Yes, antisemitism does exist, it concerns us, and it should be called out whenever it is found. There are also some people who combine antisemitism with a justified anger at Israel, and their antisemitism should also be called out.
The proximate motive for the Board’s and the Council’s demonstration – the hook they hung it on – was, of course, that long-since expunged mural and Jeremy Corbyn’s response to it, But that is problematical. There are sharply differing views about it. Some think the caricatures of the six famous (or infamous) American bankers and industrialists of the turn of the last century are blatantly antisemitic, so to them, so is the mural. Others see the big, distorted image of the masonic symbol on the US dollar bill as the key, and think only one, or possibly two, of the caricatures is antisemitic. So, for them the mural is anti American capitalism.
For those in the clearly antisemitic mural camp, Jeremy Corbyn’s response was poor judgement at best and antisemitic at worst. For those in the anti American capitalism mural camp, his response of comparing the erasure with the destruction of Diego Rivera’s radical, anti-capitalist frieze in the Rockefeller Centre in 1934 was appropriate.
We suggest the important question to ask about the demonstration is why the Board and the Council extended their attack on Jeremy Corbyn into an attack on the Labour Party for supposedly harbouring gross amounts of antisemitism. Their letter of 28 March to Jeremy Corbyn said the demonstration “arose from more than two years of cumulative anger and despair in the Jewish community at repeated, numerous cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party and failures to deal with them in a decisive, swift and public manner.” They offered no evidence and, in fact, offered only their own feelings, which they expect others to accept as evidence of facts.
Compare that to the Chakrabarti inquiry, in June 2016: “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”…”there have been some instances of undoubtedly antisemitic and otherwise racist language and discourse in the past.” The report recommended a fair, evidence-based procedure, applying to all allegations of racism, including antisemitism, meeting the requirements of natural justice, utilising education and seeing suspension or expulsion as last resorts. The same situation is viewed by the Board and the Leadership Council with hyperbole and as uniquely bad, but by Chakrabarti in a measured way along with other kinds of racism.
Two recent surveys lend considerable credence to Chakrabarti’s measured views.
Firstly, the survey done last year by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that, “Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population. Yet, all parts of those on the left of the political spectrum – including the ‘slightly left-of-centre,’ the ‘fairly left-wing’ and the ‘very left-wing’ – exhibit higher levels of anti-Israelism than average. The most antisemitic group on the political spectrum consists of those who identify as very right-wing”.
Secondly, a survey done by YouGov in 2017 for the Campaign against Antisemitism found that endorsing at least one antisemitic statement was much more prevalent among Conservative and UKIP members (40% and 39% respectively) than among Labour and Liberal members (32% and 30% respectively). By comparing results to the 2016 survey, YouGov also found that antisemitic attitudes have fallen significantly in the Labour Party in the two years sine Jeremy Corbyn became Leader.
In the light of this evidence, which the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council must have seen, we have to ask ourselves why they are concentrating their fire on the Labour Party. We suggest the Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey explains the reason. It shows that all parts of the left, from moderate to hard left, are more anti-Israel than other people. The Board and the Council, supporting Israeli policy to the hilt as they do, but knowing their arguments are weak, want to eviscerate the Labour Party’s willingness to criticise Israel.
They can’t afford to say that openly, so they resort to claiming that strong and repeated criticism of Israel is by nature suspect. They pounce on emotive language sometimes used in criticising Israel, or a single comment taken out of context, or a principled disagreement with the premises of Zionism, as evidence of antisemitism. (Some of the things found – overwhelmingly rapid-fire posts on social media – are indeed antisemitic and need to be dealt with.)
The Board’s and the Council’s motives are well illustrated by their proposed agenda for meeting Jeremy Corbyn, also in their letter of 28 March. The agenda items are really demands, three of which, if accepted, would cede the Labour Party’s independence in dealing with allegations of antisemitism and the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel. These are the items (Our comments are in italics):
“An independent, mutually agreed ombudsman should be appointed to oversee performance (of disciplinary cases relating to antisemitim), reporting to the Party and to the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council.” (They expect the Labour Party to share its authority over the procedure with them.)
“The Party should circulate the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with all its examples and clauses, to all members and branches….based on the full IHRA definition and on the examples included in your letter of 26 March.” (The Labour Party has only accepted the first paragraph of the IHRA definition , which is not contentious although not very useful. The remainder of the definition would create massive uncertainty as to what criticism of Israel would be legitimate and what would be antisemitic, thereby significantly undermining people’s confidence in criticising Israel. That was presumably why it was not accepted. The Board and the Council now appear to be trying to manipulate Labour into accepting the full definition .)
“Public confirmation that the Party will seek to understand and engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations who wish to obstruct the Party’s efforts to tackle antisemitism.” (This would allow them to decide which Jewish groups Labour can engage with, the intention obviously being to exclude groups, such as ourselves, which don’t agree with them.)
The chutzpah, (no arrogance, let’s call it by its right name) of all this is breathtaking. The tactics of the Board and the Council, their inability to understand how others see those tactics, and their inability to see themselves in perspective with others, will, we fear, create more antisemitism. The irony would be funny if it were not so serious.