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.