Book cover

This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Biteback), by Dave Rich

In a contentious age, the conflict within the Labour Party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015 (and his re-election a year later) takes some beating in the anger it generates on and offline. One of the most intractable elements in this conflict is the issue of anti-Semitism in the party: has Corbyn’s Labour legitimised a wave of anti-Semitism disguised as criticism of Israel and Zionism? Or is the claim of anti-Semitism a similarly disguised way for New Labour holdouts to silence criticism of Israel and undermine the Corbynite revolution?

So far, the chasm between these two positions has been unbridgeable. In June, Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party was received by some as a whitewash. (Her being awarded a Labour peerage shortly afterwards only deepened the suspicion.) The launch of her report was itself the scene of acrimony, as Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth complained of being abused and Corbyn was accused of likening Israel to the Islamic State.

Can Dave Rich’s timely new book – which discusses these developments and puts them in a historical context – bridge the divide? It seems unlikely. For one thing, Rich’s position as a researcher at the Community Security Trust, the UK Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog, will lead some to view whatever he says with suspicion, if not to dismiss it outright. That would be an awful pity, as the book is based on detailed research that should be studied whatever one’s position on left-wing anti-Semitism.

The core of The Left’s Jewish Problem is based on Rich’s PhD thesis on left-wing anti-Zionism in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. As such, much of the book is a sober unravelling of the complex milieu of radical politics and its attitude to Israel and the Palestinians. The historical development Rich sketches is well known – a transition from an “old left” that was broadly sympathetic to Zionism (or at least its socialist varieties) to a post-1960s “new left” whose commitment to anti-imperialism leads it to view Zionism as a form of illegitimate western “settler colonialism”. It is the latter tradition that Corbyn represents and that is in the ascendant in the Labour Party.

If this transition is widely recognised, many of the details are known only to insiders in the labyrinthine world of leftist activism. I doubt many people are aware of, for example, the surprisingly pivotal role that the Young Liberals played in the development of pro-Palestinian campaigning in the 1970s. Equally interesting is Rich’s account of the limited role that Palestinians (exceptions such as Ghada Kharmi notwithstanding) have played in British Palestinian solidarity work until quite recently, and how British Muslims were also marginal until at least the 1990s.

Corbyn has been involved with pro-Palestinian activism since the 1980s. But as an MP who was increasingly marginalised as Labour turned rightward from the late 1980s, it is his involvement in the Stop The War campaign in the 2000s that provides much of the context for his rise to the Labour leadership. What started as a mass response to the Iraq war rapidly grew into an anti-imperialist movement against all kinds of western military interventions, and had at its heart a “red-green alliance” between non-parliamentary leftist groups and Islamist organisations.

So where is the anti-Semitism in all of this? Rich shows how anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian activism has, at the very least, had a difficult time in responding to the majority support for Zionism within the UK Jewish population. While Jewish – and even Israeli – anti-Zionists have long played a major part in pro-Palestinian campaigning, the pro-Palestinian left has too often failed to look beyond this minority of Jewish opinion. In the ’70s and ’80s this resulted in, for example, struggles to ban Jewish societies on campus that supported Zionism (as most did and continue to do). More recently, anti-Zionists have caused great offence to many Jews by, amongst other things, claiming that Zionists and Nazis were collaborators, that the Jewish state is analogous to Nazi Germany and that Jews were the main financiers of the slave trade. The tendency to make common cause with some radical Islamist groups has also led to leftists, including Corbyn himself, sharing platforms with Muslim figures who have denied the Holocaust.

The question of whether this constitutes anti-Semitism is complicated. The vast majority of perpetrators not only do not see themselves as anti-Semitic; as self-defined anti-racists they see such accusations as an appalling slur. Rich argues: “The possibility that somebody might believe anti-Semitic things about Jews without feeling any personal animosity towards them is not considered ... The British left today gives the impression of being ... a place where there is anti-Semitism without anti-Semites.”

The Left’s Jewish Problem certainly explains why much of the left has become alienated from the Zionist part of the Jewish community. What it doesn’t directly tackle is the thorny question of whether anti-Zionism is by its very nature anti-Semitic. Rich himself doesn’t quite come out and say that the two are equivalent, but there are certainly many in the Jewish community who do believe that to reject Zionism is to reject Jews.

Zionism is a political ideology and, as such, should be open to critique. Further, when those on the left reject Zionism, they often envisage in its stead – or, at least, claim to envisage – some kind of secular nation with equal rights for all, on the post-apartheid South African model. In and of itself this is not anti-Semitic. While, as Zionists often point out, it may not be fair that Jews should be denied a nation state of their own, it is also true that not all nations or ethno-religious groups have a state of their own.

Awkwardly, it is also true that many Jews see Zionism as a central part of their Jewish identity (whether religious or secular) and the state of Israel as the ultimate guarantor of their existential well-being. To them the “destruction of the state of Israel” means genocide, and the rhetoric of at least some of the opposition to Israel in the Arab and Muslim worlds doesn’t leave a great deal of room for Jews living as equal citizens in a “liberated” Palestine.

The possibility of a form of anti-Zionism that Jewish Zionists can tolerate as non-anti-Semitic is therefore pretty slim. So can anything be done to reconcile Jews who do not reject Israel with the factions currently holding sway in the Labour Party? At a deep level, probably not.

Perhaps though, a pragmatic rapprochement might be possible. Corbyn himself, at a hustings at a Jewish community centre in mid-September, stated that he agreed with the two-state solution (and thus, implicitly, with the current reality at least of some kind of Jewish state).

A toning down of some of the passionate rhetoric that characterises some sections of Corbyn’s base would also be possible and definitely welcome. Rich says that taking Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism seriously, avoiding conspiracy theories about Jews and Zionists, and no longer using the Holocaust as “a stick to beat Israel with” would be “a start”. He’s right, it would. But even that seems a very tall order at the moment.