Why am I talking about antisemitism?
Quite a few friends have asked for my take on Labour and Antisemitism (AS). It pops up like a bad smell on my social media & in my head every day (for the last few months) so it’s not always easy to get a grip on.
Ever been in a room during an argument heats up between two people you care about, and find that the more they talk, the less sense they have to say? It's an unpleasant feeling, and tends to diminish both parties.
I feel that Jews and Labour have reached an impasse. We’re at the blue dress/gold dress stage now. Everyone’s already made up their mind: you either see Corbyn’s statements as evidence of AS or evidence of some great plot against him.
Here’s some of the complicating factors:
Jews love a bit of hyperbole.
The right-wing & Tory press have been searching for something to something to destroy the Corbyn project. (The great plot)
The left is not good at spotting & or dealing with Antisemitism.
JC is not a good leader. I’m worried he’s gone as far as he can.
Israel, Palestine, Zionism, 20th Century history is murky and complicated.
Social media is Toxic AF
I’ve been unconvinced of the ‘rampant antisemitism’ some people have described in the labour party. Much of what I’ve seen described that way, isn’t. Rather it’s common rudeness or insensitivity or general anti-Israeli anger. This makes it harder to pick out & identify genuine AS when it occurs. To point 1: hyperbole
Oi or Oy!?
Ever watch gentlemen from the Middle East/Mediterranean shouting at each other and wildly gesticulating & assume they’re having a blazing row? They’re not, they’re just talking. Jews have retained this cultural mode of communication. We (v much include myself) love a bit of drama. I think it’s no accident there’s a ton of Jewish writers, comedians, actors, storytellers. Usually it’s amongst ourselves but this row has spilled into the public.
Sometimes it’s just good old fashioned kvetching but other times it’s a touch dangerous. So when the Jewish Press, following a long tradition of obsession with AS and Nazis under beds calls a Labour government an ‘existential threat to Jews’ this is simply bullshit (or AS-BS if you like).
When former BossMan Rabbi J Sacks (disclaimer: I don’t like him & his particular brand of avuncular finger wagging morality) says Corbyn’s 2013 speech was the worst since Enoch Powell- it wasn’t*. This tendency towards exaggeration is dangerous as it undermines the case against genuine antisemitism, by muddying the waters – alongside further complications by conflating criticism of Israel with AS.
(*BUT there are problems here - more in a minute)
The NEC antisemitism definition which caused so much kerfuffle prompted an unprecedented response from the Jewish community. All nuance was lost (on both sides) in the fallout from what is a very technical, legal argument, largely over semantics. But this sensitive issue was handled terribly by the party leadership (see 4) who through a lack of consultation and communication (both directly with party members & press) allowed others to frame the debate as Labour vs Jews, leading to the above Jewish Press comments.
[It would appear that since I started writing this, Labour have adopted all IHRA examples but I suspect the issue is far from done...]
2 & 3: Corbyn (and the wider left)’s enemies have long been looking for a chink in the armour of his apparent popularity. They tried his anti-monarchy, painting him as anti-British and as a friend of terrorists but it didn’t wash as it’s nonsense. But then something stuck. Why’s it so hard to move on from accusations of AS? Because in this case there’s fire behind the smoke.
Unfortunately on the fringes of the international left-wing pro-Palestine movement the old AS tropes are recycled: holocaust denial, Jewish conspiracy, Jewish control. Sometimes the terminology is hidden (‘Zio-occupied govt’ means Jew-controlled) but other times it’s pretty blatant. I’ve seen this stuff first-hand. And wider Left and pro-Palestinians naturally come into contact with it.
The problem is that the Left isn’t great at challenging AS in this forum when it is encountered - as it is invisible to them: it seems to be punching up. Other people have written better about this but essentially if Jewish/Zionist interests control the mainstream media (MSM)* then challenging that is an anti-oppressive activity. And let’s not forget Israel is the dominant force in the conflict so how could its supporters possibly be oppressed?
(*a good ol’ AS trope)
Jews have a complicated relationship with Israel (5). I’m still negotiating mine. For Jews on the Left this relationship is even more conflicted as those who identify culturally/religiously are often at odds with our own community. So despite the fact that I may vehemently oppose the increasingly racist, Trump-aligning, ‘Might is Right’ Netanyahu government I still care about the country. It is literally family. (For what it’s worth I also care about the Palestinians/Israeli Arabs whose rights & lives are being trampled). This is relevant because it’s the context in which much of the discussion is being had.
Further: most Zionists (believers in Jewish self-determination) are Jews. Therefore attacks on Zionists are generally attacks specifically on Jews. Sure, not all Jews, but Jews.*
*sidenote on “Zionist”: one may believe that Israel should exist (which, regardless - it does) but simultaneously not support govt policy: settlements, the Wall etc
He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy
To JC (4). His leadership on the crisis has been weak. And it’s a crisis because a large amount of people from a British minority group have identified it as such - regardless of whether it has been weaponised and manipulated by a hostile right-wing press (it has).
Weak because he has remained silent for so long. A) antisemitic mural: weeks for response - was good when it came but it took fucking aaaaages B) the IHRA argument was allowed to fester for TWO WEEKS before we had an article in the paper (let alone any direct communication with party members). It’s simply not good enough. And then the Daily Mail unearth the dodgy bit of a speech in which he mentions Zionists not understanding English irony.
Ok. Here we are: gold dress/blue dress. For many JC supporters, it’s apparently ‘obvious’ that he’s talking about the Palestinian ambassador getting irony. JCorbz says he was using 'Zionist' in the purely political sense. But context is all.
Jews have been in this country for quite some time. As a community, we were one of the first foreign groups to continue an independent identity whilst simultaneously trying to mix. Hence my grandad changed the surname from ‘Kanefsky’ to ‘Kaye’.
‘How to blend in? How to avoid discrimination?’ 'How to be accepted by the locals?'
It’s a pretty classic immigrant story. For those who don’t know - in that wave of immigration (turn of C19th) that brought most Jews to the UK, they were escaping death and destruction in Eastern Europe. That matters too.
So for 100+ years the people assimilated, integrated, changed names, languages, accents; yet kept strange pickled foods, religion, arguing, jokes, music, shouting with extravagant hand gestures and bad driving.
Some tried really hard to blend in - particularly with the establishment. Some even looked like the natives - although most are familiar with the question ‘yeah but where are you from?’
But in my experience and from those I know, it doesn’t take much to remind you that you don’t truly belong. That you are a guest. The welcome maybe has a limit.
It’s insidious. There’s something a bit different about you.
Which bit do I tick on the monitoring form?
But like, where are you from?
‘North London geeks’ who can’t eat a decent British bacon sandwich.
An old employer used to talk about people being ‘good British stock’. (To quote BBK) that’s not me.
'From', not 'frum'
So given how quickly this nation within a nation becomes the ‘enemy within’ – a narrative employed with devastating effect from the Middle Ages to the holocaust & beyond, Jews are extra sensitive to being ‘othered’.
As a distinct group within a group, our loyalties are questioned, wherever we are. The conspiracy narrative arises from this; ‘why is Israel reported on positively on TV? Because Jews control TV’.
In this context, JC’s comments about Zionists (Jews, remember) despite having "having lived in this country for a long time, probably all their lives" not understanding English irony in this context is deeply problematic.
To get pedantic on semantics for a moment (forgive me, I write dialogue) Jez says Lived in. Not From.
I've lived in London for 11 years. I'm from Oxford.
These people are guests. They don’t really belong. They “need a lesson” in Englishness.
By extension, maybe they shouldn’t be here?
Picture the comment about Shia Muslims for example, and tell me it doesn’t feel...sticky?
I’ve waved away most of the other noise around Jezza. So he’s talked to people with dodgy views about certain things, shared platforms with people I dislike. What politician hasn’t? But this comment (and I’ve watched the whole speech for context) has stuck with me and I can’t shake it.
I worry what else the right wing press has up its sleeve. I wonder what they’re holding onto til just before an election. What badly phrased potential unconscious prejudice will it reveal about my party leader who would rather let yawning silence fill the void than make a positive statement and heal the deepening rift between the party and individual, (let alone a community of) Jews.
I fear that The Beardigan has become a liability - his enemies have found his weakness, have exploited it ruthlessly (as they were always going to) and that it’s in danger of removing the possibility of ever defeating this comic-book league of evil government.
Prove me wrong. Please.
140 characters: 0 sense
Finally: I’m reviewing my relationship with social media. (6) As for Twitter specifically, where much of this crisis plays out (spend 2 minutes searching ‘labour antisemitism’ and then try and have a good day, I dare you) I know that sensible debate is not likely to be found in the 140 or so characters allowed. I know that many of the so-called accounts liking, retweeting & commenting on ancient antisemitic gibberish I thought long dead are probably ‘bots’, trolls and are certainly not credible evidence of mass Labour-party membership AS.
But as the debate on this issue has calcified: either evidence of JC’s ‘obvious AS’ or grand conspiracy by MSM/Red Tories etc - it seems even more important to ask everyone to stop shouting at each other. No one is benefiting from this, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one whose mental health suffers.
Yes, online abuse is a sad modern phenomenon. Yes, some of the MPs who have come out against Corbyn can be criticised for their views & behaviour but it should also worry others that those singled out for the most vitriolic abuse on this issue are Jewish (mostly women, as per), and that the same old Jew-hating tropes are being repeated ad nauseam.
So my response is this: I won’t be using mockery, sarcasm or ridicule to poke fun at those I disagree with any more - especially when they're meant to be on my side. It’s led us to a conversational cul de sac - on a horrible street where the bins have been emptied everywhere and all the cars are on fire.
What I would say to those who’ve pitched their tents on JC’s allotment and refuse to see the current situation as anything other than a stitch up is: be committed. To be an anti-racist party we must listen to the voices of minorities when they speak out, and not attack or belittle those who do, even when we don’t understand their point of view.
And to those tarring all those concerned with Palestinian rights with the same brush: beware of devaluing antisemitism, you do more harm than you realise.
And please stop using the #forthemanynotthejew hashtag - it simply reinforces the feelings of being ostracised this whole episode kicked off. And it’s as funny as a fart in a lift.
It's a pretty shitty time to be a Lefty Jew to be honest. Words have emotional impact and we'd all do a bit better to consider them before screaming them in someone's (virtual) face.
Shana Tova and a happy New Year. Let’s hope it improves.
Post script: the cynical tweet from Sajid Javid the other day, using the Jewish New Year as an excuse to inflame the situation is completely revealing towards the governing party’s real attitude to this issue. We don’t appreciate being treated as a political poking stick. Get in the sea.
I joined the Labour party after Corbyn’s election to leadership on a wave of optimism about a progressive direction for the party. I would very much like to regain that optimism.
I was raised orthodox Jewish.
Alongside my creative work, I teach antisemitism & anti-Muslim-hate awareness workshops to teenagers with a Muslim counterpart. I don’t pretend to be an authority but I do engage with this subject on a regular basis. These views are entirely my own and do not represent the organisation (which is apolitical) in any way.