Smoke without fire
Jamie Stern-Weiner (editor) Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party Verso, December 2019, free e-book, pp278
It is said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It would seem that the contributors to this title were determined to prove the truth of this aphorism.
The centrepiece of this internet book is ‘Smoke without fire’ by Jamie Stern-Weiner and Alan Maddison, referring to the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign against the Labour Party. Their conclusion is that “no persuasive evidence has been presented to demonstrate that anti-Semitism within the Labour Party has increased since 2015”.
How then to account for the widespread perception to the contrary? Why is it that between June 15 2015 and March 31 2019 there were five and a half thousand articles on Labour ‘anti-Semitism’ in the national press?1
Or, to put it another way, how is it that the Windrush scandal, when dozens of black British citizens were illegally deported to the Caribbean, has garnered only a fraction of such coverage? Why is it that genuine racism is a matter of indifference for the British media?
Weiner and Maddison observe:
There were no witches in Salem; Jewish elders did not gather in a graveyard at night; a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy did not target Nazi Germany. The allegation that Labour is rife with anti-Semitism is of a piece with these fantastic antecedents.
But if the allegations of anti-Semitism against the Labour Party are of a piece with the belief that Salem was host to a coven of witches, if Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ affair was not about anti-Semitism, then what was it about? Where did the allegations come from? On this all the contributors are silent. Virtually no-one in this collection is prepared to call out the BBC/Daily Mail smear campaign for what it was. When the Daily Mail and the BBC are concerned about racism, then surely it cannot be too difficult to figure out what has happened. There seems to be a reluctance amongst these luminaries of the left elites to say what is - or should be - obvious. We have just witnessed the destabilisation of a political party by state actors, British and foreign.
At the beginning of 2017 Al Jazeera broadcast a four-part programme, The lobby,2 which provided a snapshot of what had been happening: the Israeli state and its surrogates, Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, were actively organising for the overthrow of Corbyn, using anti-Semitism as their chosen weapon.
Clearly the British and American states were also involved. That is why there was no interest3 by the British government in inquiring as to why an Israeli intelligence operative, Shai Masot, was plotting the downfall4 of Britain’s deputy foreign minister, Alan Duncan. Anyone acquainted with the actions of the CIA and the intelligence agencies, as documented long ago by ex-CIA agent Phil Agee in Inside the company, should not have been surprised.
In Jeremy Corbyn we had the election of someone who was anti-Nato, a supporter of the Palestinians and a well known opponent of US foreign policy, to the leadership of the second major party in the US’s closest ally in Europe. Do the left social democrats and liberals who contributed to these essays really believe that the United States would not intervene in British politics if its interests were at stake?
In 20 or 30 years time, when the present furore has died down, some enterprising young researcher or journalist, perhaps on The Guardian, will obtain details under freedom-of-information legislation about what really happened - which was a conspiracy against democracy.
Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party was distributed as a free e-book two weeks before the December 12 general election. It claimed to bring together “the most rigorous and penetrating analytical writings on the ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ affair.” Unfortunately, with the exception of two articles by Norman Finkelstein, all the contributions suffer from the same fallacy: namely that what it calls the “strange events that have warped British politics since 2015” are actually about anti-Semitism. Finkelstein, in his chapter on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism 5, points the finger at Zionism and Israel, but others seem strangely reluctant.
Daniel Finn’s ‘Corbyn under fire’ concludes that if Chakrabarti’s recommendations had been heeded - to “use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically ...” and to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel/Palestine” - then “some of the controversies of the past two years could have been avoided”. Why? If Luciana Berger could resurrect a six-years-old, long-erased mural in London’s East End to attack Corbyn, then why would avoiding Hitler comparisons make any difference?
However, if the Labour Party had fought back and not accepted the ‘anti-Semitism’ framework; if it had condemned ‘Zionism’ as a political settler-colonial project that anti-Semites like Trump and Orbán were only too happy to support, then some much needed political clarification might have been injected.
Is it seriously suggested that, when Israel funds campaigns against miscegenation, when mobs chant “Death to the Arabs”, or when Israeli law recognises6 the right of Jewish communities to bar Arabs as members, comparisons with pre-holocaust Nazi Germany are inappropriate? That when Israel uses the holocaust to justify its barbarism that it is inappropriate for us to reply in kind?
Was it anti-Semitic for Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of evil to compare Israeli laws forbidding marriage between Jew and Arab with those of the Nuremburg laws? Was professor Ze’ev Sternhell, an expert on fascism and a childhood survivor of the Polish ghetto of Przemyśl, wrong to write that in Israel there is a “growing fascism and a racism akin to early Nazism”?7
Jamie Stein-Werner, with his report on the 2017 Labour Party conference, continues where Finn left off. He says:
… whereas ‘Nazis[m]’ and ‘apartheid’ unambiguously refer to extreme oppression, ‘Zionism’ might denote any one along a spectrum of beliefs ranging from the harmful to the benign (eg, support for the right of Jews to collective self-determination).
It is no wonder that the JLM had it so easy, when even our supporters refuse to understand that Zionism was a reflection of anti-Semitism and is the ideological font of racial supremacy in Israel. This Labour-left acceptance of Zionist racism originated with Jon Lansman’s Left Futures blog post, ‘Why the left must stop talking about Zionism’.8 The fact that every act of racism in Israel is justified by reference to the ‘ideals’ of Zionism is simply obliterated.
When appeals were made for the right of African refugees to stay in Israel, interior minister Eli Yishai was quoted as saying: “The migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying”.9 The whole debate around those refugees was conducted in terms of a Jewish demographic majority.
Only Finkelstein raises the issue of genuine racism against black people, which should have been the major plank of our fightback. How many Jews have been shot dead by police or railroaded into jail? Being black or Muslim closes doors; being Jewish opens them. Where was the anger with those - Tory and New Labour - who introduced the ‘hostile environment’ policy which led to Windrush? Not one contributor points the finger at the Labour right’s complicity in supporting the 2014 Immigration Act and in playing the race card.
I have long campaigned to highlight Tom Watson’s support for Labour MP Phil Woolas,10 who was removed as an MP by the high court after having waged an election campaign based on “making the white folk angry”. Or Watson’s role in the 2004 by-election in Hodge Hill, where he issued a leaflet: ‘Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum-seekers’.11
There was a total failure by Corbyn to call out the Daily Mail and The Sun, whose Katie Hopkins described refugees as “cockroaches”.12 This is also reflected in the contributions to this book.
Six days before the general election I wrote an article entitled ‘Expect the worst, hope for the best’.13 The night before the election, whilst campaigning for Chris Williamson, I penned an open letter to Seamus Milne, saying that the strategy of apologising for ‘anti-Semitism’ and appeasement of the right had led to disaster.14
I had sleepless nights asking myself how Corbyn could win. I asked myself, ‘What have I missed?’ People were confident. Hundreds of Momentum supporters were flooding into marginal constituencies. Was I a natural born Jeremiah, forever a Cassandra? It was clear to me that Corbyn Labour’s inability to stand up for its beliefs and to rebut the smears were going to result in an election defeat. The only question was, how bad was it going to be?
Back in 2017, when even my closest comrades in Brighton and Hove Momentum were gloomy, I had been optimistic. In two blog articles I had predicted a hung parliament and even victory.
It was the inability of Corbyn and McDonnell to fight back against this state-inspired campaign, including throwing Chris Williamson to the wolves, that spelt the end this time. Apologising, temporising, failing to answer questions and an inability to go on the offensive was not only depressing, but demeaning. Corbyn appeared weak and it was this that led to the low opinion of him on the doorstep. After all, how would Corbyn and McDonnell stand up to a much fiercer onslaught when in government?
When I was suspended in March 2016 for “comments you are alleged to have made”, it was immediately clear that the allegations had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, in 2018 I was expelled as part of the ‘anti-Semitism’ moral panic, as was Marc Wadsworth and then Jackie Walker. Ken Livingstone was forced out too and yet Corbyn failed to speak out.
Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party contains 20 different contributions, along with 21 testimonies from Jews in the Labour Party. The most obvious lacuna is that nowhere in the nearly 300 pages is there any contribution from someone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who has been a victim of Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. Neither Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Marc Wadsworth, Asa Winstanley nor myself was invited to contribute. The testimony of those at the sharp end was of no account.
This arrogance reminds me of the question posed by Rudolph Vrba, the Jewish escapee from Auschwitz in April 1944. Vrba was deliberately ignored and rendered anonymous by Israel’s holocaust historians, because what he had to say did not accord with Zionism’s holocaust narrative. Vrba asked who was the better historian: “those of us who saw the Nazis in action in Auschwitz” or “those who did not have direct experience with the Nazis”?15
This book contains many good essays but there are also a considerable number of mundane stocking fillers. One of the worst is by David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group, who writes of “improvements” in Labour’s procedures for handling complaints of anti-Semitism. David imagined that Labour’s right wing had been “pushed back”:
The detail will be discussed more and refined before Labour conference. And it has been confirmed that anti-Semitism will not be separated out, but these processes will apply to all complaints that discrimination/abuse has occurred against members across the range of protected characteristics.
This is a pure flight of fantasy. At the Labour Party conference it was agreed that people would be expelled by a fast-track procedure without so much as a hearing. In practice any statement critical of Israel can and does lead to expulsion. David was also silent on the unlawful suspension of Chris Williamson.
In fact all other types of racism have been ignored. Black and Muslim people have been primary targets of the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign. Anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth, who played a pivotal role in the Stephen Lawrence campaign, was expelled at the behest of Ruth Smeeth, a former Israel lobbyist for Bicom.16
In Brighton and Hove notorious rightwinger Lukey Stanger, who stated that travellers were “frequently a nasty blight on communities”,17 has been suspended for months with no sign of an impending expulsion. Stanger was protected by Tom Watson.
Luke Akehurst, the director of We Believe in Israel,18 who openly campaigned to defend Israel’s murder of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, including children, in Gaza by Israeli snipers,19 has not been disciplined. We can only assume that Palestinian lives are worth less than Israeli or Jewish lives.
David Rosenberg bears a greater responsibility than most. He lives in Corbyn’s constituency and knows Corbyn personally. David did his best to ensure that there was no criticism of Corbyn’s feeble tactics, even though it should have been obvious that it was only counter-pressure that might have led to Corbyn fighting back.
Even worse, Jon Lansman was (is?) a member of the Jewish Socialist Group. When I posted an article on the JSG Facebook group, it was removed by David’s partner, Julia Bard. When I persisted in criticising the JSG’s refusal to support Jackie Walker, I was removed altogether.
David has been pivotal in the formation of Jewish Voice for Labour. I refused to join JVL because I opposed a Jewish-only group, when the ‘anti-Semitism’ attacks were not about Jews or anti-Semitism. The first rule of any political campaign is not to accept your opponents’ terms of reference.
That is why JVL has failed to make any impression on the witch-hunt or anti-Semitism campaign. The attacks were always about Israel, Zionism and wider British foreign policy, not Jews or anti-Semitism. JVL consistently refused to criticise Corbyn’s weak leadership or raise the wider question of racism in the Labour Party.
In his book The chimera of British anti-Semitism Norman Finkelstein notes that the Jewish community had nothing to fear from an impending Corbyn government.
If residents of Salem, Massachusetts, experienced deep anxiety about witches; if Americans experienced deep anxiety about communists; ... if, for that matter, Christians experienced deep anxiety about Jewish ritual child-murderers - if an anxiety is widespread, surely it doesn’t necessarily, or even probably, follow that it is a rational fear. It could just as plausibly have been induced by powerful social forces standing to benefit from a deliberately contrived paranoia (p41).
Instead of tackling head-on reports of the disaffection of British Jews, the Jewish Chronicle’s campaign to instil fear was simply ignored and allowed to fester.
Where I disagree with Finkelstein is his reference to an “outsized Jewish political power”. It is true that Zionist groups such as the Jewish People Policy Institute boast of such power. It is also true that Jews are disproportionately represented amongst the wealthy, in the media, politics and academia. But does this translate into ‘Jewish power’? Do all Jews possess the same class interests? Unless we believe that Jews are acting in concert, as an organised block or caste, then we should avoid the ethnicisation of what are historical, political, social and economic phenomena.
There is no separate Jewish interest or lobby in society. Of course, the Zionist lobby purports to represent all Jews, but we should not accept its claim. In the United States politics is ethnicised precisely because of the weakness of class politics. Lenni Brenner is another American anti-Zionist who falls into this trap.
Finkelstein is a brilliant writer. However, he is not infallible. Although he is not using the concept of ‘Jewish power’ in an anti-Semitic sense, there is no doubt that it is both an anti-Semitic and a Zionist concept. It suits Zionism to pretend that Jews worldwide - apart from us ‘self-haters’! - all support Israel. It suits anti-Semites to make ‘Jew’ and ‘Israel’ synonymous.
It was Paul Eisen, whose alleged association with Corbyn20 first began the anti-Semitism campaign, who published ‘Jewish power’21, the first of three articles, which mapped his coming out as a holocaust denier.22
When Finkelstein says, “Were it not for the outsized power of British Jews, it’s hard to conceive that British society would be interminably chasing after a hobgoblin”, he has completely missed the point. Just as there can be anti-Semitism without Jews, as in eastern Europe, so there can be an anti-Semitism smear campaign without Jews, as the United States may be about to prove with Bernie Sanders.
Daniel Finn got it right: “Israel’s supporters are not an external force that has bent the British ruling class to its will. They are the outriders of that class.” Zionism is the ruling class’s cutting edge. The fake anti-Semitism campaign had nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Jewish power’. Daniel is also right when he writes: “A narrative can still be false even if it contains truthful elements: in fact, there are very few that don’t.”
Of course, there will be people with anti-Semitic or conspiracy ideas in their heads in the Labour Party. There always have been. But it was only when Corbyn was elected leader that the hunt began to find them. Such people are not a threat to Corbyn or even anti-Semitic in any meaningful sense. They are certainly no threat to Jews.
There will also be people in Labour who support racist immigration controls, who believe that migrants take British jobs and who believe that gypsies are a social nuisance. The way to deal with them is by way of education and debate. If Labour is to be the party of the working class, then it cannot exclude those who offend middle class sensibilities.
It is a sign of the theoretical and political poverty of the Labour right that it resorted to disciplinary measures and it is equally a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Labour left that it has given way to the right on this. This book does not challenge that vacuum.
Jews in Britain were the alibi, the pretext, for the British establishment. It was extremely useful to be able to wage the war against Corbyn in the name of Britain’s Jews - in much the same way that British imperialism justified its occupation of India by reference to its campaign against Suttee, not the exploitation of the Indian peasantry. Opposition to anti-Semitism had a ring of moral righteousness that support for austerity lacked!
It was, however, a weakness of the Labour left - and this book reflects that weakness - that it failed to draw any conclusions from who supported the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign. The same Daily Mail which supported Hitler and the British Union of Fascists and which campaigned against the admission of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Then there was the BBC and The Sun. Yet not once did Corbyn or Lansman point out these basic facts.
The ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign was adopted by a Tory Party which has historically been riddled with anti-Semitism and which even today sits in the EU parliament’s European Conservatives and Reformists Group alongside fascists and anti-Semites.23
Justin Schlosberg’s and Laura Laker’s article, ‘Labour, anti-Semitism, and the news - a disinformation paradigm’, is well worth reading for the detail it provides on the overwhelming bias, not only of the printed press but the broadcasting media and the BBC in particular. They are the only contributors to this book to refer to the outrageous and unlawful suspension of Chris Williamson MP.
However, Richard Kuper’s ‘Hue and cry over the UCU’ adds nothing to the criticism of the IHRA ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism by Hugh Tomlinson QC, Geoffrey Robertson QC and Sir Stephen Sedley. It is truly abysmal. He refers to “six relatively unproblematic examples of anti-Semitism” amongst the 11 illustrations. In fact they are all problematic. His first example is “Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.”
Is Richard seriously suggesting that calling for the killing of Jews in the name of a ‘moderate’ ideology or religion is acceptable? Clearly what this ‘illustration’ is about is demonising Muslims.
Richard also says that “‘using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism’ could hardly be anything but anti-Semitic”. Where has Richard been? It is part of Zionist hasbara (propaganda) to associate criticism of Israeli practices today with medieval anti-Semitism. When criticism is made of documented examples of settlers poisoning Palestinian water sources,24 the criticism is compared to medieval allegations that Jews poisoned wells. As Finkelstein notes,
Israeli hasbara (propaganda) itself promiscuously exploits the ‘blood libel’ charge (ie, that Jews murdered Christian children for ritual purposes) in order to silence critics by reversing its sting. Mere mention of Palestinian children killed by Israel typically prompts accusations of a ‘global blood libel against Israel’.
Although on the right of Jewish Voice for Labour, Richard is an astute critic and I am amazed that he failed to understand how pernicious these examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ are. Richard says that another example - “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” - “could be anti-Semitic”. I disagree. There is no scenario in which this is anti-Semitic. It is the concept of a single Jewish people, in practice a Jewish race, which is anti-Semitic.
In what is a far more well thought out analysis of the IHRA ‘definition’, Finkelstein argues that socialists, who for too long have sought to restrict free speech on the grounds of not ‘hurting the feelings’ of one group or another or because of a desire to achieve a ‘safe space’ (are there any under capitalism?), have colluded with the government’s attacks on free speech.
It is on the grounds of free speech that the left should have made its stance, instead of being the censorious, nannying busybodies that too many have become. Instead of banning or expelling people for transphobia, we should have encouraged debate on the issue. Finkelstein quotes Marx as saying that “You must have doubts about everything”. This should be emblazoned on the left’s banners.
Finkelstein also points to the problems with Brian Klug’s alternative definition of ‘anti-Semitism’ as “a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are”.
I agree that anti-Semites often take issue with Jews for what they are, not for what they are not. So someone who hates Jews for being too clever or good businessmen is not anti-Semitic! Brian’s definition is too clever by half and we would do better to rely on the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “hostility to or prejudice against Jews”.
Only Antony Lerman makes the point, in ‘When Jews are just fodder for the Tory propaganda machine’, that, when Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg make reference to Jews as the ‘Illuminati’ pulling the strings - a genuinely anti-Semitic remark - no one criticises him. The same could be said of Boris Johnson’s book 72 virgins, which is replete with racist and anti-Semitic comments; likewise Tory support for Viktor Orbán in the European parliament.25
Jeremy Gilbert’s trite ‘Antisemitism, cosmopolitanism and the politics of Labour’s “old” and “new” right wings’ is another Xmas stocking filler. Jeremy tells us that “there will be no more suspensions of party members simply because they support Corbyn and the party machinery think they can get away with suspending them.” Where has Jeremy been?
Tom Mills’ and David Miller’s article for Ceasefire - ‘Some notes on power, elites and anti-racism’26 - is a useful corrective to the idea that seems to have gotten hold that criticising elites in society is now anti-Semitic (presumably because Jews make up most of the elites!). According to Siobhan McDonagh MP (not the sharpest tool in the Labour right’s toolbox), anti-capitalism is anti-Semitic because Jews are capitalists!27 Thus the fake ‘anti-Semitism’ comes full circle.
The final article is ‘Jews, anti-Semitism and the law’ by Naomi Wayne, who works for the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland. It is a timely reminder of the pending investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which has made a partisan political intervention in Labour’s internal affairs by launching an inquiry into the accusations of anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately this e-book is less than the sum of its parts. I recommend instead Bad news for Labour, whose book launch the Zionists tried unsuccessfully to stop at the 2019 Labour conference, and the earlier The anti-Semitism wars, to which I contributed.
G Philo, M Berry, J Schlosberg, A Lerman, D Miller Bad news for Labour London 2019, pvii.↩︎
Search: “Tom Watson Labour uncut Phil Woolas”.↩︎
Weekly Worker December 6 2019.↩︎
R Linn Escaping Auschwitz: a culture of forgetting New York 2004, p108.↩︎
You can read Eisen’s article at www.righteousjews.org/article10.html and a response by Joel Finkel at http://jfjfp.com/wp-content/uploads/2000/01/Finkel_Response-to-Eisens-Jewish-Power.pdf. At this stage Finkel did not call Eisen a holocaust denier; but it was clear, not least from his defence of Israel Shamir, that he was on the road to becoming one.↩︎