I’ve spent a while this trying to work out what I think about the latest controversy over Labour and antisemitism, which saw two opposing crowds gather in Parliament Square earlier this week as those organisations that claim to represent Britain’s Jews squared off against the party that claims to represent the working class, and will be the subject of uncomfortable conversations for left/Labour-leaning Jews at Seder nights across the country tonight.
This is definitely one of those issues where two different things are true at one time: that Corbyn’s comments, and more importantly the way that some Corbynists have reacted to them, are indicative of a genuine problem, and that the issue is being cynically exploited by Corbyn’s enemies who’ve gone out of their way to ensure that his stupid comment got to be a rather bigger news story than six-year-old facebook comments usually do. Both these elements have to be kept in mind at once to have any adequate understanding of the situation.
The two best things I’ve read about it, both more-or-less focused on a single aspect, are Three points about antisemitism and the Left by Richard Seymour, and Enough is Enough! by Jewdas. Seymour approaches the issue as a conflict within “the left”, and so – perfectly correctly, given that framing – focuses on the need to oppose antisemitism; Jewdas approach it as a conflict within “the Jewish community” and so – equally understandably, using that framework – focus on the cynicism and rottenness of those organisations that claim to be able to speak for that community.
Jewdas are right to point out that they stand in the tradition of heroes like the Arbeter Fraint group and those who actually opposed the fascists at Cable Street, as well as having taken part in militant action against antisemitism in their own right, while the likes of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle can claim direct descent from those who warned that “Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings. Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping antisemitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew-baiters, keep away.” But having an impeccable record in the past is no guarantee that you’ll make the right call this time around; and, while it makes sense in the context of internal discussions within “the Jewish community” to prioritise opposition to the Board of Deputies over opposition to antisemitism, since openly antisemitic viewpoints are relatively unlikely to be expressed within those Seder night arguments, I think the Jewdas statement runs the risk of being overly narrow and so unhelpful within the broader picture.
It’s hard to measure these things with any degree of accuracy, but I do feel that the last few years have seen the growth of a conspiratorially-minded “grayzone”, the sort of space where crap like that peddled by Mear One is seen as acceptable. Certainly, it’s hard not to feel alarmed and disgusted by those Corbyn supporters who’ve signed up to Frances Naggs’ characterisation of this week’s events as “the full onslaught of a very powerful special interest group mobilising its apparent, immense strength”.
Of course, the internet is what it is, so I’m not going to claim to know what was going through the heads of those who responded by clicking on the “haha”, “wow”, “sad” or “angry” reactions (all of which would be sort of appropriate, in their way), and even of those who specifically asked for their names to be added, it’s hard to say how many might just be general trolls stirring up trouble, or antisemites on the other side of the world excited to see someone finally standing up to this “very powerful special interest group”; but even so, if we accept that any of those who’ve asked for their names to be added to the open letter are in some way a part of “the British left”, then those of us who are, however reluctantly, associated with that left have a real problem on our hands.
But that’s the bad news; the positive side of this situation is that, as Seymour highlights, the amount of attention currently being paid to this issue means that there’s a real chance to mount a proper offensive against the red-brown alliance. This is why I was slightly disappointed that the Jewdas statement focused so heavily on the shortcomings of the “community leadership”, and didn’t pay enough attention to the positive opportunities this situation opens up for an active campaign against the cranks and their enablers; we can all agree that it’d be much better for the political tone of that campaign to be set by the likes of Jewdas rather than the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Chronicle, but that’s not likely to happen without radical Jews stepping up to make it happen.
“Oppressed groups” are never homogenous entities, and any attempt at militant resistance at oppression always opens up faultlines, as groups like Jewdas, the Arbeter Fraint group, the Asian Youth Movements or those who’ve been on the frontlines of militant resistance to police killings in the US are always condemned by their respective “community leaders”; but, however contemptible the businessmen, politicians and rabbis who claim the right to speak for working-class Jews in shops, pubs, warehouses and offices across the country might be, a critique that focuses solely on them and misses the need/opportunity to engage in active hostilities with the kind of scum that picket Holocaust museums is incomplete.