The five forms of antisemitism denial Labour must tackle

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the Labour Party race and faith manifesto (Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the Labour Party race and faith manifesto (Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire)

‘A mendacious fiction’ the Chief Rabbi thundered, questioning Labour’s claim to have seriously tackled antisemitism in the party. In my 2019 report, ‘Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party‘ I was a little more wordy.

I identified Labour’s culture of antisemitism denial and victim-blaming as the prime reason the party had failed thus far to eradicate the problem. All five forms of antisemitism denial identified in the report have been evident today in the furious reaction of many party members to the intervention of the Chief Rabbi. This reaction is not excused by the easy ride given so far in this election to that other racism, of the Windrush scandal, ‘Letterboxes’ and ‘piccaninies’.

1. ‘It’s all a smear’

The first, and the crudest form of denial dismisses the entire antisemitism crisis as a smear confected by ‘Zionists’ or ‘the Right’ or ‘Tories’ to ward off legitimate criticism of Israel or to ‘get Jeremy’. In March 2018, a YouGov poll showed 77 per cent of Labour members believed the charges of antisemitism to be deliberately exaggerated to undermine the leader or stop criticism of Israel and only 19 per cent said it was a serious issue. Some party members have polluted the political environment with the noxious claim that antisemitism is a politicised and manipulated thing, a club wielded instrumentally, with malice aforethought, by bullying Jews / ‘Zionists’ / ‘Blairites’ for Jewish / ‘Zionist’ / ‘Blairite’ ends.

2. ‘But what about…’

The second form of antisemitism denial found throughout the party is ‘whataboutery’: i.e. responding to a claim of antisemitism in the party with ‘but what about anti-Muslim bigotry / Boris / social care?’ Whataboutery works by changing the subject (rather than saying ‘anti-Muslim bigotry is important and so is antisemitism: Lets tackle both.’).

3. ‘Just a few bad apples’

The third form of denial minimizes the problem as ‘a few bad apples’. We had some ‘unhappy incidents’ in Shami Chakrabarti’s rushed and flimsy 2016 report (Oh, to have that opportunity back again!). The Chief Rabbi praised the Labour Party’s anti-racist record in 2016, but warned the Labour Party not to use that enquiry as a sticking plaster. He was ignored. Taking his lead from (now Baroness) Chakrabarti, Jeremy Corbyn said in March 2018 that there were only a few ‘pockets’ of antisemitism in the party. Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner, when asked in February 2019 how large was the problem of antisemitism in the party, replied, in the by now accustomed way: ‘It’s tiny.’ Even Owen Jones, who has called out left antisemitism in the party, today wrongly judges the problem to be confined to ‘the fringes’.

4. ‘No intent, no antisemitism’

The fourth form of denial is more subtle, but has perhaps been the most damaging. When the Labour Party was busy developing its own homemade definition of antisemitism in 2018 (before finally adopting the internationally recognised IHRA Definition) it wanted to include this clause: ‘hostility to Israel could only be antisemitic if motivated by antisemitic intent.’ In other words, the party wanted to see clear evidence of personally subjective antisemitic intent before accepting any discourse as being antisemitic. If you were not sieg-heiling and ranting about the Yids, then your beef was about Israel, right? That meme of the tentacled alien figure with a Star of David on its back, sucking the life from the face of the Statute of Liberty is just a criticism of Israel, innit?

Too often the party still does not ‘get it’. When someone says Israel or ‘the Zionists’ are controlling world media, finance and politics then, even though he or she does not personally, subjectively, hate all Jews as Jews, their statement is still antisemitic. Yes, they may have simply absorbed this idea unthinkingly from the anti-Zionist far left networks and websites they move in. They probably did. But if they spread the discourse of ‘Israel controls ISIS’, or ‘Israel did 9/11’, or ‘Zionists run global finance’ or ‘Israelis are Nazis’, or say that the Labour Party practices ‘Jew process’ not due process, as one Jewish Voice for Labour member did, then they are sharing and spreading an antisemitic discourse and, whatever they intended in the privacy of their own head, their discourse will have antisemitic impacts.

And because every smear must have its smearer, denial and victim-blaming are intimates. That is why the Chief Rabbi is today being depicted as a ‘Tory’. Freud told us that denial is not only a psychological defence mechanism used to protect our ego when it is threatened, but that we often turn defence into attack, making up a story that shifts the blame onto someone else. Today, the Chief Rabbi is that someone. Treat him as ‘a Tory’ and psychic order is restored. Yesterday it was the ‘embittered’ Ian Austin. Before him the ‘Zionist’ Luciana Berger or the ‘Member for Tel Aviv’ Louise Ellman, or the ‘axe-to-grind’ Panorama whistle blowers. You get the picture.

5. ‘Not a racist bone in his body’

The final form of denial is the knee-jerk defence of the party leader. The absence of a serious and thorough-going self-criticism on his part has licensed a kind of mass unthinking apologia for his record, and with that the entire party is being slowly dragged into the mire. As long as we tell ourselves that, to take just one example, defending the antisemitic hate preacher Raed Saleh as a fine leader of his people and inviting him to tea on the terrace of the Commons is acceptable – it is ‘a baseless and disgraceful smear to say that the Labour leadership is antisemitic’ wrote Owen Jones today – the party is, willy-nilly, defining antisemitism down.

Painful as it is, party members have to listen to the Chief Rabbi.

About the Author
Professor 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).