It wasn’t a massive demonstration. But the hundreds of protesters who congregated outside of Britain’s Labour headquarters over the weekend, to rail against anti-Semitism that they say reaches intolerable heights of party leadership, shows a sustained pressure on the left as it finds itself wrestling with assertions that may go deeper than individual members.
The protests, the second to be organized by Jewish groups in two weeks, have been directed at party leader Jeremy Corbyn, kicked up over his support for an anti-Semitic mural in London in 2012 in the name of free speech. The resurfacing of his years-old comments revitalized concerns that Mr. Corbyn, at best, turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism in party ranks, and at worst, permits it, in both overt and more subtle forms.
Labour’s troubles are further heated as Western countries grapple with a rise in populism that has seen norms on political correctness break down and, in some instances, fanned xenophobic flames. That has put Labour, a party that professes to defend all minorities, in a harsher spotlight and made a solution more urgent.
The mounting criticism directed at Labour over the past two years has gotten hijacked politically, at turns verging on farcical and obscuring the matter at hand. But the accusations are also seen as a sign of a greater capacity to recognize the problem, and it’s led to soul-searching about old and deeply ingrained attitudes and traditions within the party.
“The Labour leadership in general has not always recognized the nature of the problem,” says David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London. “This isn’t an issue about Corbyn, it’s an issue about ways of thinking on the left. … It’s not about individuals, it’s about elements in the political culture.”
‘Not just a few bad apples’
That culture can be found in radical socialist thinking and writing from the early 19th century in its critique of the “evils of capitalism,” Professor Feldman says, “often personified by a rapacious Jewish banker.” More recently, anti-Zionist sentiment on the left born out of sympathy for the Palestinians can morph into anti-Semitism. And legitimate debate can degenerate when distinctions between Israel and Jews are blurred. Too often for many Jews, their culture and the politics of Israel are too easily conflated.
Many in Labour have voiced discomfort with some of Corbyn’s positions as a staunch supporter of pro-Palestinian rights, such as once referring to members of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”
The recent protests against Labour are only the latest to dog the party under Corbyn’s leadership. In April 2016, Facebook comments by lawmaker Naseem Shah compared Israel to Nazi Germany; she was temporarily banned from the party after apologizing. That same month former London Mayor Ken Livingstone said that Hitler had been a Zionist before the Holocaust. He was also suspended from the party and remains so.
The outcry led to an investigation by British lawyer Shami Chakrabarti into anti-Semitism in the party. Her resulting report concluded that it’s not endemic, but there is an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and listed a package of reforms moving forward.
Criticized for not responding firmly enough initially, Momentum, the grassroots Labour movement behind Corbyn, issued a statement earlier this month showing a willingness to get to the root of the problem. “Current examples of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party are not only a problem of a few, extreme ‘bad apples’ but also of unconscious bias which manifests itself in varied, nuanced, and subtle ways and is more widespread in the Labour Party than many of us had understood even a few months ago,” it read.
Despite the scrutiny on the left and magnification by social media and hate speech, a 2017 study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) estimated that only 5 percent of the general population can “justifiably be described as anti-Semites.” It also showed that those on the far left only hold slightly more anti-Semitic attitudes, by intensity of anti-Israel attitudes, than the general population. But the far left are still much less anti-Semitic than both very right-wing members of society and Muslims.
David Hirsh, a professor at Goldsmiths University and author of “Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism,” says that the issue has gained more prominence because Corbyn has moved into mainstream British politics since he was elected to lead Labour in 2015. “Jeremy Corbyn isn’t some kind of magic evil anti-Semite, but he is a man from a political tradition and political faction which embodies this kind of anti-Semitism,” says Professor Hirsh, who is also the founder of Engage, a campaign against the academic boycott of Israel.
He says that the issue is confounded by the rise of populism. In many places in Europe, populist parties on the far right have gained power, particularly with anti-migrant and anti-Muslim messaging that can also be anti-Semitic. In Britain, Corbyn's victory amounted to a populist surge on the left, and with it has come simplistic thinking about Israel, Hirsh says.
“There are a lot of people on the left who have been educated to believe that Israel is the key evil on the planet, and anyone who defends Israel is a racist or pro-apartheid,” he says.
This deeper questioning threatens to be overtaken by politics though. In a recent YouGov poll for The Times, eight out of 10 Labour members say they believe accusations of anti-Semitism are exaggerated to damage Corbyn. And the issue continues to be used for political opportunity on both sides, generating additional claims of anti-Semitism.
Corbyn issued a statement calling his party an “anti-racist party” and acknowledged “pockets” of anti-Semitism within the party. Then he was panned for sharing a Seder dinner during Passover with a Jewish far-left collective called Jewdas who critics said, essentially, aren’t Jewish enough. “To claim that we in Jewdas are somehow not real Jews is offensive, and frankly anti-Semitic,” the group said in a Guardian opinion piece earlier this month.
One Jewish Labour activist, who wished to remain unnamed due to the polemic, says that moderate Jewish Labour members who attended the anti-Semitic protests have been forced to defend themselves, which he calls "absolutely shameful."
Emily Robinson, a professor in British party politics at the University of Sussex, says for a party that traditionally has strong links to the Jewish community, Labour isn't applying the same standards that it would for others who claimed to be victims of racial attack. The accusations of anti-Semitism have been called a media conspiracy. But "that feeds back into particular Jewish stereotypes of them having control of the media, so I think there is a really dangerous circularity to that argument that we need to resist,” she says.
Part of the problem continues to lie in the recognition of what constitutes an oppressed population. “The politics of anti-racism for understandable reason focus on a black/white binary, so people of color and white people. Some anti-racists on the left can therefore find it difficult to recognize and see racism when it’s directed at Jews,” Feldman says.
“There needs to be strong leadership on this point which is to say that opposition to racism and in this case opposition to anti-Semitism needs to be unconditional,” he says. “So even if Jews are predominantly middle class, and even if most Jews in this country support the state of Israel, and even if Jews are in the whole ‘wrong’ class position or have views that people on the left disagree with on Israel, and even if they are more Tory than Labour in their voting preferences, and even if they are not friends of the left – even if all that is the case, anti-Semitism needs to be opposed unconditionally.”