Labour must treat antisemitism as a human problem, not just a political one

From the back-benches to the front, Corbyn has fought for Jewish freedoms; yet it’s this fighting spirit that has made him an intractable elder statesman who struggles to admit wrongdoing.

Labour must treat antisemitism as a human problem, not just a political one
Credit: Sophie Brown/Wikimedia Commons

How does antisemitism feel? I remember it as a kind of muffled panic, like screaming into a pillow. I was fifteen and had gone to the park to join my then-boyfriend and his friends, a group of boys whose only way of interacting with girls was with – if they liked you – persistent teasing or – if they didn’t – relentless bullying. One particular friend had been testing me for weak spots for months, and that day found my Achilles’ heel. “Look who it is,” he hissed as I approached. “The crow.”

Logically, I knew this moniker was unlikely antisemitic (I don’t think the friend even knew I was Jewish), far more likely a reference to my black coat, hair and eyeliner than to my big Jewish nose; likelier an expression of animus towards me, than of animus towards Jews. How was this friend to know that my run-of-the-mill teenage bodily self-consciousness was compounded by a specifically semitic self-loathing? How long I’d spent staring down my big Jewish nose in the mirror, trying to find its forgiving angles, imagining it a few inches shorter? Featherweight as it seemed to him, I crumpled under the weight of the word “crow”. His intention was to attack my appearance – yet it was my identity that felt bloodied.

If antisemitism is an irrational hatred of Jews, Jews’ fear of antisemitism can also possess an irrationality. On the one hand, our fear of attack is acutely rational: attackers have pursued us throughout history, culminating in a not-too-distant, very-nearly-successful attempt to eradicate us. Yet the enormity of the Holocaust also amplified Jews’ sensitivity to threat, inducing a kind of collective post-traumatic stress whose triggers are usually less traumatic than the traumatising event itself. It’s why dog whistles work so well on us: our ears are already pricked.

Evidently, some of us were listening intently to the leaders’ debate last week when, in response to a question about Prince Andrew, Jeremy Corbyn mentioned Jeffrey Epstein, pronouncing his name Germanically. “When he mispronounces it as ‘Ep-shtine’”, one person tweeted, “- the traditional German-Jewish pronunciation rather than the Americanised “Ep-steen” that we’re all used to – every Jew watching heard the jibe. Heard him “otherise” Epstein and emphasise his foreignness. His Jewishness.” This tweet was then picked up by Jewish comedian David Baddiel, and in turn by The Times of Israel: “Dogged by claims of anti-Semitism,” read their strapline, “UK Labour Party leader prompts more criticism by using a pronunciation some said appeared to make Epstein’s name sound more Jewish.”

There will inevitably be Jewish people who genuinely heard something iffy in Corbyn’s pronunciation. After all: you say crow, I hear non-Aryan; you say “Ep-shtine”, I hear Other. Yet Epstein-gate typifies the way in which Jewish media outlets capitalise on their audience’s alertness to antisemitism in order to generate marketable headlines, feeding a cycle of fear in which news upsets readers whose upset becomes the basis of further news (a tactic these outlets – many of whose editors are openly conservative, or whose objections to Labour extend far beyond antisemitism – have refined since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader). In fact, the homogeneously right-wing Jewish press has been one of the central engines in escalating Corbynite Labour’s antisemitism crisis: in 2015, the Jewish Chronicle asked its readers whether we were “concerned” by Corbyn; by 2018, they had branded him an “existential threat”, a term designed to exacerbate Jews’ genocidal anxieties. This in turn enables non-Jewish politicians to affect concern about antisemitism in order to play electoral football with it (take our philosemite-in-shining-armour, Michael Gove, who recently began haphazardly @ing on Twitter people he spuriously judged to be Labour antisemitism apologists).

The longer antisemitism has been an issue for Corbyn’s Labour Party, the more politicised that issue has become. What began in the real feelings of ordinary people – the shock many British Jews felt when “patient zero” of “Corbynite antisemitism”, Ken Livingstone, presented with the virus – has since become entirely abstracted from them, a talking point for politicians and journalists to joust with. If there’s one thing the Chief Rabbi and I agree on, it is that Labour’s failure in dealing with antisemitism has been a “failure to see this as a human problem rather than a political one.” By deciding to view antisemitism only as a political “smear” rather than also as a popular sentiment, the party has given itself no choice but to respond to the problem as it does all political problems: with attack and rebuttal.

The Party’s response to Panorama epitomised this approach. “We completely reject any claim that Labour is antisemitic,” begins their statement, which goes on to condemn the documentary as “a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic”. I agreed with much of it: the documentary was presented by a journalist who has previously criticised Corbyn; it did seem to have prejudged its conclusion; it was at points inaccurate. Yet even the documentary’s most sceptical viewer would have struggled not to be moved by some of the testimonies it featured. Ben Westerman’s unsettled me most. A former member of Labour’s disputes team and himself Jewish, Westerman related an exchange he had with a party member at the end of a disciplinary interview about antisemitism:

Party member: Where are you from?

Westerman: What do you mean, where am I from?

Party member: I asked you, where are you from?

Westerman: I’m not prepared to discuss this.

Party member: Are you from Israel?

At this point, Westerman falls silent, and I feel a familiar wordless fury bubble in my gut. “What can you say to that?” he asks, aghast. Almost as shocking was the discovery that, in their response to the documentary, Labour had labelled Westerman and the other former staffers who testified “disaffected”. This was a signal mistake, one that confused the bad faith of those who use antisemitism as a stick with which to beat Labour (admittedly, there are many of them) with the good faith of those hurt by a party they love. To me, Westerman seemed not cynically disaffected, but genuinely affected.

This is not to say that affect is the best measure of antisemitism. On the contrary, I agree with Professor David Feldman, of Birkbeck’s Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, who in a 2015 report for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism wrote that “a definition [of antisemitism] which takes Jews’ feelings and perceptions as its starting point […] is built on weak foundations” – particularly given Jews’ historically-legitimated hypersensitivity. However, a response to antisemitism that entirely discounts Jews’ feelings and perceptions will prove – indeed has proven – ineffective. We might therefore rethink the Macpherson principle thus: to be hurt by racism does not mean that racism has occurred; it does, however, mean someone is hurt.

Labour’s – and particularly Corbyn’s – primary failing with antisemitism has been an emotional one. The leader’s interview with Andrew Marr in September 2018 was a signal example of this:

Marr: How did you feel when one of your MPs, a Jewish MP, Margaret Hodge, looked you in the eye and called you a racist and antisemite?

Corbyn: I completely and utterly reject the idea that I’m any kind of racist or any kind of an-

Marr: How did you feel?

Corbyn: The matter with Margaret Hodge is closed.

Marr repeatedly invites Corbyn to share his feelings about Jewish people; instead, the Labour leader accounts for the facts. A similar thing happened yesterday, when Andrew Neil gave Corbyn “an opportunity to apologise to the British Jewish community for what’s happened,” an opportunity Corbyn took to rehearse Labour policy. In both instances, Corbyn allowed his legitimate sense of embattlement to obstruct a necessary empathy – leaving Jewish people, including many who wholeheartedly want to support the Labour leader, painfully disappointed.

Corbyn does not lack a political concern for Jewish people – his Race and Faith Manifesto, the same whose launch yesterday was overshadowed by the Chief Rabbi’s opinion piece, enshrined protections for Jewish cemeteries and community security groups like the Shomrim and CST – but rather an ability to negotiate those politics personally. From the backbenches to the front, Corbyn has fought for Jewish freedoms; yet it’s this fighting spirit that has latterly made him an intractable elder statesman who struggles to admit wrongdoing.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that a younger, humbler generation of Labour Party activists is beginning to turn the tide. Take Zarah Sultana, Labour’s candidate for Coventry. Sultana was lately accused of antisemitism for a number of tweets she shared. Zarah might have robustly rebutted these accusations: by arguing that “Zionist” is not a byword for “Jew”; that the Holocaust is not an incomparable event; that celebrating death may be crass, but condemning Netanyahu is not. She might simply have deferred to her reputation as a longstanding anti-racist campaigner, or restated her opposition to antisemitism “and all forms of racism”. Yet by refusing to relitigate the rightness or wrongness of her actions, and instead simply apologising for the feelings they provoked, Sultana began to rebuild Jews’ trust far more effectively than any of her party’s leaders have managed.

The clincher in Sultana’s apology was its incorporation of the Holocaust. For what that showed was that Sultana recognises something many in her party do not: to alleviate Jews’ heightened fear of antisemitism, one must first speak to it, and its causes, empathetically. The programme of antisemitism education announced by Labour in yesterday’s Race and Faith Manifesto will – providing it goes beyond the purely historical or objective to integrate Jews’ subjective experiences of and anxieties about racism – enable Labour’s other half a million members to follow Sultana’s lead; enable them to understand how historic attack has made Jews naturally defensive; how to forge bonds of solidarity with a community reeling from a genocide still in living memory.

Yom Kippur is Jews’ holiest day for a reason: teshuvah is essential to the functioning of our community, indeed our society. Old wounds must heal, and they can – if first we acknowledge that they are there. ▼

Rivkah Brown is the editor of Vashti.