The Labour Party once more finds itself in an unwinnable position after a politically-motivated manufactroversy by the press. This time, the issue is not Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a bacon sandwich, but something much more capable of undermining the British Left: An anti-Semitism row.
Now because of the world we live in, the word “Israel” has probably popped up somewhere in your mind at the mention of anti-Semitism. That’s not your fault – we live in a time when criticism of Israel is considered racism, which is unfortunate and wrong, for Israel is neither the representative of the Jewish people, nor a bastion of progressive Jewish values. Alas, some remarks are needed before we wade into this anti-Semitism row:
An ideology, when applied to the real world, should be judged by its death toll. Stalinism is no longer acceptable because of the huge suffering it brought. Neither is fascism, for the most part. The aggregated death toll from anti-Semitism is perhaps one of the largest in human history, and so too we cannot take that ideology seriously, regardless of its motivations or applications. There is, and never will be, a good reason to hate Jews as a people.
With that, it is important to remember that criticism of Zionism is not automatically anti-Semitism. One is criticism of a political ideology that is held by Jews and non-Jews alike; the other is criticism of an entire people on the basis of prejudice and murderous intent. For perhaps the millionth time, let it be known that some Zionists are not Jews, and some Jews are not Zionists. Some anti-Semites are Zionists! Criticism of one does not imply criticism of the other, and if somebody is really an anti-Semite, it usually doesn’t take too long for them to reveal themselves.
Which brings us back to the manufactroversy at hand: Is the Labour Party infested with anti-Semitism, or is it just growing increasingly critical of Zionism?
Last week, news broke that a Labour MP, Naz Shah, had been suspended from the party after her social media posts from 2014 appeared on Guido Fawkes, a far-right Islamophobic blog. In the first post, Shah shared an image which suggested transferring Israelis to the United States in order to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The image was first shared on the blog of Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein, a staunch advocate of Palestinian rights, but Fawkes failed to report that. Fawkes also failed to report that the creators of the image did so in response to the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Palestine. In effect, the image was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to expose double standards. But a second post from Shah around the same time also caused uproar for the comment “the Jews are rallying”, in reference to an online poll about war crimes in Gaza.
In defense of Shah, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone went on a day-long press tour in which he shared some unwanted and unfortunate commentary on Nazi Germany. Ken stated that upon becoming German Chancellor in 1932, Adolf Hitler was actually a Zionist, “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. Ken also added that Albert Einstein, himself Jewish, once warned that some Zionists are “too similar to the fascists we fought in the Second World War”. Though badly expressed, Ken’s point is basically the one I made at the start of this post: Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not equatable.
But it is a huge stretch to say that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist at any time of his life. Ken was probably referring to the infamous 1933 Haavara Agreement between German Jewish Zionists and Hitler, in which Jews fleeing Nazi Germany could take a portion of their assets to Palestine in the form of exported German goods. Hitler did not support the Agreement out of any wish to see a Jewish state – he stopped supporting it altogether in 1938 – but because it provided a reliable export market for the German manufacturing sector. On this, Ken is wrong to call Hitler a one-time Zionist. Zionism is the belief in a state for Jews (usually) in Palestine, not the belief in exploiting a deliberate refugee crisis to boost export sales.
Naturally, both Shah and Ken were branded Nazi apologists by the press and by one festering excuse for a politician in particular. They were both suspended from the party, and Jeremy Corbyn has promised to conduct a full independent investigation into anti-Semitism within the party, assuring members that it remains a safe and inclusive space committed to fighting racism, though the press has already conducted a show trial and found the party guilty on all charges.
Guardian writer Owen Jones supported their suspension from the party too, taking to social media to denounce anti-Semitism, thus implying that what Shah and Ken said was indeed anti-Semitic. I pointed out to Jones that many Jewish groups, such as Jews For Justice For Palestinians, The Jewish Socialists Group, and Jews For Boycotting Israeli Goods, did not support their suspension for two key reasons: They didn’t regard Shah and Ken’s comments as anti-Semitic, and they knew that their suspension would allow the coup against Corbyn’s leadership to continue. Additionally, renowned Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein said it was “obscene” to brand them anti-Semites for their trivial statements.
What does Owen Jones know about anti-Semitism that progressive Jewish groups do not? Despite asking three times, he ignored the question, instead only attacking the weird and outlandish criticisms of his ill-thought position instead.
“All these desiccated Labour apparatchiks, dragging the Nazi Holocaust through the mud for the sake of their petty jostling for power and position. Have they no shame?” – Norman Finkelstein
I have followed Jones’ work for some time and with some admiration, but he increasingly seems to be the lackey of the Labour Party. When asked by those he regards as ideological allies to jump, he asks “how high?” instead of “why should I?” I take my cues on what constitutes anti-Semitism from Jewish groups, not from the Daily Mail and the Tories who undoubtedly have ulterior motives. Why doesn’t Jones do the same? He won’t say, but what more could you expect from a Guardian writer.
In the end, it seems likely that Jones has accepted the merits of this manufactroversy because he is scared of the Corbyn coup. Mainstream leftists always rally to the standard-bearer of their cause in this way, even when they are in the wrong, because they’re afraid that the movement’s moment in the sun might end. But the whole point of Corbyn’s election as party leader was to reject the other side’s narrative, to decide for itself what is right and what is wrong, what what constitutes anti-Zionism and what constitutes anti-Semitism. In giving in to this row and expelling Shah and Livingstone, the party has tried to avoid defeat by handing the other side a victory.
And so we have the manufactroversy in a nutshell: A far-right gutter blog uncovers some dirt on a Labour MP, the press spreads the muck far and wide, and the Tories pick it up and throw it across the aisle at Corbyn, with Owen Jones ducking for cover behind him. Whether he accepts it or not, Jones has played directly into the hands of this smear campaign and the coup against Corbyn by letting the other side dictate its terms and force Labour to go, sulkily, once more on the unwinnable defensive, a position that it is far too used to occupying.