Accusations of systemic anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party obscure the party’s actual history of anti-Semitism, which is rooted in its support for empire and nationalism, not in anti-Zionism.
In recent weeks, the British Labour Party has been accused of suffering from a crisis of anti-Semitism. But the claim only makes sense if anti-Semitism is redefined to include anti-Zionism. To do so obscures the party’s actual history of anti-Semitism, which is rooted in its support for empire and nationalism, not in anti-Zionism.
The current discussion of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is conducted as if nobody had ever before noticed it has a racism problem. But anti-racists have for decades been pointing to the history of Labour support for racism, including anti-Semitism, and colonialism.
Unlike the Conservatives and Liberals, Labour has also had a substantial internationalist and anti-imperialist tendency. But this tendency has historically been marginalised by the Labour leadership, which favoured versions of ‘social imperialism’ – the doctrine that class conflict is best resolved through social reforms framed as necessary for the defence of nation and empire. Social imperialism inevitably implied racism too.
For example, Sidney Webb, who played a key role in the formation of the party, wrote in a 1907 Fabian pamphlet that:
Twenty-five per cent of our parents … is producing 50 per cent of the next generation. This can hardly result in anything but national deterioration; or, as an alternative, in this country gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews.
Webb’s solution was government intervention to ensure that “the best and most patriotic of the citizens” have more children in order to avoid “race deterioration, if not race suicide”.
Labour governments have always believed that social reforms can only be achieved if compromises are made with imperialism and racism. The Attlee government of 1945 to 1951 was forced to concede independence to India, Pakistan and Ceylon but waged a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the national liberation movement in Malaya and rejected calls for an end to British imperialism in Africa. Labour governments have since then remained faithful to NATO and the dictates of US empire. This has gone hand in hand with legislating and implementing racist immigration and asylum laws from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century.
The recent Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown participated in the worst imperial aggressions of the ‘war on terror’, fostered the demonisation of Muslims and refugees, and wrapped themselves in the crude nationalism of “British jobs for British workers”.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party last summer represents a significant break with this ugly history. Of particular importance is Corbyn’s support for the largest anti-colonial movement in Britain today, the BDS movement. Much of the current campaign against the Labour Party is motivated by opposition to Corbyn’s leadership and the fear that a future Labour government might pursue a boycott policy.
What is striking about the recent accusations of systemic anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is that they are not related to the party’s actual history of anti-Semitism. They instead rest on a redefinition of the meaning of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism or to see the two as interconnected or overlapping.
There are actual examples of anti-Semitism in the party, such as members who have spoken of “the Jews” secretly controlling the media or who refer to “big noses”. These are expressions of racism and must be dealt with forcefully.
There is also what Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has called “Zionist-bashing”: mocking, distasteful or aggressive criticism of the state of Israel. This includes suggestions that Israel be relocated to the United States, describing Israel as a terrorist state or comparisons of Israel to Nazism or ISIS.
Typically, news reporting on the issue merges together these two distinct phenomena. But anti-Zionism is not on a continuum with anti-Semitism. Nor is there a grey area between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. As Steve Cohen, author of That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic, has written:
I do not think there is ever the question of anti‐Zionism discourse “becoming” or “sliding into” anti‐Semitism. If a position is anti‐semitic then it is anti‐semitic in its origins – it does not become so. It is nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism. So, fascistic critiques of Israel are not about Zionism. They are about Jews. And this is the point. Anti‐Zionism is about solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti‐Semitism is about the Jewish conspiracy.
The attempt to redefine anti-Semitism to include forms of anti-Zionism not only undermines solidarity with the Palestinian movement; it also obscures the actual history and reality of anti-Semitism on the Left.
Moreover, it hides from view the ways that Zionism itself nowadays asserts a fixed meaning of what it means to be Jewish. Zionism increasingly sees Jews as having only one possible political identity – loyalty to Israel. Increasingly, it states that Jews cannot co-exist with other Europeans, and wants Jews to be fearful. Like anti-Semitism, today’s Zionism reifies Jews, fetishizes them, instrumentalises them for its own purposes.
One of the reasons this can happen is because of a prevailing, superficial analysis of racism that sees it as mainly to do with words that cause offence to a minority. Expressions of hostility to Israeli colonialism are no doubt offensive to some Jews, but that does not make them anti-Semitic. Racisms are more than just sets of words that cause offence. To be subjected to racism is to be in a subservient relationship within a structure of power; racist language is relevant insofar as it becomes part of the way that structure is maintained.
Anti-Semitism is no different in this respect. Its existence in modern Europe is not a ‘virus’ of individual prejudices but structural. Its function is to explain away the social disorder that capitalism inevitably generates by locating its origins outside of the social body, in what it views as the contaminating figure of the Jew. Anti-Semitism claims that social disorder is not the result of social and economic conditions but an alien intrusion that corrupts an otherwise well-functioning national culture. This is why, within the history of the Labour Party, anti-Semitism is linked to social imperialism, and its associated cultural nationalism.
Within this tradition, Jews are demonised in two ways. On the one hand, they are perceived as threatening society from below through immigration and the importation of an alien culture. On the other, with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about world domination, they are seen as undermining society from above. In these ways, the destructiveness of capitalism is projected onto Jews and the social energies deriving from class conflict are redirected. A powerful and dangerous structure of displacement is then created that has produced exclusion, pogroms, expulsion, and genocide.
Today, the Muslim joins the Jew as the perceived outsider who can stand in for the real causes of social dislocation. The Muslim, like the Jew, is the secret manipulator invoked by conspiracy theories, such as the belief that Muslims secretly created the European Union or that president Obama is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, such beliefs are not free-floating but part of a system of violence – known as the ‘war on terror’ – that has resulted in the deaths of at least half a million civilians. Anti-Zionism is a necessary part of the movement to end this killing.
It is here that the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is clearest. Whereas anti-Semitism is an ideology that sustains structures of oppression, anti-Zionism is a political movement that seeks to undo structures of oppression. The solution to racism against Jews cannot be the colonisation of Palestinians; the solution to the colonisation of Palestinians cannot be racism against Jews. Both problems require a politics of solidarity, not cultural difference.
This article was first published on openDemocracy.