Matthew Bolton is the co-author with Frederick Harry Pitts of Corbynism: A Critical Approach, praised by Professor Paul Thompson for ‘cutting through the fog of uncritical adulation and unthinking hostility to shine a light on the origins and dynamics’ of the Corbyn movement.
Controversially reinstated in the Labour Party, but denied a return to the Parliamentary Labour Party by the leader Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn’s defiant response to the recent EHRC report, which found the party had breached the Equality Act in its treatment of Jewish people under his leadership, continues to roil the UK left.
In his initial statement, Corbyn said he did not ‘accept all of [the report’s] findings,’ because in his view the ‘scale’ of antisemitism had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.’ In a later interview, Corbyn clarified that this claim was based on supposed disparity between the general public’s perception of the number of Labour members ‘under suspicion of antisemitism’ and the actual number of formal complaints. While his most recent intervention, released shortly before the hearing which readmitted him to the party, made ‘clear’ that ‘concerns over antisemitism’ were not ‘overstated,’ he did not withdraw his contention that the ‘scale’ of the problem had been exaggerated.
On the face of it, Corbyn’s argument is flatly empirical, resting on raw numbers and unrelated to the wider question of antisemitism on the left. But this ostensibly value-free statement is premised on a series of ideological presuppositions that, once unpicked, demonstrate that the anti-Jewish discrimination the EHRC confirmed is not an inexplicable anomaly or random occurrence. Rather, it derives from a specific worldview, bordering on conspiracy theory, that has come to dominate large swathes of the left, and which is all-too-often receptive to antisemitism.
THE ‘BAD NEWS’ MODEL
Corbyn dutifully prefaced his comments with the disclaimer that ‘anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left.’ This idea, that any antisemitism in Labour is merely a reflection of that within wider society, is drawn from a 2017 survey by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR). The JPR found that 30 per cent of the British public agreed with at least one derogatory statement about ‘Jews as Jews’, such as ‘Jews get rich at the expense of others,’ or ‘exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes’. This percentage – 30 per cent – was the same for those who self-identified as being on the left. By contrast, the percentage of self-identified right-wingers was 20 per cent higher than average. The conclusion typically drawn by Corbyn supporters is that the home of true antisemites is on the right – but that, given the size of Labour’s membership, it is sadly inevitability that a small number will end up within the party. This latter group might ‘think of themselves’ as being on the left, but are in fact interlopers. Corbyn’s sole ‘regret’ when it comes to antisemitism relates to the failure to unmask and remove these intruders from the party speedily enough. But the notion that the left or Labour might have a particular problem with antisemitism, beyond that of society in general – or that there might be a particular form of antisemitism within leftist circles that cannot be immediately reduced to that of the right – is seen as a distortion of the evidence.
This raises the question of who might be distorting that evidence, and to what end. Corbyn’s answer here draws on Bad News for Labour, a 2019 book on the antisemitism crisis edited by two veteran media analysts, Greg Philo and Mike Berry. Its central thesis is constructed around a single opinion poll, in which respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of Labour members subject to antisemitism complaints. Two-thirds had not heard of the Labour antisemitism crisis or were not sure. Among those who had, the mean estimate – found by adding all responses together and dividing the total by the number of respondents – was 34 per cent, although the single most popular answer was between 0-9 per cent. Philo and Berry – and now Corbyn – argue that the disparity between the average of respondents’ estimates and the true number of complaints was the result of an antagonistic media deliberating blowing a miniscule problem out of all proportion in order to attack the left.
Philo and Berry’s findings and methodology have been comprehensively dismantled elsewhere. It is only worth adding here that, regardless of the total number of formal complaints, the fact that a substantial amount of them involved the leader of the party and his close associates seems far more relevant to understanding public perception than a random cohort’s ability to pluck abstract percentages out of the air. It is true that some reporting bordered on the hysterical, such as claiming Corbyn ‘danced a jig’ towards the Cenotaph. But for much of his leadership the media actually underplayed the seriousness of the antisemitism charges against him. There was an incessant focus on his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends,’ for instance, allowing him to portray himself as a diplomatic broker using ‘inclusive language’ to talk to ‘both sides.’ But journalists repeatedly failed to press him on his very next sentence in the same speech, where he extolled Hamas as ‘dedicated to…peace and social justice and political justice’ – a far more damning charge, and far more difficult to deflect with empty platitudes.
But rather than picking more holes in Philo and Berry’s argument, it is more instructive to focus instead on the general worldview underpinning their analysis. Bad News for Labour is the latest instalment in a long series of Bad News books. Initially focused on media reporting of industrial disputes, in recent years they have centred on the Israel–Palestine conflict. What connects the series is the idea that mass media systematically distorts its coverage to manipulate public opinion at the behest of powerful interests. While more sophisticated cultural analyses emphasise both the contested nature of media production and the ability of individuals to actively ‘decode’ the media they consume, for Philo and Berry the media is a homogenous propagator of mystification and the public merely a passive victim of ideological trickery.
In Bad News from Israel (2004) and More Bad News from Israel (2011), Philo and Berry argue that the media consciously misrepresents the conflict to cover up Israeli crimes. Their assumption is that if the British public were told ‘the truth’, then their manufactured support for Israel would disintegrate. Given the supposed power and one-sidedness of the media narrative, it is somewhat surprising to read the JPR’s finding that a third of British people hold an unfavourable view of Israel, while only one fifth are favourable. A mere 6 per cent sympathise with Israel when it comes to the conflict, with 18 per cent favouring the Palestinians. But even if we accept the claims of a pro-Israeli bias within the media, Philo and Berry’s version of the ‘truth’ is little better. Rather than the story of two national movements, each with legitimate territorial claims, coming to conflict in tragic circumstances, we get instead an uncritical regurgitation of the work of such ‘impartial’ sources as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky. Here Jewish national aspirations, even in the wake of the near annihilation of the European Jewry, are portrayed as illegitimate, reactionary and imperialistic, while Palestinian claims to nation-statehood are presented as authentic, indigenous and emancipatory. What I have described elsewhere as the intrinsic relation between Israel, Zionism and antisemitism is severed, with antisemitism now presented as an unfortunate but ultimately rational extrinsic response to Israeli actions. Philo and Berry thus reduce the messy complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict to a Manichean struggle between two monolithic discourses – the ‘bad news’ of lies, manipulation and distortion, and the ‘good news’ of their own unquestionable truth and righteousness. Any argument which refuses this binary premise is immediately suspect, and more likely than not itself the result of ideological manipulation.
Once this seductively simple formula – which has the self-confirming logic of all conspiracy theories – has been established, it can be applied to almost any event. Thus when David Miller, Philo’s protege and a contributor to Bad News for Labour, is not bemoaning the ‘influence’ that ‘Zionists…have over the British Left and British politics more widely,’ he has argued that Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks on rebel-held areas in Syria were ‘managed massacres’ staged by the rebels themselves in collaboration with the media. (A BBC radio documentary recently revealed that Corbyn himself believes the White Helmets, a Syrian humanitarian organisation who have been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories, to be ‘highly suspicious’ because they have received funding from the British government). Similarly, over recent months there has been a sharp rise in leftists arguing that the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is a media fiction concocted by Western ‘neo-cons’ seeking a ‘new cold war’ against China. This new mode of ‘radical’ genocide denial replicates that prevalent during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, when figures like Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn claimed Bosnian Muslims were bombing themselves to incriminate Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian regime and his Bosnian-Serb allies. Corbyn himself would later sign a Parliamentary motion denying the genocide in Kosovo. It is not surprising, then, to find Edward Herman – whose co-authored book The Politics of Genocide ‘downplay[s] or dismiss[es] both the massacre of Bosniaks at Srebrenica in 1995 and the genocide of Tutsis committed by Hutu militias in Rwanda in 1994’ – providing a glowing endorsement for Bad News From Israel.
For all the supposed empirical rigour deployed by Philo, Miller and Finkelstein, theirs’ is at root a wholly irrational worldview, in which reality is entirely dissolved into representation. Society is deprived of any objective basis and collapses into the pure contingency of competing propaganda claims. In a world entirely driven by secretive machinations, everyone is a dupe – aside from the good authors themselves. But it is notable that, for all the supposed radicalism of their totalising critique of the ‘mainstream media,’ the end result is invariably the unquestioning acceptance of ‘alternative’ narratives pushed by authoritarian states and their compliant media channels, especially if they purport to be ‘anti-imperialist’ – namely, anti-American and anti-Israeli. It is also striking how often Muslim people are accused of collaboration with the imperialists and the media. That Palestinians are an outlier here suggests that the contemporary left’s propensity to inflate ‘the idea of Palestine’ into a signifier for emancipation-in-itself has less to do with supporting actual Palestinians than it has opposing the ‘Zionists’ who stand in the way of universal freedom.
Nor is it coincidental that this same ‘false flag’ logic is at work in Norman Finkelstein’s theory of a so-called ‘Holocaust Industry,’ a Jewish-led media conspiracy to exaggerate the unique elements of the Nazi genocide in order to shield Israel from criticism and ‘shakedown’ credulous Gentiles. And here the findings of the second, strangely neglected, half of the JPR report become of interest. Not only did the JPR find that the ‘very left-wing’ – those most likely to be Corbyn supporters – are 20 per cent more likely to hold anti-Israel views than the general population, they are also far more likely to agree with antisemitic statements such as ‘Israel has too much control over global affairs’ and ‘Israel has interests at odds with the interests of the rest of the world.’ Moreover, the JPR found that the stronger a person’s anti-Israel views, the more likely they are to hold antisemitic attitudes about ‘Jews as Jews.’ The most commonly-held views within this cohort were that Jews have interests that ‘are very different from the interests of the rest of the population’; ‘have too much power in Britain’ – including over the media and, as Finkelstein maintains, ‘exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes.’ It is thus here – at the intersection of antisemitic antizionism and traditional Judeophobia, where leftists are overrepresented – that the true source of the Labour antisemitism crisis is to be found. It is not an import from the right, or a random statistical quirk, but rather a homegrown problem with roots that are specific to the left.
Corbyn and his supporters would refute these particular JPR findings, insisting that their categorical distinction between Jews in general and Zionists in particular inoculates them against such a charge. That half of all Jews happen to live in Israel, and more than 90 per cent of British Jews feel some kind of affinity, however mild, with the state of Israel – and therefore find themselves on the ‘wrong side of history’ – is an unfortunate coincidence. No doubt it is the result of decades of ‘bad news from Israel,’ which have duped Jews in much the same way as they have been fooled by propaganda about Corbyn’s Labour. The alternative to condemning British Jews to the status of fools at best, or liars and propagandists at worst, is for the left to acknowledge that the way it has long understood antisemitism, Israel, and the idea of Jewish nationhood is not only historically and conceptually flawed but is itself tainted with antisemitism. But this would mean challenging not just axiomatic beliefs about Israel but an entire worldview, one built on conspiracy, irrationality and projection. Corbyn’s statement and ongoing refusal to withdraw it is thus as much a defence of this ideological edifice as it is an evasion of his responsibility for the crisis.
 L. Daniel Staetsky, Antisemitism in Contemporary Great Britain: A Study of Attitudes Towards Jews and Israel (Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 2017)
 Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Anthony Lerman, David Miller, Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (London: Pluto, 2019)
 Daniel Allington, ‘Review: Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party, and Public Belief By Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Julian Schlosberg, Anthony Lerman, and David Miller. London: Pluto Press, 2019. 272 pp. £14.99,’ Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, Vol 3, 1, (2020) 127-133; Sarah Brown, ‘Book Review – Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief,’ Fathom, November 2019, https://fathomjournal.org/book- review-bad-news-for-labour-antisemitism-the-party-public-belief/
 Matthew Bolton, ‘Conceptual Vandalism, Historical Distortion: The Labour Antisemitism Crisis and the Limits of Class Instrumentalism. Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism 3.2 (2020
 Dominic Kennedy, ‘Lecturer David Miller quits ‘Zionist’ Labour Party,’ The Times, 16 June 2020 [https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/zionists-have-taken-over-labour-xczt85sck]; https://twitter.com/Tracking_Power/status/1056879644929126403
 BBC Radio 4, Intrigue: Mayday, Episode 8: False Flags, November 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000pchw)
 George Monbiot, ‘My fight may be hopeless, but it is as necessary as ever,’ The Guardian, 21 May 2012 [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/may/21/ratko-mladic-genocide-denial]
 For a critical account of Finkelstein’s campaign to ‘[normalise] antisemitism by telling his audiences that most Jews believe in their group’s superiority, talk too much about the Holocaust, are over-represented in the media and use that over-representation for Jewish ends,’ see Alan Johnson, ‘Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism,’ in Unity and Disunity in Contemporary Antisemitism, eds. Jonathan Campbell and Lesley Klaff (Boston, Academic Studies Press, 2018).
 Stephen Miller, Margaret Harris, Colin Shindler, The Attitudes of British Jews Towards Israel, (Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Social Sciences, City University, London, 2015)