This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the controversy about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.) It was originally published under the headline ‘The British Left’s Jewish Problem’. I have slightly edited it to take account of the fact that the original was published before the London Mayoral election.
It has, admitted Sadiq Khan, in the run-up to last month’s election for London mayor, become ‘more difficult for Londoners of Jewish faith to feel that the Labour Party is a place for them’.
The Labour Party has been embroiled in a furious dispute over the attitudes of some members toward Jews. Two leading figures, Naseem Shah, MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, were suspended from the party for what were condemned as anti-Semitic remarks. Ms Shah had suggested in a social media post that Israel be ‘relocated’ to the United States, while Mr Livingstone had tried to defend her by claiming that Adolf Hitler had been a Zionist.
It is not the first such uproar: In February, the party was forced to open an investigation into the Oxford University Labour Club, and in March to suspend some councilors and activists accused of anti-Semitism. All this has led a number of prominent Jews — including the novelist Howard Jacobson, the former senior BBC executive Danny Cohen and the Financial Times’ managing editor Robert Shrimsley — to withdraw support from Labour.
For others, however, the controversies reveal not Labour’s anti-Semitism but a campaign by the party’s enemies to discredit it. ‘It’s a smear to say that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism’, claimed shadow cabinet member Diane Abbott.
There is little question that Labour’s opponents — and internal critics of the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn — have exploited the issue for factional gain. Nor is it hard to see the hypocrisy. Boris Johnson, the current mayor of London and a leading figure in the Conservative Party, said that Labour had been infected by the ‘virus of anti-Semitism’. A week earlier, he had exposed his own racial sensitivity, dismissing President Obama’s support for Britain’s membership of the European Union as the animus of a ‘part-Kenyan president’ with an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.
Yet neither the cynicism nor the hypocrisy should distract us from the problem of anti-Semitism — not just in the Labour Party, but on the political left more generally. It is not that the left is packed with anti-Semites; it is rather that too many among them have been willing to accommodate bigotry.
This acquiescence is rooted in the changing character of the left in recent years. Anti-Semitism used to be a problem primarily of the right. It wasn’t that the left had a clean bill of health – while it has a proud tradition of standing up to anti-Jewish bigotry, there is a long history, too, of leftwing anti-Semitism. But the left’s traditional espousal of a universalist perspective and its commitment to equality established a firm foundation from which to challenge anti-Semitism.
In recent decades, however, much of the left has rowed back on its former cosmopolitan, universalist perspective. Where once radicals challenging inequality and oppression had done so in the name of universal rights, many now stress multiculturalism, celebrating a world divided into distinct cultures, each with its own ideas, beliefs and values. Such ‘identity politics’ turns on its head the dictum of Martin Luther King that one should judge people ‘not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’. Once identity becomes the primary feature of political life, then people are judged as much by the group to which they belong as by their character or principles.
In the context of anti-Semitism, identity politics has made it easier to target Jews for being Jews, and to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. This in turn has facilitated the slippage from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism, as the distinction between criticizing ideas and fingering a group has eroded. Many who support the Palestinians now seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and sowing hatred against a people.
The reverse is also true: Many supporters of Israel today deem anti-Semitic any criticism of Zionism on the ground that it denies Jewish self-determination. That, too, is to confuse legitimate criticism of an ideology with illegitimate bigotry.
Along with the embrace of identity politics has come a proliferation of conspiracy theories. The notion that global affairs are secretly controlled by hidden actors with a malevolent agenda — a classic trope of anti-Semitism — was once a fringe view. Today, such ideas have moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Many on the left routinely view public life as manipulated by cabals of bankers, media moguls and the like. Through this process, old canards about Jews have found a new currency.
The final issue, and perhaps the one most difficult to broach for many on the left, is the growth of Muslim communities in the West. ‘It pains me to have to admit this’, wrote Mehdi Hasan, one of Britain’s leading left-wing Muslim voices, in 2013, ‘but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community, it’s routine and commonplace.’
Last month, an opinion poll of British Muslims bore out Mr Hasan’s contention. It showed a significant proportion of British Muslims — 30 to 40 per cent — clinging to virtually every conspiracy theory about Jews: that they held too much power over government, the media, business and world affairs.
There are complex reasons for the growth of anti-Semitism among British Muslims. But whatever the reasons, these are attitudes and beliefs that must be challenged every time they surface. Many liberal Muslims do just that, often at great cost. But too many on the left have become willing to live with such bigotry.
Some naïvely view radical Islamists as comrades in arms in the struggle against imperialism and in support of Palestinians, so they overlook reactionary views. While mayor, Mr. Livingstone, for example, welcomed as a ‘progressive voice’ Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who regards Israelis as legitimate targets of suicide bombings and has described the Holocaust as ‘divine punishment’. For his part, before he became Labour Party leader, Mr. Corbyn greeted delegations from Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘our friends’.
It is not that the Labour Party leadership is anti-Semitic. What is troubling has been the unwillingness of figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone to call out those who are. And that is true of too many on the left.
The images are lithographs by Marc Chagal from his ‘Exodus’ series. The two shown here are ‘Moses sees the sufferings of his people’ and ‘Bezaléel and his two golden cherubim’.