Watching Britain’s main opposition Labour Party in the past month has been like observing a game of skittles. Another week, another member kicked out or suspended for anti-Semitic and other offensive remarks. A Labour activist turned up on the BBC talking about the “Jewish question”. A key aide to the shadow chancellor has been suspended for saying “the Jews are rallying.” In all cases, those accused have claimed to have acted in defence of the Palestinian people.
Here’s the rub: this series of scandals is not just about anti-Semitism; it is also, undeniably, part of an attempt to oust the party’s leader, the left-wing, veteran pro-Palestine activist Jeremy Corbyn. Most of his most vocal critics in the row created by the anti-Semitism comments have been from within his own party.
Shortly after he came to power last year, Corbyn’s office secretly ranked Labour MPs as being anywhere from “core” (Corbyn supporters) to “hostile”. Although Corbyn’s socialist manifesto has wide appeal across the base of the party, the list demonstrated how unpopular he is amongst his own MPs in parliament. Unfortunately for Corbyn, this secret list of political friends and foes was leaked to the media in late March. It revealed that just nineteen out of over two hundred Labour MPs support him.
Comparing the names on that leaked list with those within Corbyn’s own party who have criticised his leadership over the anti-Semitism claim, there is a remarkable cross-over between those whom Corbyn counts either as “negative” or “hostile” — his enemies — and those who are criticising him most fiercely. Last week, when the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (a Corbyn ally since the seventies), made comments about Hitler’s views on Zionism, forty or so MPs and other Labour officials called for his suspension from the party. Of these, well over half were on Corbyn’s secret list as being negative or hostile towards his leadership. They accuse Corbyn of acting too slowly and not denouncing anti-Semitism, even though he has done so repeatedly and is well-known as an anti-racism campaigner.
Correlation is not causation, and the exact motives of those opposing Corbyn by blaming the racism scandal on him, and him alone, cannot be explained away by cynical opportunism and resentment at his controversial leadership. John Mann MP, for example, was filmed screaming at Livingstone in response to his anti-Semitic remarks, calling him a “f****** disgrace” and a “disgusting Nazi apologist.” It is true that Mann was ranked by Corbyn’s office as “hostile” and that he has been a vocal opponent of Corbyn on many issues, but he has also campaigned against anti-Semitism for many years. Likewise, Luciana Berger MP was ranked as “hostile” but she is a Jew; it is not unreasonable to suppose that a Jewish MP would be more sensitive than most to the issue of anti-Semitism.
An excellent investigation by Asa Winstanley, a colleague at MEMO, suggested that the Israeli Embassy has – by proxy — been stoking up the anti-Semitism row. Much of the detail in this and other investigations may be true, but these are ad hominem attacks; accurate, for certain, but ad hominem nonetheless. These explanations still don’t address or in some cases even recognise that the British left has an unfortunate and real problem with anti-Semitism, let alone why that may be.
It could be that the inspirational figure behind the radical left, Karl Marx, was himself anti-Semitic. He described Jews as “hucksters” and specifically blamed the many failures of capitalism on their supposedly malign influence on the economy. However, credible scholars still debate this point. He was certainly interested in Jewish life— being a Jew himself — and he was certainly against Judaism as a political atheist; and he wanted all Jews to renounce their Jewish identity, but this was because he thought it impossible for communism to be realised without all religions ceasing to exist, not just Judaism. Despite the context of Marx’s well-meaning political mission, these ambiguities are very disturbing, and do not paint a clear picture of anti-racism being embedded into the radical left, as is often claimed.
Since the early years of the 21st Century, the British radical left – engorged by the increasing militarism of the Israeli government — have shown itself to be very interested in Jewish affairs in Britain, and the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. This, like any left-wing movement around the world, builds to some extent on a previous history of support for Marxist guerrillas in the conflict, stretching back to the seventies. It also speaks to the severity of the humanitarian, political and security crisis in occupied Palestine. Many of these once fringe activists have now flocked to Labour, reassured by Corbyn’s strong left-wing credentials. Conditioned by personal experience and ideology to be tolerant of anti-Semitism, this influx of new members has produced a racism scandal in the media of undeniably epic proportions.
This should be unsurprising. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is being mirrored on the other side of the political spectrum. While Britain’s radical left appears to be playing down anti-Semitism, the British right increasingly expresses, tolerates or encourages Islamophobia.
Take Zac Goldsmith, for example, the right-wing Conservative candidate for London mayor. He has made a point of emphasising that his main opponent, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim, and suggested through coded and not-so-coded messages that he could be an extremist, and therefore a threat to the capital. This smear campaign has been supported by Goldsmith’s colleagues across the Conservative Party. The campaign is so repugnantly Islamophobic that prominent right-wing political commentator Peter Oborne, a life-long Conservative Party supporter, has announced that he will be voting Labour for the first time in his life, in solidarity with Khan. On the fringes of Britain’s right-wing, you will find UKIP; numerous Islamophobic comments by its members have been reported widely. On the far-right, the members of groups like PEGIDA, the English Defence League and Britain First have abandoned their twentieth century anti-Semitism to focus almost exclusively on Islamophobia.
The question now should not just be, does the left have a problem with anti-Semitism, and why, but also why does the right have a problem with Islamophobia? Could it be because the British left is moving further to the left under Corbyn, and the right is moving further to the right, with the Conservative Party under pressure from the Euro-sceptics? Could it, in fact, simply be true that Westminster itself, not just the Labour Party, is becoming more overtly racist?
The reality is that politicians of all stripes, be they radical or centrist, left-wing or right-wing, Western or Arab or Israeli, lend themselves to racism in the search for populist scapegoats, but radical politics at both ends of the spectrum do so more than the rest. Although Britain’s radical left has now woken up to the threat of anti-Semitism within its ranks, Britain’s radical right is yet to acknowledge its own anti-Muslim racism. It should, and must, for politics tainted by racism has a very murky track record indeed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.