Anti-Semitism and Labour

I’m surprised by the allegations emerging just now of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. As long-standing member of the party, I must say I can’t quite believe them, or that they are significant. I touched on historical left-wing anti-Semitism in my first book (Critics of Empire), where it was a charge laid against those who attributed Britain’s imperialist war in South Africa to the influence of capitalists there, some of whom were Jewish; but came to the conclusion – based on my knowledge of the anti-imperialist community more generally, who included other Jews – that, obviously in this context, it was their ‘capitalism’ that set the Left against them, and that genuine racial anti-Semitism played little part. It is well known that the creation of Israel was enthusiastically supported by the post-Second World War Labour Party, based partly on left-wing appreciation of the genuine socialism that appeared to be an essential part of the project – kibbutsim, and all that.

Of course the state of Israel has changed quite fundamentally since then, and has become open to criticism on the Left for what the latter sees as its militancy, colonialism (the West Bank settlements), and domestic treatment of its Arabs. Some of us historians, musing on various ‘hypothetical histories’, as we are bound to, must occasionally wonder what might have transpired had Arthur Balfour never made his ‘Declaration’, and if the European Jews’ national aspirations had been satisfied elsewhere – like Uganda, tentatively offered to the Zionists by the British Colonial Office before the War. Wouldn’t that have made things in the Middle East better today? (Of course we can’t know. That’s the difficulty with ‘hypothetical histories’.)

I imagine that it was this kind of ‘musing’ that led the Labour MP Naz Shah to make her cringeworthy suggestion (before she became an MP) that the present state of Israel be uprooted and transferred to America – ‘problem solved’, as she put it; cringeworthy because in this day and age it must resurrect memories of ‘ethnic cleansing’ both in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, and because she really should have been sensitive to the place that the geographical ‘Holy Land’ holds in the minds of Jews everywhere (however emotionally and therefore irrationally). She should also have been alive to the way in which criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism are – whether we like it or not – often these days confused with anti-Semitism, or seen as a ‘cover’ for it. That’s a minefield that even milder critics of Israeli government policies have to traverse gingerly every day. That displayed very poor judgment on her part, as well as ignorance. I trust her statement, made yesterday in the House of Commons, that she now fully and deeply acknowledges this.

As for other expressions of ‘anti-Semitism’ in Labour student circles (it’s usually students who say these silly things), I have no knowledge of what they are supposed to be. But we do know – if I can be allowed to write this without being suspected of racial prejudice myself – that some sections of the Jewish community can be over-sensitive and over-suspicious here. (With good historical reason, I have to say. And they share this with women and blacks.) In connection with this, I was reading Christopher Isherwood’s wonderful 1964 novel A Single Man recently, and came across this. It’s in a lecture the main character, ‘George’, is giving to his students at (we presume) UCLA.

‘And I’ll tell you something else. A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it.’

I hope quoting that doesn’t get me into trouble. If I had posted this on a blogsite that people actually read, like the LRB Blog – my usual vehicle – I suspect it would provoke plenty of comments and complaints BTL; which is why I’m confining it to this one. For the time being.

I thought of adding here a statement of my enormous admiration for Jews and their societies and cultures. (I often wish I was one.) But why should I be forced into such a defensive stance? (There. I have been.)


PS. (later.) Apparently Ken Livingstone is now being accused of anti-semitism for pointing out that Hitler supported the formation of a state of Israel in the 1930s. I’m sorry, but that is true. It was part of Hitler’s solution to Germany’s ‘Jewish problem’ before he thought of the ‘final’ one. Of course Livingstone was neither defending Hitler nor tarring Israel with a Nazi brush. Right-wing Labour MPs, including one respectable historian, Tristram Hunt, sadly, are piling in to call for his removal from the Party on these grounds. I suppose it’s the mere mention of the ‘H’-word. This bears out what I’ve just written. I despair.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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