About two years ago, responding to the controversies around the London Anarchist Bookfair in late 2017, I mentioned my worry that people throwing around unsubstantiated charges of antisemitism could lead to a “boy who cried wolf” effect that would undermine the social taboo that currently makes antisemitism politically toxic. The two years since then… they have really, really not been good ones as far as people casually doing that exact thing have been concerned.
This week, the Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland publicly accused Majid Mahmood, a Birmingham Labour councillor, of making antisemitic comments, a claim that was picked up and amplified by the Guardian liveblog. Except that, as it turned out, the Majid Mahmood who’d made the antisemitic comments was a totally different bloke living in a different city, meaning that Freedland had just made a high-profile and very serious claim that turned out to be totally false.
And, of course, in the comments of the post where I found out about this, there was someone making genuinely antisemitic comments in reaction. Of course there was. It’s worth taking a moment to think about this: for those who actually do hate Jews, and for their allies who don’t think there’s a problem, nothing suits them better than for clowns like Freedland to go around coming out with easily refuted untruths.
Freedland has just handed a big win to everyone who wants to make the argument that there is no problem at all with antisemitism on the left and the whole thing is one big smear campaign. For those of us who actually want to fight racism in all forms, this kind of shit makes life much harder. I want my antisemitism radar to work properly, and normally people talking about an “antisemitism smear campaign” is the sort of thing that would set it off, but the difficulty is that it’s also a completely accurate description of behaviour like Freedland’s.
Undeterred by the fact that he’d just given direct aid and comfort to Jew-haters, the next day he was back at it again, churning out another column which didn’t contain any kind of an apology or acknowledgement of how badly he’d fucked up, but did contain the astonishing claim that “Britain’s Jews… for the first time in their history, have concluded that someone hostile to them is on the brink of taking democratic power”. This is frankly astounding stuff, as if no antisemitic politician had played a major role in British political life prior to 2015. As if, when the Balfour goverment brought in the anti-Jewish Aliens Act in 1905, British Jews were going “this is fine, as far as we can tell this government seems pretty keen on us.” As if the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks was a fan of Jews.
But there’s the thing, isn’t it? The Balfour government that brought in legislation against Jewish immigrants was a Conservative government, and Joynson-Hicks, described by the Jewish Chronicle as “the most avowed and determined anti-Semite in the House”, was a Conservative politician. And so these people become unmentionable in the worldview of someone like Freedland, who seems to believe that to be on the left is to be antisemitic and to be antisemitic is to be on the left.
Into the memory hole it goes, along with the polling that found out that Labour supporters were less likely than average to agree with antisemitic statements, but Conservative supporters were more likely than average. Along with the antisemitic pamphlets sold at a Conservative party conference fringe event last year. Along with Rees-Mogg’s dogwhistling about the illuminati, and Priti Patel’s about North London elites, and Suella Braverman’s about cultural Marxists, and Crispin Blunt’s claims that Jews want “special status”. Along with Boris Johnson’s editorship of a racist rag that published antisemitic comments by Taki so vile that even Conrad Black denounced them.
I’m not going to vote Labour, and I don’t encourage you to: I’m in favour of working-class self-organisation, and while that often means I end up on the same side as grassroots Labour members, it equally often means that I end up on the opposite side to Labour councils and politicians. I’m not writing this because I want to encourage support for Labour, but because I care about racism and antisemitism, and because the line pushed by those like Freedland, that antisemitism is somehow a uniquely Labour phenomenon, is such a bizarre and damaging one.
The thing that bothers me about Freedland and all those like him, everyone going along with the claim, whether implicit or explicit, that if you care about Jews then you should support Boris Johnson – who is, just to repeat, a man who ran a publication employing a Jew-hating, nazi-sympathising columnist – is: how far are they genuinely this thick, and how far are they just cynical? What is it that makes them so willing to go along with a campaign intended to secure the victory of the more antisemitic party? Surely Freedland must have the basic intelligence to understand that his actions this week have been helpful and encouraging to antisemites, so is this not something he feels any shame over?
Meanwhile, of course, nazis have been plotting to bomb synagogues and circulating documents like the “Manual for practical and sensible guerrilla warfare against kike system in the Durham city area”. But hey, that can’t be directly blamed on Jeremy Corbyn, so who gives a shit?
Recommended for further reading: The media bias on antisemitism in the Left and Labour is now putting the lives of British Jewry at risk