What Momentum’s video does and doesn’t say about antisemitism on the left

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By Daniel Randall (@therubykid)

Momentum’s new video on antisemitism on the left, which takes the form of a personal testimony from Tania Shew, a Jewish supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, is a welcome rebuttal to those who claim allegations of antisemitism are mere smears or fabrications.

Tania speaks frankly about her personal experiences of seeing antisemitic memes shared online by self-proclaimed leftists, and hearing them recycle conspiracy-theory narratives about how Israel, or “Zionism”, exerts a controlling power over world affairs. Tania also explains how, on learning about her Jewish identity, some “comrades” immediately interrogated her about her beliefs on Israel, implying collective Jewish responsibility for the actions of the state.

The conclusion of the video is that the left, and Jeremy Corbyn personally, have all the tools to tackle antisemitism “at their fingertips”, because of the left’s ability to have a nuanced understanding of how language and imagery can intersect with power imbalances and oppressions, in history and actuality.

It’s good that Momentum has released the video. More social media content (and unfortunately, social media is Momentum’s primary sphere nowadays) tackling complex and contentious political issues, which aim to convince people and change minds rather than merely appeal to existing lowest-common-denominators, would be a positive development.

If the video is to have a positive effect in terms of moving the debate on left antisemitism forward, it deserves to be engaged with critically. A short video designed for social media can only ever scratch the surface of an issue, and package ideas in bite-size form. Nevertheless, some of the ideas contained in it require some unpacking. Others, I would argue, point in the wrong direction.

The video offers a short historical analysis, suggesting that people on the left in Britain might have a blasé attitude towards allegations of antisemitism because of how closely Britain’s national self-conception is bound up with having defeated Nazism, the ultimate expression of antisemitism. Tania suggests people in Britain might dismiss antisemitism as a historic phenomenon rooted in continental Europe, and shows, with reference to medieval antisemitism in Britain, the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at excluding Jewish immigrants, and Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists, that antisemitism has a long history in these islands too.

As far as it goes, this is a useful corrective to the attitudes Tania describes. But as an analysis of the origins of antisemitism on the left, it is limited. One potential implication is that antisemitism is an essentially right-wing phenomenon, and that its appearance on the left is an aberration, an incursion from wider society that can be repelled. While some antisemitism in left-wing spaces, and certainly in a broad party like Labour, may take this form, this frame misses the fact that much antisemitism on the left is entirely “organic”.

“Left antisemitism” is a distinct phenomenon, existing both in a primitive form – called, in a phrase popularised by the German revolutionary leader August Bebel “the socialism of fools”, consisting of invective against “Jewish capitalists”, and so on – and a more contemporary form, based on a conspiracy-theorist iteration of anti-Zionism, originating with Stalinism’s anti-Zionist turn in the 1950s. To meaningfully confront antisemitism in our ranks, the left must acknowledge, confront, and uproot this organic tendency, as well as fighting incursions of antisemitism, and other bigotries, from wider society.

As others – including Dave Rich and Twitter user Sisyphusa – have pointed out, the video’s mention of the 1905 Aliens Act only in the context of the history of right-wing antisemitism is a missed opportunity to educate a primarily left-wing and labour-movement audience about some of the uglier realities of our own movement’s history.

Prior to 1905, many labour movement bodies and individuals, including the Trade Union Congress as well as some on the socialist left, lobbied hard for the introduction of immigration controls to restrict Jewish immigration; their agitation was often explicitly antisemitic in character. The TUC enthusiastically supported the introduction of the Aliens Act. This history is profoundly relevant not only to debates about antisemitism, but also to current debates around immigration and free movement, an aspect I previously wrote about for the Labour Campaign for Free Movement here. Steve Cohen’s excellent book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic, one of the definitive texts on left antisemitism, also deals well with this history, and can be read online.

The video’s suggestion that Labour’s anti-racist legislation somehow fixed the problem of institutional antisemitism in Britain obscures more than it clarifies. Labour in government has frequently legislated against migrants’ rights with almost as much vigour as the Tories.

When Tania talks about being interrogated about her views on Israel, she follows this up by explaining that she has no connection to the country: she’s never been there, she says, and she boycotts Israeli goods. But what if she did have some connection to Israel, as most Jews, whether we on the left like it or not, do? Setting aside the question of whether boycotting Israel is the right thing to do, what if she didn’t boycott Israeli goods?

The “connection” many Jews feel to Israel is often complex and contradictory, and often exists as little more than a diffuse religio-ethno-cultural-national affinity (categories which brutal history has unhelpfully tangled up in the case of the Jews), but it is part of the fabric of Jewish identity for most Jews alive today. Some on the far left seem to believe that, as long as one acknowledges that Jews aren’t collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and that not all Jews are Zionists, one can say what one likes about those that are (with “Zionist” here roughly meaning “any Jew who has any affinity with Israel and supports its right to exist”, i.e., most Jews). I’m not suggesting for a second that Tania shares this view, but it’s a little worrying that she felt it necessary to foreground her pro-boycott credentials as part of her explanation.

Tania also talks about how tackling antisemitism on the left can’t be allowed to curtail freedom of speech, particular for Palestinians, who have an absolute right to “describe their oppression in whatever terms they see fit.” On strict freedom of speech grounds, which are themselves no small matter, this is indisputable. But whether that means the “terms” Palestinians, or anyone else, use to describe their experiences of oppression, cannot be challenged, is another question. For example, the view that the oppression of the Palestinians is part of a world Zionist conspiracy by Jews to dominate other peoples is an antisemitic calumny, whether it is uttered by a Palestinian or anyone else. Do they have a “right” to say it, to “describe their oppression” in such terms, if they wish? Yes. But socialists also have a responsibility to challenge such “terms”.

Indeed, as the Marxist theorist Moishe Postone argued, antisemitism itself is an attempt to describe and understand “oppression”, or at least social grievance, in certain “terms”. Postone called antisemitism “a reactionary critique of capitalist modernity”, with a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension”: in other words, it posits itself as an ideology of dissent against the powers-that-be, by offering the downtrodden a framing analysis for how the world is organised – i.e., controlled by a secret cabal of Jews.

Meanwhile, Jews have historically understood and described our oppression in all sorts of different “terms”, some religiously-rooted, some based on a variety of different political analyses, and drawn vastly differing conclusions from these various descriptions and understandings. We had an absolute right to do so. But some of them were wrong! And a left that responded by saying, “all of these descriptions are equally valid, and it’s not for anyone else to question the terms in which oppressed people describe their own oppression” would not have been much use when it came to actually confronting the oppression as it existed in material reality.

It would be monstrously unfair to critique the video for failing to be something it could never possibly be – a text that gave even a rough sketch of the multifarious complexities of this thorny issue. As an intervention into debate on the immediate question of whether antisemitism exists on the left, it is firmly on the right side and will hopefully change some minds.

Ultimately, though, the question of left antisemitism is not reducible to questions of language, tropes, and the intersection of linguistic imagery with imbalances in social power felt by “marginalised groups”. It is a matter of political ideas. Nor, sadly, can it be decisively separated from the issue of Israel/Palestine. As so much antisemitism on the left manifests in “anti-Zionist” terms, the issues must be debated alongside one another.

The video is obviously not an academic treatise, and by stimulating debate online it has already served a purpose. Some of the engagement has been in profoundly bad faith, attacking the video, and Tania, in entirely unreasonable terms, and suggesting she is “acting”. Some of the responses-to-the-responses, purporting to defend the video, have also been disingenuous, arguing that, because the video is just one individual’s account of their own experience, it’s unfair to criticise the video at all. Both these responses are wrong: space must be protected in debate for people to relate and discuss their experiences openly and honestly, but the political conclusions people draw from their experiences and propose for the rest of the movement cannot be beyond inquiry, response, and critique.

The debates the video has stimulated online must continue within Labour Party and Momentum meetings in the real world. In the wake of the voting down of a motion condemning the Pittsburgh shootings in a local Labour Party, there can be no doubt that we still have much to do to transform the party on this question.

  • For more articles on antisemitism from the Clarion, please click here

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