Labour and the anti-Semitism saga: or walking and chewing gum

These are the facts.

  1. The large majority of Labour members abhor anti-Semitism. Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell are not only lifelong anti-racists; anti-racism, along with support for women’s liberation and LGBT rights, is at the core of their political tradition. What could be called the London Labour left of the 1980s broke with an older left which rightly emphasised class, but wrongly often sidelined race, gender and sexuality.

None of these statements contradict each other. They are all true.

What Labour should be doing now is showing that it wants to listen to Britain’s Jews, that it shows empathy, that it understands the fears that exists, not least given a history of almost utter horror which Jews have been subjected to.

And that brings me to Labour NEC member Pete Willsman. After his much publicised comments, a number of leftists, like myself, Billy Bragg, former Corbyn spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin, Michael Segalov (a Jewish writer who joined Labour to vote for Corbyn), Ash Sarkar (a self-identifying communist), and socialist writer Dawn Foster called for him to withdraw from the left-wing NEC slate as a consequence. There has been a furious response from Willsman’s defenders, demanding to know what he’s done wrong.

What Willsman did is angrily demand to know “how many people in this room have seen anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” and instructed them to put their hands up. When they did do that, he responded “I’m amazed. I’ve certainly never seen any.” He was here denying the existence of any anti-Semitism in Labour. As Billy Bragg put it: “Pete Willsman has say through a Labour disputes meeting at which the majority pertained to antisemitism. How can he claim to have never seen evidence of it? He should stand down now.”

He made clear who was responsible for claims of anti-Semitism: “And some of these people in the Jewish community support Trump. They are Trump fanatics and all the rest of it.” In the context of widespread anger and frustration amongst Jews across the spectrum at the left’s anti-Semitic fringe — and that includes Jewish leftists who joined Labour to vote for Corbyn in both leadership elections — he was sticking his finger straight up to the vast majority of British Jews. Anger about anti-Semitism is not coming from Trump supporters: it includes radical socialists, including Jon Lansman — one of the architects of the entire Corbyn project — who has himself been subjected to vicious anti-Semitic hatred.

Islamophobia is far more institutional and widespread in the Tory party — they ran a mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan drenched in anti-Muslim tropes for goodness sake. Set aside the issue of scale. Imagine that a Tory official aligned to the leadership angrily not only denied it existed, but suggested accusations were being driven by Islamist fundamentalists. How would you feel?

If no-one on the left spoke out against Willsman’s comments, we are basically saying we have no interest in ever winning back the trust or support of anything but a tiny minority of Jewish people. Does anyone think interventions like those of Willsman help serve to win the faith and trust of Jewish people? Or do they clearly cause further anger and hurt? And do you care about that anger and hurt or not?

Momentum are vigorously currently discussing this issue. They have a unique chance to show leadership on this issue and help the left defuse this crisis. If they show that leadership, they could prove a real catalyst to regain trust.

That’s why the principled position of leftists has to be: defend the left and the Labour leadership from any smear that they are anti-Semitic, recognise that a fringe of the left is anti-Semitic and needs defeating, confront those who deny this anti-Semitism exists, and do everything possible to reach out to and listen to Jews.

None of this is easy. It is made hard by non-Jewish opponents of the left who wish to weaponise this issue not because they’re interested in eliminating anti-Semitism, but because its a useful means to attack the left, particularly in the run-up to elections or when Labour is polling well. A defensive reaction to that — to claim it’s all a lie and a conspiracy and it doesn’t exist at all as a problem — is a grievous error, and politically and morally wrong, too.

The right will always look for material to attack the left with. Those providing them with ammunition are not those socialists taking a principled stand on anti-Semitism, but those they are being forced to confront.

John McDonnell has been on the airwaves today, talking passionately about anti-Semitism, the hurt it’s caused, the need to confront it, and the rising hatred in broader society. That’s exactly the right approach and everyone on the left should emulate it.

We don’t ignore bigotry for partisan ends. We are the left: we exist to rid society of oppression, exploitation, and bigotry. And that’s why we can have a nuanced, sophisticated, empathetic position on this horrible never-ending saga.-

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Owen Jones

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc... https://www.youtube.com/c/OwenJonesTalks