On the Competition for Recognition – Modern Antisemitism Part IX C (ii) Antisemitism in the Political Left in Britain

It should be no surprise then that 40% of Jews in Britain insist that they would “seriously consider” leaving Britain if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. After all, left-wingers are responsible for 25% of the incidents of antisemitic harassment in the U.K., twice that of right-wingers. (Muslims are responsible for 30% of such incidents.) Many Jews now are wary of displaying symbols of their religion on their bodies and on their homes.

A major difference between the U.K. and the U.S. can be found in the laws governing hate speech. In the U.S., hate speech is not even regulated. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment protects hate speech as an expression of free speech. In contrast, and ignoring differences between England and Wales versus Scotland and Northern Ireland, the U.K. does regulate hate speech.

Part 3 of the 1986 Public Order Act prohibits expressions of racial hatred defined as hatred against a group of persons by reason of the group’s colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. Part of the restrictiveness in the application of the law arises because intent has to be proven and, also, the words must actually be threatening or abusive, sufficiently to stir up hatred. Insulting a Jew or a Muslim to a friend would not constitute illegal hate speech. The characteristic that the language could also be insulting was removed subsequently from the legislation to protect critics of Islamicist terrorism from being accused of hate speech. In 1994, the Act was amended to add a prohibition against causing alarm or distress and in 2000 to include the intention of stirring up religious hatred, both changes more concerned with Islamophobia that anti-Zionist antisemitism.

The law does not prohibit anti-Zionist antisemitism. If Zionism is a political ideology about the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, the law does not restrict any language that claims that Jews do not and should not have such a right, even when that position if often heavily larded with classical antisemitic tropes. Thus, the law would not restrict anti-Zionist antisemitism in the U.K. any more than in the U.S. In the name of freedom of speech, both countries offer a wide swath for openly and avowedly anti-Zionist antisemites. But why is it more pervasive in the U.K. than in the U.S.?

There are at least two phenomena that explain the difference. The first is the different patterns of migration to the two countries so that as a percentage of the population, Britain has a higher percentage of Muslims than in the U.S. and hence, expectedly, even if only a minority, a higher percentage of Muslims who advocate anti-Zionist antisemitism. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2015, there were about 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S., about 1% of the total U.S. population. The comparative proportion in the U.K. is 5%. On the basis of statistics alone, however small the group of anti-Zionist antisemites in Britain, their numbers are bound to be five times those in the U.S. The intellectual background in Britain makes the percentage of modern antisemitism even higher still.

Secondly, classical antisemitism has deeper roots in the U.K. than in the U.S. and far more frequent expressions in spite of the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue this past year. Further, those incidents in the U.S. predominantly come from the right. The majority of such incidents in the U.K. comes from the left, even though classical antisemitism is far more pervasive with deeper roots on the right and, as expressed, had very little offensive activity in the U.K. The 2017 Institute of Jewish Policy Research in its largest and most detailed survey of attitudes towards Jews and Israel ever conducted in Great Britain, concluded that the levels of antisemitism in Great Britain were among the lowest in the world. Only 2.4% of the population expressed multiple antisemitic attitudes. Further, 70% had a favourable opinion of Jews. The difference, however, was that only 17% had a favourable opinion of Israel; 33% were very unfavourable and that position found its repository largely on the left.

However, unfavourable attitudes to Israel do not constitute antisemitism. Actions do. In 2001, there were nearly 300 antisemitic assaults, incidents of vandalism, cases of abuse, and threats against Jewish individuals and institutions. By 2005, the numbers had doubled. By 2018, the frequency had risen to 100 per month. The incidents of Jews being targeted in the street in random attacks have quadrupled in two decades. There were 1,382 incidents in 2017, an increase of 3% over the year before (1,346 incidents). Most situations involve verbal abuse randomly directed at Jewish people in public. But there are also physical assaults. Three-quarters of those incidents took place in Greater Manchester and Greater London, the two British cities with the highest population of Jews.

Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement for the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) said that, “Antisemitic crime has been rising dramatically since 2014 and that rise is not explained by an increase in reporting, and we have seen no noticeable impact from Brexit… Jews are being singled out disproportionately and with increasing violence due to the spread of antisemitic conspiracy myths originating from Islamists, the far-left and far-right, which society is failing to address, as evidenced by the ongoing disgraceful situation in the Labour Party, and because the Crown Prosecution Service declines to prosecute so often that antisemites no longer fear any consequences to their actions.”

Many commentators in the U.K. blame the pervasiveness of an irrational hatred of Israel and the evidence that authorities have turned a blind eye to Islamicist fanaticism lest they be accused of racism. However, the incidents of classic antisemitism in the Labour Party have been less than 0.1% according to Shami’s inquiry. The problem lies in modern anti-Zionist antisemitism. Corbyn’s consistent critique of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank so easily slips into a critique of Zionism per se. It can be recognized even when debates over the weaponization of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust have been bracketed.

The substitution of a one-state solution for the two-state solution, for example, has been defended on the grounds of democracy, even though it would mean that Israel could no longer defend itself as the state of the Jewish people. Instead of democracy plus self-determination, too many on the left in Britain defend democracy in opposition to Jewish self-determination and in favour of a supposedly non-nationalist self-determination of the people in Israel-Palestine, but one which would, in reality strongly favour Palestinian self-determination. National self-determination and ensuring the principle of equality for all citizens are not incompatible as the politics within Scotland indicate.

Justifiable critics of Israeli actions of forcible ethnic cleansing to some degree in 1948, where there were no immediate security issues, are falsely equated with an “eliminationist” ethic. Forcible transfer, a common practice in Europe after WWII, however disreputable now, is not equivalent to an exterminationist ethic. Those critics also somehow usually fail to note that all of non-Jewish Palestine had been made Judenrein, cleansed of Jews, including the Old City of Jerusalem. Too few Palestinian nationalists offer Jews equal citizenship in a future Palestinian state. Israel offers Palestinians equal citizenship, though it often fails to live up to that ideal.

Critics of Israel justify the unique obloquy and singling out Israel, not, as they say, for its Jewish character, but for its alleged unique impunity. Yet Israel has been denounced in the UN more than all other countries combined, including countries clearly guilty of genocide or of targeting the middle as well as upper classes in its society, such as Venezuela. The socialist tradition in Britain, whatever the degree of quality in its self-examination and self-criticism, has still failed to come to terms with the propensity to conflate classical antisemitism in the dress of anti-Zionist antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn is not Bernie Sanders. Ironically, while class-based analysis has seen an unusual resurgence in America, the British left has been moving away from a class-based narrative towards a primary concern with events in the Third World rather than the decline in real wages over the last decade among the working class in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn is a product of the New Left rather than the Old Left. The heroes of the New Left were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. Many of the remnants, like Corbyn, applauded the late Hugo Chăvez in Venezuela. On the latter’s death in 2013, Corbyn tweeted, “Thanks Hugo Chăvez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”

Corbyn cheered Chăvez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, for his commitment to democracy and socialist values even though Maduro banned protests and rigged democracy in Venezuela to keep himself in office. Labourites Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, John McDonnell, and others echoed those sentiments. Meanwhile, Venezuelans, reduced to poverty, flee in droves as inflation reached a million percent while Labour Party sympathizers organized a Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign early this year.

The connection to antisemitism? Anti-Zionist antisemites are imbued with post-colonial studies that portray Israel as an imperialist colonizing outpost of the West. Corbyn is part of that heritage. He attended a ceremony in Tunisia, not in 1972, but in 2014, that honoured the perpetrators of the Olympic Munich massacre. He befriends Hamas and denounces efforts to portray jihadists in Gaza as terrorists.

That, in the end, is why the Shami inquiry missed the main point, though it confessed that Jeremy Corbyn had created a “safe space” for antisemites, as when Ken Livingstone argued that Adolph Hitler supported Zionism. That is why its recommendations focused on criticizing the use of epithets like “Paki” and on drawing parallels between Hitler and the Holocaust and pasting over the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The other recommendations focused on procedural issues and second order norms, none of which can touch the endemic deeply rooted modern anti-Zionist antisemitism in the current Labour Party.

It is ironic that when the deepest challenge Britain currently faces is Brexit, Corbyn offers so little leadership on the issue while, at the same time, he is preoccupied with “colonized peoples.”

With the help of Alex Zisman

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