Antisemitism and The Labour Party – the historical facts behind the rhetoric and problem with rhetorical statements

The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph agree that a Corbyn led government should adopt all the examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. That is an arguable point of view, but they go much further to claim that the Labour Party is now institutionally antisemitic and that a Corbyn led government poses an “existential threat to Jewish life”. by which they presumably mean it will be impossible to be Jewish in the fullest sense of that term.
Tom Watson, supposedly the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, then decides to wade in to the debate to claim that Labour will “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame” if it does not adopt all the examples – a point of view directly opposite to that of the Leader he might be expected to support. He then seems nonplussed that he faces calls to resign. Different groups of Jews within the party claim that the party is / is not antisemitic but everyone, whatever their view, sees fit to take to Facebook, the home of inflated rhetoric, to abuse the opposing side.

To unpick what is going on and start to solve the problem, we need to step back and gain perspective. I make no apologies for stating some obvious facts in simple terms. If you already know it, just skip.

1) The essential elements of British antisemitism – the culture we inherit and on which we build
2) Post – war developments that confuse the issue
3) Choices to be made, and why grey areas are vital for democracy

1) The essential elements of British antisemitism – the culture we inherit and on which we build

I realise in writing this I am asking for trouble, especially as it has to be much shorter than the subject demands, but someone has to start the ball rolling. We don’t have time for a full history of British anti-semitism so let’s pull out salient points just to give the discussion some structure.

In a car park in Truro this summer I heard a local complain that a parking ticket machine was Jewish because it did not give change. The good news is, I was surprised. There was a time, very recently, when it would have been so normal nobody would have noticed, or cared. What do we count as progress?

The Middle Ages might seem a long time ago, but it was then the English church and state closed off most occupations to Jews so if they wanted to live here they had to accept socially inferior roles. Tax and rent collecting and money lending were common examples, so if you owed money and did not want to pay it, it would be ‘the Jew’ you would complain about. The lending of money for interest (usury) was against the rules of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. For Muslims it still is, with disagreements on what constitutes ‘riba’, or unjust loans and a separate sharia banking system with rules about how interest has to be managed. Christians long ago gave themselves over to capitalism but in the early stages wanted to avoid being seen to break their own rules (much like cardinals and popes had families in secret) and also wanted to put the dirty work at arm’s length, so they borrowed at interest from Jews, who could justify it as lending outside their own religion. The image of The Jew grasping for money and smarting under ill treatment, wanting revenge, was thus firmly established. Hence, eventually, Shylock. Interestingly, one school in the UK banned the study of Merchant of Venice as antisemitic whilst others argue Shakespeare gave his Jew a speech arguing to equal rights:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
– Act III scene 1

What counts as antisemitic might sometimes depend on audience and context, purpose and interpretation.

Flash forward to Dickens and his Fagin in Oliver Twist. There is one moment of tenderness, when he sees Oliver sleeping and passes quietly by. This is the first adult to show him any consideration, handing over a sausage and actually making him laugh with his ‘games’ to train him up as a thief. We can see why some later adaptions made him avuncular. But consider this passage from Ch 19:
The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the jew to be abroad…. hideous old man, like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved; crawling forth by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

At the time he wrote Oliver Twist, Dickens knew nothing about British Jews except what he had picked up from stereotypes. Fagin is called by his name far less often than he is called ‘the Jew’, a generic bad thing that is ugly and dangerous. Barney, another Jew the plot could easily dispense with, has an adenoidal speech defect that sounds stereotypical. The author’s ignorance allows him to connect Jewishness with certain occupations and physical characteristics which, once they had been processed through his imagination, become enlivened and, as literary creations, enter the imagination of the readers far more effectively than ordinary prejudice. A lazy way to make literature became a dangerous social effect.

Individual citizens took him to task, including Eliza Davis, the wife of a man Dickens called the “jew money lender” who bought his house from him. In 1854 the Jewish Chronicle asked why “Jews alone should be excluded from ‘the sympathising heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed”. At first he blustered that it was a realistic portrayal but eventually he realised the extent of his mistake and, in 1864-5, he wrote Our Mutual Friend, in which a Jewish moneylender called Mr Rhia embodied the virtues of kindness and generosity. Unfortunately, this character has none of the energy and force of the early, grotesque creation. Being ‘good’, he was relatively insipid. The stereotype is a part of English culture and very powerful.

That is why is it so easy to use what we would consider offensive language in polite society. A character from Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds refers to a “greasy Israelite smile .. some Jew, who wants thirty percent…..nasty, greasy, lying, squinty Jew”. Thackery’s Henry Esmond included “you ask a Jewish price for it” in the same way music hall comedians could take it for granted all Scotsmen are mean – it is a relatively inoffensive example of how our language works.

Sir Marcus in Graham Greene’s Gun for Sale is treated as suspicious because he is a ‘profiteer’ with international connections and this element is especially important to socialist history. Although most English writers would probably accept they are part of a capitalist society, at the same time there is a lurking suspicion of international finance – laissez faire capitalism and capital sliding about craftily between countries, working against the interests of the honest hard-working citizen. Jews are linked to an international network and thus come to represent international capitalism, as in this from TS Eliot in 1920 (Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar):

The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot
Money in furs.

Maigret Travels South includes a related but different idea, where the movement of peoples around the globe carries with it a threat of disorder, forged documents, conspiracies outside the control of national forces etc, but this strand is more associated now with Gypsies and Muslims. The great irony of our history is that we all embraced the idea of a country engaged in trade across the globe – honest merchants – but at the same time feel threatened by international capitalism – big banks and ‘the Jews’ we have traditionally thought of as owning them. That contradiction started in the Middle Ages and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

It ought not to be necessary to remind everyone that Nazi is short for National Socialism. Socialists mistrust international finance and often blame international capital for national problems – the money men with the cigars. They have good reasons for doing so. But Hitler’s movement used Jews as scapegoats in a way that is entirely in tune with our own national history, and especially the side of it that concerns socialists. Arguing against international finance without dragging in the stereotype Jewish financier can mean first ridding yourself of the structures built deeply into your own language and culture. If you found a Scotsman being mean, would you be surprised? If not, investigate your inheritance and unconscious habits. That is sometimes where antisemitism lives. The kind we don’t know we have and would deny having.

2) Post – war developments that confuse the issue

There was a time when, in retrospect at least, choices seemed relatively simple. The right wing establishment was antisemitic and the left wing sought to establish equal rights. Jews seeking equal rights and a more civilised society might consider the left wing their natural home.

Left wing sympathies would tend to identify with the persecuted and, especially after the second world war, with Holocaust survivors rebuilding their lives and with kibbuzim working on collective farms with what seemed to be socialist principles. We bought Israeli goods and boycotted South Africa. The ultra-right were always antisemitic and even Holocaust deniers. Choices were easy to make.

The alternative narrative involves the idea that early Jewish settlers, entering “a land without a people for a people without a land”, conveniently overlooked the existence of the Palestinians who lived there already, used terrorism to remove them to refugee camps, and have since constantly denied them their rights in ways that are overtly racist. There are plenty of Jews, and plenty of Israeli citizens, who can agree with that point of view, considering the present Israeli government to be hard right and far too supportive of illegal settlements. So now it is fashionable to boycott goods made in occupied territories and buy from South Africa. Others, citing violence by ‘extremists’ against a peaceful state and the refusal of its neighbours even to recognise its right to exist, see criticism of Israel as a potential threat to the existence of Israel, to Jewish lives and/or the Jewish way or life – certainly in some sense antisemitic.

To confuse matters more, a number of Christians in America, often fundamentalists with hard right views, support Israel and see it as the Holy Land, attacked by Jihadist who also attach them. Extreme groups who used to be, and often still are, antisemitic at home, decide that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. We don’t want Jews in the golf club but we don’t want Arabs in our neighbourhood so we support the Holy Land and await the second coming. (

Choices are no longer as simple as they once appeared. So what do you do to support what is morally and thus politically right?

3) Choices to be made, and why grey areas are vital for democracy

It is easy to understand how strong feelings about Palestinian rights lead to ant-Israeli feelings, but you have a be a prize schmendrick to confuse that with Jewish stereotypes. That many do, or passively permit language that implies them, or ‘like’ Facebook images that use them, is a weakness in the pro-Palestinian movement. Conversely, it is easy to condemn the language of someone who has seen several generations of their family evicted from successive refugee camps, from the comfort of our secure moral superiority.

We all know you only get peace and security after you row back on the rhetoric and reach out in tolerance. We also know that is very hard to achieve, and taking offence also causes offence, ad infinitum. It does not help that social media encourages easy abuse and extreme positions, with keyboard warriors feeding smug intransigence without having to face their critics or face up to any consequences.

In the midst of all this, enter Jeremy Corbyn, unexpectedly elected leader after many years in the wilderness, stubbornly supporting persecuted minorities. It is both a strength and a weakness to be very stubborn. It enables you to stick to your principles even when it looks as if you are supporting the wrong people. If you share a platform with someone supporting Palestinian rights, they will inevitably have friends of friends whose criticism of Israel veers into antisemitism. In the same way, if you share a platform supporting Israel’s right to exist and not suffer boycotts, sooner or later you will hear a friend of a friend making racist comments about Arabs. It’s a complex world and it is too easy to condemn someone for the views or language of those they sometimes work close to. Politics requires realism. And in this light, we can look again at the problem of the (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

There are four ‘tests’ which, at the time of writing, Corbyn has not adopted:
Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country;
Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour;
Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations;
Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis

Each of those has been used by antisemites in the past. Is using them in itself antisemitic? Opinions vary. Free speech would allow us to debate them and make a decision on whether any of them is true or relevant. Equally, using them uncritically might encourage and support antisemitic ideas. It is likely that people Corbyn has worked with have expressed one or more of those views and I have heard Jewish dissidents make the case for more than one of them. There has been an exchange of views in various newspapers, at various levels of complexity, over whether the IHRA definition is the best to use and whether the Labour policy or its speed in dealing with disciplinary cases is adequate . There is plenty of room for debate and disagreement in a complex area. There is no room at all for hysteria and inflated rhetoric. Calling someone antisemitic because they are in a moral dilemma or a political bind is not helpful. Grandly speaking about an existential threat and eternal shame does nothing to help people understand the problem, much less to solve it. It may be the problems of the Middle East and insoluble. That fact will feed in to Jewish / Muslim / Christian / Soclialist relationships for many years. Every statement that uses overblown terminology, false dichotomies or abusive threats will make the problem worse. If we cannot discuss our differences without taking up grandstanding and hysterical positions, we have only ourselves to blame when the problem gets worse.

To avoid charges of taking an easy way out and avoiding the issue, my personal opinion is that The IHRA version is not necessary. For example, I would not argue that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour but would argue that it is becoming increasingly racist under the present government and that elements of its history employed racist attitudes to the local population. That does not mean I wish to destroy Israel – why would it? But it does mean I want the right to argue the case for a different kind of Israeli politics. I have done so with a young woman who served in the IDF and with friends who visit Israel regularly, but have never been accused of antisemitism. But then, I am not running for government.

We can remove from the equation the many voices who accuse Corbyn of antisemitism to serve their own political ends and focus on the genuine concerns of those who feel threatened. It is true he has not always been swift and decisive in solving various problems. He is learning on the job and walking a tightrope over crocodiles. Some leeway is required. If he says he is not antisemitic, his actions and statements support that claim, even if sometimes he is imperfect. If his critics say he has failed to understand the problem, they may be right. But there are many views on what the problem really is. When dealing with stubborn people you sometimes feel you have to shout. But you don’t have to claim you are drowning because it is raining again, nor destroy the Labour Party by failing to see how complex the world has become. If you puncture the life raft for being uncomfortable, what will stop you drowning next time?


About pauleustice

Retired, more or less, but see
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