What is antisemitism? It’s racism against Jews. Perhaps because it’s such an old hatred it has transmuted over the years. When Jews were powerless, they were pigs or they had killed Christ. When Jews could make a living, they were money grabbing usurers. When Jews became citizens of the countries in which they lived, they were rootless cosmopolitan fifth columnists with loyalties outside the State. When Jews were not citizens, they were a cancer at the heart of the State, battening on to its citizens. When Jews became citizens of their own country, they were thieving interlopers of the land of others. When Jews were defenceless, they were weak and spineless. When Jews could defend themselves, they were violent oppressors.
You want to hate a Jew, there’s a myth for you.
Like all stereotypes, these things are nonsense. Of course, people being what they are, particular examples of all these things can be found. Like all racists, antisemites desperately want to believe that a particular example proves the case against all thirteen million of us.
Hence the IHRA definition – an attempt to nail down what antisemitism is. As organisations of good faith recognise it seeks to track the idea that antisemitism mutates. It’s been the subject of both honest and dishonest criticism. The honest criticism is that the examples it offers blur the difference between political criticism of Israel and racism. My view of that is that we’re not dealing with fine academic distinctions here: you can be as brutal as you like about an Israeli government of any stripe and still not attack the right of Jews to have what Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and Buddhists have – a state. If you feel a need to go further then restrain yourself. Your right to tread the margin of political criticism isn’t as important as the need to avoid racism. The dishonest criticism is why anti-Zionism has become a convenient way of attacking Jews without the stigma that goes with racism. We’re not here to make people like that feel good about themselves.
Antisemitism has proliferated in Labour in recent years. There doesn’t seem to me to be much argument there. First, it is what the Jewish Community overwhelmingly thinks. There are only 300,000 of us in the UK. We’re virtually united on this (the polls show something over 85%). The outliers are very loud (and the media don’t half love them – Jews is news as the saying has it), but they are a tiny group. By all Macpherson reasoning, that’s the end. What’s more the Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently deciding whether to investigate Labour. That’s astonishing: an independent body contemplating investigating the UK’s largest political party for antisemitism.
Why has it proliferated? Hmm... In my view there are two causes. The first is that the left, having finally obtained control over Labour, is acting out its ideology. Its ideology is that Israel is the USA’s greatest ally (dubious), and that the USA is always wrong and evil. I regard that view as bonkers but it is the only explanation for, for example, the constant focus on discrimination in Israel (apartheid evil!), the comparative silence on persecution in “neutral” countries like China (currently detaining over one million Muslims without trial), and the positive denial of the persecution of Muslims in countries opposed to the US (Kosovo).
The second cause is that Corbyn has “green-lighted” what was previously shameful. For these purposes it isn’t necessary to discuss whether Corbyn is an antisemite himself (my own view is that he is, like so many members of the upper-middle class of his generation, a polite xenophobe). He has a media savvy team. They know that Labour councillors, Labour MP’s and the Labour leader have gone beyond the bounds of acceptability. They know what Labour activists on social media are saying. They know that allegations of Jews “weaponizing” antisemitism – that is to say inventing or exaggerating it to attack Corbyn - are rife. They know Jews are being dismissed as not worth listening to because we are not honest about our own persecution. They know that this isn’t acceptable by previous standards of honest conversation. But they do nothing. Sure, occasionally Corbyn denounces antisemitism with his usual “and all other forms of racism” line, (so that Jews don’t get uppity and regard themselves as a special case). But nothing is said about these specific conduct issues. Jews are not worth it.
That may be an electoral calculation. It may be a personal one. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is the policy of the leader and those who surround him – and whose past writings and behaviour frequently exhibit the same conclusions. And, once you let it go, people will do it.
That’s amplified by the shambles of the Labour disciplinary system. Every time a particular case is publicly aired, the punishment is increased. Williamson, Hatton, Bibby have all been the subject of proper action only when the improper action first mooted was subjected to public scrutiny. That’s a horrendous indictment of those doing the job. And, sadly, it’s amplified by the silence on the back benches. We know that many backbenchers are sympathetic. We know that we aren’t sexy. We know that defending us leads to trouble and deselection. But we still feel abandoned – and betrayed. I don’t believe the Jewish community will trust Labour again for a generation.
Why do I fight it? No government anywhere, at any time, has ever served all its people properly whilst discriminating against some of them. Hatred is infectious and it blights everything it sees. Standing by simply isn’t an option. This country took my grandparents in. It is the closest we could then come to equality. It permitted us access. Not as if we were native, but more than we got anywhere else. But more than that, it did not hate us. It didn’t subject us to pogroms. We could get on with our lives. We displaced and unaccepted Jews knew that wasn’t complete fairness. But we also knew we could live with it. Since then, the UK has blossomed. It is truly concerned about equality. It strives to fairness. It acknowledges that it fails but it keeps trying. That, ultimately, is a vision I recognise as wanting good for all. why wouldn’t you fight for it?
Simon Myerson QC practices from Byrom St Chambers, Manchester and St Paul’s Chambers, Leeds. He has sat as a part time judge since 2001. He was chair of the Union of Jewish Students 1984-85. He was a member of the Labour Party until 2016 having joined as a teenager.
Enjoyed this article? Why not donate and support the work of Change Politics in giving a voice to the forgotten centre-ground?