The anti-war left’s contextual problem with antisemitism
26 February 2016
Jon Lansman is a key Jeremy Corbyn aide, leader of the Momentum group. His article in the Jewish Chronicle, “My doubts about Oxford Labour antisemitism claim”, exemplify the fundamental distance between this part of the left and mainstream Jewish opinion on antisemitism.
Lansman opens with his own sincere opposition to antisemitism, stressing how it and the Holocaust shaped his own universal values. The article ends with an opportunistic swipe at Benjamin Netanyahu.
How many times have we seen these start and end points of anti-antisemitism articles and speeches by such people? I am 100% willing to accept that Lansman is entirely sincere in what he says about opposing antisemitism, but closing with a Netanyahu attack leaves the impression that the Israel bash is equally or more important to him.
The above paradox is problematic for many Jews: but this section of the left is so self-assured of its anti-antisemitism, that it is no problem for them. Indeed, it is axiomatic behaviour. Condemn antisemitism, well yes of course, but don’t leave until you’ve heard our condemnation of Israel.
Lansman’s article insists that “context” is key to whether or not something should be judged antisemitic. For him, as with the rest of this camp, that context is the right to criticise Israel and Zionism.
For many Jews, however, there are other important contexts. Lansman’s section of the left would do well to seriously contemplate them:
Context one: This is not mere “criticism” (and how many times must we sincerely state that “criticism” is no problem!). Rather, Israel and Zionism are repeatedly singled out for uniquely passionate hatreds in which any and all Jewish Zionists are reduced to the moral status of racist scum: regardless of how antisemitism and the Holocaust inform their own basic belief that Jews must have a homeland.
Context two: Only Israel makes others’ blood boil. President Assad is no problem. Sri Lanka is great for holidays. Rights for women and gays are irrelevant. Tell Jews that this has nothing, yes nothing, to do with 2,000 years of antisemitism…and…well…
Context three: Israel and Zionism are Jewish things. Society has 2,000 years of knowing how to hate and uniquely scapegoat Jewish things. Which is why anti-Zionism so closely echoes older open antisemitism (with Zionists swapped for Jews).
Context four: Most important of all is the current condition of European Jewry. 15 years of the above, brutally punctuated by antisemitic terrorism, and consistently accompanied by high levels of antisemitic abuse and intimidation, have left European Jewish communities in crisis.
Of course, Lansman’s article makes no mention of this, the most important context of all.
Politicians from David Cameron to Angela Merkel have spoken very strongly indeed about the need to support European Jewry. Their support and that of many others is of major moral and practical importance to Jews. Throughout, the silence from those on the self-defined anti-racist and anti-war left has been deafening and profound: and yet Lansman has the chutzpah to actually write that some of the commentators and politicians currently “castigating Jeremy Corbyn…have little interest in combating antisemitism”.
This is not, however, the most chutzpahdik thing in the article. Instead, that is when he admits racism and antisemitism were problems in pre 1980s Labour, but then “the efforts to eradicate it became serious…thanks in part to Ken Livingstone”.
This is the same Ken Livingstone who one week ago told LBC radio that in 45 years he had seen no antisemitism in the Labour Party!
Then, we have Livingstone’s own record regarding antisemitism and Jewish sensibilities, which Lansamn decently acknowledges. The point I wish to make however, is that Livingstone also stresses the fundamental importance of antisemitism and the Holocaust to his politics, and to note that those who know him, all state that however objectionable he may be, he is not a Jew-hater.
Which brings us back to Lansman’s article. He tells JC readers that he knows the two students in the eye of the Oxford storm and he knows they are not antisemitic. Plus ca change. Nobody in any of this is antisemitic. Not the anti-racist, anti-war left. Not the students. Not Livingstone. (And there is no suggestion that Lansman is antisemitic.)
This blissful self-assurance lies at the heart of the distance and the dissonance between this leftist camp and mainstream Jews. Lansman also gets to the heart of it. After stating the students are not antisemitic, he writes:
“If the context fails to demonstrate that the [Oxford students’] intent is antisemitic, then to levy the charge of antisemitism is at best to diminish and at worse to trivialise a serious matter. If admonishment is still due, it should be for a significantly lesser offence”.
This is what it is all about. Never mind post-Lawrence Inquiry definitions of anti-racism, and properly caring about perceptions of victims and concerned observers. It is all about the intention of the perpetrator and the context cited by them and their supporters. It gives this anti-racist left the right to lecture Jews on antisemitism. It amounts to a Get Out of Jail Free card for anyone in the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist left, because they are by self-definition really, really, really, not antisemitic.
And so it will continue, until mainstream Jews reject Israel and Zionism, or until this section of the left properly engages with contemporary antisemitism, its drivers and those who care about it.