What better way to make sure racism thrives than to paint its opponents as racist? The trick has been used for years in the United States and here to portray racial redress as racist. Less well known is that it is now used to paint opponents of racism as antisemites, people who despise Jews. Its newest victim is Britain’s former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was suspended by the new leadership of his party while it investigated whether remarks he made were antisemitic. Corbyn has been reinstated – to the apparent dismay of his party leader.
This may be the low point in a frightening saga in which the claim that Corbyn and the Labour he led have an “antisemitism problem” is so widely accepted that those who question it are dismissed to the margins. But there is no evidence that Labour is a hive of prejudice against Jews. A story has been concocted so successfully that even commentators who claim to sympathise with Corbyn have bought it.
Corbyn’s suspension shows this. The story peddled by much of the media and his opponents is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, established by the United Kingdom’s Parliament, produced a report confirming that Labour was “institutionally antisemitic” – a claim repeatedly made by its opponents. Corbyn did not take the report seriously enough, so he may well harbour prejudices against Jews.
But the report did not find that Labour was “institutionally antisemitic”. While it dresses up its findings as confirmation that the party harbours bigots, the report doesn’t show this. The closest it comes to finding that anti-Jewish racism is a problem in Labour is the claim that some in the party use “antisemitic tropes” and say that “complaints of antisemitism [are] fake or smears”. Corbyn was suspended for saying that although he welcomed the report, claims that Labour is antisemitic were “dramatically overstated”.
None of this is evidence of anti-Jewish bigotry. The word “tropes”, which has become a standard weapon against alleged antisemites, means that the person does not actually say anything bigoted about Jews but is said to use words that could fuel prejudice.
A Labour councillor who complained that antisemitism claims strengthened a “fifth column” inside Labour was, the report insisted, using antisemitic “tropes”. But she might well have been talking of non-Jewish opponents of Corbyn who were trying to smear him.
So, if you can’t find people saying anything offensive about Jews, find some “tropes” to “prove” they are bigoted. And how many Labour members were found to have used the “tropes”? Two, one of whom Labour has expelled.
Corbyn was suspended not for saying anything nasty about Jews, but for insisting that Labour isn’t nearly as prejudiced as the smear campaign claims. He is a committed antiracist who has repeatedly denounced antisemitism, and so his opponents cannot pin the racial bigot label on him. Instead, they victimised him for saying the problem is overstated when it obviously is.
All this is pretty standard for the Labour antisemitism “scandal”. Evidence of antisemitism is usually sketchy at best, and anyone who then points this out is smeared as antisemitic.
There are, no doubt, antisemites in Labour: anti-Jewish bigotry is deeply embedded in Britain and the Left is not immune. But no one in Labour has written a novel portraying Jews’ facial features in a racist manner and claiming that Jews control the media. The person who did that was current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Yet he and his Conservative Party face no charges of antisemitism, “institutional” or otherwise.
So why is Labour under Corbyn singled out? The British establishment smears any left-winger who might become prime minister. Antisemitism was the chosen weapon because Corbyn supports Palestinian rights, which makes him a target of the Israeli state and its supporters: an Israeli project to smear Labour was exposed by Al Jazeera. Israel provided the ammunition and the establishment did the rest. That they succeeded in making this invention seem like “common sense” shows how opinion can be manipulated in a democracy.
The campaign against Corbyn is itself part of a bigger picture – charges of antisemitism are now routinely used to smear people who are not anti-Jewish and who may be antiracist. Central to this is the state of Israel, whose supporters have weaponised antisemitism to discredit people who campaign for Palestinian rights.
It began a few decades ago when pro-Israeli zealots in the US wrote books inventing “the new antisemitism”. What was new about it was that it was not antisemitism at all: it was opposition to the Israeli state. And so the definition of “antisemitism” was stretched in absurd ways. A statement supporting an easing of tensions in the Middle East was labelled antisemitic. Antisemites were said to “glorify peace and demonise war”. In both cases, the antisemitism consisted of opposing the military goals of the Israeli state.
This inanity is now mainstream. A range of Western governments, and Labour itself, have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. It includes “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”. Opposition to a state is now racial prejudice, particularly when the opponents are antiracist. This mutation is now used by governments in Europe and the US to suppress opponents of the Israeli state and deny their freedom of speech.
The story does not end there. Israel is now at the centre of the international right wing and so antisemitism is repeatedly identified with left-wing views, even if Jews are never mentioned. One Labour right-winger claimed that opposition to capitalism was antisemitic. Here, a caller to a radio talk show branded campaigns to open up inner-city Cape Town to low-cost housing antisemitic.
This is a huge turnaround. While the Left has never been immune to antisemitism, it is primarily a right-wing prejudice: Jews were always seen as a threat by nationalists and advocates of racial “purity”. Now, in the hands of the Israeli state and the new Right, cheered on by liberal governments and social democratic parties, antisemitism no longer means hatred of Jews. It means opposition to the Israeli state and, at times, the economic status quo.
The irony is underlined by the fact that many of the Israeli state’s friends in the international Right are real antisemites since, like Johnson, they express prejudices against Jews. At the same time, Jews on the Left are no longer considered Jewish and are, therefore, presumably legitimate targets of bigotry.
When Corbyn shared a Passover meal with a left-wing Jewish group, bringing his home-grown horse radish to the feast, the pro-Israel establishment said this did not mean he was not antisemitic since he was mixing with “the wrong sort of Jews”. Some who have been expelled from Labour for “antisemitism” are Jewish. So, people who dislike Jews are acceptable if they like Israel. Jews are fair game if they oppose it.
The real antisemitism – prejudice against Jews – has not disappeared. The 2018 shootings in Pittsburgh, the work of a right-winger angered by a Jewish organisation that helps immigrants, is only one example. But the fight against real racism is greatly weakened by the fact that antisemitism has, in the mainstream, become not a racial prejudice but an antiracist desire for change.