From Cable Street to Raed Saleh, Labour must understand anti-Semitism has shape-shifted

The Labour Party Inquiry into antisemitism is due to report before the end of June. Everything depends on the Inquiry team understanding what it is dealing with: almost never old-fashioned Jew hatred, almost always antisemitic anti-Zionism – i.e. a programme to abolish Israel, a movement to boycott Israel and a discourse that demonises Israel.

Programme, movement, and discourse should be considered as one, each interacting with and reinforcing the other, creating an environment uniquely conducive to the spread of the antisemitic anti-Zionism in the party.

The Party’s crisis began among a minority on the far-left who refused to accept that ‘history has forged a Hebrew speaking Jewish nation on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean’ as David Hirsh puts it. This minority then adopted the reactionary programme of ending the very existence of Israel. Over the years they justified this programme by a means of a rigid dogma, a code that reduced an entire people to ‘Zios’ and equated Israel with the Nazis. And now we have the grotesque chaos of the party having to suspend its own members, its own councillors, its own Mayors and MPs and to launch an enquiry into antisemitism in its ranks.

Is the party equipped to deal with the problem? We will have to see. It is good that Jeremy Corbyn’s father fought at Cable Street. Mine fought at El Alamein and Monte Cassino. Both helped defeat Fascist and Nazi forms of antisemitism. But this is 2016 not the 1930s or 1940s. The inquiry must grasp that antisemitism is the most protean of hatreds and it has shape-shifted again.

Labour’s crisis has been caused by the spread of a modern anti-Zionism of a particularly excessive, obsessive, and demonising kind. This anti-Israelism has co-mingled with an older set of classical antisemitic themes, prejudices, images and assumptions to create something new: antisemitic anti-Zionism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was in older forms of antisemitism, demonological Israel now is in contemporary anti-Semitic anti-Zionism: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.

The party must stop being so intellectually lazy. Antisemitism’s core motif is that the Jews, in their essence, are malign, but over the millennia the content of this perceived malignity has changed with the times and with the needs of the anti-Semites themselves: ‘God-killers,’ ‘aliens,’ ‘cosmopolitans,’ ‘sub-humans’, and now ‘Zionists’, have all served as code words to mark the Jew for destruction. While classic antisemitism wanted to make the world Judenfrei, free of Jews, antisemitic anti-Zionism wants to make the world Judenstaatrein, free of a Jewish state.

The degree to which the party simply does not currently ‘get’ antisemitic anti-Zionism was shown by the warm reception given to the Islamist anti-Semite Raed Salah by Jeremy Corbyn in 2012. Corbyn organised a press conference to defend Salah’s presence in the UK and said of him: ‘He is far from a dangerous man. He is a very honoured citizen, he represents his people extremely well, and his is a voice that must be heard.’ Corbyn even added this personal message to Salah: ‘I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace [of the House of Commons] because you deserve it!’

In fact, Saleh – as many pointed out to Jeremy Corbyn at the time– opposed not the occupation but the ‘bacteria of all times’. He did not criticise Benjamin Netanyahu, but the demonic ‘unique mover’ who was behind 9/11. He did not call for the West to apply diplomatic pressure on Israel but attacked the entire West as a ‘slave to Global Zionism’. These statements were all one click away on the internet and the leader was pointed to them. He ignored them all and instead issued fulsome praise for Saleh. About Saleh’s blood libel speech, the UK Appeal Court decided that ‘We do not find this comment [by Salah] could be taken to be anything other than a reference to the blood libel against Jews.’ It also decided that this would ‘offend and distress Israeli Jews and the wider Jewish community’.

If the party misses this opportunity to construct an intellectual and cultural firewall to separate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy from foul demonization of Israel per se, then the party’s crisis will likely become chronic. Antisemitic anti-Zionism will flourish, the fundamental perception of the party among the electorate will be that Labour is ‘extremist’, there may well be an exodus of long-standing members; and the climate for Jews in this country will become less welcoming and more dangerous. Much is at stake.

Professor Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. His 15,000 word submission to the inquiry was titled ‘Antisemitic anti-Zionism: the root of Labour’s crisis.’

About the Author
Alan Johnson is the Editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and Senior Research Fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). A professor of democratic theory and practice, he is an editorial board member of Dissent magazine, and a Senior Research Associate at The Foreign Policy Centre. He blogs at The Daily Telegraph and World Affairs.
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