Being against most forms of racism gets one a good name on the Left. Being against racism against Jews, not so much. A Labour Party member and non-Jewish anti-antisemite – let’s call her Amanda – recently told me that, for having the temerity to call out this particular form of racism, she is ‘consistently called a liar’ and accused of being ‘against Corbyn’ or even of ‘murder[ing] children’ (what is this, the Canterbury Tales? ) – and all by her ‘comrades on the Left’.
With so much internal opposition, is it any wonder that the Labour Party so often stumbles in its attempts to put its house in order?
As many of us will by now know, the Labour-controlled Brent Council has adopted its own version of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism – its own, watered down version which appears to imply that it is sometimes antisemitic to compare Jews to Nazis and sometimes not, and even to make recognition of certain forms of antisemitism conditional on recognition of certain Palestinian rights. But before anyone leaps to condemn all those who voted for a definition of antisemitism unique to Brent, let us remember that the vote was preceded by speeches from three members of the public who spoke against the definition that had already been accepted by the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, and indeed the British government.
All three of them were Jewish and one was a rabbi.
What’s a non-Jew to make of all this – a non-Jew who wants to do the right thing? With antisemitic incidents clearly on the rise – as we see from figures compiled by Jewish organisations such as the Community Security Trust and the Campaign Against Antisemitism – one might think that supporting political attempts to combat antisemitism was quite obviously the right thing to do. But here are Jews telling us in no uncertain terms that this is not what their community wants.
If Amanda and I didn’t know so many Jews who say the opposite, I think we might be feeling inclined to give up.
The strange thing about antisemitism today is that the most vocal opponents of attempts to root it out so often claim to speak for the very groups that a naive observer might have expected to take the opposite position: on the one hand, the ‘anti-racist’ Left; on the other hand, Jews. This is because post-Holocaust antisemitism manifests not only in the form of deranged beliefs about Jews, subscribed to above all by the Far Right, but also in the form of remarkably similar beliefs about Israelis and Zionists, subscribed to by the Far Right and – to an even greater extent – the Far Left. (For those who don’t know, Zionists are supporters of Jewish national self-determination, which is the founding principle of the State of Israel. The overwhelming majority of Jews are Zionists.)
Those non-Jewish opponents of anti-antisemitism who claim to speak for the Left say that Jews who speak up about antisemitism are mistaken (or perhaps even lying) about the racism they understand themselves to face. Those of its opponents who claim to speak for the Jews themselves – generally also on the Left – say that the non-Jews opposing opposition to left-wing antisemitism are correct and that any Jew who says otherwise – Ruth Smeeth, for example – can safely be ignored. This presents a conundrum. What is the truly responsible non-Jewish response to Jewish anti-anti-antisemitism?
Here, I concern myself neither with those of my fellow non-Jews who use claims of Jewish heritage as an alibi for offensive statements about a community they have never been part of, nor with that tiny sect whose members are routinely ‘held up by antisemites as the real Jews, the good Jews, the Jews who agree with us’ . I know what the former are; as for the latter – forgive me, but I’m not going to enter into theological arguments about the sacred texts of a religion I do not practise.
At issue here are, rather, those Jews whose names one so often seems to see at the bottom of letters to the Guardian – letters in support of whichever hero of the Very Left Wing has recently been accused of insensitivity towards the Jewish community, support for terrorists, distortion of the memory of the Holocaust, or similar. Recently, I took another look at those letters; I took another look at those names. It turns out that there really aren’t that many names, and that the names that are there are often recycled. Two individuals in particular appear each to have signed at least seven recent letters of this type.
To make the point graphically, let’s take a look at four such letters. Three of these identify all their signatories as Jewish: the Guardian letter of 29 April 2016 insisting that the ‘tiny number of cases of real antisemitism’ in the Labour Party are only a distraction from the ‘much more widespread examples of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the Conservative and other parties’, the Guardian letter of 4 October 2016 rejecting the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism’s working definition on antisemitism and insisting that ‘[t]he decision of Momentum’s steering committee and its chair Jon Lansman to remove Jackie Walker as vice-chair [for reasons related to alleged antisemitism] is a betrayal of the trust of thousands of Momentum members’, and the letter published on Ken Livingstone’s website on 30 March 2017 complaining of ‘a skilfully delivered campaign to present the Left of the Labour Party as riddled with antisemitism’. A fourth – the Independent letter of 25 April 2016 stating that ‘Israel is no longer believed when denying responsibility for its crimes against Palestinians, so now its supporters resort to silencing opposition to those crimes with blanket allegations of anti-Semitism’ (a classic example of what David Hirsh calls the ‘Livingstone Formulation’) – identifies its signatories as ‘mainly Jewish’.
The following diagram shows most of the overlaps between the groups of people who signed each of the four letters:
One individual signed all four, and a further seven signed three each. It’s geometrically impossible to represent all the overlaps between the four groups of signatures with intersections between circles (the above diagram doesn’t show the single signatory shared between all four letters, nor the six shared between the letters of 4 October 2016 and 30 March 2017), but I hope you get the picture. The four letters had a total of 156 signatures but only 119 signatories. And 119 signatories is not really very many (especially given that not all of them are Jewish).
I do not wish to suggest that those signatories do not deserve respect. But does respect for them have to come at the cost of disrespect for the much larger numbers of Jews who see things rather differently than they do?
Here’s my solution to the dilemma. I believe that if one does not belong to a particular minority community, one has a responsibility to acknowledge the full diversity of opinion within it. The full diversity. This cannot mean ignoring the dissenting voices of smaller minorities found within it. But neither can it mean using those voices to de-legitimise the community’s prevailing opinion whenever the prevailing opinion casts one’s allies (or idols) in a bad light.
When 78% of the 2025 Jews who responded to a recent survey agree with the statement ‘I have witnessed antisemitism that was disguised as a political comment about Israel or Zionism’ and 83% say that the Labour Party is ‘too tolerant of antisemitism among [its] MPs, members, and supporters’, responsible non-Jews cannot take a letter with a few dozen signatures to prove them wrong. Yet that is exactly what too many on the Left are willing to do, from MPs and big name activists down to ordinary party members and supporters. In doing so, they let themselves and (more importantly) the racists in their midst off the hook – much like those politicians, mostly on the Right, who use the existence of a handful of ‘dissenting’ climate scientists to argue that the threat of global warming requires no action at all. That is not a responsible way of responding to debates within a community to which one does not belong. It really isn’t.
To those going to the Labour Party conference: there’s a vote coming up. I think you know what you have to do. But even when you’ve done the right thing there, it won’t be the end of the fight to eliminate racism against Jews from left-wing political organisations.
It’s high time we found an antidote to this poison. Antisemitism has run in the veins of the Left so long you’d think it was blood.