The protocols of the elders of Islington
PUBLISHED: 10:14 12 April 2018 | UPDATED: 13:40 18 April 2018
Dismissing anti-Semitic mutterings is going to bite Labour in the ass, writes MITCH BENN
I’ve been writing this column now for almost exactly 18 months (I know, doesn’t time fly when you’re mired in existential turmoil). Occasionally I revisit the older pieces to see how times have changed (or not) in the last year and a half and how my opinions have changed (or not) along with them.
Very occasionally, one of my old columns regains a bit of currency and starts doing the online rounds again, turning up (and being shared) on the Twitters and Facebooks of the world. Such has been the case these last couple of weeks with the very first one I wrote for this paper, back in the (relatively) carefree days of September 2016.
As my more assiduous archivists (ie. my mum) will recall, my first ever column was on the Labour Party’s problem with insidious anti-Semitism, and made some observations on how it’s possible to be both left-wing and bigoted, precisely because many people on the left erroneously believe that this isn’t possible; that to be ‘left-wing’ (whatever that actually means nowadays) is to immunise oneself against racism in all its forms (and anti-Semitism is a form of racism, although it’s not just a form of racism, of which more in a moment). If you think you’re incapable of making a given mistake, you’re all the more likely to make that mistake.
As I observed at the time, that tendency both to harbour, and dismiss objections to, anti-Semitic mutterings was going to bite the Labour Party in the ass if left unaddressed, and well, I hate to say ‘I told you so’.
I won’t relitigate whether Christine Shawcroft deserved to be kicked off the NEC (she did) or whether that mural was glaringly anti-Semitic (it was) and whether or not Jeremy Corbyn spotted this at the time (he should have done) and whether once it was pointed out to him he should have condemned it sooner and more unequivocally (yes) and whether, at a time of such understandably heightened sensitivity, it was wise to accept a Seder invitation from Jewdas (no). I’ll merely observe that the same arguments are raging again and that the voices seeking to minimise or excuse the anti-Semitic undertones (or occasionally, melodies) to be heard coming from the British left just now are every bit as misguided and/or guileful as before.
Before we start: those of you currently saying “But what about racism in the Conservative Party?”; shut the hell up. Yes, the Tory party has a long-standing issue with racism in its ranks; this newspaper wouldn’t exist were this not the case (the EU referendum having been invoked as an effort to stop the xenophobic rump of the Conservative base being seduced away by UKIP), but a.) That’s not what we’re talking about right now, and b.) Racism isn’t a finite resource. The incidence of racist attitudes in the Conservative Party doesn’t in any way reduce the levels of racism in other parties. There’s plenty to go round.
Most of the recent defences/denials of Labour anti-Semitism I’ve read have taken the form of what I’ve called the All Lives Matter defence. You may remember ‘All Lives Matter’ being the American right wing’s rejoinder to the Black Lives Matter campaign of a couple of years back, and a low trick it was too; of course all lives matter equally, but the point the BLM campaign was making was that in America they’re not treated as such, especially by many police forces.
Similarly when Labour pundits/spokesthings respond to accusations of anti-Semitism with “We condemn racism in all its forms”... nice try, buster, but you’re not being accused of “racism in all its forms”, you’re being accused of anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is subtly – but crucially – different from other forms of racism in how it’s expressed and what underlies it.
This is a point I alluded to last time but which needs spelling out: anti-Semites – especially left-wing anti-Semites – don’t think that anti-Semitism is racism.
As ever, one of the most articulate voices on this topic has been David Baddiel; he wrote a brilliant article in the Sunday Times, in which he reiterated a point he’s made before: the difference between Jew-hatred and other forms of racial bigotry is that anti-Semites both despise Jews as sub-human vermin and accuse them of being the shadowy overlords who secretly run the world. The thing is, while David is entirely correct in this, I don’t think both these suspicions are necessary to be anti-Semitic; just the second will do.
If your central political motivation, if the great injustice against which you rail, is the suffering caused by wealth inequality, and you’ve been persuaded, one way or another, that this inequality is not just a regrettable but inevitable by-product of the hierarchical way human societies tend to organise themselves (until forced to do otherwise by progressive governments), but rather is being deliberately engineered by an invisible cabal of evil, hunched, money-grubbing plutocrats who just happen to have names ending in -stein and -berg, then of course you’re going to seek to expose and smash this conspiracy, in the name of the downtrodden of the world...
That’s the difference; a lot of anti-Semites don’t think they’re being racist; they think they’re fearlessly confronting a global conspiracy. Of course, they are being racist, since even if this conspiracy existed (it doesn’t) it would still be racist to suspect all Jews of being sponsors and beneficiaries of that conspiracy (as they do).
Just as it is racist to require Jews to constantly justify or condemn the actions of the Israeli state (as happens all the time on Twitter and Facebook).
That’s why a blanket condemnation of “racism in all its forms” does not suffice as a condemnation of antisemitism in particular. You have to say “Racism is bad, oh and by the way, there is not a secret society of rich Jews running the world, and even if there were, it wouldn’t be David Baddiel’s fault, so cut that crap out, the lot of you.”