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Debunking the myth of Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism crisis’

March 8, 2019 at 4:59 pm

Pro-Israel groups aided by the mainstream media have led the assault on the Labour Party over its handling of allegations of anti-Semitism. Their goal, it seems, is no less than the removal of Jeremy Corbyn as leader with the unfounded claim that he is partly responsible for the surge in anti-Semitism amongst Labour members, which we are told has now reached epidemic proportions.

The allegations have prompted a powerful response from academics and activists, including Jews. Peter Beinart, for example, penned a long essay shattering the myth that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. While the article by the Jewish American author was originally published in the Forward magazine, even the Guardian – believed by many to be fuelling the crisis — uploaded it onto its website’s long read section. So far, it has had 21,000 shares; I recommend the piece because of its nuanced dissection of the arguments around the anti-Semitism allegations.

Despite the Guardian’s surprising decision to run with Beinart’s article — possibly in order to be “balanced” — the mainstream media generally have failed miserably to provide anything resembling a balanced and informed discussion on the issue. Thankfully, this necessity has been provided by alternative media platforms, with two articles in particular deserving a mention.

The first was written by Stephen Law and published by Patreon. The philosopher offered an equally powerful debunking of the allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and the left. He has also presented his take on the issue at an event at the Barbican in London alongside the pro-Israel journalist Melanie Phillips.

READ: Corbyn critic claims anti-capitalism is also anti-Semitism

Law believes that he has a special talent for sniffing out “bullshit” in public discourse. “I’m interested in and have published on the ways in which bullshit beliefs — myths and prejudices — can get a grip on public thinking,” he told the audience. His presentation focused on the claim that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, and that levels of anti-Semitism are higher in Labour, or higher on the political left, than elsewhere. This belief, he explained, is based on a flawed pattern of thought he called confirmation bias: a pattern of thinking where we search only for positive instances to confirm what we already suspect is true; people can thus convince themselves easily about things that aren’t true.

After explaining the dangers of confirmation bias and its tendency to create a reality in one’s mind detached from truth, Law cited a series of studies to show that there is plenty of better quality evidence concerning levels of anti-Semitism on the left that contradicts the claim that the problem is worse on the left than elsewhere. All such evidence, it is worth mentioning, is generally ignored by the mainstream media.

Law drew attention to an extensive 2017 survey of anti-Semitism conducted by Jewish Policy Research, including that found amongst left-wingers. The think tank concluded that, “Anti-Semitism is no more prevalent on the left than in the general population.”

Jewish Voice for Labour supporters demonstrating against false claims of anti-Semitism, in London on 26 March 2018 [Twitter]

Jewish Voice for Labour supporters can be seen demonstrating against false claims of anti-Semitism, in London on 26 March 2018 [Twitter]

A cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee in Westminster, meanwhile, was tasked with looking into levels of anti-Semitism across the UK, also in 2017. It concluded that,”…there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Furthermore, YouGov data from last year on anti-Semitic attitudes indicates that they have actually “reduced” in the Labour Party under Corbyn. Labour’s own Chakrabarti Inquiry in 2016 looked into the accusations of anti-Semitism in the party and found no significant problem. In the same year, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme conducted a six-month undercover investigation of left-wing political organisation Momentum allied to Labour, looking for evidence of anti-Semitism, among other things. None was found; after six months of undercover investigation.

“All the available hard evidence not only fails to support the allegation that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem,” Law concluded, “it directly contradicts that allegation.” Quantifying anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, he added that, “Pretty much everyone agrees there are some anti-Semites in Labour… But is there a greater percentage than in the population at large, or in other parties?” What he called “a bunch of emotive anecdotes supplied by the Press and on social media” is not good evidence that there is, he insisted. “And the fact is that all the available hard evidence very strongly suggests there isn’t.”

READ: Israel lobby fakes campus anti-Semitism say US journalists

A second article, published in Media Lens, carried out a quantitative analysis of comments made about Corbyn over three decades. It discovered that exposure to the mainstream media, including the BBC, since the Islington North MP became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, significantly increased the chance of someone believing that he was a racist and that he “hates the Jews”.

What is astonishing, is the fact that just four years ago, prior to Corbyn becoming leader, virtually nobody believed that he was a racist and an anti-Semite, despite the fact that he had been a long-term supporter of the Palestinian cause and a strong critic of Israel. Remarkably, the study, which based its findings on the ProQuest database of British newspaper articles, found only 18 hits for “Labour Party” and “anti-Semitism” before 1 May 2015. After May 2015, when Corbyn won the leadership contest, that figure was 13,921. Contrast this with Labour’s internal investigation which found a dozen or so cases of actual anti-Semitism amongst party members, and the gap between media reports and reality seems even more extraordinary.

Out of 1,106 referrals of anti-Semitism allegations:

  • 433 had nothing to do with party members, leaving 673 to be investigated
  • 220 of these were dismissed for lack of evidence

This left 453 cases:

  • 453 is equivalent to 0.08 per cent of the party’s 540,000 members
  • 96 of these resulted in suspensions; that’s 0.01 per cent of the total membership
  • 12 were expelled; that’s 0.002 per cent of Labour Party members

In anticipation of the criticism that Corbyn was a backbencher pre-2015 and would inevitably have had less media exposure than the leader of the Labour Party, the study provided data to dispel this myth. It found that Corbyn was not in fact irrelevant before he became leader. In fact, 3,662 hits for articles mentioning him were found. While few are judged to be pro-Corbyn — which is expected given his anti-war and socially progressive views that have always placed him at odds with the British establishment and even his own party — the overwhelmingly critical articles never accused him of anti-Semitism.

What explains the total separation of facts from the discourse which threatens to split the Labour Party apart, and how has the “anti-Semitism” myth been generated? One theory is that the establishment has encouraged the weaponisation of anti-Semitism to oust Corbyn from the Labour leadership. His brand of politics calling for equality, social justice, human rights and international law is deemed to be a threat to the neo-liberal policies pushed by Britain, which has profited from injustice and inequality in the UK and around the world.

The mainstream media has colluded in this by allowing the slur of anti-Semitism to take root. Such complicity is unforgivable. A recent Birkbeck College London and Media Reform Coalition Research project into media reporting on anti-Semitism concluded that it has involved “a persistent subversion of conventional news values.” This has entailed “completely false claims [being] presented as fact, often without even the most basic challenge.” Unsurprisingly, the BBC was singled out as one of the very worst offenders.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.