How not to tackle antisemitism on the left

Zero tolerance plus zero discretion equals zero results.

How not to tackle antisemitism on the left
Credit: Chatham House/Flickr

On 25 June, Rebecca Long-Bailey retweeted a lengthy interview in The Independent with the actor Maxine Peake about the intersection between her art and her politics. At one point, Peake said: “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” (Call this ‘the offending sentence’). A few hours later, Keir Starmer dropped Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet. “I’ve made it my first priority,” he explained “to tackle antisemitism”. The Board of Deputies of British Jews praised him for his “swift action” and the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism welcomed his “zero-tolerance approach”.

Everyone and their dog, from Mike Pence  to the Pope to the new owner of Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, calls for “zero tolerance” of racism. It appears to be the slogan of choice. Starmer himself promised a zero tolerance approach to antisemitism after being elected leader of the Labour Party in April. Who can quarrel with the principle? 

But how should this principle  have been applied to Long-Bailey? Using her case as a lens, I shall try to bring antisemitism on the left into focus. I shall argue that the action Starmer took is an object lesson in how not to tackle the problem. Not only was it draconian, it missed the point. If anything, it has made matters worse at a time when there is more trouble in store for Labour.

Deconstructing ‘the offending sentence’

To begin with, is ‘the offending sentence’ antisemitic? It certainly isn’t accurate. While it appears to be true that in July 2012 Minnesota police officers attended a training seminar hosted by the Israeli Consulate, there is no evidence that the ‘neck kneeling’ choke hold was part of the course. Nor did it need to be: the technique has long been employed (or permitted) in Minneapolis and other American cities. It was, moreover, Israel’s police, not its ‘secret services’ who ran the seminar. To which someone might say: “Okay, Peake slipped up. But it is true that Israel has been training police from other countries, including America; and that is the point.” For people who take this view, the bigger picture is being deliberately obscured by dwelling, in the words of one commentator, on a “single detail”.

A single detail? Or (with apologies to Wittgenstein) a whole cloud of bigotry condensed into a drop of grammar? With bigoted discourse, the devil often is in the grammar – the structure of a passage of speech or writing. Words that, in themselves, are innocuous can, in context, be bearers of toxic tropes, as Tania Shew illustrates with her example of how the everyday word ‘emotion’ can function misogynistically. In order to judge whether ‘the offending sentence’ is toxic about Jews or not, it must be contextualised. To be clear, I intend to analyse the sentence that was uttered, not the character of the person who uttered it. 

With bigoted discourse, the devil often is in the grammar – the structure–of a passage of speech or writing.

We cannot evaluate the toxicity of the sentence if we take it as a purely factual assertion – even if this is how it was intended by Peake and read by Long-Bailey – because toxic language can be transmitted unwittingly. Take, for example, this sentence: ‘Nigerian mugger attacks elderly British woman’. No credible anti-racist would take this at face value, even if it were intended as a factual report of an actual incident. Nor would they critique it purely on the basis of its accuracy. They would consider its resonances. They would ask: Is the language loaded? Why specify ‘Nigerian’ and ‘British’? Is the information selective -perhaps there were other parties to the crime who were not ‘Nigerian’-  and so on. In short, they would situate the sentence in the context of its use and in a wider racist discourse about black people. 

I shall evaluate ‘the offending sentence’ in the same way. The main theme of the first part of the Independent interview is indicated by the opening sentence. Alexandra Pollard, the journalist who conducts the interview, writes: “It’s about 10 minutes into our conversation that Maxine Peake first calls for the destruction of capitalism.” Peake goes on to make a string of remarks about money and power, rich and poor. “We’ve got to save humanity,” she says. “We’ve got to the point,” she adds, “where protecting capital is much more important than anybody’s life.” A little later she makes a connection with current events: “And with what’s happening in America at the moment, it’s about financial control. It’s about keeping the poor in their place.” “The establishment has got to go,” she avers. “We’ve got to change it”. So far, so fine (regardless of whether the reader shares her politics). At this point (following a brief aside), Peake observes: “Systemic racism is a global issue”. It’s here that we arrive at “the offending sentence”: “the police in America” were taught the deadly technique they employed against George Floyd by “Israeli secret services” (after which the editor prints in parentheses an official Israeli denial). This marks the end of the first part of the article.

Singling out Israel

Immediately, a question arises for any thoughtful reader: If “systemic racism” is a “global issue”, why specify Israel? Unless Israel is unique in training American police officers. But it is not. Other states have done so too, including the UK and Germany. (Not surprisingly, so has the US). Perhaps they all deserve opprobrium, Israel included. But Israel alone? Israel before every other country (including the US itself)? This is enough to cause the nose of any genuine anti-racist to twitch. “But,” some might say, “Suppose Peake had singled out the UK or Germany, instead of Israel: no one would cry ‘racism’.” Of course they wouldn’t. Similarly, “Dutch mugger attacks elderly British woman” would not raise a single anti-racist eyebrow. Context counts.

It is the context that makes ‘the offending sentence’ profoundly toxic: the conjunction of things Peake says: her discourse about wealth, power, privilege, hostility to humanity and oppression of the poor, culminating in a phrase that, with its whisper of a ‘hidden hand’, is the final link in a chain of associations with the name ‘Israel’: Israel as ‘the Jewish state’. No doubt, Peake was referring to Israel as a state, as such, not specifically as Jewish. But her intention is one thing, the valency of the name ‘Israel’ in context is another. (Similarly, in the “Nigerian mugger” sentence, “Nigerian” signals “Black”, and “British woman” signals’ “White”). This is how racist discourse works: it has a life of its own, outside the mind of the person who utters it or repeats it, whatever the intention in uttering or repeating it. 

This does not mean that criticism of Israel is, ipso facto, criticism of it as a Jewish state – a fallacy that leads to conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But, while this conflation is fallacious, so is its mirror opposite on the other side of the argument: conflating anti-antisemitism with defence of Zionism. If those who commit the first fallacy tend to see antisemitism under every rock, those who commit the second are unlikely to be open to the analysis I am giving of ‘the offending sentence’. What can I say to the latter? Only that they are labouring under a misapprehension if they think I write as an advocate of Zionism.

Here is what the analysis does mean: critics of Israel or Zionism should mind their language. As Steve Cohen pointed out in 1984 in his ‘anti-racist analysis of left anti-semitism’: “Any group which claims to be against anti-semitism should be ultra-vigilant in the imagery it evokes”. So should any individual. A set of innocuous words and images can, in combination and in context, inadvertently be toxic about Jews. This point applies, mutatis mutandis, to any form of racism where the subject of criticism (perhaps a state or a movement) is easily racialised. Given that the state in question was Israel, it was the combination of things that Peake said which was toxic: they are all themes that lie at the heart of classic antisemitism. When placed in the context of Black Lives Matter and an incident in which a white American policeman crushes the life out of a Black man, what is toxic becomes incendiary. 

Long-Bailey has explained that she retweeted the interview because Peake, although “a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn”, called for members to remain in the party under Starmer. I doubt that anyone believes that what she wanted to share was ‘the offending sentence’. The problem is that she either did not notice that the sentence was toxic in context or (which almost comes to the same thing) she glossed over it because it is so familiar in her political circle that it seemed like a mere detail.

Did Starmer appreciate that this is what happened? If so, he missed its significance, for Long-Bailey is in good company: her case is par for the course. There are certainly people on the left who don’t like Jews. But it is not as if there are hordes of rabid antisemites queuing up to spout their venom in a left-wing vernacular. The problem, by and large, is with people of good will, not ill: people who are ignorant about antisemitism or who, often through cultural osmosis, have imbibed a set of warped associations with the word ‘Jew’. As a result, they are liable to overlook, say, an overblown statement about the power of ‘the Israel lobby’. Lack of awareness and understanding, not hatred, is the primary problem on the left.

There are certainly people on the left who don’t like Jews. But it is not as if there are hordes of rabid antisemites queuing up to spout their venom in a left-wing vernacular. The problem, by and large, is with people of good will, not ill

In a recent article in Political Quarterly, ‘Labour and Antisemitism: a Crisis Misunderstood’, Ben Gidley, Brendan McGeever and David Feldman make much the same point. There is, they say, a “reservoir of antisemitic tropes” in popular culture. When these tropes surface in the left’s political discourse, it is not “because Labour members are committed antisemites, but because Jews intersect, or are perceived to intersect, with some of the key issues they care about”, such as “Israel and Palestine, and the operation of power within capitalist society.” They point out the existence of “a political culture in which some on the left fail to recognise antisemitism, even when it is in front of their eyes”. A political culture: that’s the significance of Long-Bailey’s retweet.

Gidley et al caution that the left often “forgets the antisemitism that recurs through the history of British radicalism from the Chartists, to the Boer War”.  To which I would add: the left also tends to forget the animus towards Jews expressed by some of the seminal figures of socialism and anarchism in the nineteenth century. (Proudhon, for example, the utopian socialist who coined the iconic phrase “Property is theft”, wrote in his notebooks: “The Jew is the enemy of humankind”). This forgetfulness applies especially to the “radical left”, as it is sometimes called. I do not think it is merely a matter of something slipping the mind. With movements as with individuals, forgetting (to borrow from Freud) is not always “accidental”. Among some people on the radical left there is a version of veneration of elders: never let it be said that St Proudhon or St Bakunin (and certainly not St Marx) were tainted by an attitude as reactionary as anti-Jewish bigotry.

Which points to a deeper, ideological motivation. For the left, it is practically an article of faith that antisemitism’s natural home is exclusively on the right. The left tends to view anyone within their ranks who expresses bigotry against Jews either as an interloper from the right or as the rare exception that proves the rule. But antisemitism has always had a natural home on both the left and the right. Roughly: in the right-wing version, the Jew is the racial enemy of the nation; in the left-wing version, the Jew is the class enemy of the proletariat. Either way, the Jew is cast as the enemy. When Peake declares, “We’ve got to save humanity”, of course she does not mean “from the Jews” – she isn’t Proudhon. But her passionate disquisition on global power and wealth is a supersaturated solution, which, when ‘Israeli secret services’ is added to the brew, crystallises into antisemitism – not in her heart but in print.

Making antisemitism detectable

Antisemitism does not always come wearing jackboots, any more than racism against Black people always wears KKK hoods. We won’t get antisemitism – or any form of racism – into focus, nor tackle it effectively, if our minds are dominated by its extreme forms. 

How do you tackle antisemitism when it presents itself not as a scary monster (as it typically does on the far right), but as a miasma that emanates from a reservoir of tropes and goes undetected (as tends to happen on the left)? You make it detectable. Or rather, you educate people in the art of detecting it. Or, more fundamentally, you engage them in a project of examining the culture of which they are a part (Socrates calls this “knowing yourself”), a culture that tends to make them oblivious of the odour and how odious it is. There is an art to opening hearts and minds and it does not involve wielding a sledgehammer. You cannot bludgeon people into self-awareness.

We won’t get antisemitism – or any form of racism – into focus, nor tackle it effectively, if our minds are dominated by its extreme forms. 

Starmer found himself on the spot. He felt, rightly, that he had to be decisive. But being heavy-handed is not the same as being decisive. He chose to make an example of Long-Bailey; but an example of what? Had he thought that through, he might have been led to take an altogether different tack. Seeing her retweet for what it was – a manifestation of a political culture on the left – he might have declared zero tolerance for this culture. He could have announced, decisively, the immediate launch of a party-wide ‘consciousness-raising’ initiative. Instead of sacking Long-Bailey, he could have enlisted her support, which probably she would have given gladly. This would have done no harm to the unity agenda on which he stood. A ball would have been set rolling, a process of healing wounds across the factional divisions within the party, instead of adding salt to them at a time when the party is groaning with threats and counter-threats of lawsuits, out-of-court settlements, the fallout of a leaked internal report, and the findings of an EHRC inquiry waiting in the wings. The political arithmetic is simple: zero tolerance plus zero discretion equals zero results – and zero unity.

Hierarchies of racism

There is, moreover, collateral damage. For Palestinians and their sympathisers, the renewal of hostilities over antisemitism is a distraction from the seriousness and urgency of their plight as Netanyahu threatens to annexe great chunks of the West Bank. This is what lay behind the “single detail” remark I quoted earlier. The Palestinian writer who made it has a point. Except that what is distracting is not people’s concern per se over the offending sentence but the way Starmer handled it. Furthermore, saying that tackling antisemitism is his “first priority” seems to imply that tackling other forms of racism is a lower priority. Anti-racist activists will worry, especially at a time when BLM has raised awareness of the depths of racism against Black people, that he is driving a wedge between Jews and other racialised minorities – which does not exactly help him tackle antisemitism either.

Finally, it is hardly “good for the Jews” to be back in the eye of a Labour storm. When Jeremy Corbyn was leader, a variety of political forces wove the topic of antisemitism tightly into the fabric of the party’s politics. With one fell stroke, the clock has been turned back. Being on the fault lines of a major political party is a precarious kind of existence for a minority group. If Starmer persists with his un-nuanced, no-nonsense version of ‘zero tolerance’, ‘tackling antisemitism’ will sound more and more like a euphemism for targeting the left. This will breed resentment, the resentment will fester, and when it turns ugly it is precisely we – we Jews collectively – who will pay a price.

It is true that, as I mentioned at the beginning, the Board of Deputies of British Jews cheered Starmer on from the sidelines for dismissing Long-Bailey from her shadow cabinet post. But what does that prove? Only this: we Jews are not the diabolically clever schemers who (in an antisemitic fantasy) pursue our collective interest with uncanny shrewdness. We are not collectively shrewd – we are just like everyone else. ▼

Brian Klug is senior research fellow in philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford.