Whose identity is it anyway?: Some inconclusive thoughts on Labour antisemitism, identity, politics, and related matters

Is this what being a gentile ally looks like?

This is a somewhat messy and rambling piece of writing, so by way of an introduction: like a lot of people, I’d given a fair bit of thought over the last few years to questions around left/Labour antisemitism and “identity politics”. Since the end of the Corbyn project, the whole thing seemed a bit less pressing, but I had still been thinking a general reflection on the subject might be worthwhile, and so I decided to make it one of my projects to work on once lockdown started and I found myself with extra time on my hands; then I remembered that thinking about this stuff is infuriating in all sorts of ways and there’s more rewarding things to do even if you can’t leave the house, and put off doing anything about it for the first two months of lockdown.

I was eventually spurred into completing this by two things: 1) the ACG published their own article about identity politics and left antisemitism, which is worthwhile in its way, but didn’t mention a lot of the points that I’d been thinking about, and 2) the George Floyd uprisings started, and it became clear that claims and arguments about identity formed an important part of the counterinsurgency effort.

So if the following has a slightly disjointed character, that’s partly why, as it’s a set of musings about the role of identity mainly prompted by the arguments about UK left antisemitism, but also partially informed by the tactical/strategic debates that have taken place in Black-led anti-police uprisings over the last decade or so. Hopefully it’ll be of some use to someone:

 

It’s possible that when all this is “over”, whatever that means, we’ll be faced with a situation and a set of problems totally unlike anything we knew before. That can’t be ruled out. But if what comes next is anything like the situation before, it’s likely that there will still be some people spending a lot of time arguing about something that they call “identity politics”, which is often not very clearly defined.

I’ve written various things already about my frustration with this kind of vague argument, and, as a small contribution to trying to make the subject a bit clearer, this time I want to examine one area where identity and politics have crossed over quite dramatically in recent years. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this subject, and lots of other people have too, but for whatever reason I don’t often see the language of “identity politics” used to describe the row about antisemitism and the Labour Party that often, even though it’s one where claims about identity are central to the political arguments being made by various sides.

What follows isn’t really a clear argument as such, more just a scattered examination of various positions and their assumptions and implications. Hopefully it might be useful to other people, either for thinking about this situation or for other ones where similar claims are being made.

Whose Jews? Our Jews!

“Demographic categories are not coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures” which can be represented by individuals. Identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. Identity is not solidarity.”Who is Oakland?

 

One position around identity and politics which I think should be rejected is the idea that an individual or group can speak on behalf of everyone else who shares their identity or social position. I’ve discussed before how the Board of Deputies present a particularly clear-cut example of this tendency, to the extent of demanding that, in the name of “addressing antisemitism”, Labour politicians should swear not to engage with “fringe organisations or individuals” – that is to say, Jews who disagree with the Board of Deputies. There are a lot of things wrong with any statement of this kind, but among the most glaring is the way that it means any critics must be cast out as illegitimate – after all, if I claim to speak on behalf of X group, and someone who claims X identity disagrees with me, then either my claim is nonsense, or I have to show that my critic is not really X.

I’d been thinking a lot about this kind of politics in connection with the claims made by various “representatives of the Jewish community” in the UK over the last few years, but it’s also an important part of the soft end of the counterinsurgency methods used against Black uprisings in the US. From the classic Who is Oakland?:

“People of color who were not only active but central to Occupy Oakland and its various committees are routinely erased from municipal and activist accounts of the encampment. In subsequent months the camp has been denounced by social justice activists, many of whom work directly with the mayor’s office, who have criticized it as a space irreparably compromised by racial and gender privilege… People of color, women and trans* people of color, and white women and trans* people who participated heavily in Occupy Oakland have regularly become both white and (cis) male if they hold to a politics which favors confrontation over consciousness raising.”

Or for a more recent example, also from the Bay Area:

“Self-pronounced leaders in the Bay Area have tried to insinuate that anyone who desires conflict with the police after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are “White people [who] DON’T get to use Black pain to justify living out riot fantasies.” As if the real white fantasy isn’t people of color policing their own behavior in order to save the white supremacist society from being destroyed. This is an old trick that is worth being exposed, again. Power operates through representation…

In movements it’s the leaders who pretend to represent us when saying it’s not time or it’s not safe for us to revolt, usually hiding behind the vulnerability and power of the uncontrollable youth of color. They mediate our rage in order to gain a seat at the table of power. They are aspiring politicians. This type of power, similar to state power, operates on false binaries. George W. Bush told us “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists” and the movement leaders tell us “you’re either peaceful or you’re a provocateur”, or in this case they weaponize identity politics for obedience to their ideology: “you do what we say or you’re white.””

Innocent of being white

So, that’s one line of argument about politics and identity that I don’t think holds up. Another claim about identity – in the context of the UK left antisemitism argument, one that’s more likely to be made by the BoD’s detractors and Corbyn’s defenders – is the position, stated or implied, that someone with a certain identity can’t hold politics that go against the interests of that group. Again, this position doesn’t hold up to examination. For a hopefully uncontroversial example, Gilad Atzmon is certainly from a Jewish background, but I think his politics clearly, unmistakably cross the line into antisemitism. I was going to list Israel Shamir as a second example, but there seems to be some doubt about the details of his biography so he may not actually be from a Jewish background at all.

Still, other examples aren’t hard to find: think of Candace Owens, or Priti Patel, or Enrique Tarrio, or Andy Ngo, or Miranda Yardley, and so on and so on. It may be odd, but it’s certainly possible for someone to be Jewish and argue for things that would directly harm Jewish people, or a migrant and want increased border controls, and so on and so on, so the presence of people with that identity doesn’t in itself mean that a movement or institution is not racist, or misogynistic, or whatever.

Again, switching between the burning issues of today and those of a few months or a year ago, I had been thinking about this because of the presence of Jews in the anti-zionist movement, but similar discussions could be had about Black cops, or Black mayors or district attorneys or whoever. The career of Andy “GAY ASIAN JOURNALIST ATTACKED BY ANTIFA” Ngo is one more example of how some people can be consistently opposed to identity politics right until the moment when they see a chance to use them to score a point.

No puns please, you’re Jewish

So, if identity categories can’t be treated as homogenous political groupings, if there are people of Jewish background who endorse antisemitic conspiracy theories, and the existence of Black cops doesn’t mean that the police force as an institution is no longer racist, does that mean that “identity politics” is fully discredited so we can just sack off thinking about identity altogether? Again, I’m not sure it’s that simple. As much as we might declare that we’re against something called “identity politics”, I don’t think affecting colourblindness is useful either, which means that we still have to find a way to think about the ways that identity and politics are related to each other.

To return to what we could call the “Jewish Voice for Labour dilemma”: a noticeably high number of the alleged antisemitism controversies of the last few years involved people from Jewish backgrounds. As I’ve said, I don’t think the fact of being Jewish automatically puts them above all criticism, but it’s not totally irrelevant either.

There’s an example which is so extreme it seems like a hypothetical scenario someone might make up if they were being silly, except that it happened: Jo Bird, a Jewish Labour councillor, who was suspended for the Labour Party for making a “Jew Process” pun while discussing how to tackle antisemitism. See here for an example of her writing on the subject, including the offending pun.

Obviously, this would be a stupid non-story even if she were a gentile, and even if we treat the “Jew process” pun as having some kind of substantive content rather than just being someone who likes pun making a pun: I’m not aware of any definition of antisemitism that’s so wide-ranging as to include things like “bloody Jews, they get everywhere, always scheming about how to provide a strong ethical framework to resolve disputes in a fair and balanced manner”, because that’s simply not a thing that antisemites say. But the fact that she’s Jewish pushes it over the edge into being absolutely farcical. And yet the irresponsibly scaremongering, unhelpfully Islamophobic, Campaign Against Antisemitism insist on making post after post after post about Jo Bird, always emphasising the fact that she made a pun, as if Jews who make puns are somehow a serious threat to Jewish life who need to be monitored and opposed at all times.*

So, that’s one particularly extreme, and extremely inane, example, but it points up a broader problem. In general, I don’t agree with everything that Jewish Voice for Labour say, and I think that they often defend people who, in my view, have crossed the line into doing or saying something unacceptable; but I would hesitate to call them antisemitic, and I certainly view them differently to how I would view an all-gentile group who held the same positions. Which is to say that, no matter how much we may insist that identity isn’t the be all and end all, it’s very hard to get away from it as well.

Is taking Jo Bird’s identity into consideration when assessing her puns a form of identity politics? And if not, why not, what exactly distinguishes it from other ways of thinking about identity and politics beyond just “I think it’s good to do so in this instance but bad to do so in these other instances”?

There isn’t really a conclusion to go here. I don’t think identity is a trump card (no pun intended) that makes all other considerations irrelevant; I also don’t think it can be ignored. It would be nice if I had a rule of thumb setting out exactly how much weight to give it in any given situation, but I don’t. These things are messy, and I suspect that many of the worst excesses of both “idpol” and “anti-idpol” are related to people thinking they can come up with neat shortcuts to avoid the messiness.

There are probably people who would see my views on this as dangerously undermining the fight against antisemitism, and other people who would see them as making unjustified concessions to the Zionists trying to smear good people as antisemites; obviously, I think both those positions are wrong, but I think it’s healthy to try to bear in mind that it’s possible for people to hold either of them in good faith, without necessarily being an awful dickhead driven by hatred of either Palestinians or Jews.

Contagion and purity

A few related, similarly inconclusive thoughts: it is also noticeable how much of the left antisemitism row revolves around… it’s hard to find a neutral, non-loaded way of saying “guilt by association”, which is unfortunate because I’m not trying to dismiss all such accusations, just to think critically about them. So, for example, to return to Jo Bird, as well as the fact of making puns, one of the other major accusations against her was that she said Marc Wadsworth shouldn’t be expelled from the Labour Party. Similarly, Diane Abbott recently faced criticism, not for anything that she’d said, but for being on the same mass Zoom call as Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein. And so on.

In the case of red-brownism and left antisemitism, so much depends on making connections that it’s easy to come off like Charlie Kelly arm-waving about Pepe Silvia. We can start off with something obviously beyond the pale and clearly unacceptable: say, Gearóid Ó Colmáin’s’s pro-Franco rantings, or the sickening antisemitism of Red Ice, or Tucker Carlson’s white nationalism – or indeed the neo-nazism of Richard Spencer, who has not-so-distant connections with another part of mainstream British politics. These people are, pretty clearly and unambiguously, Not Our Friends. But then we move on to people like Vanessa Beeley who promote Ó Colmáin’s gibberish as providing a good explanation of what’s going on, or appear on Red Ice like Patrick Henningsen, or who make regular friendly appearances on Carlson’s show like Max Blumenthal. That’s bad as well, right?

And then we get on to people who might not directly say anything that objectionable themselves, and may even say good and righteous things some of the time, but are also happy to endorse people like Beeley and Henningsen, such as Chris Williamson. And then, taking it one step further, we have people who have no direct connection to Beeley or Henningsen themselves, and may be excellent comrades in many ways, but who think for whatever reason that it’s important to defend Chris Williamson (this is, as I understand it, where much of JVL are), or one step further still there’s people who defend people who defend Chris Williamson, and so on.

Again, I don’t have a clear answer to this: the politics of people like Beeley, Henningsen and Carlson/Blumenthal are toxic, and their influence should be challenged; on the other hand, being someone who defends someone who has some association with someone who went on a podcast with a nazi, while it may be wrong, is far from the same thing as being a nazi oneself. Once again, it’d be nice to produce a neat, simple rule about the exact number of degrees of separation one should maintain, but again I think there’s no substitute for the messy process of working things out on a case-by-case basis, and accepting that there are sometimes going to be reasonable grounds for disagreement.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of left antisemitism (or left tolerance of antisemitism, or left tolerance of people who tolerate antisemitism, etc), but the general questions of where and how we draw lines are relevant to all kinds of other situations, from the boycott of the SWP and its front groups since 2013 through to the TERF wars.

A gaslight that never goes out

Just to make this even more rambling and inconclusive: thinking about this whole affair has made me reflect on a few other concepts, like the idea of “gaslighting”, the term used to describe manipulation designed to distort someone’s perception of reality. To me, the concentrated campaign designed to tell British Jews again and again that the leadership of one major political party presented a clear and urgent threat to their safety, while minimising or totally ignoring things like Boris Johnson’s connection to the Spectator and Taki’s poisonous antisemitism, Suella Braverman coming out with antisemitic conspiracy theories and then being promoted, the Conservative defence of Orban’s antisemitic government in Hungary, and so on and on and on… well, it feels like gaslighting, like a deliberate attempt to distort reality.

At the same time, for anyone who really genuinely believes that the Corbyn project was a direct and uniquely dangerous threat to British Jewry, my views on the subject must seem like an equally sinister and manipulative distortion of reality. Once again, it’s hard to come up with a neat conclusion to go here: I could say “accusing people of gaslighting when there’s just a real, important and sincere difference in perceptions is useless, so people should stop doing it”, but on the other hand, when it feels like someone is telling you that up is down, red is blue, and making a misjudged comment on a facebook post about a mural is deeply significant and revealing, but running a magazine that regularly prints the bile of a frothing antisemite for years is a minor trifle not even worth considering… that experience is frankly enraging, and telling people to not be enraged by it isn’t going to do anything.

A similar symmetry exists with accusations of hypocrisy and “whataboutery”: to me, the disproportionate focus on Labour antisemitism combined with the seeming tolerance for Conservative antisemitism seems like blatant hypocrisy; to a supporter of the Board of Deputies/Campaign Against Antisemitism line, my insistence that Conservative antisemitism has to be part of the conversation must seem like “whataboutery”.  Similarly, I’m sure there must be situations where I’d get angry at other people for whataboutery, and they’d think I was being hypocritical. I don’t have a neat solution for that either, but if anyone else does I’d be glad to hear about it.

 

*and, to be clear, just because the “Jew Process” story was obviously absurdly inane doesn’t mean that Jo Bird is above criticism, I’m sure she’s made many decisions that I would disagree with – I mean, she’s a Labour councillor, apart from anything else. But the fact that the Campaign Against Antisemitism regularly refer to her as ‘“Jew Process” councillor’ and not ‘councillor who said something nice about Chris Williamson’, or whatever, does seem to suggest that they think the fact the she makes puns is somehow the most damning smoking gun about her.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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