After my excursus into the issue of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, I want to return to the political divisions in Europe, initially the cultural divisions on the left, picking up from my analysis of the economic divisions of the left as instantiated in the Brexit fight. The real divisive question on the left in Britain can be found in identity politics rather than debates over domestic class interests and the real, as distinct from caricatured, character of regional and globalist economics.
This is not simply my view. The Labour Party in Britain launched a commission of inquiry into the apparent anti-Zionism that seemed to run like a river of lava flowing forth from under the ground and spewing not only hot molten rock dividing the party, but the noxious vapours as well that have so poisoned discussions and debates on the left in Britain. The Sharmista Chakrabarti (Shami) Inquiry was instigated after the suspension of two Labour Party members over allegations of antisemitism, Naz Shah, a new member of the House of Commons, and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London. Controversy followed the comments made by Shah who had suggested that Israel be relocated in the U.S., and Livingstone who had claimed that Adolph Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism. These comments on both Jews and Israel were interpreted as antisemitic.
Sharmishta (Shami) Chakrabarti of Bengali heritage led the inquiry. Following the tabling of her report, she became a baroness with a life peerage (nominated by Jeremy Corbyn himself, the current leader of the Labour Party). She sits in the House of Lords on the Labour benches. Shami, trained as a lawyer (LSE), directed “Liberty” for years, an organization with a long record of promoting civil liberties and human rights. She approached her inquiry into antisemitism within the Labour Party with impeccable credentials, in spite of the criticism of her appointment by The Community Security Trust that monitors antisemitism in Britain and has as its mission ensuring the safety and security of the Jewish community there.
Shami first made her reputation fighting anti-terrorist legislation that seemed excessive and too infected with Islamophobia. She had previously been a panel member on the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and press standards. Nevertheless, Marie van der Zyl, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had initially leveled the charge of classic antisemitism at the Labour Party, dubbed her report a “whitewash.” It was certainly not a whitewash, but it may have missed its target and delivered only a glancing blow to the type of anti-Zionist antisemitism that is such a powerful undercurrent in the Labour Party.
This was the case even though Shami, in her June 2016 report, had documented a strong strain within Labour of “modern anti-Zionism of a particularly excessive, obsessive, and demonizing kind.” But she also insisted that it was not pervasive. Anti-Zionist antisemitism intermixed hatred of Zionism with traditional antisemitic tropes, images and assumptions. Shami was concerned with the mixing rather than the question of whether and when anti-Zionism could become antisemitic.
The report concluded that Labour was “not overrun by anti-Semitism” or, for that matter, Islamophobia and racism. But it was infected with the new form of anti-Zionist antisemitism. Thus, although racism in Britain did target Jews – and Pakistanis and blacks – only the racism targeting Jews entailed political ideology and infected foreign policy. If the right in the U.S. now wanted to exclude Muslims and Hispanics from becoming citizens, and Blacks from becoming full citizens by limiting their right to vote, the far left in Britain, infused with a romantic version of the Palestinian struggle, sought to exclude Israel from the world of nation-states.
Though the Board of Deputies of British Jews was critical of Shami’s report, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis endorsed the report and urged “a full and unhesitating implementation of its findings.” Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears institute for the Study of Antisemitism, concluded that, “This is an important document at a time, when more than ever, we need to stand firm against all forms of racism and intolerance. The report marks a positive step towards ensuring that the Labour Party is a welcoming place for all minority groups. It recommends steps to ensure that members act in a spirit of tolerance and respect, while maintaining principles of free speech and open debate. The recommendations are constructive and provide a sound basis on which the Party can move forward.”
Why the differences among sectors of the Jewish community in Britain? The answer is partially available in the inquiry of the House Affairs Select Committee that followed the Shami Report. The Committee zeroed in on the National Union of Students and its then leader, Malia Bouattia, whose family came from Algeria. Malia had majored in cultural studies at the University of Birmingham and did a MPhil in postcolonial theory. That theory itself postulates that Zionism, and the creation of Israel, is a product of imperialism and colonialism, and that Israel is an apartheid and colonial state that controls and exploits colonized people and their land.
Thus, although the Committee was critical of all the political parties for hosting antisemitic elements, it also accused Shami’s inquiry of serious shortcomings. Shami had recognized that antisemitism had emerged in a new form that did not simply criticize Israeli policies and actions, but sought to undermine the right of Jews to self-determination within the historic land of Israel. However, the latter antisemitic elements were underplayed in the report and insufficient attention was paid to its existence within the Labour party. As I documented in an earlier blog, anti-Zionist antisemitism also seems to be characteristic of at least two of the new members of the House of Representatives in the U.S., Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Those views, while still belonging to a small minority, are far more pervasive in the Labour Party in Britain than in the Democratic Party in the U.S.
Further, as the House of Commons report concluded, not only was Shami’s understanding of post-WWII anti-Zionist antisemitism too limited, but the display of that antisemitism focused on insensitivity rather than cognitive misunderstanding. Thus, when a pro-Corbyn party activist at the public launch of Shami’s Report accused Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, of working hand-in-hand with the right, Smeeth accused Jeremy Corbyn of failing to speak out in her defense. Corbyn may insist that he is not antisemitic, but, at the very least, he displays an acute insensitivity to antisemitism, especially of the anti-Zionist variety but sometimes also classical antisemitism.
After all, Corbyn himself in response to the Shami report had compared Israeli actions to that of the Islamic State. (30 June 2016) “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.” Jews generally found drawing such an equivalence to be antisemitic. Even though Chief Rabbi Mervis had endorsed the report and Shami had defended Corbyn’s comparison, Mervis said the remarks were “offensive.”
In that mindblindness, I would endorse the conclusion of the House that Shami’s report was “compromised,” not because Shami, after delivering her report, accepted an appointment to the House of Lords from Corbyn, or because the report was insufficiently sensitive, but because her understanding of modern anti-Zionist antisemitism had serious shortcomings. It may be the case that, “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.” However, anti-Zionist antisemitism is both more pervasive and more deep-seated in Labour while classical antisemitism may be more pervasive, deeper, and possibly more subtle, in the Conservative Party.
The exploration of the fact and the explanation for that pervasive anti-Zionist antisemitism on the left in Britain requires further analysis.
To be continued.