This is still not a story about Labour and antisemitism
In the 13 long months since the 2019 General Election, it would be an understatement to say that the topic of racism, and in particular antisemitism, has been a hugely polemicised issue. I wrote an article in the summer of 2018 about the Labour antisemitism crisis, and while we live in an entirely different world today, I still very much stand by the basic underlying argument, which I believe has if anything become more relevant with time. I argued that while yes, there is antisemitism in the Labour Party and the left more broadly, largely as a product of age-old tropes which have been deeply woven into popular culture and rhetoric, which are impossible to do away with overnight, there is certainly no crisis at least as has been suggested by Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents. If anything, all empirical evidence points to antisemitism being less prevalent on the left than in general society, and in fact this crisis was exacerbated by some of the worst faith actors, with despicable personal track records on racism, as a cynical ploy to prevent a Labour government from being elected in 2019.
This narrative is hardly anything new or ground-breaking, and particularly given just how toxic the entire discourse had become in the intervening period, I had thought to leave this topic alone for good. However, this past weekend, an article was published in the Guardian which presented such a remarkable premise — that fears of a potential Corbyn-led Labour government caused the piece’s author Rafael Behr to have a heart attack — that I felt compelled to say something. If not for anything else, to help me make some sense of what exactly has happened since the election, and not least because quite frankly I — along with everyone else I know on the left — am fed up of being labelled as some sort of secret proponent of ethnic cleansing just because I campaigned for a mild social democratic party; because I fought for a society that is at least slightly less shit than this one.
Let’s start with the article itself. For the majority of its length, it is simply a detailing of Behr’s experience with a serious heart attack on New Year’s Eve 2019. He remembers his maternal grandfather who also died suddenly of a heart attack at the same age and describes his anxieties due to prevailing heart conditions on both sides of his family. This is something I can personally sympathise with, as someone for whom high blood pressure runs on my father’s side of the family, as well as from having lost my own maternal grandfather to a sudden heart attack before my 2nd birthday. I know, for instance, that the stress that has been caused by the difficult relationship I have had with my own father has had adverse physical effects on his health.
A serious medical scare such as the one Behr experienced should surely give rise to a moment of self-reflection, a time for introspection perhaps, as to how it could have happened. It is not news that stress is a killer, and there is no doubt that a Jewish journalist, who has worked at the heart of a media complex in which one of the most dominant narratives in the past years has been about how the opposition party presents a serious threat to Britain’s Jews, would be subjected to a great deal of stress. However, and it must really be emphasised here, this does not make the basis for those fears any more grounded or true. Let’s not forget that this is not even the first piece Behr has written in the Guardian about his heart attack. He wrote one a little under a year ago, in which he saw his heart attack as an extended metaphor for…Brexit.
There is one passage from the piece which is particularly egregious. In it, Behr first makes the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was ‘hospitable’ to antisemitic prejudice and conspiracies of Jewish world domination. He then goes on to make an even bolder implication, that Corbyn’s Labour and its supporters represented the same threat that Jewish communities have faced throughout ages past, much of which has ended in unspeakable acts of violence. Not only are these assertions grossly offensive to the millions of people from every walk of life who campaigned and voted for Labour in 2019, but has time and time again been proven to have no substantial base in reality, even in the long-protracted EHRC report.
This is possibly most insulting for the people who voted for Labour as a principled anti-racist party that was willing to take on the brutal institutional racism that is enacted by this government on a daily basis, whether towards Black and Brown people who are being loaded into deportation flights and detention centres, or the GRT community, the criminalisation of whose way of life was written into the actual Tory manifesto during the election. When asking precisely which policy in the Labour manifesto would have led to the Jewish community being genuinely endangered there is complete silence in response every time. This is why the entire basis for Behr’s argument also begins to look more and more bizarre.
I want to make absolutely clear that it is not my intention in the slightest to belittle the collective trauma of the Jewish community, something which is founded on very real persecution throughout history, and perhaps it is not even my place, as a non-Jew, to say anything on this matter at all. However, I am also a Bengali man who has grown up in London during the War on Terror, so I have a fairly good idea of what racial prejudice looks like, and the intergenerational trauma it engenders in oppressed communities. The thing that has constantly troubled me the most about this entire debate is how these real fears within the Jewish community have been so cynically weaponised as a clutch against the left, especially left-wing Jews, at a time of rising far-right antisemitism which has manifested itself with actual neo-Nazis taking to the streets, shooting up synagogues, even storming the Capitol.
When journalist Simon Heffer gets on the radio and says that Corbyn would reopen Auschwitz, or when the three biggest Jewish newspapers in the country print a coordinated frontpage that Corbyn represents an existential threat to Britain’s Jews, it is no surprise that people who are repeatedly subjected to this same rhetoric would begin to believe it.
Something that immediately came to mind when this article first appeared was the subreddit r/QAnonCasualties, which is a place where people share tragic stories of loved ones they have lost to (and in some rare cases got back from the brink of) the QAnon conspiracy cult. The idea that Corbyn is an antisemite who was orchestrating some sort of secret pogrom under the guise of moderate social democracy shares about as much of a base in reality as QAnon’s stories of secret cadres of wealthy people who run international child trafficking rings. In fact, if anything, we have seen that QAnon’s theories are probably a little more based on reality. There is an important conversation to be had here about the way in which conspiracy theories tap into and exaggerate people’s own fears and anxieties about the state of the world and the very real health consequences this continues to have on countless people.
In many ways, if fears of Corbyn’s Labour did indeed lead Behr to have a heart attack, this is not too dissimilar. It is highly unfortunate regardless of the cause, and you would be forgiven for thinking that this could be a time to see that perhaps these things were not in fact based on any evidence. Particularly after a year in which the current Tory government’s handling of COVID has led to immeasurable death and suffering, once again massively disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people. However, this would apparently be too much to ask of Behr, who seems to have only doubled down on the idea that Corbyn supporters are akin to Nazi collaborators for having the temerity to defend themselves against his ridiculous proposition.
If there is one thing Behr’s piece is very illustrative of, it is a certain mindset that exists among British columnists who work for national newspapers, that is in equal parts a near-solipsistic narcissism, a belief that the entire world revolves around them, and pure unadulterated spite towards any potential disturbance to the status quo which has made them so comfortable. When reading it, I was instantly reminded of an article from a few months back by Behr’s colleague Hadley Freeman, in which she discussed the COVID pandemic as some sort of elaborate divine plan to interrupt her book tour. Even if said as a joke, when this pandemic has killed over 2 million people around the world and left countless others without work and in a state of desperation, it was at best in very poor taste.
We have to be very clear about something — as I mentioned in my previous article on this topic — and that is that at least the vast majority of those who claim to have genuine concerns about an institutional antisemitism crisis on the left do not care in the slightest about antisemitism. Not a single one of the usual accusers were anywhere to be seen when Douglas Murray, the de facto philosopher of the new far-right and great friend to Viktor Orban, Europe’s most openly antisemitic head of state, published one of the most despicable pieces from recent memory in the Spectator last week. In it, he bemoans proposals for a new Holocaust memorial in London because it might be used as a site for political education, particularly about how Britain did nowhere near enough to accept Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Imagine that — a Holocaust memorial being a site of political education. Murray then goes on to say that the author of the New York Times piece which he is responding to, who cites his own family’s unsuccessful attempt to escape Nazi Germany to Britain, should instead be grateful to Britain that there are any Jews left alive in Europe at all.
This was a screed that was so viciously antisemitic, so utterly morally repulsive, it ought to be shocking that it passed the editorial line of any mainstream publication, or that once it did, it avoided the scrutiny of all those who have hounded Corbyn for the last 5 years. But of course, it’s not shocking, least of all because this was par for the course for the Spectator which has a colourful history of antisemitism and Nazi apologia as is, but mostly because Murray does not belong to the left, and that’s what this entire debacle has always been about. Not only has nearly every prominent campaigner against left antisemitism under Corbyn been entirely silent on antisemitism from the right, where it is both more prominent and far more of an actual threat, but more often than not they have also been shown to have a woeful track record on anti-Black or anti-Muslim racism and are in many cases guilty of antisemitism themselves.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader with a historic mandate off the back of a massive surge of popular grassroots support for anti-austerity socialist politics, it is no secret that he was seen as a threat to the establishment — the Tories, the Labour right and the corporate interests they are beholden to. David Cameron made it about as clear as possible when he declared Corbyn a threat to national security at the 2015 Tory conference, and similarly when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated outright that the US could intervene were Corbyn to get elected. And if Corbyn was seen as a figure of ridicule before 2017, then after the general election that year nearly produced one of the greatest political upsets of all time, he was seen as a target who had to be eliminated at once.
What ensued was the most vitriolic and toxic character assassination I have seen in my lifetime, in which antisemitism allegations, which were initially disingenuously levelled at Corbyn due to his pro-Palestine activism, became a convenient tool with which to attack him and his supporters from all sides. This led to some truly unbelievable suggestions that Corbyn was an antisemite due the way he pronounced the name of infamous paedophile Jeffrey Epstein or because he recommended Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Boris Johnson as a Christmas present during a live TV debate. In the weeks leading up to the election, it was practically impossible to find any mainstream coverage of Labour which did not at least tangentially bring up antisemitism such that it became impossible to decouple the two in the public eye.
During a summer when BLM protests took the world by storm, Britain was the only country where there was a counter-protest by coked up drunken fascist football hooligans who had come out to ‘defend statues’ and in the end politicians on both sides of the aisle decided that they were the people worth appeasing. This is without even mentioning the fact that there has been an effort to conflate BLM with antisemitism due to their Palestinian solidarity, which is part of a broader campaign to delegitimise every part of the left with accusations of antisemitism because it has been proven to work once.
The clearest example of this was when Keir Starmer, the sentient ham now in charge of the Labour Party, decided to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet for the flimsiest accusations of antisemitism after she shared an interview by an actor on Twitter which contained a throwaway line which was at worst slightly unspecific about an irrefutable fact that American police receive training from Israel. This was a mere days away from when another Shadow Cabinet minister Steve Reed was accused of himself making far more explicitly antisemitic remarks, but of course since he does not belong to the Labour left, not a single action was taken.
With the publication of the EHRC report came the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party for stating the indisputable fact that the extent of antisemitism within the Labour party had been widely overstated by his opponents. All for him to only be reinstated within days, but then still not have his whip restored in a truly slapstick display of leadership from Starmer. Since then, we have seen the subsequent suspension of multiple left-wing Jewish members of the Labour party for displaying support for Corbyn and protesting his suspension because even that is considered antisemitic now. It has got to the point where even Narendra Modi’s Hindutva mob has seen in this an opportunity to push a narrative that criticism of India, particularly its treatment of Muslims, is ‘anti-Hindu’.
It simply cannot be stressed enough that when Boris Johnson, the most openly racist British PM in the last half century, was presented as the anti-racist candidate against Jeremy Corbyn, the most consistent anti-racist member of Parliament, a narrative created in equal parts by politicians and media figures, the conversation around racism in the UK was set back by decades. Not only was a hierarchy of racism firmly established, but we also ended up in this bizarro Twilight Zone dark timeline where the worst racists in the country had been told they were the anti-racists.
We currently find ourselves in the country which has dealt with COVID arguably the worst in the entire world, where the fallout has landed squarely on the shoulders of those already marginalised by society, and where the Home Office is ramping up its anti-migrant rhetoric and expanding the detention-deportation complex on a daily basis. Yet for the writing staff at the Guardian it is of course still open season on lefties and the imaginary government that they didn’t even successfully get elected. I wish I had more of a positive note on which to end this, but I don’t. All I know is that I am no longer going to accept being demonised for choosing to fight for a fairer society.
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