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How We Answered the Lies

The attacks on Ilhan Omar mirror the bid to paint Jeremy Corbyn as an enemy of Jews. The Labour Party’s recent history tells US socialists how we can resist such smears — while also fighting antisemitism.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the EEF Manufacturing Conference at the QEII centre on February 19, 2019 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty

It was only a matter of time: the US right has decided that the best way to attack rising socialist forces is to accuse them of antisemitism. In the space of a week, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was pilloried for exchanging a friendly phone call with the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, then Ilhan Omar faced a welter of abuse for pointing out the role the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) plays in Washington politics.

The link between Corbyn and AOC gives the game away: the inspiration clearly comes from a similar campaign to brand the Labour left in Britain as being riddled with antisemitism from top to bottom. And there’s plenty for US socialists to learn from the British experience.

1

Don’t believe everything you read.

The articles attacking AOC for her chat with Corbyn took it for granted that the Labour leader was an antisemite, as if this was a well-established fact. There’s a circular logic at work here: it’s as if there couldn’t have been so many stories in the media accusing Corbyn of antisemitism if there wasn’t some truth behind it.

Let’s take one of those stories, from the New York Times, which published an account of the 2017 Labour Party conference by Howard Jacobson. According to Jacobson, “a motion to question the truth of the Holocaust was proposed” from the conference floor. This was a blatant falsehood — there was no such motion — but the NYT’s fact-checkers allowed Jacobson to get away with it, and the article remains uncorrected on their website to this day.

Anyone who read Jacobson’s article and believed it to be accurate would naturally have found it horrifying. If a motion supporting Holocaust denial could make it onto the conference agenda, that wouldn’t just condemn the branch proposing it. What kind of party would even allow such a motion to be discussed?

Now imagine the same kind of casual mendacity repeated over and over again for several years, filling up every available space in the British media. Newspapers with a liberal reputation, like the Guardian, have often been the worst offenders.

So if you want to keep your wits about you in this debate, never assume something must be true because it appears in print. Distrust all media outlets, including the ones that like to cultivate a progressive image, and research the claims being made. Time and time again, you’ll find those claims to be false or grossly exaggerated.

2

Don’t let your opponents set the terms of debate.

There’s now a well-established pattern in debates about “Labour antisemitism.” A Labour MP or left-wing pundit is invited to agree that Labour has “a problem with antisemitism.” The nature of that problem is not made clear: how big is it? Does it come from a small percentage of Labour Party members, or does it permeate the entire movement?

A minor problem is still a problem, so the natural impulse for anyone who doesn’t want to appear foolish and insensitive is to say “yes, there is a problem.” But that will be taken as an admission that the entire media narrative of the last three years is well-founded.

That narrative has been fuelled by claims that Labour is “institutionally antisemitic,” with a leadership motivated by “hatred of Jews,” which has now “declared war” on Britain’s Jewish community and poses an “existential threat” to Jewish life in the country. Those claims are absurd and unfounded, but they’ve been taken far more seriously by the British media than examples of state racism that have had destructive, life-changing consequences for large numbers of people.

So, don’t fall into the same rhetorical trap. If someone asks whether the Left in the US has “a problem with antisemitism,” respond by saying it would be a problem if there was even a single person with anti-Jewish views, but challenge them to make clear what kind of a problem they’re talking about. The more they resist such clarification, the more obvious their bad faith will be.

3

Distrust claims to authority.

One point has made this controversy especially difficult to navigate for socialists in Britain. There is no clear line of demarcation between groups whose stated purpose is to support Israel, and groups whose stated purpose is to represent the Jewish community and oppose antisemitism.

Organizations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), whose mission statements should place them in the second category, routinely campaign on behalf of Israel and accuse its critics of antisemitism. US groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center take the same approach.

There is intense debate within Jewish communities about what Israel means for Jewish identity, and it’s especially difficult for an outsider to intervene in those debates without saying something insensitive. It’s much better to focus on some basic points that can’t be repeated often enough.

Support for Palestinian democratic rights is a matter of fundamental principle that must not be negotiated away just because some people claim to find it distressing. Just as it is wrong and prejudiced to hold Jewish people responsible for the actions of Israel, it is wrong to defend those actions in the name of a supposedly monolithic Jewish community. There are plenty of Jewish groups and individuals that campaign against Israeli human rights abuses. Even if it could be shown that the Board of Deputies spoke for the majority of British Jews when it condoned the massacre in Gaza last year — a dubious and bitterly contested claim — it would still have been wrong for them to do so.

British socialists have frequently been told that Labour needs to “restore trust” with the Jewish community. But that community doesn’t speak with one voice. Groups like the Board of Deputies and the JLC have made it clear that they consider any strong opposition to Israeli policy to be evidence of rampant antisemitism. Trying to satisfy their demands is a hopeless task.

Focus on what people say, not who they claim to represent. If they are raising serious concerns about antisemitism, they have every right to a respectful hearing. But those concerns have to meet the same tests of evidence and plausibility that are applied to any other political argument.

4

Avoid giving hostages to fortune.

In her 2016 report on antisemitism, the Labour politician Shami Chakrabarti urged the party’s supporters to “use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse,” and to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel/Palestine in particular.” That’s excellent advice, which holds for the US as well as Britain.

One problem with indiscriminate use of the word “Zionist” is that some people do utilize it as a euphemism for “Jew” to cloak their antisemitism. On social media, where political debates tend to happen these days, it can be hard to tell whether someone is doing this or not. Describing a politician as “pro-Israel” rather than as a “Zionist,” for example, is often a useful safeguard against misunderstanding. It won’t stop bad-faith attacks, but it will make them less credible.

Of course, it would be absurd to prohibit the term altogether: we can’t have a sensible discussion about Israeli history without mentioning Zionism. But there’s another reason why too much stress on it can be unhelpful.

Strictly speaking, it’s only meaningful to call someone a Zionist if support for Israel is the core of their political identity. Labour Friends of Israel claims well over a hundred parliamentary supporters at Westminster. It’s unlikely that many of those politicians are “Zionists” in the strong sense: for most, their support for Israel forms part of a wider right-wing, Atlanticist package.

We couldn’t talk about the character of the modern Turkish state without mentioning its founder Mustafa Kemal and the ideology he bequeathed. But when British MPs or their US equivalents support Turkey’s oppression of its Kurdish population, would it really be useful to brand them as “Kemalists”?

Chakrabarti’s point about Nazi comparisons should require little elaboration. Some left-wing critics of Israel have gone down a rabbit-hole and done nothing but harm in the process. Their logic appears to be as follows: since Israeli politicians invoke the memory of Nazism to defend their actions today, if you can draw an analogy between those actions and Nazi crimes — or find evidence of “collaboration” between Nazis and Zionists in the 1930s — you will deprive such arguments of their force. This debating tactic has now been tested to destruction: it doesn’t work, and should be scrapped immediately.

If you want further evidence of this, just look at the example of Ken Livingstone, formerly the Labour mayor of London, who did enormous damage with his foolish intervention three years ago.

Comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany are inaccurate, and will often seem like an attempt to trivialize the Holocaust. Of course, if Jewish people who lost relatives in the camps want to draw such comparisons, in order to express their moral indignation, that’s their call to make. Non-Jews should avoid doing so.

If you’re looking for an example of racist oppression which is also universally recognized, compare Israel to apartheid South Africa. That comparison usually provokes outrage, not because it’s unwarranted, but because it’s so close to the bone.

5

Put your house in order, but have no illusions it’ll stop the attacks.

Since the first claims about “Labour antisemitism” began to surface, well-meaning people have come forward to say the best response is to show how seriously we take the problem. From there it’s a short step to argue that if Labour puts its own house in order by rooting out genuine pockets of antisemitism, false allegations will wither on the vine. Some have even claimed that Labour will be in no position to challenge such unfounded attacks until it eliminates antisemitism within its own ranks altogether.

Putting our own house in order as best we can is the right thing to do, but it won’t stop opponents of the Left from heaping slander upon slander — and it won’t stop them being taken seriously, either.

It’s quite true that left-wing movements are not immune to antisemitic prejudices. There are particular forms of conspiracist antisemitism that can seduce people who want simple explanations for how complex systems work. Today, many activists get their political education online, and they can sometimes pick up rotten ideas about “Rothschild bankers” and the like without understanding their origins. We should be looking out for this problem and ready to challenge it when it appears: through education if possible, through disciplinary action if necessary.

Needless to say, it’s a lot harder to do that when left-wing activists are bombarded with claims they know to be false about the prevalence of antisemitic views in their movement. The predictable response is to develop a knee-jerk suspicion towards all claims about “left antisemitism.” This is not a healthy attitude, but the best way to cure it is to push back hard against false allegations — not at some point in the future, but right now.

6

Don’t expect the issue to go away.

There’s no way to avoid confronting this issue head-on. Left-wing movements will not be allowed to move on to other things: a concession, an apology, a gesture of repentance will never be enough, it’ll just be taken as an admission of guilt before the next round of attacks begin. In Britain, this controversy has been turned on and off repeatedly, to coincide with moments when it can inflict maximum damage.

Earlier this month, Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby presented detailed evidence of the steps she had taken to root out antisemitism in Labour, but the immediate response of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs was to accuse her of lying, without a shred of evidence. They simply won’t take “yes” for an answer.

The new right-wing splinter-group formed by ex-Labour politicians like Chuku Umunna and Angela Smith has claimed to be taking a brave stand against antisemitism — presumably because support for Trump’s would-be coup in Venezuela, the Saudi invasion of Yemen, and private ownership of Britain’s water supply doesn’t make for a very attractive platform.

“Progressive Except for Palestine” (PEP) is a contradiction in terms. You can’t have a democratic foreign policy that makes an exception for Palestinian rights, and you can’t have a socialist movement worthy of the name without a democratic foreign policy.

Countries like Britain and the US have ravaged the world with their aggressive wars and support for authoritarian regimes. The Labour and Democratic Parties have been fully complicit in that shameful history. Pushing back against the foreign-policy establishment in London or Washington will be hard, thankless work, and those who engage in it should expect to be vilified.

But there’s no alternative — unless we want to find ourselves in the company of those who fawn over ghoulish war criminals like Elliott Abrams and roll out the red carpet for MBS.

Ilhan Omar won deserved praise for her readiness to challenge Abrams as he prepares to inflict more carnage on the peoples of Latin America. The foreign-policy consensus in our countries is both stifling and extremely brittle. It requires the absence of politicians who are willing to call a spade a spade.

That’s why the leaderships of the Republican and Democratic Parties were so quick to go after Omar — they want to make an example of the first non-conformist, in case her example proves infectious.

Any movement that wants to bring about radical change in both domestic and foreign policy will need to back up its representatives when they take a brave stand, and push them to be bolder still. You don’t always get to pick your battles, and this is one that socialists can’t afford to shirk.