Labour can’t solve its anti-Semitism problem until it understands why the left needs to blame Jews

The simplest, and incorrect, way to think about racism is as though it were a matter of bad ideas to be debunked and discarded. The faux-empiricist scaffolding that supports racism is only that – scaffolding. We could argue indefinitely about bell-curves and brain volumes, and settle nothing, because the reason people are attached to racist beliefs is not that they are true. It is that they are useful.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” details unsparingly the history of America that is a history of the exploitation of black bodies, tracking the line from slavery to Jim Crow to the predatory financing of the subprime sector that all served to extract from black people whatever they had – their capital, their home, their livestock, their children, their very selves – and put it into white hands. Black president or no, America is not done with its reliance on an economically exploitable subclass, so it is not done with the racism that creates that class.

Every strand of racism serves to put groups of people to a specific use. Which is why Momentum vice chair Jackie Walker was wrong when she said (in a speech at the Momentum fringe conference) that “anti-Semitism is no more special than any other form of racism”. The uses of anti-Semitism are distinct, and perhaps more indispensable to the British left than those of any other racism. Throughout European history, Jews have been cast in the role of other. A little different, a little treacherous, loyal to ethnicity and religion rather than the state; tolerated, but with a tolerance easily revoked whenever social strains arose that could be settled by a pogrom.

When confronted with anti-Semitism, both inside Labour and more broadly in left-wing movements, the temptation is always to disown it: to respond that it is really a problem of society as a whole for which Labour is unfairly blamed, or a problem of the right (exemplified by the Mail’s harrying of Ed and David Miliband’s father Ralph as “the man who hated Britain”), or (for those in the moderate wing of the party) a problem of the hard left that has invaded Labour through the alien body of Momentum.

These are pleasant self-deceptions. Anti-Semitism is at home within Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for over thirty years. At a 2009 parliamentary meeting, he described Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” – both organisations with explicitly anti-Semitic constitutions who derive their ideology in part from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Corbyn has recently repudiated this position, but the fact is that for seven years, he considered this affiliation to sit happily with his membership of Labour – and so did the Labour Party, because there was no threat of suspension.

Before Ken Livingstone became that guy with who can’t stop saying (falsely) that Hitler was a Zionist, he was blurring Jewishness and Nazism by calling a Jewish journalist a concentration camp guard while Labour Mayor of London. Jackie Walker was reinstated to Labour following a suspension for slurring Jews as “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. Her most recent outpourings are only possible because earlier ones were not deemed expulsion-worthy. Before Naz Shah MP was exposed for her anti-Semitic Facebook postings and suspended, she was a Labour Party member: membership of the Party did not, at the time, strike her as incompatible with comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and calling for the dissolution of the Jewish state.

In an apology published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after her reinstatement to the party, Shah was eloquent and unflinching about her error. “I’d never before understood that anti-Semitism is different – and perhaps more dangerous – than other forms of discrimination, because instead of painting the victim as inferior, anti-Semitism paints the victim as, in a way, superior and controlling,” she wrote. This is the claim that NUS President Malia Bouattia, for example, activated when she described Jewish Birmingham students as a “Zionist outpost”. Identifying young British Jews with the state of Israel implies that they are both suspect adherents to an outside power, and privileged by that association in such a way that they cannot be oppressed. It makes them legitimate targets.

And it’s this belief that Jews are powerful that makes anti-Semitism such a seductive ideology to the left. Even when not explicitly internationalist, the left, and the English left particularly, tends to be squeamish about national identity. While nationalism is permissible when it’s Scottish, Welsh or Irish – Corbyn and his ally John McDonnell have openly supported and celebrated the paramilitary nationalism of the IRA – English nationalism is an unspeakable, embarrassing thing seen as synonymous with racism. Rejection of nationalism is no bad thing, but without recourse to patriotism, all that’s possible is an identity of exclusion. The most obvious element to exclude is, as ever in Europe, Jews.

This is the intellectual environment within which anti-Semitism finds a sympathetic home on the left. Even when Jews are not explicitly named, the apparatus of the leftist persecution complex – the vision of a controlled media working in tandem with a rapacious financial sector in the service of a militaristic state of which Israel is the considered the supreme example – is a set of signs that point ineluctably towards Jews as the ultimate source of harm. These habits of thinking are ingrained in leftist understanding, and will remain so until there is a serious reckoning with what it means to be a state defined by something apart from expulsion of the impure element.

Every denial or diminishment of anti-Semitism in the left, whichever part it comes from, is really special pleading to be allowed to carrying on using Jews in the way the left has habitually used Jews: as the representatives of that Other which defines what we are not. Shami Chakrabarti’s report into Labour anti-Semitism begins with the claim that “the Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism”. Of course it is not, because how can any organisation be “overrun” by something that is woven into its underlying principles? Labour can turn itself against anti-Semitism, but only when it grasps how radically the prejudice against Jews is entwined in leftist politics.

New Statesman | Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?


I argue the case for “no” in a debate with Jennie Kermode, chair of Trans Media Watch

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant. But as absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy.

Read the full post at the New Statesman


BBC Radio Wales – Good Morning Wales | Did Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech unite his warring party?


After an extraordinary summer, it’s back to normal for Labour – a normal that includes a leader the MPs have no confidence in, MPs regarded as traitors by a large mass of the party, and anti-Semitism of the grossest kind voiced by an ally of the leader in one hall while that same leader declared “zero tolerance towards those who whip up hate and division” in another.

Tom Watson delivered a speech the moderates loved urging Labour to own and celebrate its Blair-Brown record, Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech his supporters loved that included a barely-veiled attacked on Tony Blair, and Clive Lewis delivered a speech that Seamas Milne rewrote seconds before delivery to alter a key section on Labour’s approach to Trident, in a striking illustration of how loyalty to Corbyn is repaid. (If the rumours are true that Milne is about to head back to journalism with his diaries in hand, then the relief of Labour’s front bench could soon be lost in a swell of muckraking.) Owen Smith delivered no speech and is presumably just glad it’s all over.

I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning, talking through what Labour’s new normal means in the second age of Corbyn – follow the link below for the item.

Listen on iPlayer (from 00:10:26)

New Statesman | Are we trying too hard to be liberal about gender?


When I was four, my role model was a small cartoon mongrel dog with a formidable talent for swordsmanship. Or swordswomanship, because I was convinced that Dogtanian (of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds) was a girl. My reasoning went like this: I am the most important person in the world and a girl, therefore the most important person in my favourite cartoon must also be a girl. And many happy games of Muskehounds were played by me, in my dungarees, oblivious to the unlikelihood of a children’s cartoon having a female lead in the first place, let alone giving that female lead the lovely Juliette as a romantic interest.

Eventually I realised my mistake, decided it was unfair that women never got to be action heroes, and grew up to be a feminist with the Alien films on Blu-ray. But it could all have gone another way. On Radio 4’s iPM this week, the mother of a 10-year-old called Leo explained that one of the reasons she knew her female child must be either a boy or non-binary was that Leo’s fictional idols were always male: Peter Pan, Iron Man, Wolverine.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

BBC Radio Wales – Good Morning Wales | Labour leadership election closing

corbyn vs smith

Voting in the Labour leadership election closed at midday yesterday, with it looking very likely that a Corbyn victory on an increased majority will be the result announced at conference this Saturday. I was on BBC Radio Wales yesterday morning to talk about where this leaves Labour. Does it have any prospects as a party of government under Corbyn? Can the soft left and centre hope to regain control of the party? And is Labour ever going to confront the political fragmentation of the Union?

That last is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot, partly because I think Labour’s difficulty with articulating a positive idea of statehood, and consequent vulnerability to to electoral pressure from nationalists, is probably intimately connected to the left’s susceptibility to anti-Semitism (and, given Dworkin’s analysis of the conceptual intimacy between anti-Semitism and misogyny, its sexism too). I haven’t thought this through entirely yet, but since Labour looks in no danger of pulling itself together imminently, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to work on it. Anyway, follow the link below to hear me on Good Morning Wales.

Listen on iPlayer (from 00:05:55)

Independent | Liberal Democrat Dennis Parsons is wrong – prostitution is abuse, not a career to aspire to


The revelation that Keith Vaz was unwinding from his work chairing parliamentary inquiries into the law on prostitution by arranging to “break” young prostituted Eastern European men is a good reminder that whenever a man ventures an opinion about the sale of sex, we should ask what his skin in the game is. The best available data tells us that one in ten men has paid for sex.

According to Dennis Parsons, the main cause of harm in prostitution is people who insist that prostitution is a cause of harm. “The fact that we are asking ‘should we seek to prevent people entering sex work?’ is part of the problem,” he told a special session of the Lib Dem conference. “You wouldn’t ask the question ‘should we prevent people becoming accountants?’ You’d just take it for granted.”

Read the full post at the Independent

BBC One – Sunday Morning Live | Should sexism be a hate crime?


The BBC One religion and ethics discussion show Sunday Morning Live hosted a discussion this week about the Nottingham Police initiative to record misogynistically motivated offences as hate crime (a subject I wrote about last week for the New Statesman). Melanie Jeffs of Nottingham Women’s Centre was there to explain the background and intent of the strategy; and Jon Gaunt was there to railroad the discussion into wolf-whistling, because violence against women is just no fun to bloviate about. I supplied some feminist side-eye, and the whole show is on iPlayer now.

Watch the show on iPlayer (sexism package starts at 20:00)