they occur. Feldman and McGeever conclude their article with these words: “Both the Labour Party and the leaders of the Jewish Community should understand that anti-racism is not divisible.”
Amen to that.
Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield