Mr Livingstone, I Presume?

By James A. Chisem

This week should have been plain sailing for the British Labour Party. Granted, nobody’s expecting Kezia Dugdale and company to halt the seemingly inexorable march of the SNP in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, nor does it look like there’ll be any sweeping gains in Local Council elections, but the Welsh cohort is on course to maintain ascendancy in the Senedd, and expectations are so low in general that anything bar a complete catastrophe at next week’s polls will likely be spun as a qualified success—a competent steadying of the ship, if you will. There’s even a case to be made that those low expectations—peddled by disgruntled Blairites and cautious Bennites alike—are unduly pessimistic. After all, the current Conservative government has been racked by vicious infighting over the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, whilst the Panama Papers scandal seems to have done irreparable damage to the prime minister’s reputation. A sense of malaise hangs heavy in the air, like Manchester smog, and all Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have to do is not choke.

Well, that’s easier said than done, apparently. If disciples of Clausewitz live by the dictum “few plans survive contact with the enemy”, then perhaps the harried activists at Kings Manor ought to adopt the slogan “few plans survive contact with our members” as their rallying cry. I’m talking, of course, about the anti-Semitism row which has engulfed the Labour Party over the past few days, and which, at the time of writing, shows no signs of letting-up. For those of you who have been living under a rock (or on a different rock to this rock), allow me to recap.

On 26th April, the right-wing rabble rouser Paul Staines, who runs the Guido Fawkes blog, claimed that Naz Shah—the MP for Bradford West and Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell—had reposted a Facebook message back in August 2014 advocating the relocation of Israeli Jews to the United States. Shah held her hands up and admitted that she had indeed shared the post, issuing a public apology around midday and resigning as McDonnell’s PPS. As the day went on, however, more accusations emerged. In a Facebook post from June 2014 discussing a newspaper poll regarding purported Israeli war crimes in Gaza, Shah declared that “the Jews are rallying”, and in September of the same year she appeared to compare the policies and actions of the Israeli state with those of Nazi Germany. The next day’s headlines were awash with the controversy, and it didn’t take long for Staines to hammer another nail in Shah’s political coffin, revealing that she had employed a Labour councillor named Mohammed Shabbir, who was alleged to have made several anti-Semitic remarks, asserting, amongst other things, that Orthodox Jews were complicit in the “sex trafficking trade.” As members of the Shadow Cabinet lined up to condemn Shah and David Cameron took advantage of the commotion to put Corbyn on the back foot at Prime Minister’s Questions, Shah’s attempts at public contrition, first in the Jewish News, and then in the Commons, fell on deaf ears. Just after 4.00pm, a Labour apparatchik announced that “Jeremy Corbyn and Naz Shah have mutually agreed that she is administratively suspended from the Labour Party by the general secretary.”

That’s Part I.

Part II is where things enter the realm of farce.

The morning after Shah was put on gardening leave, the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, came out all guns blazing in her defence, telling BBC London that Adolf Hitler himself was in fact a Zionist—“before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, that is. This, as one would imagine, caused quite a stir, not least with the rambunctious MP for Bassetlaw, John Mann, who managed to accost Livingstone in a rather lovely looking stairwell, loudly accusing him of being a “nazi-apologist” and “a fucking disgrace”, much to the delight of the journalists who had presumably mistaken Red Ken for the Pied Piper. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Livingstone then went on the Daily Politics and repeatedly dismissed the notion that the Labour Party had a problem with anti-Semitism, even when the presenter, Andrew Neil, provided plenty of evidence which suggested otherwise. True to form, Livingstone went on to repeat his claim about Hitler being a Zionist, argued that Shah’s comments on social media had merely been “rude” —including one where she linked to a blog which explicitly stated that “Zionism is grooming Jews to exert influence at the highest levels of public life”—and asserted that you don’t really qualify as an anti-Semite if you only hate Israeli Jews. The interview petered out with claim and counter-claim, but it was clear to all and sundry that Ken was living on borrowed time. And so it was: Jeremy Corbyn emerged from a social club or some such venue in Grimsby, of all places, and informed the world, in typically laidback fashion, that he had suspended one of his oldest allies “for bringing the party into disrepute.”

So what are we to make of all this?

Let’s start with Shah. I think it’s fair to say that her comments on social media veered into anti-Semitic territory. If you say you support the expulsion of Jews from Israel, talk about the “Jews rallying”, imply that you believe that Jews are involved in a concerted effort to capture the levers of power in Western societies, and hire a known Jew-baiter to work in your office, then you shouldn’t be surprised when people begin to wonder whether you’re all that Kosher. Ms Shah is old enough and wise enough to know this; she’s also humble enough to admit her mistakes and offer a public mea culpa. Ken Livingstone, on the other hand, is a different kettle of (gefilte) fish. He has, at various points in his career, done all of the above. The problem is, he seems utterly incapable of admitting that he misspoke or that it might be wise for him to apologise for any offence his comments or actions may have caused. Livingstone’s frankly bizarre attempt to lend credence to his ‘Hitler was a Zionist’ argument by invoking the work of an obscure Marxist author which also happens to be popular among holocaust deniers stands as a case in point. According to Professor Thomas Weber, a well-respected historian of international affairs, German history, and German-Jewish relations, Lenni Brenner’s 1983 book, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, “lies well outside the academic mainstream.” “It is”, Weber adds, “mostly celebrated either by the extreme left [or] the neo-Nazi right.”

The stock response of the anti-Israel Left to all this is to make a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. That is, naturally, a perfectly valid point to make, but I’d argue that it fails to properly acknowledge the incestuous relationship that binds the two together. Criticism of the Israeli government and its institutions is well and good, but when you single out Zionism, things get complicated because you’re talking about a political philosophy which simply aims to establish and protect a Jewish state. My suspicion is that when people on the Left talk about anti-Zionism, more often than not their intent is to delegitimise the very notion of a Jewish homeland, not just the occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. That raises a very important question, one which I discussed at length in a previous article. Namely:

“Why Israel? As far as I can tell, the world is a pretty unpleasant place, with almost every nook and cranny scarred by tribal conflict of some description. Israel undoubtedly makes its own contribution to this unremitting misery, but not in any unique sort of way—quantitatively or qualitatively. If you were to rank the world’s armed struggles in terms of lives lost and infrastructure destroyed, the Israeli-Palestine conflict wouldn’t break the top fifty. And it’s important to note that Israel isn’t the only source of Palestinian despair. Egypt and Jordan have shown no meaningful interest in the plight of their estranged brothers and sisters, and the conditions in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus are utterly desperate. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the death toll of the Syrian Civil War has surpassed 210,000, with millions more internally displaced or forced to flee the country. Straddling the border with Iraq, Islamic State have set out to wipe Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and pretty much everyone else off the face of the earth, using chemical weapons and child soldiers, resurrecting Biblical slavery in the process. Yet there’s barely been a peep from the Left.”

In other words, the Left “holds Israel and Jews to a completely different standard to other countries and peoples in the [Middle East] and farther afield.” At the very least, this should give people who are involved in these debates pause for concern. Unfortunately, though, it seems to be like a red rag to a bull. Instead of engaging with the complexities, contradictions, and subtleties of the issue at hand, the usual suspects appear to have doubled-down, angrily accusing the “Zionist-led media” and the “Israel-Lobby” of orchestrating some grand conspiracy to bring down Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-imperialists friends. I mean, come on; a shadowy cabal of Jews operating behind the scenes, using nefarious means to bring about their desired political outcome? If you’re going to deny that there’s a problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, at least strive to steer clear of anti-Semitic tropes when you’re trying to prove it.

On a similar note, I’ve seen a lot of people on social media sharing the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) ‘Statement on Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party’, which rehashes the “Zionist-media” conspiracy, with barely contained glee. Look! They’re saying. Even the Jews agree with me, even the bloody Jews! Indeed. But it’s worth remembering that every hard-right or far-right party seems to have an elderly Sikh gentlemen ready to wheel out just before an election. I don’t want to take the analogy too far, but sharing the JSG statement comes across as the left-wing equivalent of saying that you can’t be racist against Muslims since Islam isn’t a race.

The truth is, the Labour Party does have an anti-Semitism problem. So does the Conservative Party. And so, for that matter, does our society. It also has an Islamophobia problem, a Sinophobia problem, an Afrophobia problem. It has a racism problem full-stop. We all harbour deep-seated prejudices that reflect and influence those around us. But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid confronting hard-truths or engaging in critical self-examination, however politically expedient that might be. If we want to build a more formally and informally inclusive society, then we have to start by looking in the mirror. No exceptions.

James A. Chisem is an editor and writer at Atlantic Bulletin.