Sacha Ismail is a supporter of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a small radical socialist group which has been, uniquely, fighting left antisemitism in the UK since the mid 1980s, educating a couple of generations of left-wingers in that time. He argues that while Labour antisemitism was a factor in Corbyn’s defeat, the right-wing wave which produced Johnson’s victory carries its own dangers for both British Jews and the peace process.
Controversy around antisemitism, connected in part to attitudes towards Israel and ‘Zionism’, played a significant role in the Labour Party’s election defeat. However, the result is not a victory for the fight against antisemitism or for a democratic peace in Israel-Palestine. The re-elected – but in some senses new – Conservative government is an obstacle and enemy for those committed to anti-racist and internationalist politics on these questions. The forces to take these struggles forward for the most part are or will emerge from within Labour.
Failure or unwillingness to deal with antisemitism in and around the Labour Party – mainly, but it should be emphasised not exclusively, on its left-wing – was a major point of attack against Jeremy Corbyn in the election. Concern and anger about this issue was, of course, particularly widespread and intense among Jewish voters, but extended much more widely, and became an important, if not decisive, part of a general anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour feeling in the country.
The question of antisemitism has quite self-evidently been ‘weaponised’ by the Tories, their media supporters and others on the right – wielded in an exaggerated, incoherent and often cynical way to do down Corbyn and Labour. Anyone who needs convincing that there was at the same time a real and very serious issue here should look at Corbyn’s performance during the campaign.
The row over failing to apologise to the Jewish community for antisemitism was not the half of it. Despite having a low opinion of the Labour leadership’s understanding of these issues, I was genuinely shocked when I read the transcript of Corbyn’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. Asked about a Labour council candidate’s far right-style statement that ‘Rothschild’s Zionists run Israel and world government’, the Labour leader resisted saying it was antisemitic and fumbled repeatedly.
That we have to deal with such things in the labour movement, and that a left-wing political leadership would not move vigorously to politically crush the antisemites, is a sign of regression.
Yet Labour’s defeat is not a victory for the struggle against antisemitism. Labour was beaten by a radically reconstructed Conservative Party engendering as well as riding a right-wing tide, and now presiding over something at least a couple of steps closer to a national-populist regime on the model of Hungary or Poland.
Even before the Tory party was radically reshaped and returned triumphantly to power, we were treated to rants against ‘north London liberal elites’ and ‘cultural Marxism’, Boris Johnson and his comrades’ courting of Trump, Orban and Farage and all the rest, and, above all, to an ever-more vicious war against migrants and an appeal to anti-migrant sentiment to explain the UK’s social crisis. This is surely an important context for the growing number of antisemitic incidents in Britain. The social crisis will become worse as austerity continues and if and when Johnson’s Brexit plans are pushed through. The search for scapegoats will step up.
Even if we ignored the already alarming sub-culture of antisemitism in the Tory party, it is implausible to believe that Jewish people cannot become targets when bigotry against oppressed groups of all sorts becomes a core feature of the Brexit-enforcing Tory government. If Johnson’s regime does not opportunistically turn more directly to antisemitism itself, its more principled far-right supporters will. Note, please, that Tommy Robinson has now applied to join the Conservatives.
National-populist ideas also find a strong echo within the Labour Party and the trade unions, with support for Brexit and calls for restrictions on immigration presented as the quintessence of working-class politics. In the aftermath of the election defeat, the small but influential nationalist group Blue Labour is seeking to reorient the party further in this direction. It has already received support from some of the strong Stalinist elements within Labour, whose fringes verge on red-brown politics.
The struggle against antisemitism should not simply be merged into a wider picture of anti-racism and internationalism. That has been one of the Labour leadership’s evasions. But it is very much bound up with these wider struggles. Whoever seriously wants to defeat antisemitism must confront both the Johnsonites and nationalist as well as conspiracy theorist trends within Labour.
A remarkable amount of Labour Party antisemitism is down-the-line anti-Jewish bigotry with only the most formal reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if any at all. Nonetheless, mistaken and regressive views on Israel and ‘Zionism’ are clearly an important part of the toxic mix, and an important part of why so many are unable or unwilling to challenge even quite blatant antisemitism.
Large numbers of Labour members are, quite legitimately, concerned about the oppression of the Palestinians. Most favour a two-state settlement, in line with Labour’s formal policy – repeated in its manifesto – but there is an increasingly aggressive though dishonest campaign to shift the centre of gravity towards more ‘absolute anti-Zionist’ positions. Two states is the party’s position and the view of most of its members, but few actively argue for it.
For its own sake and to aid the fight against antisemitism, we need a renewed campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians and with internationalists in Israel, like the Jewish-Arab movement Standing Together. Such an initiative could educate and campaign for two states as a step forward towards peace, reconciliation and workers’ unity. It would need to be well-rooted in the labour movement, including the Labour Party.
Despite Labour’s failings on antisemitism, many of the best forces to relaunch a fight on these issues exist within the party – particularly, though not only, on the anti-Brexit left. Of the many urgent and difficult tasks facing internationalists and anti-racists on the British Left, we should not lose sight of this one.
Meanwhile, the Johnson government is likely to be the enemy of a democratic settlement in Israel-Palestine, shifting the UK further towards the Trump government’s anti-Palestinian position. Although Johnson himself displayed little interest in the conflict during his time as foreign secretary, his ideological lieutenant Priti Patel was forced to resign her post as international development secretary in 2017 after breaking diplomatic protocol in efforts to channel aid money towards the Israeli military. She defended herself by insisting that Johnson had been told about her activities.
The Tories’ proposals, apparently another bit of inspiration from Trump, to ban public bodies from engaging in boycott and disinvestment campaigns against foreign countries should also be opposed – as an attack on free speech, the right to organise and local democracy. Democrats, internationalists and socialists who oppose the ‘BDS’ campaign against Israel must defend the right to engage in BDS.