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The Left: where ‘anti-racism’ has become antisemitism

Jeremy Corbyn is a symptom of a far wider problem

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Finally, the great lie has been exposed. The foul stench of antisemitism given off by the postmodern Left was not just the stuff of fanciful conspiracy. It is real, it is persistent and it continues to emerge.

We see it on the far left of the Democratic party in the USA and the political Left here in Australia — where support for Palestinians is regularly joined with claims about the illegitimacy of the state of Israel and the economic and political power supposedly wielded by Jews and the so-called ‘Israel Lobby’.

But blatant antisemitism has appeared in its most egregious form in Britain. It was one of the most divisive issues to dog Jeremy Corbyn after he was elected leader of the British Labour party in 2015. Now, in a damning report, the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found Corbyn and the party he led to have been guilty of unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination against Jewish people.

But any hope that a chastened Corbyn would accept the EHRC’s verdict and apologise for his mistakes was quickly dashed. Instead, he declared that the scale of antisemitism in the party had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’. This was too much for Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, who withdrew the party whip from Corbyn and suspended him.

The EHRC launched its investigation in May 2019 following complaints from the Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Jewish Labour Movement. In its report, the EHRC found evidence of political interference in the party’s internal complaints process for investigating alleged antisemitism, including 23 instances of direct interference by Corbyn’s staffers.

Labour’s complaints process was also found to be weakened by poorly trained staff, meagre resources and lack of transparency. And some conduct, involving use of antisemitic tropes and dismissal of complaints about antisemitism as fake or smears, was found to constitute unlawful harassment creating a hostile environment for Jewish party members.

In the EHRC’s view, this all points to a culture within the Labour party that not only failed to tackle antisemitism but in some instances openly appeared to accept it. Behaviour now needs to change; complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated and the party leadership needs to commit publicly to implementing EHRC recommendations promptly.

Easier said than done. Even though he led the party to an historic and catastrophic election defeat last December, Corbyn retains an enormous following within Labour. No sooner had Starmer announced Corbyn’s suspension than his supporters erupted in anger, vowing to fight for his reinstatement, and accusing Starmer of ‘inciting war’.

Their reaction to Starmer’s response to the report is more troubling than the contents of the report itself. For one thing, even though the senior leadership of the party has changed, it shows that the influence of the far Left — exercised through the left-wing political organisation Momentum and the hefty financial clout of some trades unions backing Corbyn — remains undiminished.

If civil war does break out and party members fall on one another’s necks, Starmer can give up any hope of moving into Number 10 after the general election in 2024. More troubling though is the refusal on the part of Corbyn and his allies to accept that antisemitism really is – or has been – a problem at all.

During last year’s election campaign, the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, made an historic intervention to accuse Corbyn of allowing the ‘poison’ of antisemitism to take root in Labour. Yet despite being pressed four times by the BBC’s Andrew Neil to apologise to British Jews, Corbyn refused to do so. How could he possibly be antisemitic, he insisted, when he had given his entire political life to fighting racism in all its forms.

But left-wing antisemitism is different from the race-based prejudice associated with the far right. It is linked to the combined forces of identity politics, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism unleashed in the 1960s. One key tenet is a commitment to anti-Zionism – the belief that Israel is an illegitimate state and should not exist.

Historically, anti-Zionism was distinct from antisemitism. But as it has evolved into a moral rejection of the legitimacy of Israel on account of the supposedly racist and colonial basis of its foundation, the two have converged. In 2019, even the UN Special Rapporteur noted an increase in antisemitic tropes used by the Left to criticise Israel.

Corbyn and his allies join this condemnation of Israel as a racist, colonial state. Since racism entails structural oppression, they insist that a commitment to anti-racism and defence of the powerless against the claims of the powerful cannot be antisemitic. If colonialism is racism, goes their argument, it simply cannot be antisemitic to condemn colonialism.

Corbyn says the EHRC’s criticisms of antisemitism are ‘overstated’ and motivated by ‘political reasons’. But what he really means is that the whole antisemitism thing is obviously a calculated political beat-up by his capitalist opponents who are intent on undermining the great moral cause upon which he and his companions are embarked.

Labour’s crisis about antisemitism has focused, to a large extent, on the behaviour of Corbyn himself. But as the EHRC report makes clear, themes of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and anti-Zionism have combined to provide fertile ground in which antisemitism has festered within the party. Labour’s problem is that of institutional antisemitism

And it is a problem that persists in far left quarters of the US Democratic party where some younger members of Congress known as ‘the Squad’, especially Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have regularly invoked antisemitic tropes about the dual loyalty of Jews, the economic power of Jews and Israel’s colonial intentions.

Reactions in the UK to the report on left-wing antisemitism show how combustible this issue remains. Yet there is an important opportunity here for all on the political Left to demonstrate clearly that in its fight against racism and injustice it will not tolerate the contamination of its ideals by the ugly taint of antisemitism.

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Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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