As a teenager working in the Formica factory in North Shields in the late 1970s, I had to descend into the gloom and stench of the drained chemical tanks with an arc-lamp and a huge hardwire brush to scrape off all the toxic filth that had become stuck to their sides during the year.
Examining more than 130 cases of antisemitism and antisemitism denial in the Labour Party recently, for a report published last week, I was reminded of those days, and caught the smell of toxins again.
It is perhaps something I share with Gordon Brown. The former prime minister has produced a video in which he is emphatic about the approach Labour should be taking against antisemitism: “No ifs, no buts. no qualifications, no caveats.”
My findings were that some in the party have indulged in more than just qualifications and caveats.
There has been talk of “the Rothschilds” invisibly controlling the world and of Tony Blair being “Jewish to the core”. There are members who believe that the, ahem, “Zionists”, run Isis, did 9/11 (but warned all the Jews who worked in the twin towers the night before), control America, and are currently organising a fake antisemitism scandal to pull down Jeremy Corbyn.
There have been memes of blood-soaked hook-nosed Israelis shared from far-right sites. And, everywhere, Israel framed as the new Third Reich and Israelis and “Zionists” as the new Nazis.
What kind of brush can clean all this filth away? Well, the police have now arrested three party members and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has launched pre-enforcement proceedings against the party after reviewing a dossier of evidence. But the party can’t leave this to the state.
Labour must stop denying the scale of its failure. It has failed to understand contemporary antisemitism, failed to develop truly independent structures to tackle antisemitism, and failed to root out a culture of antisemitism denial and victim-blaming that can be found from the top to the bottom of the party.
Yes, the majority of the party members oppose antisemitism, but these multiple failures, for now, mean the party is institutionally antisemitic in exactly the sense the Macpherson Report gave to the term: a failure to provide an “appropriate and professional service” to a group, as revealed in “processes, attitudes and behaviour”, and expressed in “prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, racist stereotyping” and allowed to exist because of failures in “policy, example and leadership”.
Many complacently assume that the crisis has been caused by a tiny fringe, easily dealt with. The report warns that is not the case. These rivers run deep.
First, there is the historical context: a long tradition of antisemitism on the left, which these days often comes dressed up as “anti-Zionism”.
Second, the intellectual context, whereby much of the left is in thrall to a simplistic “two-camps” world view that renders the complex, tragic and unresolved national question between two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, into a morality play peopled only by wholly good and wholly evil people.
The former is romanticised and infantilised; the latter is demonised. Conspiracy theories run amok. This crude world view destroys our left-wing values and leaves the left running around London waving placards that say “We are all Hezbollah Now”. It means Seumas Milne can look at Hamas, a fascistic, Islamist, antisemitic terror gang, and say: “Hamas is not broken and will not be broken.”
A third factor is how the Corbyn surge produced not only a mass membership but also an experienced, hard-left cadre which now stalks party members in ward meetings and on social media. This group boosts the dead-end, two-camps world view, and spreads a trolling and bullying culture. It is a shaming fact that for some Jews who have resigned recently, the Corbyn surge felt like an antisemitic purge.
Fourth, there is the record of the leader himself, and some of his closest aides, of support for what I believe to be antisemitic forms of “anti-Zionism”. In the absence of a fundamental self-criticism of his own appalling record by Jeremy Corbyn, the apologia for that record by party members will go on, and with it the normalisation of antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism in the party. And tomorrow, if in government, also in the country?
Rescuing the party will need more than changes to administrative structures, disciplinary processes and educational programmes, important as they will all be. And the state can’t be expected to do the work of political rethinking.
For that is what the party needs more than anything: a new approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Out should go “two-camps” activism and in its place should come a new values-based, pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, pro-peace approach. Out with “smash Israel”: in with “two states for two peoples”.
This will be a long hard fight against what my friend Mitchell Cohen has called “a left that does not learn”. He warned that parts of today’s left are once again gripped by the same Manichean world-view that dominated a previous “left” in the Stalinist period. From apologia to denial, from cynicism to grossly simplifying tendencies of thought, from the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” to the abandonment of all who get on the wrong side of the supposedly “progressive camp”.
I think Corbyn’s key staffers Milne and Andrew Murray personify that disastrous approach. As members of the Straight Left faction of the Communist Party they were partisans of the disastrous two-camp approach to politics. Murray has positioned the antisemitism issue as an anti-Corbyn smear, but was still handed formal antisemitism complaints by the party and asked to make a judgement.
To defeat this “left that has not learned”, today’s democratic left will need some defiant fighting spirit. It must be willing to say, as Mitchell Cohen has: “You hijacked ‘left’ in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.”
It also needs us to be as definitive as Gordon Brown has been in his latest intervention. No ifs. No buts. We must defend our values as if our political lives depended on it and take a wire brush to filth that has attached itself to our party.
Professor Alan Johnson is editor of the online journal Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and a senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre
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