The Anti-Semitism Row

Tim Pendry responds to our intern’s blog on the Labour Anti-Semitism row, which he views as a little naive politically. He writes as an independent observer sympathetic to Corbyn’s position on this particular matter. We would view his perspective as being similar to that of a mainstream Labour activist, though not a viewpoint universally held:

We can start with two propositions which are uncomfortable for some activists.

The first is that free speech, as an Enlightenment Project, should be as close to absolute as possible in any political movement that purports to represent the Left and yet it is clear that there has been increasing pressure, mostly from authoritarian elements in society, to restrict that freedom so that defence of free speech has largely and unfortunately fallen into the hands of conservatives and then populists.

The second is that a British political party should be primarily concerned with the welfare of the British people (of all faiths) and should not become the plaything of struggles in foreign lands or allow itself to be directly or indirectly influenced by the interests of a foreign power. The Labour Party got itself into this mess originally by permitting far too much influence to activists more concerned with Middle Eastern politics than social change because it was greedy for votes from new immigrant communities.

This opened the door to Jewish activists whose primary interest (in this debate) was undoubtedly the protection of political support for the state of Israel which was pretty well taken for granted in the higher ranks of the Party until Corbyn was elected Leader. This is all a matter of indifference to most working people who are actually not in the least antisemitic but commit the crime of utter indifference to both sides in this tiresome and eternal squabble.

In this atmosphere of political warfare, it is naive to think that the IHRA guidelines came out of some objective analysis of antisemitism above and beyond these politics. They did not. They are the culmination of a process of linking the narrative of antisemitism and the holocaust to the existence of Israel and then making the definition of antisemitism implicitly include criticism of Israel. So let us take the four guidelines and give another interpretation (since the author’s interpretation is actually fair if one wishes to interpret them that way but there are other interpretations).

  1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Unfortunately, this is actually a fair criticism from many Jewish activists who do place loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish community ahead of the interests of their own nation. The ‘soft’ version is an unspoken and unthinking assumption that the interests of the UK and Israel are identical. They are not necessarily so. We must be free to call out any community within the country, including Muslims of course, who place their original homeland or their community’s interests or even (in extremis) their faith ahead of the interests of the UK as a whole and certainly of the British working population.
  2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This is fair since it is clear that Judaism is not racist. However, Zionism is. by definition, ethnicist. There is a slippery slope here given the inability of many modern liberals not to be able to draw the distinction between ethnicity and racism. The existence of the State of Israel is very much an ethnicist endeavour and we must be free to say so.
  3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This is a fair concern but, again, we have to consider context. Israel claims to be a Western democratic outpost and it is surrounded by non-democratic illiberal countries. There is no comparison. However, Israel’s conduct can and should be compared (even if there may be sound security reasons for the differences) with the way, say, Sweden or Ireland may conduct matters. The clause is clear – it is not ‘of any other nation’ but ‘of any other democratic nation’. While recognising that Israel is largely democratic (though only so because most Palestinians have left), we must be free to compare it if we so wish to the other democratic nations of which it claims kinship.
  4. “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is a difficult one but free speech is not about sensitivity, it is about freedom. There is no fair way of claiming the State of Israel behaves like the Nazi State but this should be dealt with in terms of the facts and not sensitivity when, seventy years after the event and with more knowledge of the general scale of man’s inhumanity to man, under conditions where a nation owns the nuclear bomb and has a preparedness to use it, we all know in our hearts that the holocaust narrative has two aspects – as tragic history and as propaganda. What we must be free to say is that there are similarities perhaps between some aspects of national socialism and some aspects of all forms of ethnicist nationalism and perhaps, if evidence can be provided, even in military techniques against settlement or in ‘lebensraum’. An intelligent person would only make the lightest of historical comparisons if they believed them to be true because there is no evidence of the racial politics or chaotics of the German dictatorship but he or she must be allowed to make these comparisons in good faith as a matter of free speech.

The ‘Zionist’ or Jewish activist pressure on the Labour Leadership is purely political, a continuation by other means of a project to recover an influence over the British Left taken for granted over many decades. It is the wrong struggle. The right struggle would have been to ask why the worst sort of faith-based obscurantism has been imported into the Party’s inner city wards without sufficient challenge. Any antisemitism arising from poorly educated Islamists is a mere symptom of something infinitely more concerning – the steady unravelling of Enlightenment values for contingent political advantage across a wide front.

As to ‘feelings’ this represents the decadence of our politics. Politics should be about principle and not pandering to ‘feelings’. The crisis certainly cannot be averted by pandering to a demand that a few inappropriate clauses of the IHRA guidelines are accepted just to defuse the crisis – it simply creates a new crisis, one of the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The crisis can be averted by staying strong on the principle of free speech but taking a tough line on antisemitism (as opposed to criticism of Israel) where it appears alongside all other forms of racial or ethnicist politics including perhaps aspects of Corbyn’s treasured Irish republicanism and the clan politics of the migrant inner cities.

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