Antisemitism row: the double standards of Labour’s right wing

28 March 2018

THE SUDDEN coordinated onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend of 24-25 March was a transparent attempt by an alliance of rightwing forces to damage Labour’s strong lead in the run up to the May council elections, and to destabilise Corbyn’s ever-more consolidated leadership of the Labour Party.

Things have not been going well for the right in recent months, with a new pro-Corbyn General Secretary, a new leftwing majority on the NEC, a string of leftwing takeovers of Constituency parties across the country, and a series of by-election victories at local level. Polls point to a huge Labour victory in the coming Local Authority elections, especially in London which is predicted to have the strongest showing by a single party since 1968. Bereft of their old theme that a leftwing party is ‘unelectable’, the right therefore returned to another well-worn theme, digging out an ancient Facebook faux pas by Corbyn and translating it into a full-spectrum multi-channel ambush dominating newspaper headlines and TV news broadcasts, and culminating in a long prepared but nevertheless unimpressive demonstration of a few hundred assembled by conservative Jewish organisations against Corbyn outside parliament on the evening of Monday 26 March.

The pretext for this outburst was the discovery, by pro-Israel MP Luciana Berger whilst she was fishing through Corbyn’s social media accounts over many years back, of the needle in a haystack that increasingly frustrated hardline right-wingers on Labour’s backbenches were praying for. It transpired, unnoticed at the time, that in 2012, Corbyn sent a short note expressing solidarity with the painter of a mural in East London which had been condemned and painted over for being antisemitic. The mural itself was a very busy affair full of small clashing images – and it would no doubt have been even harder to discern what was going on in this crappy sub-Rivera tableau when it was reduced to a small image on Facebook. Nevertheless Corbyn had erred in not scrutinising the picture as closely as he ought, though given that he was a minor figure in public life at the time, he doubtless did not feel that he needed to be as careful as he does now. In fact, the mural expressed an antisemitic conspiracy theory going back to the mid 19th century of an alliance between Jews and Freemasons to control the international financial system (though you would have had to have prior knowledge of that theme to have detected it at a glance). But the mural’s caricatures of bankers painted with large noses, while not as extreme as the Nazi posters from the 1920s and 30s, were nevertheless unmistakeable in their antisemitic intent.

Triumphant, Berger demanded an explanation from Corbyn, who duly gave a clear and suitably penitent one for his oversight, but the trap was sprung. Mustering their best pretence of indignation, the dignitaries of Britain’s conservative Jewish organisations sprang into what passes for action. The Board of Deputies of British Jews – not elected by Britain’s Jewish community, in case you were wondering – predictably added its voice to the denunciations of Corbyn. As the Board is strongly supportive of Israel and shares that state’s anxiety at the prospect of a pro Palestinian politician becoming British Prime Minister, this was no surprise (indeed the Board is so out of touch with the liberal mores of assimilated British Jewry that its President, Jonathan Arkush, caused outrage by rushing to welcome the election of Donald Trump as US President).

The Tory press came howling into the fray as did liberal and centrist media like The Guardian and Channel 4, having finally found an anti-Corbyn “cause” they could champion after their humiliation in the general election of 2017. A rogues gallery of hardcore rightwing Labour MPs seized their opportunity to maximise Corbyn’s embarrassment. With real chutzpah they demanded not only an apology, but the strengthening of the party’s discredited disciplinary mechanisms. Following a succession of unwarranted and defamatory accusations of antisemitism levelled against Jewish activists, including hastily withdrawn claims against antizionist Jewish activists like Moshe Machover and Glyn Secker – the rightwingers now demanded more aggressive prosecution of disciplinary cases for alleged antisemitism, with one even saying that to dissent from the statistically disproved claim that antisemitism is rife in the Labour Party ought itself to become a disciplinary offence.

It was reasonable for Corbyn to apologise, because anything more than a cursory glance would have revealed that the mural was antisemitic. It is not the job of socialists – who oppose the right wing in the Labour Party, fake claims of antisemitism, and Israel  –  to deny real examples of antisemitism where they exist. On the Corbyn supporting online discussion groups there are too many Labour Party members who make the mistake of dismissing all allegations as unfounded per se. This must be resisted – real examples of antisemitism must be called out – any genuine antisemites must be confronted.

Nor will it do to treat antisemitism as if it has no history on the left. It does – because it reflects a vulgar form of “anticapitalism” which opposes not the profit system and its multinational ruling class, but singles out one section of it -it’s Jewish section, a small fraction of the Jewish community – for special criticism. This reactionary ‘anticapitalist’ antisemitism – which the great Marxist August Bebel described so accurately as ‘the socialism of fools’ – is widespread among the alt-right and the conspiracy minded internet trolls today, and it can seep back into the left if it is not forensically identified and systematically challenged.

On Monday, after days of bombardment, Corbyn issued his third and final statement. It went too far and implied that antisemitism was rife within the party when there is relatively scant evidence of it. It failed to turn the tables and highlight the racism of the Tories – on which the Board of Deputies and conservative Jewish dignitaries are conspicuously silent. This allowed the press to focus all their attention on “Corbyn apologises” when the tables should have been turned by highlighting the raft of false allegations which have been raised by the right and – above all – that the overwhelming majority of antisemitism and racism in this country is propagated by those on the right wing of politics, who seem to get away scot-free for expressing their views.

It is not to be soft on antisemitism in any way to observe that, in Britain, it is not the most widespread or the most severe of the forms of racism that people suffer. Systematic discrimination against Black and Asian people in jobs, housing, and pay, police violence against Black and Asian youth, even street violence is more widespread against Black and Asian people than it is against Jews, proportionally as well as in total. We make this point not to relegate the importance of the fight against antisemitism but to highlight the double standards of the rightwing who weaponise allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn but utterly fail to show a fraction of that zeal in combatting other more widespread forms of racism which blight our society. We live in a deeply racist society, in which expressions of that racism frequently find their way into the labour movement too – witness Jack Straw claiming women in hijab made him feel uncomfortable, and Sarah Chapman MP’s criticism of Pakistani culture.

Antisemitism, a form of racism, can only be defeated via a challenge to all forms of racism and to the structural causes of racism in class society. The MPs’ hypocrisy resulted in a laughable spectacle in Parliament of Monday 26 March, where the Board of Deputies and other Jewish organisations rallied a mere couple of hundred demonstrators – most of whom were not members of the Labour Party and many of whom were hostile to it – alongside racist Tory MPs like Norman Tebbit (who demanded British Asians should make clear their allegiance to the British cricket team!) and Ian Paisley junior of the Democratic Unionist Party, who was presumably invited because of his principled opposition to religious discrimination against non-Catholic denominations of every type.

There was precious little light to be detected in this very modern witch hunt, with all the fake news, demagogy, media management, and upside-downness (Britain’s most prominent antiracist pilloried for non-existent racism) that we have come to expect in the last three years. But one glimmer was the emergence into the public eye of Jewish Voice for Labour, a non-Zionist alliance of Jewish Labour Party members and their supporters who rallied to Corbyn both in a counter protest in parliament square and as guests and speakers on news programmes on radio and television as the afternoon of 26 March drew on. Though they had had none of the no doubt expensive media training and preparation of the slick anti-Corbyn operation, they did very well holding the line and reminding people that the Board and the Chief Rabbi do not speak for all British Jews and never have.

Will it all blow over? Depends what other dum-dum bullets the Tories and the Labour right have got in their little bag. But the whole farcical but troubling incident raises questions about the balance of forces in the Labour Party today and the battle plan of the otherwise weakened and humiliated Labour right.

Is this the beginning of another coup attempt, hoping once again to demoralise and embarrass Corbyn into resigning? Or is it scene-setting for a different tactic altogether, one of which we hear increasing rumour and which has been reported in The Sunday Times: that plans are afoot to launch a new party in the Autumn based on the Blairite right, hardcore Tory Remainers like Anna Soubry, with the infrastructure and electoral database of the Liberal Democrats at its core. Such a new centrist formation could hope to deny Corbyn office only if it damaged Labour’s vote in key metropolitan pro-Remain areas. It could only avoid the sorry fate of the old SDP if it managed to ride the wave of anti-establishment populism that has swept the world… something difficult to do if you are led by Chuka Umunna, Vince Cable, and Ken Clarke.

Whichever of these two objectives the Labour right choose to pursue, their first prerequisite is the one that must guide our immediate response. They want to damage Labour’s poll lead in the run up to May. The British left should do all we can to stop them.

But there is a longer term aim which concerns not polling but policy. Behind all the bullshit stand two states who have preserved an indissoluble alliance for over half a century. The British ruling class needs the Israeli settler state and vice versa. If the casualty in all this is that Corbyn’s commitment to the cause of the Palestinians is weakened by one iota, the right wing will have won, irrespective of the electoral impact of their miserable campaign.

For this reason – and many more beside – the whole left, across the Labour movement, needs to step up the fight for solidarity with the people of Palestine, who are daily subjected to a level of brutality that most British people would find indescribable were they only to see it – at the hands of a racist state whose defenders in the UK dare to assume the mantle of antiracism.

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