There are many good reasons to be critical of the Labour Party. Its refusal to debate, let alone back, Brexit is one. Yet it is the charge of anti-Semitism, levelled against party members who have made political capital out of campaigning against racism, that has most stuck. From the suspensions of Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone and up to 50 other Labour Party members to (now Baroness) Shami Chakrabarti’s non-investigation to the removal of Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker, accusations of anti-Semitism have provided an ever-present backdrop to Jeremy Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership.
The publication of the House of Commons report, Anti-Semitism in the UK, last week lent further fuel to those intent on a Labour witch-hunt. But the report highlights that anti-Semitism is on the rise not just in the Labour Party, but across the UK: ‘A survey of British Jewish people by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that a fifth of respondents had experienced at least one incident of anti-Semitic harassment during the previous 12 months. In 68 per cent of cases, comments had been encountered on the internet.’
Despite being widely interpreted as another blow to the Corbyn camp, Anti-Semitism in the UK reminds us that ‘around three quarters of all politically motivated anti-Semitic incidents come from far-right sources’. On the one hand, this rise in anti-Semitism needs to be seen in the context of increased hate-crime reporting overall. But it also needs placing within a political climate where the condemnation of Israel, which goes way beyond the condemnation levelled at any other country, has become routine and legitimate, at least in part due to the popularity of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Although right-wing anti-Semitism has not gone away, today it co-exists all too comfortably with left-wing anti-Semitism. Writing in Dreams Deferred, David Hirsh argues: ‘The most threatening anti-Semitism comes from those who believe they are opponents of all racism. Today’s anti-Semitism thinks Israel is a key evil on the planet and Israelis need to be excluded from the global community. It thinks Israel murders Palestinian children out of evil and that Israel is a false nation, founded to steal and occupy other people’s land. Today’s anti-Semitism thinks Israel is powerful and controls opinion and governments around the world.’ (1)
The anti-Semitism Hirsh describes uses rhetoric once reserved for Jews against Israelis. Its particular focus is Zionism. It can be seen in US academic Steven Salaita’s declaration: ‘Zionists: transforming “anti-Semitism” from something horrible into something honourable since 1948.’ It can be seen in British Labour councillor Salim Mulla’s 2014 sharing of video footage allegedly showing a Palestinian boy being arrested, with a comment stating: ‘Apartheid at its best. Zionist Jews are a disgrace to humanity.’ It can be seen in the National Union of Students president Malia Bouattia’s claim that the University of Birmingham is ‘something of a Zionist outpost’, as well as in Oxford University Labour Club’s executive members ‘throwing around the term “Zio”’, and a former co-chair claiming ‘most accusations of anti-Semitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’.
Whatever might be happening within the Labour Party, it seems that the already thin line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is becoming increasingly blurred. In Boycotting Israel is Wrong, Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth argue that opposition to Zionism today is ‘substantially different to the earlier, pre-1948 left tradition of anti-Zionism. That tradition opposed Zionism as a political movement on theoretical grounds. Anti-Zionist fundamentalists today wish to eliminate the existing nation state of Israel.’ (2) The authors show how, in the post-Cold War political landscape, Israel became ‘reframed as the key site of imperialism’ and anti-Zionism became ‘the clearest and most important form of anti-imperialism’. As such, Israel became a central tenet of left-wing identity and a ‘litmus test for admission to the progressive community’.
Mendes and Dyrenfurth point out that, immediately after the Second World War, it was the left that championed Israel. Martin Luther King and other civil-rights activists wrote to President Lyndon Johnson urging the US to ‘support the independence, integrity and freedom of Israel’. Meanwhile, in France, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and 1,500 other left-wing intellectuals published a manifesto supporting Israel’s right to exist. Things began to change in the 1960s with the emergence of a generation of activists politicised by the US war in Vietnam. Mendes and Dyrenfurth argue: ‘This anti-American animus was rapidly extended to Israel, America’s principal ally in the Middle East – which appeared to be the most prominent representative of “white” Western interests in the Third World.’ At the same time, Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War destroyed the post-Holocaust taboo around public criticism of Jews, and Palestinians became the new symbols of victimhood.
Israel provided a real focus for opposition to Western imperialism and a metaphorical focus for the self-loathing and guilt of Western intellectuals. This was exacerbated by the fall of the Iron Curtain. Israel continues to serve this purpose to this day. And it enables left-wing activists to vehemently deny accusations of anti-Semitism at the same time as proudly opposing Zionism and Israel’s right to exist.
Of course, Israel should not be placed beyond criticism. But the more opposing Israel becomes central to left-wing identity, the more Israel is singled out on the world stage and judged according to a higher standard than other countries. The sanctions supported by the BDS movement would have little practical impact on Israel; advocating BDS is just a way that academics and others virtue-signal their pseudo-radical credentials. Australia’s left-leaning website New Matilda is currently raising money to fund an editorial trip to Palestine, begging the question: why is such a trip not planned to Syria, North Korea, Turkey or one of the many other countries around the world that oppresses its citizens?
With opposition to Israel and Zionism playing such a crucial role in left-wing politics, it should hardly be surprising that such views are prevalent among members of the Labour Party. Anti-Zionism has come to be seen, on the left, as common sense. Even when it extends its reach, it goes unquestioned. ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zio’ have become legitimate insults for those who, according to last week’s House of Commons report, ‘defend the actions of the Israeli government, or even against those who speak out against anti-Semitism. In too many instances, it has been used as a proxy for the word “Jew”.’
Although proponents of BDS, and those who make the case for Israeli exceptionalism, might not be anti-Semitic in intent, their actions are often anti-Semitic in effect. They single out Israel – and, by implication, Israelis – and call into question the right of Jewish people to have a homeland. Today, anti-Zionism defines the left. And, as a result, anti-Semitism has come to be the issue around which the left fights its internal battles. Jewish people find themselves caught in the middle of a witch-hunt that is far more about the West’s lack of confidence in itself, and the left’s lack of political direction, than it is about the state of Israel.
(1) Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel, Cary Nelson (editor), Indiana University Press, 2016
(2) Boycotting Israel is Wrong: The progressive path to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth, NewSouth, 2015