Sweeping antisemitism under the carpet
15 February 2017
Last month, Al-Jazeera broadcast a four-part documentary series called "The Lobby" that claimed to expose "how the Israel lobby influences British politics." The programme, which relied heavily on shaky undercover filming and sinister background music, is now the subject of a complaint to Ofcom.
Mike Cushman of the 'Free Speech on Israel' blog reviewed the progamme in an article that was redolent of antisemitic conspiracy talk. He claimed that "the Labour Party has become a pawn of Zionist organisations"; and that "the most senior members of both main parties, with the exception of Corbyn and his close associates, and the Liberal Democrats, [are] part of the network of Israeli influence". Cushman also suggested that Theresa May does Israel's bidding "as reciprocity for previous career assistance from the Israelis."
Cushman's article goes way beyond even the allegations made by Al Jazeera and his claims are not supported by the material broadcast. He may have been excited by the programme but his conspiracy theories are entirely his own.
If his article had remained on his own group's blog then this would be a trivial matter; but the article was republished on the website of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and its online publication, Labour Briefing. LRC is one of those factions of the left that has gained in importance since the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The Honorary President and former Chair of the LRC is the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP. The current Chair is Matt Wrack, who is also General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. The LRC's politics, and the ideas they endorse (or reject), have influence in the Labour Party.
Twenty years ago, it was only neo-Nazis and conspiracy cranks who would claim that the Labour Party was a "pawn" of Zionists and that the Prime Minister was in hock to Israel. Now these allegations get published on the website of a left wing group whose leaders include the Shadow Chancellor. This is how antisemitism spreads into mainstream politics and infects the way people on the left think and talk about Jews, Israel and Zionism.
So it matters a great deal that the LRC website published Cushman's conspiracy article; and it also matters that they quickly deleted Cushman's article after I highlighted it on social media on Monday. The article disappeared from both the LRC and Labour Briefing websites within 24 hours of my posts drawing attention to it (the links above are to the Google Cache versions).
Both websites should be applauded for remedying their earlier action by removing the offending article, but there is an important question about what happens next. It is not enough just to sweep this under the carpet and move on. There ought to be consequences for antisemitism in any respectable political organisation.
There has been no explanation why the article was removed by LRC and Labour Briefing. It could be that senior people in both organisations agree the article was antisemitic and removed it on that basis; or perhaps they thought it was embarrassing for their websites to describe the Labour Party in such pejorative terms; or perhaps it was removed for some other reason. It is important that LRC and Labour Briefing clarify this point, because it makes a difference why it was taken down. To simply disappear the article without an explanation is not good enough.
For example, if the article was removed on the grounds that it was antisemitic, then that, surely, must have consequences for Mike Cushman. Is he still welcome to write for LRC and Labour Briefing? Will other pro-Palestinian campaigners still share platforms with him? If he is a member of the Labour Party, should he remain so? How many antisemitic ideas or attitudes does a person need to express, before others on the left decide not to associate with him? We are repeatedly assured that the left is a place where antisemitism is not tolerated. These are the concrete actions that would demonstrate whether this promise means anything at all.
The lack of disciplinary action against those in the Oxford University Labour Club who were found to have expressed antisemitic attitudes, and the widespread disgust at this lack of action in the Jewish community, shows the damage that is done when there are no consequences for antisemitism.
Then there is the broader question of how LRC and others approach the whole issue of antisemitism. There is a small but vocal faction on the left who repeatedly insist that allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party are a smear with no basis in fact. According to other articles still on the LRC website, antisemitism is "the historical weapon of political Zionism"; while allegations of antisemitism in the party are "fantasies", a "cheap trick" lacking evidence. Labour Briefing, which is run by LRC, has articles claiming that "false accusations of anti-Semitism" are made "to deter criticism of Zionism and the Israeli state"; "unsubstantiated assertions of antisemitism" are Zionism's "ultimate weapon of mass destruction" against the left; and that allegations of antisemitism are a "Ponzi scheme", a vast fraud for political motives. Time after time, genuine Jewish concerns about antisemitism on the left are dismissed as malicious lies intended to shield Israel from criticism.
These assaults on mainstream Jewish honesty and integrity are hugely damaging to the relationship between the Jewish community and the Labour Party. Now that LRC and Labour Briefing appear to have removed an article that contained antisemitic tropes, is there anyone in either organisation who is willing to say, publicly, that this article was antisemitic, and that mainstream Jewish concerns about antisemitism on the left should be treated with respect?
In the moral universe of the anti-Zionist left, Mike Cushman would be seen as a good, honourable person and ‘Zionists’ – however defined – are seen as bad, racist liars. Too often, too many people on the left prefer to ignore or cover up antisemitism within their ranks, or treat it as just an unfortunate choice of words, rather than address it as a political problem; but this approach has only made things worse. As Baroness Chakrabarti wrote in her report into antisemitism in the Labour Party: “It is not sufficient, narrowly to scrape across some thin magic line of non-antisemitic or non-racist motivation, speech or behaviour”. To do so is to leave space for antisemitic ideas to become accepted, normalised and absorbed into left wing thinking about Jews, Israel and Zionism. The Labour Party has felt the consequences of this neglect over the past two years; it will continue to do so until enough people recognise that simply deleting the evidence and pretending it didn’t happen is to passively acquiesce in the spread of antisemitism on the left.