Britain's Labour party is tearing itself apart over anti-Semitism charges disingenuously cooked up by political opponents
Britain seems to be going through a period of ritual flagellation. The Labour Party is tearing itself apart in order to assuage charges of anti-Semitism that seem to rain down on it from all sides.
But in order to understand the true motivation behind Labour's anti-Semitism charges, it's important to focus less on the actual charges and more on the organisations making them.
No systematic anti-Semitism
Any dispassionate review of the UK Labour Party will not find any systemic anti-Semitic rhetoric among its leadership, though there have been instances among individual members and low-level local officials.
The real origin of the anti-Semitism scourge is in the UK's Israel lobby - including groups like the Board of Deputies, BICOM, the Jewish Chronicle, and Community Security Trust - and its enablers in the British press and the Israeli embassy.
As a Jew myself, I'm bemused to learn that charges of anti-Semitism against one party member are based on the claim that he stated that the campaign was the product of the Israel lobby.
In order to understand the true motivation behind Labour's anti-Semitism charges, it's important to focus less on the actual charges and more on the organisations making them
Those who fomented this campaign don't fear anti-Semitism. Rather, they fear Jeremy Corbyn. He has shown that to lead the Labour party you don't have to be re-formed in the image of Tony Blair, the corporate politician who seeks power for its own sake and makes common cause with dictators and American presidents intent on waging war.
Even more pointedly, Corbyn has always supported the cause of Palestinian rights. He has always viewed Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians sceptically. To the Israel lobby this is tantamount to anti-Semitism. You may ask: how does criticising Israel come to be labelled as anti-Semitism? A good question: to answer it you must understand the role that Israel has come to play within Diaspora Jewish communities in the US and Britain.
Israel vs Judaism
At one time, Diaspora Jews had a strong cultural, ethnic and religious identity. Though many felt an affinity for Israel, it was considered only a single factor among many determining Jewish identity. But as Jews have become increasingly secular, they have disaffiliated from the traditional institutions that were once the loci of Jewish life: synagogues, community centres, Zionist groups and defence organisations.
In response, some of the wealthiest, most conservative voices in the community have issued a call to arms. Their view of the crisis is that the community is on life support and the only way to save it is by replacing the diffuse version of Jewish identity with a single central unifying principle: Israel.
British Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting on February 6, 2017 (AFP)
This is precisely what the billionaire gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson has done here in the US. And the Israel lobby in the UK is using a very similar playbook. Pro-Israel NGOs have adopted the notion that Israel can save British Jewry from oblivion.
The notion of Israel being put forward is not just any Israel, but a specific Israel. It's certainly not the nostalgic notion of a liberal democratic Israel, which informed Diaspora Jewish life for decades. It is, rather, the ultra-nationalist Israel represented by its ruling far-right government.
Corbyn breaks the Blaririte mould of knee-jerk support for Israel. He is a politician who will question old orthodoxies and try new ideas
That's why Jeremy Corbyn is anathema to UK’s Jewish leadership. He breaks the Blaririte mould of knee-jerk support for Israel. He is a politician who will question old orthodoxies and try new ideas, someone who will turn away from Britain's militarist, interventionist past and its support for strongmen and dictators around the world.
That is bad news for Israel, which maintains alliances with some of the worst of the worst: Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, South Sudan, apartheid South Africa, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, and so on.
It is the goal of Israel and the Israel lobby to neutralise politicians and movements around the world that threaten to hold it accountable for its wholesale violations of international law: the occupation, Gaza siege, wars in Lebanon and Gaza, international assassination campaigns and much more.
A cynical ploy
And so the charges of anti-Semitism being thrown at Corbyn's party are not based on religious prejudice, which is the traditional definition of the term. Rather, they are purely political in nature and are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to drive a wedge between Labour and its electorate.
Jeremy Corbyn's opponents want to see him defeated at all costs. Since he's proven himself enormously successful in attaining and holding the party leadership - and since he very nearly won the 2017 general election in the face of opposition from the media and even from within his own party - playing the anti-Semitism card looks very much like a cynical political ploy designed to oust Corbyn.
One Labour opponent referred to the "anti-Semitism stuff" "cutting through", as if anti-Semitism had no real world meaning beyond being used as a weapon against a political opponent.
In observing this anti-Semitism witch hunt from afar, I’m struck by its resemblance to a traumatic period in US history: the McCarthy era. During that period, in the 1950s, a form of mass hysteria gripped the country. Then it was not anti-Semitism, but rather Communism. Communists were everywhere. They were sabotaging our national institutions and the American way of life.
Claiming that Israel is a 'racist endeavor' is in no way anti-Semitic. In fact, it is a justified critique, as the most recent passage of the Jews-Only Nation State law shows
The anti-Communist campaign needed fodder for its diet of fantastical charges, so it created loyalty oaths and Congressional committees empowered to root out the Red menace within the ranks. Miraculously, it always seemed to have a fresh face to bring before the public to feed the maw of national hysteria.
While in truth there were a handful of American Communists who did betray their country (Julius Rosenberg, for example), the United States was never in danger from them. It was in far greater danger from the ideological fanatics who sabotaged the effective functioning of the government; all in service to their fanatical crusade.
Anti-communist witch hunter Joseph McCarthy speaks to his attorney Roy Cohn, later a mentor to Donald Trump (WikiCommons)
The groups and individuals behind the campaign to destroy the Labour Party under Corbyn have latched onto anti-Semitism because they know they cannot win the argument fairly. They know that Britain has little stomach for Israel’s mass violence against the Palestinians. They know that the average Briton wants the same thing for Palestine that Israel has: full national rights.
This is something the Israel lobby and Israeli government want to avoid at all costs. But, as it knows it will lose such a debate purely on its merits, it must cheat to beat its enemy.
Who is the true anti-Semite?
Gallons of ink has been spilled around the issue of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism. It is indeed quite problematic. Here are some of these provisions:
Contemporary examples of anti-Semitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
Though the dual loyalty claim may be used by anti-Semites to disparage Diaspora Jews, the fact is that the most rabidly pro-Israel Jews may legitimately be criticised for espousing views which harm the interests of their native land, while promoting Israel's own interests. This is not an anti-Semitic charge.
Claiming that Israel is a "racist endeavour" is in no way anti-Semitic. In fact, it is a justified critique, as the most recent passage of the Jews-only nation state law shows.
The final provision forbidding comparison of Israel to the Nazis is equally troubling. Of course, Israel and its Diaspora advocates don’t want to be compared to the Nazis. But the fact is that Israel has become ever more racialist in nature, especially during the 12-year premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 30, 2018
Promoting Jewish-only developments, ethnically cleansing Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, forced expulsion of African refugees, proposals to exclude Israeli Palestinian towns from Israel: these are policies defined by their racial character. And that's not even to mention the Nakba, during which over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in order to make way for the state of Israel.
The IHRA definition is, then, political in nature. It seeks to equate criticising Israel with anti-Semitism. In truth, the latter is always associated with Jews and Judaism; not with Israelis or Israel.
An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews. But those on the left who are critical of Israel, even including anti-Zionists, do not generally conflate their views of Israel with Jews or Judaism. And if they do, then they are indeed anti-Semites. But the number of such individuals is quite small.
The IHRA proposal and those advocating it in Britain are seeking to expand the traditional definition of anti-Semitism. In doing so, they risk devaluing the term completely and turning it into a cudgel to use against perceived enemies of Israel who have committed no offence against Jews whatsoever.
An exercise in futility
Labour has agreed to drop most of the most objectionable examples in the IHRA definition. Nevertheless, as a Jew, I am bemused by the furore over this subject. I know what anti-Semitism is. I’ve experienced it. I've studied it. I've read the historical sources. I don't need anyone’s definition to tell me what it is.
Further, it seems an exercise in futility for an entire political party, whose platform deals with far broader and more critical (at least to the average Briton) issues than anti-Semitism, to waste its energy on such a mission.
In forcing the party to divert its attention from the real pressing issues Britain faces, its enemies in the Israel lobby and among the Tories have achieved a temporary success. The question is whether it will have any lasting impact.
READ MORE ►
Frankly, I doubt it. If British voters are anything like Americans, they have a laundry list of critical issues they want their political leadership to face. I’ll bet anti-Semitism isn’t in the top 100. Even Israel is far down the list. When it comes time for the next election, this issue will likely fade from the minds of voters, no matter how hard the British press and others attempt to gin up controversy.
I also find it curious that the entire nation seems obsessed with this issue. Statistics bear out a few interesting anomalies: British Jews make up less than 1 percent of the electorate.
Over the past few election cycles between 20-30 percent of British Jews voted Labour. That means most of the British Jews shouting about Labour being riddled with anti-Semites are not Labour supporters. Nor are they likely voters for Labour in the next, or any election.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Reuters)
Enough with the witch hunt
One may argue that anti-Semitism should not be a party political issue. It should transcend pure politics and be addressed wherever it’s found. But if that were so, the witch hunters would be ferreting out the anti-Semites within the Conservative Party as well (and believe me it has much more religious and class prejudice to answer for). But they’re not.
So, I urge my friends in the UK to come to their senses. Get back to the issues that voters really care about. Don't permit yourselves to fall into traps set by your political enemies. Enough with the witch hunt. Get on with it. Tell the voters what you stand for.
I am not dismissing the issue of anti-Semitism. We Jews understand what this form of hatred has done to us over the past century. We have been traumatised by genocide on a scale no other people has experienced. And it’s because we have known such hatred that we refuse to allow it to be used for cynical political gain. That’s why it’s important to fight the witch hunt and end it now.
- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the Labour party, outside the British Houses of Parliament in central London on 26 March, 2018 (AFP)