2019 04 – Mark Cowling on anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party – Again.

Mark Cowling

A few months ago the Labour Party adopted the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and pledged that new and robust proceedings for dealing swiftly with cases of alleged anti-Semitism amongst members were being put in place. The issue of anti-Semitism in the party appeared to go away for a while, but has broken out again with the departure of a group of Labour MPs for the independent grouping. One of the reasons which they give is the failure to deal properly with anti-Semitism. One of those who left is Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, who has complained of a huge volume of anti-Semitic tweets which she receives on her phone, many of these from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Although she has been complaining about this publicly for some time, she has apparently never been contacted by Jeremy Corbyn about the abuse.

Corbyn’s long-standing and deeply felt sympathies with the Palestinians have led him to say a whole variety of sympathetic things about organisations such as Hamas, who up till recently had a charter which contained a variety of overtly anti-Semitic statements. This has led many Jews including Jewish members of the Labour Party to feel that, though Corbyn has said there is no place for anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, he has been slow to deal with allegations about anti-Semitism. This clearly needs to be resolved as rapidly as possible.

The politics of labelling in the age of social media

Social media, particularly Twitter, offer people the opportunity to express instant and ill thought out comments, which because of the brevity of Twitter are not nuanced. Also, tweeters feel that they are anonymous and will not be called to account for what they say, meaning that they can engage in online abuse with impunity. This does not make for well thought out discussion in the public sphere. In particular, there is a tendency to label behaviour and feel that this is a conclusive argument. An example unrelated to anti-Semitism would be some of the public reaction to Liam Neeson when he said that, hearing that a friend of his had been raped by a black man, he went around Belfast for about a week looking for an opportunity for revenge on any convenient black male. He then said that he had calmed down and that he wanted to use this as an example of why it is wrong to seek revenge. An instant reaction was that he was racist, whereas it is pretty clear that he is condemning revenge, and in particular revenge on whole social groups such as blacks.

Something similar has happened with allegations of anti-Semitism. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism offers a series of examples of anti-Semitism, one of which is holding Jewish people collectively responsible for the actions of Israel. The man who originally provided the examples said that they were intended to trigger thought about possible anti-Semitic intentions behind statements. In other words, it might be that given the full context there is no anti-Semitic intention. One topical example might be the seven-year-old tweet made by Derek Hatton, who was recently readmitted to the Labour Party but has now been suspended because of the anti-Semitic character of the tweet, which read:

“Jewish people with any sense of humanity need to start speaking out publicly against the ruthless murdering being carried out by Israel!”

The tweet obviously needs to be set in context, and “ruthless murdering” sounds more appropriate for the actions of Hitler than the relatively limited, but nonetheless bloody, actions of the Israeli state in Gaza. But what Hatton is not saying in the tweet is that all Jewish people are responsible for the actions of Israel. He is not, at least in the tweet, challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel or its right to self-determination. In other words, it seems to me, that Hatton’s statement is one which should be discussed and doubtless challenged but not automatically condemned as anti-Semitic.

There is, in other words, a danger of closing down legitimate discussion by instant labelling. A visit to the website of the Campaign against Anti-Semitism offers examples of this tendency. Their most recent discovery is of a 38 second video of Jeremy Corbyn at a Cambridge Union Society debate on October 29, 2009, about the state of Israel in which he said that he had spoken to young Palestinians who knew people who had been involved in suicide bombings and that he understood how they were motivated by a sense of hopelessness. The comment on the website continues “Mr Corbyn was referring to genocidal antisemitic suicide bombers from terrorist organisations like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which seek the massacre of all Jews and sent suicide bombers to slaughter any Jews they could find”. It may be true that the organisations in question have that as a motivation, but it surely does not follow that the Palestinian youths who engage in suicide bombing have exactly the same motivation; it may be more a matter of simple hopelessness. Still less does it follow that Jeremy Corbyn accepts the legitimacy of massacring all Jews.

One of the IHRA examples which is particularly tricky is the one which states that one example of anti-Semitism is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” In one sense this is perfectly legitimate: the state of Israel has laws against racial discrimination. On the other hand it is difficult to deny that the state of Israel has a racial basis. If you are Jewish, or the spouse of somebody Jewish, which includes a spouse of the same sex, you are entitled to go and live in Israel and claim Israeli citizenship. On the other hand, if you are Palestinian and have ended up in Gaza or Jordan or the Lebanon or a variety of other places as a result of the events of 1948, you may have ancestors going back several generations who lived in Palestine as it then was, but which has now become Israel. You may, indeed, possess the keys to your family’s house in what is now Israel, together with a set of title deeds, but you are not entitled to go and live in Israel in spite of this stronger connection with the place than many Jews who have lived their whole lives somewhere else. Unless, of course, you manage to marry somebody Jewish. In other words, the state of Israel manifestly has a racial basis, and this is one very important reason why it is there: it functions as a bolthole for Jews who may become oppressed or indeed massacred in the countries where they are living. The events of the Holocaust make this feature of Israeli law fully understandable.

It should be possible to carefully and calmly discuss matters such as this without instant accusations of anti-Semitism, or, indeed, of not caring about the fate of the Palestinians. I am hoping in future articles to discuss aspects of the history of Israel and of its conflict with the Palestinians. It is surely in the interests of everybody that it should be possible to do this without instant accusations.