The left must take responsibility for tackling anti-Semitism in our own ranks

Two weeks ago, on BBC One’s faith and ethics television show ‘The Big Questions’, I took part in what was an approximately twenty-three minute slot debating the question: Does the left have a problem with anti-Semitism? As is often the case, with the understandable time constraints, the subject wasn’t remotely close to being adequately unpacked in a nuanced and educational way – this has meant that the highly predictable and hardened responses from those on opposite sides of the debate haven’t been properly interrogated. We are no further forward in the fight against anti-Jewish oppression as a result.

Anti-Semitism is a real issue manifesting in certain spaces and movements on the left. Of course, the severity of anti-Semitism and the danger it poses from right-wing and violent sources should remain a priority. But if we on the left aren’t even willing to acknowledge there is a problem in our own ranks, then we are, in fact, complicit in and enabling anti-Jewish oppression. It is incumbent on those of us who presume to call ourselves progressive anti-racist campaigners to take the lead in challenging not only ourselves, but our fellow leftist activists. We can do this by making concerted efforts to challenge instances of anti-Jewish oppression in our own spaces and taking tangible action in the form a mass movement dedicated to the end goal of permanently eradicating this scourge from society.

At a time when anti-Semitism has reportedly risen once again in the last year, I cannot even begin to imagine what our Jewish comrades in the Labour Party and our Jewish compatriots in wider society are going through every time the Labour Party, and the broader left, appear to fail on this issue time again with our empty words and repeated betrayals of trust.

“..I see absolutely no contradiction in being a pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist who is actively campaigning against anti-Semitism..”
 We simply aren’t seeing the usual leftist anti-racism principles of listening to and standing in solidarity with those Jewish people who raise concerns of antisemitism. We are instead erasing those same people from leftist spaces in a mixture of ignorance, tolerance and callous disregard for the reality of antisemitism. It is deeply disappointing, for me as a left-wing activist, to see so many others failing to incorporate a radical analysis, robust response and actively campaign against the discrimination and oppression faced by Jews in the United Kingdom. We need to do way better.

It can begin with leaders in our movement taking responsibility for leading the way and sparing the time to engage with the wealth of left-wing resources made available to us so that they can become voices that draw attention to both the problem and solution. Instead of someone like Naomi Wimborne Idrissi callously laughing when asked about the issue we need leaders to make clear unequivocal condemnations and also provide clear analysis that progresses the discussion forward.

In an ideal world I would like to see figures like Jeremy Corbyn signposting to resources like this pamphlet produced by April Rosenblum or sites that describe exactly how to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. I’d like to see leaders in the pro-Palestine movement taking real responsibility for ousting those who have infected the movement with anti-semitic and conspiratorial ideology. At present the silence is deafening and the Labour Party seem set to allow repeated scandals out of sheer stubbornness – particularly when it comes to high profile cases such as Ken Livingstone – meaning incidents aren’t dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner.

Labour need to start valuing our relationships with Jewish communities and other minority groups above that of leftist hegemony. We also have to stop looking at these relationships through the lens of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It also means that it shouldn’t matter whether a problematic individual has an exemplary track record on other important issues or if they are a ‘stalwart’ of the left; if they are in the wrong then call them out. I am tired of seeing fellow leftists protect those who have been placed on high pedestals – to the detriment of entire progressive movements.

Labour also needs to stop re-admitting antiSemites into the party. We do this by ensuring investigations are robust, factual and transparent and that all due process and procedure is followed. I want to see a non-partisan panel decide the fate of those who have been suspended from the party for anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. It should also be accompanied by a consistent application of the zero-tolerance policy; permanent expulsion for those found to have made anti-Semitic remarks or shared anti-Jewish images.

I see absolutely no contradiction in being a pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist who is actively campaigning against anti-Semitism. Those on either side of this issue who think there is are evidently not all that fussed about the real impact this is having on the lives of ordinary people.

It is important, before going further, to acknowledge that anti-Semitism has become overly politicised due to a messy entanglement with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Activists, academics and human rights defenders – me included – are indeed under sustained attacked by organized campaigns intent on labelling us as being either anti-Semitic or having sinister ulterior motives  by virtue of the conflict involving Jews.

From my own experiences, I know just how horrific it is to be labelled and targeted in such a way; I have had people try to end my academic career, even being the subject of an entire book published by a right-wing think tank and I am routinely smeared as a liar, a Jew hater and an extreme fringe ‘character’. I know what it is like to endure constant abuse, hatred and deliberate misrepresentations of my own views by others in order to portray me as something I am not.

So let me be clear that anyone, no matter their status, identity or background, who chooses to ‘weaponise’ allegations of racism and discrimination in furtherance of a political agenda is not only odious but actually serving the purpose of endangering those same vulnerable communities and minorities that are affected by such oppression.

I would encourage Jewish compatriots not to automatically view someone who passionately campaigns against Israel as being motivated by anti-Jewish intent.

Following that particular point, I feel that I should explain that is one of the reasons why some on the left display that disconcerting and deeply dismissive knee-jerk reaction to concerns raised over antisemitism; we witness a lot of opportunism from pro-Israel sources and it has become difficult to ascertain whether a concern is a legitimate instance of oppression or simply an exercise in discouraging criticism of Israel, Zionism and the human rights violations meted out daily against the Palestinian people.

Having said that, the responsibility for being able to recognise a false allegation from the genuine article is ultimately our own and that is why I encourage fellow leftists to take up the mantle and educate ourselves. It is unacceptable to repeatedly demonise Zionists or use social media to promote re-worked anti-Semitic tropes. We need to end the misuse of Holocaust analogies which are only ever designed to attack and gaslight Jewish communities.

In the words of April Rosenblum – whose ground-breaking pamphlet elaborates in detail on these issues – the main problem on the Left is the way in which “institutionally, people and organizations” are often “silent, uncomfortable, defensive, and even accusatory” when someone raises concerns about anti-Semitism. We have to stop responding with discomfort, and instead try a new approach that is both reassuring and trust-building for the majority of our Jewish communities.

Another perspective that leftists need to better understand is that, for many Jewish individuals and communities, it is extremely difficult to have full confidence and trust in a non-Jewish majority precisely because of the insidious reality of what antisemitism has been allowed to achieve within living memory.

It is the left’s responsibility to respond to any concern or allegation raised over antisemitism; not by dismissing it out of hand or doing what Jewish Voice for Labour do in placing such firmly in the conspiratorial realm of it all being a “convenient stick with which to beat the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn”, but rather giving careful consideration to how language and certain views or positions can be both insensitive and deeply offensive.

Another totally irresponsible thing that I’ve noticed is that we seem to tell Jews that anti-Semitism just isn’t as bad, pervasive or as severe as other forms of racism. On a number of occasions, including whilst I was in the audience of the Big Questions, I’ve witnessed prominent individuals with large followings seeking to downplay the oppression, vilification and hatred faced regularly by Jews through a crude comparison to either anti-black or islamophobic racism.

Again, let us be consistent and clear in recognising that people of colour, Arabs and Muslims – plus groups within them – are targeted with intense violence, racism and oppression. And any serious anti-racism organisation or campaign in the United Kingdom will tell you just how irresponsible and extremely dangerous it is to pit one oppressed group and their experiences off against another oppressed group – as though it’s some kind of sick competition.

There is no excuse for anyone, especially those of us on the left, to dismiss our Jewish compatriots and erase their experiences from our lexicon of understanding. Only by working together and listening to the voices of the oppressed can we change our own behaviour and make this country a truly open, secure and welcoming place where Jews feel fully participatory as equal members of society.

Everything I have written above is nowhere near enough to cover all of the issues at play here. However, I hope it does go some way towards highlighting where the left needs to learn and grow on the issue of antisemitism; so that together, as Jews and non-Jews, we might better fight against and eradicate it from our own spaces and society at large.

About the Author
Gary Spedding is a cross-party consultant on the Israel-Palestine conflict and an applied peace and conflict researcher with a specialisation in comparative conflict analysis, conflict transformation and restorative justice.