CST Blog

A Few Minutes with Dr. Dave Rich

13 August 2018

This interview with CST's Head of Policy, Dr Dave Rich, originally appeared in issue 721 of Mishpacha on 1 August 2018:

The scandal surrounding antisemitism within the British Labour Party continues to grow. The party’s recent decision to adopt a watered-down definition of antisemitism, rather than that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, caused renewed outrage. Taken together with slurs against “Talmud Jews” from a local Labour councillor, it is clear that the rot goes to the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

With the latest YouGov poll showing Labour neck and neck with Theresa May’s Conservatives, Mishpacha reached out to antisemitism expert Dr. Dave Rich, head of policy for the Community Security Trust (CST) and author of The Left’s Jewish Problem. He discussed how Labour became a hotbed of antisemitism, whether the party is a lost cause, and the broader ramifications for the left across Europe and the US.

British Jews have historically voted Labour, the party that has traditionally been friendly to minorities, and that remained true as recently as a few years ago under the leadership of Tony Blair. So how have we arrived at a situation where the party is accused of antisemitism?

Well, a lot of factors have gone into it. The most obvious one is that the Labour Party has changed a great deal over the last three years. Its leadership has changed, its membership has changed, and the orientation of the party has moved from a centre-left social democratic party to a much more hard-left political party. It is now run by people such as Jeremy Corbyn who have spent much of their political career really on the fringe of the left. But now they are running the party, and their views are now mainstream as a result.

When you talk about hard-left, are you talking in economic terms or about foreign policy?

They are hard-left in their view of how the world works. They think that everything can be viewed through a framework of anti-imperialism, of opposition to Western power led by America and Britain. That involves Israel being a force for evil in the world, and anyone who opposes that Western power is deserving of their sympathy and support. Israel, and Israel’s supporters around the world — which of course includes the majority of Jewish people — fall in the first camp, the Western camp.

So the Labour of the Blair-Brown years has gone, and there has been a takeover of the party from the left. But what has actually led to this leftward shift?

There are a few factors. One quite basic reason is that Labour changed its rules for how it chooses its leaders. So whereas previously the members of Parliament, Labour MPs and trade unions basically controlled the process, it has recently been opened up to all members, all of whom have an equal vote together with MPs. The far left, which is very good at organizing, took advantage of that. So that is the structural reason for how they managed to do it.

But they would not have been able to do it if Corbyn’s ideas had not had widespread appeal. He achieved that widespread appeal because of this broader disenchantment with all mainstream politics, with the establishment all over Europe and North America. This was partly due to the financial crash, and partly a response to the destabilization of Europe through mass immigration. But also just more generally a collapse in trust for established authority, whether it’s politicians or the media or the banks — all the pillars of how the country operates. People don’t believe in them anymore.

In some places this has brought populist right-wing government, in some places, it strengthened the left, and in Britain, you could argue it strengthened both right and left because we have Brexit and Corbyn.

Two weeks ago leading Labour politician Dame Margaret Hodge confronted Corbyn in Parliament, reportedly calling him a “racist and anti-Semite.” Was she correct? Is Corbyn an anti-Semite?

What I think is interesting is that when Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party, there were lots of concerns expressed at the time about people he had associated with or had spoken alongside. Everyone said Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely not an anti-Semite, but he appears to be blind to it or not understand it and so on. That language has changed. Margaret Hodge was the first prominent person to come out in public and say “I think he’s an anti-Semite,” but I think she was voicing a frustration. Lots of people wonder how it could be that he’s been the leader over the last three years, when all these problems are developing, and really not seem to show the same kind of urgency in dealing with it as he does with other issues he really cares about. So I think she was really voicing the feelings of a lot of people. 

So have we lost the Labour Party for the time being?

“We,” in that respect, are a small part of this story. The Labour Party is one of the two great political parties in Britain. It has a long and proud history and the Jewish- or Israel-related aspect is a very small part of that. There are fundamental changes, huge seismic changes in the makeup of the party and its political orientation over the last three years, and the problems the Jewish community is now facing in terms of antisemitism are just a small part of that picture. So there are other people who are much more central to the story of the Labour Party who have to address the question of whether they have lost the party and if they can get it back. And the Jews’ fortunes will certainly be governed by what happens in that bigger story. 

Your book focuses on the left’s antisemitism problem, but the phenomenon also exists on the far right. In the US that trend came to the fore in the Charlottesville far-right rally. So is the problem greater on the left or the right?

Well, unfortunately, as we know from experience, antisemitism is not confined to left or right. It can pop up in extremist politics on both sides, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’ve seen the rise of the anti-Semitic far right in America and in Europe and we’ve also got the rise of far left antisemitism as well. And it’s actually part of the same picture. When people lose faith in democracy and they turn to popular politics and they turn to conspiracy to explain the world, antisemitism will always find its place in the world — whether on the left or the right, in Islamist groups, or in other kinds of political movements. antisemitism is very malleable; it can work for people whatever their political outlook.

At the moment the main problem we’re facing is from the left, because these anti-Semitic ideas have taken root in the Labour Party, which is a mass movement, and it’s in the mainstream. What’s really shocking about the Labour Party in the last two years is how much of the antisemitism we’re seeing actually has nothing to do with Israel. It’s conspiracy theories, it’s about Rothschild and the Holocaust and Jews and the banks and the media, about the Jewish lobby telling politicians what to say. So actually a lot of it is explicit antisemitism.

The left in Europe and the US has swung over the last generation against Israel. How can we bring the left back on board so that Israel doesn’t become a partisan issue, supported just by the Conservatives in the UK and Republicans in the US?

There are similar patterns in Europe and the US in that you’ve got a generation of younger politicians growing up now who do not remember the old Israel of the kibbutz, which the old left supported. They only know Israel through the prism of conflict and intifada and settlements and so on. But I think that we shouldn’t allow ourselves and our relationship with politicians to be to be defined necessarily by what they think of Israel. There is a whole range of policy issues that affect the Jewish population living in the Diaspora, and we need to bear all of them in mind. There is education to be done about what it means to be Jewish, what antisemitism is, what Israel means to us, even before you get into the details of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We need to take on that challenge.

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