LONDON — Towards end of a long summer contest for UK Labour leadership between Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith, a number of people could be seen annotating a gaudily-covered paperback book.
Dave Rich’s seminal primer, “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism” could not have been published at a more appropriate time, on the heels of the leadership contest and the eve of Labour’s annual party conference.
It is no wonder audience members at speeches were using Rich’s book as a source to trace the extraordinary position in which Britain’s Labour Party now finds itself. Once the natural party to which Jews gravitated, Labour’s new toxic message has alienated Jews all over the country, disenfranchising those who had traditionally voted a straight Labour ticket all their adult lives.
At the same time, Labour’s “new politics” has attracted a groundswell of younger people, many of them disaffected from voting, but who are enthused by the ideas put forward by Corbyn and his inner circle — despite the fact that 172 of Labour’s MPs have repudiated Corbyn’s leadership.
Rich is deputy communications director of the Community Security Trust (CST) and associate research fellow at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at London University’s Birkbeck College. His book grew out of his PhD thesis and is a remarkable, methodical documentation of the growth of left-wing anti-Semitism in Britain.
“The Left’s Jewish Problem” charts the last four decades, and its surprising message for younger readers is that the left-wing embrace of the Palestinian cause — which ultimately led to present-day Labour anti-Semitism — has its roots not in the Labour Party itself, but in the now defunct Young Liberals, the youth wing of the party.
Heading the campaign was the one-time chair of the Young Liberals, Louis Eaks. Eaks died in the early 90s, but as editor of radical magazines such as Free Palestine, his name became synonymous with attacks on Israel and verbal attacks on Jews.
Rich says Eaks was “the most enthusiastic and determined anti-Zionist in the organization [the Young Liberals]… and arguably did more than anyone else to make Palestine a mainstream issue for the British left.”
Rich has meticulously tracked down the major players in those who shaped the anti-Israel debate in Britain 35-40 years ago. Many of them, once high-profile student activists, are still prominent in political and media circles and have spoken to Rich.
Ironically, one, Colin Talbot, of the International Marxist Group and said by Rich to have been among the most hardline and uncompromising, is today professor of politics and government at Manchester University. Only this week Talbot clashed with a Corbynite student who called for him to be disciplined by the university after a row over the meaning of “neo-liberalism.”
Talbot has changed his mind utterly about the Middle East situation. In May this year, he wrote:
‘Anyone who calls for the destruction of Israel, however “nicely,” is in practice being anti-Semitic’
“It is not a great surprise that what starts out as pro-Palestinian ‘anti-Zionism’ can easily spill-over into anti-Semitic Jew hating. The rise of anti-Semitic attacks in Britain and France in recent years demonstrates we have a problem.
For Jeremy Corbyn this creates a problem: does he come out clearly for defending the right of Israel to exist, saying Zionism is not racism, and that a two-state solution is now the only viable one? Or does he, as he seems to have done in the past, implicitly support the (old) PLO and far-Left position of overthrowing Israel to create a new, non-Zionist, ‘Palestine?’
In my view he won’t resolve Labour’s issue with anti-Semitism until he states clearly that so-called anti-Zionism is mostly a cover for ill-concealed anti-Semitism and anyone who calls for the destruction of Israel, however ‘nicely,’ is in practice being anti-Semitic.”
Talbot was part of an important delegation sent to the Middle East by the National Union of Students (NUS) in August 1977, in an effort to hammer out a definitive policy for the NUS December conference in that year. Both GUPS — the General Union of Palestinian Students — and the Union of Jewish Students helped to provide the itineraries in Lebanon and Israel.
As Rich records, “The unusually high-level group… met Abu Jihad from the Fatah Central Committee, plus representatives of other Palestinian factions. In Israel, they met former Prime Minister Golda Meir and a future Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir; the mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalif; and Israeli anti-Zionists Israel Shahak and Leah Tsemel from Matzpen.”
The NUS delegation came about because of the so-called “No Platform” policy on British university campuses, a precursor of the United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1975, declaring Zionism to be “a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
Though the UN resolution was rescinded in 1991, the knock-on effect for British students was a declaration by the Left that there should be “no platform for racists and fascists” on campus. If Zionism was racism, ran the argument, then there was no way for Jewish societies to function within student unions. Jewish students found themselves being banned if they insisted on promoting Israel.
“The UN anti-Zionist vote is possibly the most important moment in the history of post-war left-wing anti-Zionism,” Rich says.
And he writes that as Jewish students would discover, “the No Platform policy was supposed to be a tool to stop violent fascists from operating on campus, but in reality it was used much more broadly.”
Those looking for the roots of the Left’s embrace of anti-Zionism find many international sources, not least the Arab world and the Soviet Union.
But Rich says that in Britain it was much simpler.
“Anti-Zionism here began as part of liberal, anti-colonial sentiment, anti-apartheid — it always had a liberal home, liberal language. It’s not something which has been infiltrated from the far Left. They played their part, but it was always mainstream liberal in its origins,” he says.
It is too simplistic, Rich argues, “to say that everyone is an anti-Semite and they all hate us. You have to understand the political thinking and what lies behind it. We can speculate on who, in the anti-Zionist world, is motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by anti-Semitism, but a lot are not. You have to understand their motivation and their politics. On the one hand the Left has always had a democratic emancipatory tradition that has fought anti-Semitism and racism, but it has also had a non-democratic totalitarian tradition that has contained and encouraged anti-Semitism. You have to tackle it at that level, you can’t just write everybody off.”
Rich believes that there has been, for the last 15 years, “constant, extreme inflammatory anti-Israel propaganda and activism” on the far Left. “English anti-Semitism has been normalized and complaints about it have been dismissed.”
‘We can speculate on who is motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by anti-Semitism, but a lot are not’
So he is not surprised at the growth of grassroots Jewish response to anti-Zionism, with a number of recent fringe groups springing up all around the country.
Indeed, Rich says, there is an honorable tradition of grassroots activism in the Jewish community, foremost among which were the Soviet Jewry campaigners.
“Perhaps that tradition got lost a bit, but now it’s come back. But I think it’s important that the campaigning should be done in the right way. It shouldn’t be shrill, or hysterical; it needs to distinguish between people who hate Israel and genuinely want to destroy it, and those who have a genuine, heartfelt humanitarian concern for the Palestinians, and want to see peace. The anti-Israel movement has a wide spectrum of people, and it’s important for us to see the differences,” he says.
There are “quite a lot of different Lefts,” says Rich, “and there are still a lot of people on the Left who want to combat anti-Semitism. I don’t think we should concede the idea that the ‘Stop the War’ Left and the Momentum [Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle activists] Left is the only true Left, and that anyone else is a right-winger. That’s the insult they use. There is an assumption of bad faith and dishonesty on all sides.”
Rich’s bottom line, however, is that extreme anti-Israel advocacy and rhetoric “will always impact on British Jews in a way that is anti-Semitic.” It is definitely the case, he writes, “that some on the Left do not recognize anti-Semitism even when it comes from their own mouths.”
And he adds that Labour is going to have to decide how — and if — to win back disaffected Jews, whose relationship with the party has “collapsed” in the past 12 months.
“I’m fed up with hearing Jeremy Corbyn saying he condemns all forms of anti-Semitism and then not seeing any action,” Rich says. “Commissioning a fairly superficial report [the Chakrabarti report] and then not really implementing any of its findings, doesn’t count.
“A charitable interpretation is that they [Corbyn’s inner circle] just don’t get it,” he says. “A cynical interpretation is that they get it, and they find it quite useful. I don’t feel in a position to say which of those interpretations is correct.”