Being on the brink of writing a piece about Labour and Antisemitism, finger hovering over the ipad, is like standing with one foot hovering over a minefield. Why do it? Why risk putting a foot wrong and being labelled an Antisemite or a weaponiser of Antisemitism? The writing of such a piece is fraught with risk and danger in these febrile times, but I feel I have to write it. I feel I have something to contribute to this discussion that removes some of these landmines, and allows us to find ourselves again on common ground.
Left leaning Labour members have become divided into two distinct camps over Antisemitism in Labour. The first camp are those who want to tackle it head on, write and sign open letters of apology for Antisenitsm on the left, name and shame tweeters they consider to be Antisemitic, make educational videos about Antisemitism and divide members into good or bad on the issue. These members fear we have lost the trust of the majority of Jewish supporters and are on a mission to win it back. This group usually recognise an element of bad faith in claims that the party is institutionally Antisemitic, and recoil from twitter accounts that make flippant or malicious accusations without evidence, but divert much more of their outrage against members who claim that ‘Antisemitism is a smear concocted to make Corbyn unelectable’ or to ‘suppress criticism of Israel’. They have no time for members they deem to be denialists or who they believe to be minimising Antisemitism. They find them frustrating and have little empathy for them. Because they feel they are more enlightened on the issue, they can slide into a bubble of group-think in which they pat eachother on the back, and fail to question their methods or judgements.
The second camp are in the majority. These represent the members who are exhausted, depressed and angry over the claim their party is institutionally Antisemitic. The outrage they feel over Corbyn being accused of Antisemitism, is visceral. They are angry at the media for its blinkered reporting, refusal to play devil’s advocate on the subject when interviewing anyone who makes claims about institutional Antisemitism, and repeatedly point out the media’s gaping blindspot when it comes to the Tories and Islamophobia.
When the first camp tweet about Antisemitism in Labour’s ranks, this second camp are liable to become angry, indignant and defensive. They claim camp one are playing into the narrative being set by a hostile establishment. They often say things like ‘Labour hasn’t got an Antisemitism crisis’, or ‘I’ve never seen any Antisemitism’ which obviously in many cases is true. The vast majority of this group acknowledge the existence of Antisemitism in the party and express a desire to irradicate it, but feel demoralised over the fact this is probably not 100% achievable, which means claims of institutional Antisemitism will never, ever go away. Their defensiveness can occasionally make them rush to defend the indefensible, or gloss over mistakes people have made.
I have had a foot in both these camps because of the fact I have a lot of followers on twitter, have seen some horrific cases of Antisemitism and have undergone an evolution in my thinking about it. I feel both camps have got some things right and some things wrong. This is my attempt to hold a mirror up to both camps, in the hope we can see for ourselves what we are getting wrong and right. Once we figure that out, we can bridge the divide that’s grown between us.
So how did we become so divided on an issue such as Antisemitism?
The fact its been weaponised is the main reason. We all feel we’ve been plunged into this alternative reality where the general public think we are on the far right. According to a lot of right wing Labour MPs and the establishment media, Mosley’s black shirts have nothing on us. We seeth hatred toward Jewish people and Jewish people see us as an existential threat. Considering the vast majority of us have never had a hateful thought about Jewish people in our lives, this has all come as a nasty shock. Or it would have, had we not already had a good grounding in being thugs, trots, misogynistic trolls and bullies. All that’s happened is we are dealing with our distress and feelings of impotence in different, and not always healthy ways.
Let’s start with camp one. This first camp often forget to take into account how much Corbyn supporters have been attacked and villified unjustly for the past three and a half years which has resulted in usually kind, positive and open people becoming cynical and hardened over anything that’s thrown at them, including claims we face an Antisemitism crisis in our party. Camp two are more open and direct about the way the right of the party have been ruthless and calculating in their efforts to destroy Corbyn and our movement since its inception: moving swiftly from method to method, claim to claim, smear to smear, until they found one that stuck.
This second camp are right to feel anger toward those who have cynically weaponised Antisemitism. These weaponisers care not a jot about Antisemitism, the well being of Jewish people, or reducing Antisemitism in our party or the country as a whole. They are right to feel frustrated and dismayed that the media refuse to be balanced in its reporting on this issue. The vast majority of this camp would be the first ones to stand between Jewish people and a group of fascists intent on doing them harm. Imagine how it feels to be thought of as an Antisemite by virtue of supporting a life long anti racist? This is basic psychology. If you are constantly under attack and told you are something you know you are not, you become defensive, hostile and bitter. That’s why Chris Williamson, arguably the MP most close to the membership, received a fervent round of applause at a Momentum meeting when he said Labour were too apologetic about their handling of Antisemitism because they had done more to tackle it than any other party. Its what a weary membership are saying in the privacy of their living rooms up and down the country. Not because they are Antisemitic, but because they are NOT Antisemitic and are sick of the constant insinuation that they are. These same members have started to doubt any claims of Antisemitism because of a growing culture of passing judgement, without taking into account context or nuance. As their cynicism grows, so has their callousness about the issue. People start to put #antisemitismsmears on their twitter bios, not appreciating how that feels to Jewish people who have seen genuine, and at times horrific cases of Antisemitism on the left. In their quest to defend themselves they have become blind to the fact that they are playing into the weaponisers hands; weaponisers who want them to sound callous to a Jewish person reading their tweets. They want us permanently on the defense, and permanently angry and bitter because anger and bitterness can make us clumsy and thoughtless in the way we express ourselves.
The first camp, in their admirable quest to win back the trust of Jewish people, call out antisemitism when they see it, without always taking into account the way they do it and whether it’s being done in a way that reduces the understandable defensiveness of camp two. This doesn’t pose a problem if it’s a clear case of Antisemitism, but unfortunately it’s not always been that clear cut, and people see these efforts in the context of a McCarthyite style witch hunt. Moreover, these trials by social media can get lumped in with accusations made in bad faith, as well as breed resentment in those who feel it fuels the narrative that we are all Antisemitic. Because this group often neglect to balance their efforts to win back trust by reducing defensiveness, they inadvertently undermine their own efforts to achieve the former. This group also has a tendency to ignore left wing Jews who defend the ‘wrong’ people, or deny we have an Antisenitsm crisis, because their opinions are met with derision by ‘mainstream’ Jews. Whereas camp two do the exact opposite.
How do we bring these two camps together? is a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I became aware of them. And here is my answer.
By seeing everything to do with Antisemitism through the lens of empathy and context and a recognition that we have been divided by those who seek to divide us. If we stick to these basic facts when talking about and dealing with Antisemitism, we will always be on common ground.
1. Antisemitism exists in our party.
2. The level at with it exists is not indicitive of a Party that is institutionally Antisemitic.
3. Any level is too much, but always stress the majority of members abhor Antisemitism.
4. No one should rush to judgment on anything other than the clearest cases of Antisemitism, and must always take context and nuance into account because rash or unfair judgments of antisemitism do nothing to eradicate Antisemitism, can destroy lives and reputations, and cast doubt on any judgement we make in the future.
5. We should all work to educate ourselves and eachother on Antisemitism and the more insideous forms it can take, and recognise that even if we ‘get it,’ and feel patronised by efforts to educate, others might not yet.
6. People can say or share something Antisemitic without being Antisemites. Education is key to avoiding this happening.
7. Acknowledge that there are those who have weaponised this issue, and be unified in our condemnation of them.
8. Remain compassionate toward all Jewish people of the left and right, who have been upset by Antisemitism stemming from the left. Don’t feel that by condemning or acknowledging antisemitism on the left, we are feeding into any narrative other than our own which states we are a proud anti-racist Party that stands against Antisemitism wherever it originates. And do not prioritise the opinion of one Jewish group over the other. Recognise all have a right to be heard and have a right to contribute their thoughts and feelings on the subject.
9. Be guarded against antisemites who infiltrate our party because of our natural sense of justice around the treatment of Palestinians, and try to direct our anger toward ‘Jews’ rather than the state of Israel. These people are using us and are NOT our comrades.
10. Remember the vast majority of us share the same abhorance of antisemitism and are on the same side.
The above might sound obvious but in this fever pitch environment, we are struggling to act with calm and logic. I say we, because this is not me preaching. I have struggled with this issue as much as everyone and am still trying to find a way to negotiate it that feels right to me. And of course my way may not feel right to you. All I can do is offer you my insights and solidarity, and hope they help, or at least provide some food for thought at this difficult time.