Labour’s New Anti-Semitism Has Disturbingly Old Roots
Different strains of bigotry have come together under Jeremy Corbyn, and he can't fix it.
Jeremy Corbyn is often credited with bringing new blood to the Labour Party. But it’s been exactly that influx that has mired Britain’s leading social democratic party in an ongoing crisis over anti-Semitism. Many of those drawn to the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 are not left-wingers in the traditional sense. They don’t have a set of recognizable ideological prescriptions for society but instead are driven by an essentially conspiratorial vision of how the world works.
This is not the emergence of a new left but the rise of the “cranks,” as Jade Azim has written for the activist website Labour List. The enemy is not so much capitalism as a system but a shadowy, malfeasant group of undesirables who pull the strings behind the scenes. As always, the vocabulary is the giveaway. The enemy is defined as “the elite” and “the establishment” in language sometimes indistinguishable from that of the alt-right.
This conspiratorial worldview inevitably lends itself to centuries-old tropes about Jewish power; anti-Semitism is the ultimate conspiracy theory. A mural that was removed from East London in 2012 encapsulated this outlook. It depicted hook-nosed Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor below the “eye of providence,” the symbol of the Illuminati, a long-defunct Bavarian secret society that is a favorite of conspiracy theorists. Corbyn, a backbench member of parliament at the time, backed the artist responsible for the piece, writing an encouraging comment on his Facebook page.
The latest flare-up has focused on Corbyn’s laying a wreath at a memorial for members of Black September, the PLO faction that organized the murder and torture of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. But it comes on the back of a row over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, considered the global standard. After a flare-up over claims by Corbyn supporter Ken Livingstone that Hitler backed Zionism, the Labour leadership pledged to adopt the alliance’s definition. However, Labour subsequently refused to endorse all 11 examples recommended by the alliance, omitting four that it claimed would stifle legitimate criticism of Israel—all without any consultation with Britain’s Jewish community.
Yet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism does permit reasonable criticism of Israeli policies. What it does not permit is the comparison of the Israeli government to the Nazis, or the accusation that Jews possess dual loyalties—mainstays of the conspiratorial worldview. Corbyn himself indulged in those old, pernicious tropes in 2012, when he speculated on Iranian state television—without a shred of evidence—that “the hand of Israel” might be behind an Islamist terror attack in Egypt.
The crank-left’s indulgence of anti-Semitism is a fine example of the dimwitted left-wing equivalent of Alex Jones ranting about “sheeple” and the “new world order” on Infowars. Yet Corbyn also emerged from a political climate in which other forms of casual anti-Semitism were routinely tolerated. Large parts of the far-left in Britain have long tolerated anti-Semitic tropes and foaming vitriol under the guise of anti-Zionism. A few left-wing groups have been warning about this for years, but most of the movement turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism among comrades from the developing world because—in a demonstration of the racism of low expectations—they were said not to know any better. That’s why Corbyn was comfortable taking tea on the House of Commons terrace with Raed Salah, a convicted anti-Semite, or attending Hezbollah’s Quds Day rally in London. Corbyn also for many years chaired the Stop the War Coalition, an organization that has marched around London with signs reading, “We are all Hezbollah now.”
The conspiratorial beliefs of the new cranks have combined with an older form of anti-Semitism emanating from the most unreconstructed reaches of the old left. Labour’s current leadership drips with nostalgia for the days of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev. Corbyn has never been a full-throated apologist for the Soviet Union, but two of his most influential confidants—trade unionist and former Stop the War chair Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s spin doctor—certainly are.
Their influence sets the foreign-policy tone in the leader’s office. Israel is viewed through the old Soviet lens. Zionism equals racism, my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and indiscriminate violence by an oppressed nation should be supported, because the ends justify the means. Those beliefs have blurred into conspiratorialism in the past. During the 1970s, Soviet authorities, steeped in the old-fashioned Russian anti-Semitism, published “anti-Zionist” books that promoted the claims of a “Zionist-controlled” media and described Zionism as a variant of fascism, arguments still popular among some of Corbyn’s supporters today.
The synthesis of old-left anti-Zionism with contemporary Illuminati-hunting crankishness has made the Labour Party an increasingly inhospitable place for British Jews. In the words of Jewish Labour Member of Parliament Margaret Hodge, Jews face a “hostile environment” within the party under Corbyn’s leadership. Some commentators have gone further: A joint editorial in Britain’s three most prominent Jewish newspapers recently claimed that a Corbyn government would present an “existential threat” to Jewish life in the United Kingdom.
This isn’t entirely new. Anti-Semitism has been present on the left since Marx’s own time; German socialist August Bebel coined (or possibly borrowed) the phrase “the socialism of fools” more than a century ago. And despite the powerful role of Jewish socialist leaders—and the socialist beliefs of many Zionist leaders—few have been willing to confront it. That stems in part from a self-righteousness that assumes that the left must be inherently free from any form of bigotry. Commenting on the prevalence of anti-Semitic tropes on the liberationist New Left of the 1960s, the U.S. sociologist Seymour Lipset wrote for the New York Times in 1971 of a “left [that] acts as if [anti-Semitism] were of no consequence, or as if no one on the left were capable of it.”
This mentality still pervades Corbyn’s cheerleaders in the media and the trade unions. Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s largest trade union, has accused Labour members of parliament of using accusations of anti-Semitism to undermine and smear Corbyn. Anti-Semitism is viewed as a malady that can only afflict others: those who are not left-wing, “rogue elements,” and certainly not dear old Jeremy.
Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal is not going away because the contemporary left lacks the faculty for self-criticism required to deal with it. Anti-Semitism has long been tolerated as an eccentricity among allies who are otherwise on the “correct side of history.” To eradicate it will require education and self-reflection, of a kind impossible in a movement led by a man regarded with uncritical veneration by his base. But it would also take a purging of the activists who have made a habit of indulging every bigot who waves an AK-47 toward Tel Aviv and Washington. Unfortunately, that includes Corbyn himself.