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Antisemitism and the British Labour Party

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Antisemitism is a problem of modern society, and any institution of that society will have it, including those that aim to reform it one way or another. Disputes on antisemitism in Labour, such as the current one, are a regular occurrence in British politics. Similar disputes engulfed the Liberal Democrats in 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014, the Greens in 2011 and the Conservatives in 2011 and 2016.

Overt, self-conscious expressions of antisemitism are frowned upon in polite British society. Most of the smoking guns in the current antisemitism dispute tend to be instances of fuzzy thinking that are indirectly antisemitic by way of being logically based on antisemitic presuppositions that may often be hidden to those making the statements. The party’s leader, along with others, is being challenged for not having objected in the past to associations with full-blown antisemites either visiting from elsewhere (representatives of Hamas, Hezbollah etc.) or from within the domestic Islamist milieu. Corbyn did not support any antisemites for their antisemitism but because they claimed to be fighting for cultural or national self-determination. And here’s the rub: the latter remains a chief political value for middle-class radicals in the Bennite tradition and for other left-liberals, broadly conceived. Antisemitism comes into play, as if through the back door, as part of a strategy that defends ‘this’ particular culture – often articulated in terms of one of the world religions – against generic, overwhelming, ‘Western’, modern, liberal civilization, whose ‘imperialism’ is then denoted as being ‘Jewish’. Resistance to antisemitism would depend in such contexts on the ability to refute this narrative of ‘culture versus civilization’ and the coding of capitalist modernity as somehow specifically ‘Jewish’.

The principal strength and attraction of antisemitism to its protagonists lies in its being apparently beyond ordinary politics: antisemitism is meta-political. Both on the right and the left its value is that it connects to the opposite side. The ambiguous meaning of the word ‘socialism’ in its name was one of the strengths of National Socialism, although Hitler stated unequivocally that his was a socialism of ‘the German way’, namely without the supposedly corrosive Jewish-Marxist bits about class struggle. Although its specifics put Nazism in many respects into a category all of its own, it also belongs into the wider category of nationalist socialisms that affirm the capitalist mode of production but are ‘anticapitalistic’ in their rejection of this or that detail of capitalist circulation and reproduction – greedy bankers who behave like locust swarms, for example – and seek a solution to ‘the social question’ at the level of the nation.

The shared ground that makes possible the metapolitics of antisemitism is characterized by the emphasis on community over class struggle, totality over fragmentation, defending identities over changing the world. Antisemitism with its boundary-transcending and taboo-breaking mystique is the signature of those who aim to transcend partiality, fragmentation, particularity and division by exorcising the fragmenters. The bad reality of nationalism (such as evidenced by Israeli just as any other nation-state realpolitik) is ideologically distilled into the imaginary pure essence of true heroic patriotism (such as, say, that of ‘the Palestinians’) versus the evil scheming of the anti-nation that antisemites see in ‘the Jews’.  

In the current European context, associations between left-wing movements and the far-right, anti-cosmopolitan ‘revolt against modernity’ are very much fringe phenomena. Everything should be done to keep it that way. The currently most prominent context for antisemitism to materialize on the liberal and socialist left is that of supporting - or at least not opposing - ultra-conservative (but economically usually neo-liberal), self-proclaimed resistance fighters against ‘westoxification’ in other parts of the world at the cost of abandoning the trade unionists, feminists, Marxists, Jews and gays who tend to be their victims. Far from being radical, the metropolitan supporters of such movements have turned their backs on the Enlightenment’s still largely undelivered promise of human emancipation. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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