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The Anti-Semitism Scandal Engulfing the Labour Party Was Entirely Predictable

The suspension of two prominent Labour officials this week over anti-Jewish prejudice is the ugly culmination of long-festering trends

Yair Rosenberg
April 28, 2016
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
Ken Livingstone speaks to reporters as he leaves Milbank Studios in London, England, April 28, 2016. Rob Stothard/Getty Images
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
Ken Livingstone speaks to reporters as he leaves Milbank Studios in London, England, April 28, 2016. Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Yesterday, the British Labour party suspended one of its members of parliament, Naz Shah, for advocating that Israel be forcibly relocated, comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, and likening Zionism to al-Qaeda. Today, the party suspended one of its top officials, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, for claiming in live interviews that Hitler was a Zionist, while insisting that “during the 47 years I’ve been in the Labour Party, I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”

On Thursday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “There is no crisis.”

None of this should be the least bit surprising.

After all, nearly eight months ago, the party elected Corbyn, a radical leftist, as its new leader with a resounding 59.5% of the vote. This occurred despite the fact that Corbyn, as we reported at the time, had an exceptionally nasty track record of associating with anti-Semites and bigots of all stripes. Among other exploits, we noted, Corbyn had:

Donated to the organization of Paul Eisen, a Holocaust denier, and appeared at his events. He later claimed he was unaware of Eisen’s unsavory views, despite 15 years of association.

Defended vicar Stephen Sizer, who disseminated materials arguing the Mossad did 9/11, after he was banned from social media by the Church of England for posting anti-Semitic material.

Praised preacher Raed Salah and invited him to parliament. Salah claims that Jews make their Passover matzoh with gentile blood, that Jews had foreknowledge of 9/11, and that homosexuality is “a great crime.” He has been banned from the U.K. for anti-Semitic incitement.

Invited activist Dyab Abou Jahjah to parliament and spoke alongside him. Abou Jahjah had called the 9/11 attacks “sweet revenge,” said Europe made “the cult of the Holocaust and Jew-worshiping its alternative religion,” and called gays “Aids-spreading faggots.” He is now banned in the U.K.

 Described himself as a “very good friend” of Ibrahim Hewitt, a preacher who likened homosexuality to pedophilia and incest, and labeled it an “abominable practice.”

Campaigned for the release of Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami, who were convicted in Britain in 1996 for bombing the Israeli Embassy in London and one of the country’s largest Jewish charities.

On the eve of Corbyn’s election, Scottish columnist Stephen Daisley wrote a widely circulated warning about what his ascent represented for the British left:

Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. How I wish that he were. How much easier it would make things. We could chalk all this up to the prejudices of one man and we could avoid the raw, awkward conversation we’re about to have. Because this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn; he’s just a symptom and a symbol. The Left, and not just the fringes, has an anti-Semitism problem.

Contrary to left-wing mythology, anti-Jewish prejudice has never been the exclusive preserve of aristocratic snobs or skinhead fantasists. “The Jew is the enemy of the human race,” declared Proudhon. “One must send this race back to Asia or exterminate it.” Bakunin labelled Jews “bloodsucking people” while Orwell, self-consciously anti-Semitic, even obsessed over the excessive number of Jews sheltering in London’s Underground during World War II. (No matter what the Jews do to protect themselves, it’s always disproportionate.) Marx, the grandson of a rabbi, essayed: “Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible”.

The problem of late, continued Daisley, was that anti-Semitism had found a home on the left by recycling classical anti-Semitic tropes beneath a thin veneer of “anti-Zionism”:

The contemporary Left, in most cases, would recognise these statements as irrational prejudice. But what if we substituted “Zionist” for “Jew”, what would happen then? How many would object to “Zionists” being termed enemies of the human race? How many would be glad to see the “Zionist” become impossible? Anti-Zionism has removed much of the need for classical anti-Semitism by recycling the old superstitions as a political critique of the State of Israel.

…For too many on the Left, Jewish suffering does not touch them the way Muslim suffering or gay suffering or black suffering touches them. Scrutiny of Corbyn’s associations elicits cries of “smear” or just a collective shrug of the shoulders. It was always going to. We lack a language to talk about anti-Semitism because too many on the Left don’t consider it a serious problem and couldn’t recognise it as readily as racism, misogyny or homophobia anyway.

Upon his election as party leader, Corbyn proceeded to prove Daisley right. Under him, Labour readmitted an array of members who had previously been expelled for anti-Semitism, only to have to re-jettison some of them when their prior bigotry came to light. Newly appointed officials in the party were awkwardly suspended when it turned out they were praising Hitler on social media.

Corbyn himself soon appointed Livingstone, a former mayor of London who had been widely accused of anti-Semitism for many years, to several key party posts. This was the man whom The Guardian editor Jonathan Freedland—a former Livingstone voter—famously said “doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews.” A UK-based charity personally backed by Corbyn funded a play in which Gazan children reenacted the murder of Israelis.

On university campuses, similar incidents unfolded on the left. In February, the co-chair of the Oxford Labour Club resigned over anti-Semitism within it, writing, “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.” This month, the UK’s National Union of Students elected a far-left president who claimed the mainstream media was “Zionist-led” and publicly defended terrorism against Israeli civilians. (She had also condemned her university as a “Zionist outpost” due to its “largest Jsoc [Jewish student society] in the country.”)

Then came the Naz Shah affair this past week. An MP from Bradford, Shah was found to have posted on Facebook likening Israel and Zionism to Nazi Germany and al-Qaeda, as well as advocating the transfer of the Jewish state to America. She soon apologized unreservedly. Her party’s leadership, however, was less resolute. Corbyn initially refused to suspend Shah, only doing so after days of intense pressure.

Following the debacle, Labour MP Wes Streeting said that the cascading anti-Semitism in his party brought to mind “lifting up a stone and having insects crawl out.” On cue, Ken Livingstone stepped into the fray to prove him right. Speaking on BBC Radio, the former London mayor insisted that Shah’s comments, though “over the top,” were “not anti-Semitic” and that “I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”

Then Livingstone said something even more astounding:

Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

Livingstone’s ahistorical claim that Hitler was somehow a Zionist—and his transparent attempt to link Zionism and Nazism—provoked a storm of outrage across Britain. Yet even as over a dozen Labour MPs called for Livingstone’s suspension, Corbyn remained silent, and Livingstone went on further talk shows to defend his remarks.

This proved too much for Labour MP John Mann, chair of the All-Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, who confronted Livingstone publicly, calling him a “racist” and a “Nazi apologist”:

After this incident, Livingstone was finally suspended—but Mann was summoned and reprimanded for his conduct. Remarkably, according to New Statesman political editor George Eaton, Corbyn’s team wanted to suspend Mann, but was prevented by protests from the Whip’s office.

Taken at a glance, the Livingstone and Shah incidents certainly seem shocking and unexpected. But taken in context, they are all too predictable. Indeed, Corbyn’s pattern of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism while dismissing its detractors is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s similarly cavalier attitude towards white supremacists among his own supporters.

As Robert Shrimsley, the political editor of The Financial Times, put it, “Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism and a leader who does not seem to care enough about it.”

Until this changes, expect more of the same.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.