‘Do not let yourself be overcome by the horrible sum of human sufferings,’ the playwright Bernard Shaw is said to have written. ‘Such a sum does not exist. Neither poverty nor pain are cumulative.’ If ever history gave the lie to abstractions like these it was during World War II, when the unspeakably evil regime of Adolf Hitler set about trying to exterminate entire groups of people.
The gruesome Final Solution, which was the central plank of the Nazi holocaust, saw millions of European Jews slaughtered with industrial efficiency in death camps across the continent. The scale and barbarity of that particular genocide, as well as the manner in which it was prosecuted, had no historical parallel whatsoever. The scars it left on the collective consciousness of Jews worldwide will surely never disappear.
None of this is to accord greater weight to Jewish suffering than to that endured by other peoples. It is simply to underscore the virulence of anti-Semitism, which is a form of racism as deplorable, disgusting and alive as any other. That being so, accusations of anti-Semitism made reflexively or in bad faith serve to do nothing save disrespect the memory of its countless genuine victims. Equally, eager recourse to the Third Reich in any discussion of man’s inhumanity to man has the very same effect.
In the last few days, a number of people in British public life have committed one or the other of these errors vis-à-vis the row over a perceived infestation of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and across the Left more generally. Such a row intensified last Tuesday, when it was revealed that in 2014 the Bradford West MP Naz Shah had — among other things — shared on Facebook a diagram depicting the outline of Israel superimposed on a map of its benefactor and closest ally the United States, under the heading, ‘Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict – Relocate Israel into United States’.
One suspects that Shah’s endorsement of the graphic was simply a very clumsy expression of indignation towards the U.S.-backed Israeli government — which at the time was carrying out its latest murderous assault on Gaza — rather than solid proof of some hypogeal hatred of Jews. (The tenor of her reference in another post to ‘the Jews’ is perhaps a little less ambiguous.) In any case, journalists and politicians seized upon the implication of population transfer and duly began to convulse amid a flood of what can only be described as crocodile tears.
Shah, who took office a year after the post was made, soon resigned as John McDonnell’s parliamentary private secretary. She apologised fulsomely to the House of Commons and was ultimately suspended — by mutual agreement — from the Labour Party. But these events did not of course bring the matter to a close.
Ken Livingstone, a former Mayor of London, appeared on LBC and the BBC to defend Shah against the charge of anti-Semitism. In doing so, he claimed that ‘when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy… was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism’. It is true enough that the Nazi regime and the Zionist Federation of Germany signed the Haavara Agreement in 1933. Nevertheless, Livingstone’s comment was ill-expressed and ill-considered, and Jewish listeners were right to rail against the suggestion that Hitler was ever anything other than an absolute and rabid anti-Semite whose support for Jewish emigration to Palestine was purely incidental. But can the former Mayor, who was also suspended from the party, reasonably be called an anti-Semite himself for what he said? The opinion of Jamie Stein-Werner — who has written perhaps the finest and most comprehensive analysis of the row so far — warrants quotation here: ‘gobshite yes; anti-Semite no’.
At any rate, Livingstone’s remarks were a boon for those politicians and journalists who have been wailing for months about an explosion of anti-Semitism within the ranks of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The Prime Minister and other Tories were presented with — and took full advantage of — an opportunity to blast the Labour leadership for supposedly being soft on anti-Jewish prejudice. Another gobshite, the deranged Blairite MP John Mann, confronted Livingstone for the cameras and ludicrously branded him a ‘Nazi apologist’ to boot. The Guardian, meanwhile, published a jeremiad in which it was asserted that the Labour Party was ‘consumed’ by anti-Semitism and was fast becoming a ‘cold house for Jews’.
If we take the dismay of the press at face value, then we are forced to admit that Labour is indeed in the tight grip of this poisonous age-old hatred, and moreover that its leadership is failing to address the ‘problem’. But beliefs ought to be supported by evidence, and the evidence in this case amounts to the following: since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, there have surfaced about 15 or 16 recorded instances of Labour Party members, councillors and an MP making anti-Semitic remarks, mostly on social media. Every one of the eight offenders responsible had joined the Labour Party before the ascension of Corbyn to the leadership; at least three had spewed their bile before Corbyn became leader; and without exception, all were suspended or expelled either before or up to one day after their comments first came to light. To claim on the basis of these facts that a political party of 500,000 people is ‘consumed’ by rampant and institutional anti-Semitism is frankly absurd. It is as absurd as claiming that all Muslims are terrorists, or that all Jews harbour racist views of Arabs.
We must be clear, then, about precisely what function this manufactured crisis is serving. The corporate media would like us to believe that Jeremy Corbyn is somehow personally responsible for a phenomenon which has arisen apparently ex nihilo since September, having not existed at all during — say — the halcyon days of Tony Blair. It would have us believe that, despite his long-standing and well-documented opposition to racism of all kinds, Corbyn tolerates and encourages by his tolerance racial prejudice towards Jews. It does all of this knowing that local elections take place across the United Kingdom on May 5; that the Labour Party membership, expanded as it has been, is now more knowledgeable than ever about the sundry crimes of the Israeli state; and crucially that a genuine, justice-minded social democrat could help to bring about a disruption of the neoliberal order after the next general election.
In this much, the row over anti-Semitism has got to be seen in the context of a series of attempts by gatekeepers of that order — Tory and Blairite alike — to discredit the Labour leader. The campaign of smears began trivially (though still nastily) enough, with attacks on Corbyn’s sartorial decisions and on his refusal to sing a miserable dirge of fealty to the House of Windsor. Then came near-universal criticism of his position on nuclear weapons; Corbyn was portrayed as morally deficient for declaring his unwillingness to obliterate half of humanity. After that there was a burst of outrage about his alleged links to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of whose misdeeds pale next to those of this and previous Israeli governments. And now there is the pernicious insinuation that Corbyn condones anti-Semitism. It is all so very transparent!
As this row continues to unspool, one realises that large parts of the corporate media have directed more rage at the spectre of anti-Semitism in the past week than they ever have at the depredations visited upon Palestine by the state of Israel. Zionism is a political ideology whose primary objective, since long before the Third Reich, was to establish and maintain a Jewish majority in a land populated overwhelmingly by Arabs. As such it entailed the dispossession of those Arabs, the descendants of whom now fester in territories which have been unlawfully occupied, fragmented, strangled and bombarded by successive Israeli governments for nearly half a century. The Zionist movement was contaminated from its beginning by racists, and today many a facet of Israeli society reeks with anti-Arab sentiment, from the rhetoric of its politicians to the separation barrier in the West Bank; from the Law of Return to the actions of Jewish settler-colonialists, who — for all the tidal waves of hasbara — are unquestionably the biggest purveyors of terror in Greater Israel. The world calls out for a just and lasting peace in the region, but Israel — backed to the hilt by the United States — continues to steal Palestinian land and resources and oppress the Palestinian people.
The British Left — and for that matter everybody else — should have a problem with such structural oppression. It should point out that the state of Israel deserves special scrutiny, not just because British governments since Lloyd George’s have resolutely supported the objectives of Zionism, not just because the state of Israel itself purports to be an ‘island of democracy in a sea of tyranny’, but because the anti-Palestinian narratives so perniciously spouted by the press and politicians need to be countervailed.
We know that Daesh and Assad and the Gulf monarchies are abhorrent. We are told every day that Putin, like the Iranians and Kim Jong-Un, is a menace and a threat. It is received wisdom among power elites that the Chinese and the Cubans and the Venezuelans are very bad indeed. But the media corporations responsible for manipulating public opinion are rather less courageous in their treatment of Western powers, so it falls to the Left to redress the balance. Israel is just one such power, and unique by dint of its fifty-year-long occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The United States and the United Kingdom — which arguably bear the brunt of the British Left’s wrath — are two more. Criticism of the policies pursued by all these powers and others should be loud, relentless and withering. It cannot be stifled even one iota; nor indeed should we be made to think twice before speaking out.
As the current sound and fury rages on, then, we would do well to remember a number of things. Firstly, anti-Semitism, like all other forms of racism, must be rooted out and crushed wherever it exists. Secondly, the evidence for its pervasiveness in the Labour Party and on the Left as a whole looks to be very weak so far. And finally, since we know that the politicians and pundits involved in manufacturing this row are motivated by other factors, we must remember that racism is too grave a thing to be exploited in bad faith for political gain.