Those of us on the left who identify antisemitism within the Labour party, stand against it and report it are inevitably faced with a barrage of accusations from being a ‘smearer’ to a ‘paid zionist stooge’. I call these accusers ‘deniers’ as a way of easily identifying them.
There are different ways in which antisemitism expresses itself on the left, which has a different flavour to other forms of antisemitism. In my experience here are some of the most common types.
a. through a complete lack of understanding of what antisemitism is, someone can think they’re not antisemitic but propagate antisemitic ideas. One example is found in the world of conspiracy, followers of which seems to have an unhealthy amount of overlap with people on the left and the right. A large number of conspiracy theories originate as antisemitism, including Rothschild-related conspiracies, conspiracies about global control, 9/11 conspiracies and many more. Nearly all conspiracy theories are rooted in or deeply infected with antisemitism. It’s can be easy for people who are normally anti-racist but who engage with conspiracy theories to slip into antisemitism especially when the Jewish aspects are not immediately obvious to the uneducated on the matter. There are also people who fully understand the antisemitism inherent in many of these conspiracy theories and nevertheless maintain a cognitive dissonance because they’re so immersed in the antisemitism.
b. anti-zionism morphing into antisemitism; sections of the pro-Palestinian movement have real problems with antisemitism. To clarify, being pro-Palestinian is not antisemitic, in fact, many Jews and Zionists are pro-Palestinian, often stridently so. A note on Palestinian antisemitism; there is a lot of antisemitism within Palestinian society, indeed President Abbas even wrote a holocaust-denying PHD thesis. However, it would be a mistake to think this is simply a result of the occupation. Antisemitism has a long history in the Arab and Muslim world some of which originates in religious interpretations (just as Christianity has expressed, perpetuated and spread antisemitism). In the 19th & 20th centuries Arab-antisemitism was infused with Russian and Nazi antisemitism before Israel was born. An obvious result of this is that western pro-Palestinian activists sometimes pickup antisemitic canards, tropes and imagery through the process of solidarity with Palestinian society.
c. the antisemitism of the former USSR; many of the left don’t realise the extent to which the USSR (and Russia before the USSR) developed its own unique flavour of antisemitism. The most famous example of this is the renowned forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion which is still widely considered to be real (especially in the Arab world). Needless to say, the USSR has had a big impact on Socialist and Communist philosophy in the west which has brought with it some of this antisemitism.
d. slippage when defending Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour party is common; there is a real sense among Jeremy Corbyn supporters that the media and others are out to get Jeremy. Jeremy represents for many people a way out of poverty and inequality and has been a campaigner his entire career for the underdog. It’s therefore not surprising that many of his supporters take claims against him or the Labour party very personally. This has on many occasions led to responses which have either unwittingly or otherwise included antisemitism.
Back to the denialists. I’ve collated some of the common denialist tactics that I’ve come across for reference. I’ve tried to explain why they’re wrong.
1. X person has been anti-racism campaigner forever, therefore can’t be antisemitic
Firstly, no one is perfect, even a committed anti-racist can slip up occasionally. This aside, the idea that you can’t be antisemitic and anti-racist at the same time makes no sense. It’s perfectly possible and not unknown for otherwise great people to have ‘weak’ points in their personality or blind spots when it comes to certain groups. Humans are not consistent.
2. I’ve never seen any antisemitism and I’ve been in the Labour party for 100 years
This is evidence of nothing. The lack of evidence is not in itself proof of anything. Jewish people tend to be far more aware of and sensitive to antisemitism – as black people would be of racism against themselves or Gay people of homophobia – people who are not Jewish and make this claim might need to educate themselves. Those people who are ethnically Jewish but did not have any Jewish identity until later in their life similarly may not be as aware of sensitised to antisemitism as Jews who have been brought up in the community. Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
3. Accusations of antisemitism are smears (or being weaponised) against Jeremy Corbyn / Labour
It’s correct that accusations of antisemitism have been used to criticise Jeremy, it’s also true that some people and organisations have worked tirelessly to find old cases of potential antisemitism to use against Jeremy and the Labour Party. All of this is true and it doesn’t mean they’re false allegations. In fact, there have been many suspensions and some expulsions of prominent people from the Labour party because due process has occurred and the party has found them to be in breach of party rules.
4. Palestinians are Semites so they can’t be antisemitic; or worse, people defending them can’t be antisemitic
The term antisemitism was coined by the Nazis to mean Jews and Jews alone, the fact that there are other Semites is irrelevant. More importantly, anyone can be antisemitic, even Jews (see next point). There is also an idea floating about that ‘ as Palestinians are oppressed by Jews, therefore they can’t be antisemitic’. I find this antisemitic as it assumes Jews are synonymous with Israel or somehow all Jews are responsible for Israel’s actions.
5. Jews can’t be antisemitic
Often used in defence of some Jewish leftists who have been accused of antisemitism. Sadly it’s entirely possible to be Jewish and antisemitic; two clear cut examples are Gilad Atzmon (Israeli Jew) and Paul Eisen (Jewish holocaust denier).
6. Surveys show that Labour has the lowest rates of antisemitism of all political parties
This is classic whataboutery and minimises the pain of many of us who have experienced antisemitism in the Labour party. Assuming the survey by the JPR which indicates this is correct, the small minority in the party seem to have loud voices. The denialism outlined in this article only exacerbates the sense of the size of the problem.
Whilst it’s understandable that Labour supporters feel defensive when they hear accusations against Jeremy Corbyn or the party and it’s true that some opponents are weaponising antisemitism to damage the party, it’s also true that many accusations are true, even if the accused was not aware at the time they were being antisemitic. It’s deeply painful for Jews who have no agenda to be at the receiving end of denialism. Denialism can be a form of victim-blaming, it’s therefore important to exercise empathy before jumping into the debate.
If we on the left can avoid falling into these traps and be open to self-assessment, the necessary task of eliminating antisemitism and racism from our movement will be on its way to being solved.
Addendum – our friend Steve Cooke helpfully has created this twitter thread which shows pretty much all the above examples in one handy Labour member: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1088795190163320833.html