By Talia Jessener
On Wednesday 20th October, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Dave Rich, Director of Communications at the Community Security Trust, to discuss his book ‘The Left’s Jewish Problem: Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.’ Rich began by claiming that this was not a book that he expected to have to write; indeed, in light of the Chakrabarti Inquiry and the more recent Home Affairs Select Committee report into antisemitism in the UK, this book’s existence was simply yet another troubling sign of the times.
He also explained that antisemitism is a uniquely difficult issue to address, based on the lack of a universally accepted definition and the fact that it is at odds with traditional forms of racism centred on class, colour and colonialism. Since British Jews tend not to be associated with these victims of prejudice, the already murky line of exactly when someone can, without disagreement, be labelled an anti-Semite is further muddied, turning allegations that should be taken seriously into political games.
However despite this obstacle, Rich stated that antisemitism must not be allowed to be swept under the rug: Labour’s problem is not simply a few poorly worded messages on social media or Ken Livingstone needing to keep his mouth shut, but rather is a very real concern. He noted that while the world is quick to stand in solidarity with the Jews when they face antisemitism from the far right, it was not a Neo-Nazi shooting Jews at the kosher supermarket in Paris, or in the Jewish museum in Brussels, or outside the Jewish School in Toulouse. Yet, because anti-Semitism from jihadists does not fit into the paradigm of the left, it is often left out of the discussion completely. Due to the hard left’s anti-Zionist stance, it has become acceptable to say pretty much anything in the Labour party at little political cost, whether this is through supporting Hamas or Hezbollah, equating Israel with Nazi Germany or spewing conspiracy theories about Zionists in the media.
Moreover, this is not a problem that begins and ends with Jeremy Corbyn; after all, some elected representatives of the Labour party were suspended from the party due to comments they had made two or three years before he became leader. While this means blame cannot be placed solely at his door, this also means the problem will not simply vanish if he leaves, as antisemitism has become normalised within the culture of the left.
Rich traces the rise of antisemitic discourse to the 1960s, with the rise of the ‘New Left’ who claimed that Zionism was not a legitimate, progressive expression of Jewish nationhood as previously thought but was actually a colonial ideology in cahoots with Western imperialism. By the 1980s, this idea had wormed its way into mainstream debates; incidentally this was around the time Jeremy Corbyn entered Parliament as one of the sponsors of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine. Rich claimed that the problem with the hard left was that they allowed their extreme hatred of Israel to turn anti-Zionist campaigns to antisemitic actions. This was highlighted through the 1980 campaigns to ban Zionism from university campuses, often resulting in the shutting down of the Jewish societies, and Rich claims these same tactics have been mirrored by the modern Left through the BDS movement.
Despite the troubling message of Rich’s talk, he ended on an optimistic note. He claimed that, while the connection between the Labour party and the Jewish community has been deeply fractured, he didn’t believe it had been totally destroyed, with many MP’s genuinely wanting to become a party protecting anti-racism in all forms. However, he warned that if Labour does want to rebuild this relationship they must show a deeper understanding of why antisemitism has become such an unchallenged part of the language of the left. It was not enough to simply produce an Inquiry telling people to avoid key antisemitic buzzwords; ultimately, only once the very root of this issue has been tackled can the problem of antisemitic culture be excluded from the Labour party once and for all.