22 August 2017
The stated aim of “The Left’s Jewish Problem” is to inquire into the reasons for the breakdown of the relationship between the British Jewish community and the British Left, especially the Labour Party. The unstated aim is to discredit Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Party. The book (which incorporates some parts of the author’s 2011 doctoral dissertation) was evidently timed to appear as a kind of companion piece to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s Report on Anti-Semitism.
Dave Rich, Jewish community leader and Deputy Director of Communications for the Community Security Trust (CST), admits that “there are socio-economic reasons for the long-term drift of Jewish voters from Labour to the Conservatives” – ie most British Jews have moved from the impoverished working class into the affluent middle class. But he insists: “these reasons alone do not explain the scale of the change nor its recent acceleration”.
His explanation for the “recent acceleration” and “scale of the change” is that, in the short term, the Labour Party has been taken over by far-left activists whose mind-set – “a sickness at the heart of left-wing British politics…..silently spreading, growing ever more malignant” (according to the cover blurb) - has given rise to the current crises over allegations of anti-Semitism; while, in the longer term, the diseased outlook of these activists is the product of trends which the author traces back to the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial New Left movement of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Another unstated aim of the book is to let Israel off the hook by, for instance, claiming that this malignant influence of the New Left over the wider left “played a decisive role in flipping left-wing opinion from being overwhelmingly pro-Israel to its current pro-Palestinian consensus”. But isn’t the British Left’s disillusionment with Israel the result of its policies, barely mentioned by the author?
Adopting a sophisticated approach, Rich does not allege that the British Left is anti-Semitic in the conventional sense. In the Introduction he writes: “Anti-Semitism does play a role in this story, but for the most part it does not involve people who are consciously anti-Semitic.” And in the Conclusion he claims: “There is a much-studied phenomenon of ‘anti-Semitism without Jews’…..the British left today gives the impression of being a slightly different phenomenon: a place where there is anti-Semitism without anti-Semites.” The author offers as an example of this puzzling form of anti-Semitism the “No Platform” policy adopted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in the 1970s and 1980s. This policy, which involved refusing to allow speakers or groups judged to be racist or fascist to speak or operate on campus, led a few individual student unions – acting against the instructions of the NUS -- to ban (by refusing to fund and recognise) university Jewish Societies which promoted Israel. Chapter 4: “When Anti-Racists Ban Jews” – is devoted to the issue.
Rich argues that, though there was no intention of anti-Semitism, the “No Platform” policy led to anti-Semitic actions. But the real problem was surely the policy itself, rather than anti-Semitism (even of the unintentional kind). The invokers of the “No Platform” policy erred on two counts: they reduced Zionism (which includes racist aspects but is far more than that) to racism; and they sought to curb freedom of speech on the grounds that they had decided what is and what isn’t racist.
Rich also exploits the issue and uses guilt-by-association to try to smear Corbyn. We are told that throughout the 1980s Corbyn sponsored and supported an anti-Zionist group called the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine (LMCP): “When Sunderland Polytechnic’s Students’ Union banned its Jewish Society in 1985, the LMCP supported the Students’ Union. An unsigned article in its newsletter declared that while “it was a tactical mistake on the part of Sunderland Polytechnic Students’ Union to ban an overtly Zionist Jewish Society….we totally reject the assertion that Sunderland Poly’s action was in any way anti-Semitic.’” (Emphasis in original) Rich writes that, though “Corbyn did not comment directly on events in Sunderland”, the same newsletter that printed the unsigned article also carried a “message from Corbyn encouraging people to join the organisation”. But (a) Corbyn himself did not comment on the subject; (b) the article admits that it was a tactical mistake to ban the Jewish Society and only denies the charge of anti-Semitism – ie, contrary to Rich’s claim, the LMCP did not “support” the Students’ Union.
Rich describes Corbyn as “a typical product of the 1960s New Left”, implying throughout the book that he has not changed his views since the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Thus in Chapter 3, Rich claims that “Corbyn is ambiguous on the subject of Israel’s future existence”, citing as evidence an August 2015 Electronic Intifada interview “in which, when asked whether a one-state solution was inevitable, he suggested that it was a more likely option than a two state solution: ‘I think it’s up to the people of the region to decide what kind of long-term solution there would be. At the moment, all that’s on offer is the possibility of a two-state solution, [but] it’s difficult to see how it would operate with the degree of settlements that are there.’” Corbyn is not suggesting here that a one state solution is “a more likely option”. On the contrary, he says clearly that at the present time the only possible solution “on offer” is two states. To point out the problems created by the presence of over half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to envisage that many years hence there might be a different outcome, is not to suggest that a one state solution “is a more likely option”.
Rich omits all the recent occasions on which Corbyn has made his support for a two state settlement crystal-clear. For instance, after a February 2016 meeting between Corbyn and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), Jonathan Arkush, the BoD’s President, said: “We had a positive and constructive meeting and were pleased that Mr Corbyn gave a very solid commitment to the right of Israel to live within secure and recognized boundaries as part of a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
Much is made in Chapter 5 -“The New Alliance: Islamists and the Left” - of a March 2009 speech in which Corbyn said: “Tomorrow evening it will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well….the idea that an organisation that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region should be labelled as a terrorist organisation by the British government is really a big, big historical mistake.” (Rich also uses this quotation as the first of two epigraphs to the book’s Introduction; the second is a quotation from a 2015 Jewish Chronicle editorial attacking Corbyn). This is the only one of Rich’s accusations against Corbyn that carries some credibility. These comments obviously leave out Hamas’s repressiveness towards its own people and its adoption of violent means to try to overthrow the Occupation. But is Rich justified in concluding this chapter with the claim that the Labour Party “has a new leadership that views Zionism as a hostile, discriminatory ideology and Hamas as a progressive movement”?
We have already seen that Corbyn supports a two-state solution and therefore accepts the existence of Israel. And in the passage cited above he does not describe Hamas as left-wing or progressive; nor has he ever done so. Rich ignores Corbyn’s other comments on Hamas, such as this in the same Electronic Intifada interview: “There has to be talks, there has to be negotiations with all the Palestinian forces, as well as with all the Israeli forces….That means talking to Hamas, it means talking to Hizballah – does it mean that you agree with what they say on social issues, on the death penalty? No it doesn’t, and you can make that clear to them in the discussion.”
Corbyn’s March 2009 speech was intended as a corrective to the labelling of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Like all correctives, his comments were one-sided. He presented the main (and generally ignored) arguments against the proscription of Hamas: its role as a democratically-elected government and national resistance movement against an unjust Occupation, its peace overtures and its social welfare programmes. The speech was made just after Operation Cast Lead – ie just after a massive onslaught of Israeli state terrorism that had incomparably more devastating effects than Hamas rockets. Ehud Barak, Israel’s then Defence Minister - and Defence Minister during Cast Lead - was given a welcome speech and wined and dined by the then British Prime Minister and Labour leader, Gordon Brown, at a reception during the September 2009 Labour Party Conference.
When an arrest warrant for war crimes was issued in London in December 2009 by Westminster Magistrates’ Court against Tzipi Livni, who had been Israeli Foreign Minister at the time of Cast Lead, Gordon Brown rang her to assure her that she would always be welcome in Britain. The British government later made changes to the “universal jurisdiction” law, so that an arrest warrant invoking this law now requires the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Some of the big London protest marches against Operation Cast Lead ended in clashes between demonstrators and police, resulting in police injuries (Rich mentions “over 50 policemen injured” but omits to add that all except one - who was knocked unconscious - suffered minor injuries) and the smashing of windows of Starbucks coffee shops. Many of the very young and mostly Muslim men involved received excessively severe sentences – prison terms of up to two and a half years. To quote Ghazal Tipu in Open Democracy: “The judge in the case said he intended to send out a message to deter others. No doubt the message many will hear is that Muslims are to be punished more severely than others when they step out of line. Smash a Starbucks window and the state will come down on you like a tonne of bricks; smash a poor and desperate people with bombs and bullets and government barely murmurs”.
Rich castigates Corbyn for telling a meeting: “’The events that happened at the end of the demonstration were an expression of anger about what was happening in Gaza by a lot of very young people….the sentences they have suffered as a result of it are absolutely appalling’”.
Rich describes Operation Cast Lead merely as “a three-week conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in January 2009”. He omits the statistics of civilian deaths in Gaza: 1,200, including over 350 children. To have included the figures would have put under too glaring a light his accusation that Corbyn, Seumas Milne, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War, who all supported the defendants, appeared to have failed “to consider that they have a responsibility to channel young Muslims away from illegal protests. Nor did they acknowledge, publicly at least, the impact that the violent demonstrations may have had on the mood of London’s Jews.”
This is probably the lowest point to which the book sinks. But a close contender is the guilt-by-association accusation in Chapter 6 – “Antisemitism, the Holocaust and the Left” - that, during a May Day rally speech by Corbyn - in which he condemned all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism – among those listening to him were “marchers carrying banners with images of Joseph Stalin”. Rich complains: “Anyone who truly stands against anti-Semitism….ought to recognise that Stalin was an anti-Semite, but if Corbyn was aware of this contradiction when he made his May Day speech, he didn’t show it.”
Is Corbyn supposed to be responsible for all the banners exhibited at the huge rallies at which he speaks? Rich also attacks Corbyn’s May Day speech for its “narrow understanding of anti-Semitism as a far-right phenomenon – part of a broader xenophobic politics that is against diversity and stigmatises refugees and minorities” – a view of anti-Semitism that, Rich writes, is “common across the left”. This is reminiscent of the Home Affairs Committee’s criticism of Corbyn for not understanding the “distinct nature” and “uniqueness” of antisemitism, which “unlike other forms of racism….often paints the victim as a malign and controlling force” (Report, paras 113 and 117). Yet, confusingly, Rich often attacks the left for excluding anti-Semitism from other forms of racism – for instance, he complains about “the separation of anti-Semitism from anti-racist politics that has occurred since the 1960s”. Presumably, Rich is accusing the left of a kind of split personality syndrome; but he never perceives the contradiction and so never tries to resolve it.
At the end of Chapter 6, just before the concluding chapter, Rich fires off a parting and climactic guilt-by-association shot against Corbyn. He quotes from a letter by a “veteran Communist”, Moira Gray, which was published in the Morning Star on July 27, 2002: “’Israel, and all that Israel has done and is doing, is an affront to all those millions who fought and died fighting fascism before, during and after the war against fascism….an Italian partisan, fighting the German invaders in Italy, survived a year in Dachau. A few years ago, he committed suicide. He left a note saying that the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps.’” Rich comments: “The sentiments behind the letter are nauseating. The fact that it was deemed fit to publish is chilling”. He denounces in particular the last line: “Linger for a moment on that line: published in Britain’s leading communist newspaper; the newspaper for which Jeremy Corbyn wrote a column for several years before becoming leader of the Labour Party.” Even if the sentiments behind the letter were as “nauseating” as Rich claims them to be, why should Corbyn be associated with it and blamed for writing a column for the “Morning Star”? Don’t all reputable publications print letters with which the editors and columnists don’t agree? Moreover, a search of the Morning Star on-line archives reveals that Moira Gray’s letter was part of a correspondence; it was written in response to a “pro-Israel” letter which was also printed by the Morning Star.
According to Rich, Moira Gray’s letter represents the climax of his case against the British left: “The attitudes and the political logic that lead to it are no longer surprising. It is an extreme example of a way of thinking about Jews, Israel and Zionism that is all too common across the left. These attitudes, this way of thinking, are the reasons for the left’s Jewish problem”. So let’s follow his instructions and linger for a moment, not just on the last line he quotes, but on the letter as a whole. It is confused, badly-expressed and inaccurate. By “an Italian partisan”, Moira Gray probably means Primo Levi, who survived a year in Auschwitz, not Dachau. He did not leave a note before his suicide in 1987; the line cited seems to be a distorted recollection of his famous words in “The Drowned and the Saved”: “the saved of the Lager were not the best….the best all died”. It is absurd to see such an incoherent letter as in some way representative of the British Left, even in an extreme form. Nonetheless, viewed in context, are the sentiments behind the letter, under all its incoherence, really as “nauseating” as Rich claims?
The debate began with a letter of June 3, 2002, in which John Branson, recalling a visit to Auschwitz in 1951, compared “the nazi policy of punishing a whole people” with the current brutal suppression of the Second Intifada (including Operation Defensive Shield, in March-April 2002), in which Ariel Sharon had “set about destroying the whole Palestinian people in the name of an anti-terrorist war. I hope that the millions of good people around the world will act in time to stop this madman”. On June 29, the Morning Star published a “pro-Israel” letter in reply by Toby Levitas, blaming the situation on the Palestinians and beginning: “John Branson’s letter is an affront to the millions who were murdered by the nazis”. Moira Gray’s whole third paragraph is: “How dare Toby Levitas talk about affront to the nazi victims (M Star, June 29)? Israel, and all that Israel has done and is doing, is an affront to all those millions who fought and died fighting fascism before, during and after the war against fascism. It is an affront to the 28 million Soviet people killed in battle, in concentration camps and defending their country from the invaders and to our country's part in the struggle.” In effect, the meaning is: “the millions who fought and died in the battle against fascism gave their lives in a struggle which liberated European Jews, the paradigmatic victims of fascism. The atrocities committed by the Jewish State are an affront to the memory of these millions of anti-fascist fighters.”
I do not find this sentiment “nauseating”; nor should Rich, since it follows on directly from his own “political logic”. He argues repeatedly in Chapter Six that “the Holocaust provided the moral justification for the creation of Israel”. Many will disagree with this premise, but, if we accept it, surely it follows directly that Israel has a moral duty not to defame the memory not only of the millions of victims of the Holocaust, but of the millions who fought and died in the struggle against fascism. Of course Moira Gray should not have identified Israel’s immoral actions with “Jews” in general. But on May 6, 2002, the British Jewish communal organisations had manipulated the Jewish community into attending an Israel Solidarity Rally in Trafalgar Square. The rally -- billed as “non-political”, but including Netanyahu as one of the platform speakers -- was funded by the United Jewish Israel Appeal, with “cross-communal involvement”. The event was very well-organised, with coachloads brought to London from all over the country. 30,000 British Jews, a tenth of the entire British Jewish community, attended. Most of those present probably did not support Ariel Sharon and Operation Defensive Shield (even if they did not speak out against them), but succumbed to deception and tribal pressure. But the community leaders deliberately created the false public impression that the whole British Jewish community endorsed Israel’s atrocities. In such circumstances, is a community leader like Rich justified in reacting with complete shock and condemnation to a misquotation, written two months later by a veteran Communist (who lost two brothers fighting fascism in Spain, while “another brother was torpedoed at sea four years later”, as she writes in her letter), incoherent with outrage: “the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps”? Moreover, Rich himself encourages the conflation between Israel and Jews, implying, for instance, that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic because Jewish identity is so much bound up with Israel that anti-Zionism attacks the roots of Jewish selfhood: “the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist or that Zionism – the political movement that created Israel – was a racist, colonial endeavour rather than a legitimate expression of Jewish nationhood, cuts to the heart of British Jews’ sense of who they are.”
Amid all Rich’s misrepresentations and guilt-by-association smears, there are some valid criticisms of the tactics of the Palestinian solidarity movement (though I disagree with his implication that these are anti-Semitic). The author cites useful comments made (during a 2010 interview that Rich conducted with him) by the Labour MP Richard Burden, an anti-Zionist in his New Left student days in the 1970s, but now a supporter of the two state solution: “analysing the conflict through a theoretic analysis of Zionism, or trying to undermine Israel by alleging Nazi/Zionist collaboration, are blind alleys that do nothing practical for the Palestinians.”
The book includes constructive criticisms of the Palestinian solidarity movement’s ambiguities on the subject of one or two states and about the troubling recent tendency to see Israel as only a “settler-colonial” state and to deny that Israeli Jews have national rights. Rich pertinently criticises the Palestinian solidarity movement’s support for “one secular democratic state” in the 1960s-‘80s. His history of the New Left during this period is on the whole interesting and readable; most of the extracts from his academic thesis have been well-digested (an exception is an over-long excursus in Chapter 2 about the Young Liberals during the 1960s-‘70s). However, he never acknowledges that the Palestinian solidarity movement has moved on since the 1960s-‘80s, even though at present – as any prospects of an end to the Occupation and the attainment of a two state solution seem remote – it has shown a tendency to regress; according to Rich, it has simply stayed the same. The book ends with a proposal of dialogue and reconciliation: “It is not contradictory to accept that Zionism was a genuine Jewish movement for freedom and a response to European anti-Semitism while also critiquing the process by which Israel was created and seeking to redress wrongs suffered by Palestinians….it’s not too late to bring this relationship back to health.”
The aspects of early Zionism mentioned at the beginning of this passage could surely be accepted by the Left. Rich omits any mention of the Nakba till here, four sentences before the end of the book – but it shows how much attitudes have changed in the Jewish community that he mentions it at all.
A large percentage of the British Jewish community, as the author points out, supports a two state solution and opposes expansion of West Bank settlements. The British Left certainly needs to reach out towards the Jewish community (and Corbyn’s meeting with the Board of Deputies shows that he is doing just that). But dialogue is a two-way process. Jewish community leaders like Rich also need to reach out to the British Left, above all by dropping the dishonest and unsubstantiated accusations and guilt-by-association smears that not only drown out the positive aspects of this book but have also, to a large extent, created the current rift between the Jewish community and the left – particularly the Labour Party - that Rich disingenuously claims to be investigating.