Coverage of the British Labour Party antisemitism controversy has been sparse in the US. The NYT had a reasonably fair article on it in late July, where they not only covered the accusations of various Jewish organizations, but also conveyed some sense of why Labour refused to give in on the demand to accept a definition of anti-Semitism that included the statement that “Israel is racist.” Labour contended that that International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition is unfair to the Palestinian point of view.
Most commentary simply ignores the Palestinian viewpoint altogether or treats it as an obstacle that stands in the way of Labour dealing with the antisemitism controversy. The best example of this patronizing approach is a piece by Matt Seaton published by the New York Review of Books website several days ago, under the title “Behind the Anti-Semitism Crisis of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.”
I suggest clicking on the link and reading the whole thing, but here are some of the most revealing portions — revealing, that is, of the author’s own condescending attitude towards Palestinians. Seaton says that the controversy has left “British Jews feeling utterly dismayed and alienated from Labour.”
The main impression abroad must surely be… to reinforce a growing sense that there can be no smoke without fire, and that the party of Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Barbara Castle must have been taken over by anti-Zionist zealots and Jew-hating bigots.
The difficulty with this story is that, in proper perspective, it is absurd. Labour does have a problem with Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the party, but, as I told my American friend, the Labour Party is not that anti-Semitic. The controversy is, in reality, a displacement of a deeper, more systemic political rift in the party. And, in vital ways, that’s a far more significant obstacle than the administrative-disciplinary issue of rooting out a small minority of Holocaust equivocators and vitriolic anti-Zionists.“
This passage sets the tone. On the one hand, Seaton realizes the overheated charges against Labour are ridiculous. On the other hand, he groups together “anti-Zionist zealots” and “Jew-hating bigots” and reassures his American audience that most Labourites are not like that.
The unspoken assumption, and it has to remain unspoken and stay below conscious realization, is that Palestinians have no right to be anti-Zionist and that anti-Zionism is a form of vitriolic zealotry and can never be a principled human rights position.
Next passage —
No one seriously believes that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite, nor disbelieves his protestations that he is a lifelong anti-racist…
Corbyn aside, there is certainly anti-Semitism in Britain, but it remains predominantly a phenomenon of the traditional polite-snob anti-Semite—found more in England’s shires, suburbs, and golf clubs than on its metropolitan streets. One partial exception to this is the strong anti-Israel feeling, which sometimes shades recklessly into what certainly sounds like Jew-hate, among a minority of hotheaded British Muslims.
Another, related exception is that among the huge wave of mainly young, more left-wing people who joined Labour in the last five years and helped to elect Corbyn as leader, there is a new stridency and passion on the Israel-Palestine issue—particularly aligned with support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. (For a brilliant exposition of the politics of the BDS movement, see Nathan Thrall’s recent Long Read in The Guardian.) As Israeli politics have moved rightward under pressure from pro-settler politicians committed to an ethno-nationalist state and gradual annexation of the occupied territories, the voices of condemnation from activists have become louder. And some of the noisiest are failing to make distinction between criticizing the current Israeli government and its policies and rejecting outright the whole Zionist enterprise—which is, in effect, to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish homeland. And when the anti-Zionist rhetoric reaches a pitch where the insult “Zio” is simply code for “Jew,” we are fully in the zone of left-wing anti-Semitism.
So does he think Labour is antisemitic? Let’s see.
But has the Labour Party been taken over by anti-Semites? That’s ridiculous.
No, what bothers him is that there are “hotheaded” British Muslims with strong anti-Israel feeling that “sometimes” shades into Jew hate. Note the slippery slope argument. He applies it to Muslims who are critical of Israel while saying that only “some” are Jew haters. But clearly in his mind anti-Israel feeling is a gateway drug and so once again he lumps them in with those who are anti-semites.
In Seaton’s mind, the same is true of leftists in general. Start out with anti-Zionist feelings and before you know it, you are an anti-semite. Jewish anti-Zionists go unmentioned, but perhaps they are just “leftists.”
What group is immune to this slippery slope to hatred? Which group can make accusations and engage in harsh and overheated and unfair and exaggerated criticism with perfect sincerity because their motives are pure and their concerns all completely legitimate? Certainly not British Muslims or anti- Zionist leftists. Let’s take a look—
“To call Corbyn’s past chumminess with, say, Hamas representatives a weapon suggests that Corbyn’s opponents inside the Labour Party have instrumentalized the issue of anti-Semitism in a cynical way. I mostly don’t believe that is the case. Many Labour Party members, including Jewish members, as well as British Jews generally, have been gravely offended by Corbyn’s missteps and are in perfect good faith in voicing their objections.”
So British supporters of Israel are acting in perfect good faith. Sure.
This is the root of the problem. A fairminded person would recognize that there is some anti-semitism in some of Israel’s critics. Brian Klug, who has been a defender of Labour against its critics on the IHRA issue, acknowledges anti-Zionist anti-Semitism here, giving an example with his “Daphne” anecdote– in which a friend who at a Labour Party meeting puts forward the statement, “The history of the holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews, whatever they may feel about Israel,” was treated as if she were an agent of Israel.
On the other side, Klug is reluctant to criticize his friends in the Jewish community, which is understandable; but clearly the pro Israel side is soaked in bigotry. The fact of the matter is that Israel as a Jewish state could only have come into existence through some form of ethnic cleansing, and that is exactly what happened in 1948-1949. Zionists for the most part have difficulty with this history. But if you think it through, you must recognize that the IHRA definition of alleged anti-Semitism as calling Israel a racist state is unacceptable to anyone who thinks Palestinians have the right to live in their own homeland. Zionists insist on such a definition, but even if someone favors a two state solution as the pragmatic solution, it is understandable why such a definition of bigotry upsets Palestinians.
Seaton, of course, thinks the IHRA examples should be accepted in full, with no cherrypicking by the Corbyn “clique,” as he calls it. He never misses an opportunity to denigrate anyone concerned or sympathetic to the Palestinian view. The one exception is his recommendation of the Nathan Thrall piece on BDS in the Guardian. Like many liberal Zionists, Seaton is willing to be critical of the Israeli right, but that is the limit of his sympathy. He wants Palestinians to grant a moral endorsement to their own ethnic cleansing. He can’t admit this— maybe he can’t even think it through, which is why he has to link anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. It is a way to cover up his own unfair assumptions.
Seaton says the real problem is that Labour has been taken over by doctrinaire anti-imperialists who think the US and Israel are the chief evildoers in the world. While on that subject, he gives us more thoughts on the nature of antisemitism.
A great irony in all of this concerns the nature of anti-Semitism itself. A common feature of anti-Semites is precisely their unhealthy preoccupation or obsession with Jews, Judaism, and Israel—all conflated and muddled together. It is characteristic of their anti-Semitism that, in this warped worldview, Israel and Jews matter too much, in a deeply creepy way. Why, one might reasonably ask of Labour members, both pro- and anti-Corbyn, is this area of the party’s foreign policy different from all others? To borrow a rhetorical strategy from the pro-Israel proponents of the arguments of “the New Anti-Semitism”: “What about Darfur?” (Or Yemen, or Myanmar, or Congo…)
Seaton missed a couple of ironies in his own paragraph. First, it is Labour’s opponents who insist that criticism of Israel is the second coming of the Nazis. On the one hand they want it to be considered antisemitic to criticize Jews for the actions of Israel–and they are right in that position–while they also want what they consider excessive criticism of Israel to be considered antisemitic because apparently if you criticize Israel too much you are criticizing Jews. So they are conflating Israel and Jews themselves. Seaton has himself been conflating the two categories throughout his piece. (“British Jews generally, have been gravely offended by Corbyn’s missteps…”)
Second, Seaton has the gall to bring up Yemen. Corbyn has been very critical of British support of the Saudi war crimes there. Like the US, the British have been supporting the Saudis as they slaughter children. Yet somehow Yemen is the fault of the anti-imperialist left.
Seaton’s piece is not completely worthless. If you take into account his presumably unconscious bigotry and liberal narcissism, he might be giving an accurate description of what is going on inside the Labour Party. I wouldn’t know, but the stereotype of the anti-imperialist leftist who only sees evil in the actions of America and its allies is probably a somewhat slanted description of real people, and their opponents, presumably liberals like Seaton who want us to focus most of our attention on our dastardly foes, probably represents the other side, at least on foreign policy.