How Antisemitic are You?

OK, the title is mostly to get you reading. This article is really about how to read the Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism in the Labour Party (and we will get….

OK, the title is mostly to get you reading. This article is really about how to read the Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism in the Labour Party (and we will get there shortly). But the title does correspond to a potential issue. Before February almost no-one thought that antisemitism was one of the country’s main problems. Between February and June it was everywhere, in the media at least. But if it is so rampant within the Labour Party, surely it must also be endemic in the country at large. How come I never noticed it? How come you never noticed it? I guess that could mean we have been quite insensitive to this current, which would suggest that we tolerate a level of antisemitism within our own thought processes.

The only other explanation is that there is, actually, no UK antisemitism crisis, and this is all a confection dreamed up by people with axes to grind.

Despite having been Jewish all my life I have only experienced 2 antisemitic incidents – about 60 years ago in Liverpool and 40 years ago in Notting Hill. Neither had anything to do with the Labour Party. And I first joined the party in 1961! This is not a uniquely charmed life. The ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, interviewed on television, rather embarrassedly confessed that he had not himself experienced a single antisemitic incident. There can be no doubt that antisemitism, an ugly deformation in any society, has a continuing underground life in Britain as elsewhere, and that we should be alert to its existence and possible increase. But its public manifestations are currently so small that it is really impossible to say whether it is actually going up or down.

I therefore tend to the second explanation. To be more precise, it is that the friends of Israel and the enemies of Corbyn have made common cause, exploiting both their network of contacts in the media and the paid PR apparatus that boosts Israel wrong or wrong. The cause is common because the Labour Party enemies of Corbyn resent his election and are determined to take ‘their’ party back, while Israel has every reason to reverse the innovation of a major UK party leader who is a committed supporter of the Palestinian cause.

This is a major moment for the BDS movement, so please excuse me if I explore its implications at some length.

Antisemitism and boycott

The moral panic about antisemitism is highly relevant to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in general, and the academic boycott campaign in particular. In 2015 no less a person than Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin designated academic boycott (in particular) as a “first rate strategic threat”, on a par with a potentially nuclear armed Iran. And after the nuclear deal with Iran that leaves academic boycott in pole position.
Over the years BDS in general, including academic boycott, has benefitted from a repertoire of treatments from Israeli governments. They have ignored it, they have belittled it, they have derided it, they have tried to get legislation passed against it, they have demonised it. The demonization mostly consists of alleging that boycotters are motivated by antisemitism, for else why would they be ‘singling out’ Israel in this way? (See Why Boycott Israeli Universities? or the Academic Commitment on Palestine website FAQs for a deconstruction of this claim.) They somehow dont see, don’t wish to notice, the quite disproportionate presence of Jews in the BDS movement (round the world, in the UK, in BRICUP too).

The Chakrabarti Inquiry

Although quite wonderful in many ways Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps not a natural leader for a party or a movement; nor is he fleet of foot in dodging enemy bullets or turning them back on their originators. Which makes the establishment of an inquiry into Antisemitism and Other Forms of Racism in the Labour Party almost the exception that proves the rule. It was an intervention which quelled the hubbub, in particular because the chair of the Inquiry, Shami Chakrabarti, has such an unshakeable reputation for probity, and indeed a strong public affection. Her assistants, David Feldman and Janet Royall provided the necessary backup in terms, respectively, of antisemitism and the workings of the Labour Party. But they did not write or have to approve the Report. It is hers.

The report lists 85 organisational submissions, and there was also an unknown number (but anecdotal evidence suggests it was large) of individual contributions. Judging by their names about 30 of the organisations are likely to have taken what I will for convenience call a ‘pro-Israeli’ line (stressing antisemitism as a crisis needing strong action); and some 20 came from explicitly pro-Palestinian organisations. Another 10 came from within the trade union and Labour movement, while 10 came from other religiously-identified groups, mostly Muslim. (Not all are easily classifiable in this way.) Their submissions are not centrally available, so this is guesswork. The submissions by the considerable group of Jewish organisations that mobilised against taking swingeing actions based on the moral panic are collected together at the Free Speech on Israel website. (For completeness, a collection of opposing submissions is also available.)

Given the copious leaks about suspensions from the Labour Party that could only have come from the Labour’s HQ bureaucracy (effectively working for dissident MPs rather than the elected leader of the party) unusual precautions were taken about the report launch. The aim was to avoid selective leaks with their accompanying negative spin. Only one copy of the text was produced and, so we are informed, that was passed directly from Chakrabarti to Corbyn. However….

The Report

The launch of the report, despite measured speeches by Chakrabarti and Corbyn, was effectively hijacked by a press corps which only wanted to ask the latter about his travails with disloyal MPs, and by media-oriented stunts about antisemitism of exactly the kind that provoked the Inquiry in the first place. The result is that the content of this significant report has not had the attention that it deserves.

Any summary of the report is bound to be selective. The points I would pick out are

  • There is no endemic crisis of antisemitism, Islamophobia or other racism in the Labour Party.
  • The toxic nature of the debate has been in danger of closing down free speech in the party. Free speech is vital, and Labour Party members should be not only free but also positively encouraged to criticise injustice and abuse, including in the Middle East.
  • Certain words (‘Zio’) and historical analogies (to the Nazi regime) are insensitive and incendiary and should not be used.
  • Natural justice has not been observed in the recent rash of in effect arbitrary suspensions imposed on party members. Labour’s disciplinary processes need sorting out, with full information to those accused, an end to automatic suspensions, a graduated range of possible responses where accusations are found to be justified, a time limit for making complaints, and no life time bans. All stages of these processes should have independent legal oversight, and control of discipline should be removed from the Party’s General Secretary.
  • The Macpherson principle (that the view of the victim is crucial) refers not to whether an incident is racist or not, but to whether it should be investigated as such.
  • Compulsory anti-racist training programmes for Labour Party office-holders would be patronising, or even insulting. However it would be good to review the opportunities for the promotion of relevant skills and learning within the Party

What has the report been received?

How have the interested parties responded to the Report? A word of warning: we need to take such reactions with a health warning, because people and organisations don’t always say what they actually think. These statements are for public consumption, and are, on all sides, edited with the aim of achieving a desired effect. If an organisation likes some part of the report, it has to decide whether to concentrate on the sections it is happy about, or those it wishes had been different. As a general rule those organisations that are quite pleased with the outcome tend to concentrate their reactions on those aspects they failed to secure, and so may appear to be critics of the report. Conversely those organisations which really lost most of what they were playing for are more likely to focus on what crumbs of comfort they can find – and so may appear to the uninitiated to be celebrating its appearance. Welcome to the weird world of spin.

Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Labour Movement (more of him later) urges his readers to applaud as ‘seminal … the clarity around the unacceptability of using Zionism as a form of abuse’. But he acknowledges that ‘many of our members are underwhelmed and disappointed that recommendations on process are not stronger’. Chief Rabbi Mirvis, and his predecessor Jonathan Sachs, focussed on the claim that Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the press conference was itself antisemitic. But Mirvis also said that “there is much in the Chakrabarti Report that can herald an important step forward – in particular its acknowledgement that some within the Labour Party have peddled the prejudice of antisemitism, using language, innuendo and accusations that are deeply offensive and which should be universally condemned.” 

The Zionist Federation is lukewarm at best: “The report scarcely begins to shine a much needed light into this grey area. Instead it buries it under a mass of generic procedural recommendations for tackling racism as a whole, with very little attempt to clarify what constitutes specifically anti-Jewish racism.” It thinks the report would be welcome if it proved to be a trigger for a further process of tackling antisemitism in the Labour Party, but ‘as a conclusion it is wholly inadequate’. It suggests that this inadequacy may have resulted from the Inquiry having given equal weight to the submissions of the ‘red/green alliance of anti-Zionist organisations’ to those arguing that anti-Zionism is a major part of the problem. Shame on Charabarti for this even-handedness!

Looking for solid ground – comparing objectives with outcomes

One way of constructing a more objective scoreboard is to look at what those who stood to gain from the fomented sense of crisis hoped to gain from it. Two explicit proposals were promoted in April – by Progress, the Blairite ginger group which publishes the magazine Prospect; and by the Jewish Labour Movement (previously Poale Zion) which is affiliated to the Labour Party but also to the Israeli Labour Party and the World Zionist Organisation.

Progress assiduously promoted an ‘8-point plan’ on antisemitism. One of its points is to urge people to join the Jewish Labour Movement. The others are

  1. Training for the NEC in modern antisemitism and unconscious bias
  2. A vice-chair of the NEC equalities committee for the Jewish community
  3. New capacity for the compliance unit
  4. Time to clarify the rules – anti-semitism must lead to a lifetime ban
  5. Third party reporting or an independent ombudsperson
  6. Self-organised groups for Jewish youth and student members
  7. A modern understanding of anti-semitism – victims matter

My marking of the JLM scorecard is as follows:

Item 1 – explicitly negated by Chakrabarti
Item 2 – not even mentioned by Chakrabarti, and not part of her recommendations
Item 3 – not listed in the summary of recommendations, but in the body of the report is a suggestion that the establishment of a dedicated complaints handling officer or team might be considered
Item 4 – explicitly negated by Chakrabarti
Item 5 – unclear what this means. But not mentioned by Chakrabarti
Item 6 – unclear what this means, but not mentioned by Chakrabarti
Item 7 – very vague, but if this means either the ‘new antisemitism’ (where criticism of Israel is suspect as a proxy for antisemitism) or a strong reading of Macpherson (if a victim says it is antisemitic then it is) then Chakrabarti explicitly declines the invitation.

The other specific proposal for change came from the Jewish Labour Movement’s proposal to change the Labour Party rulebook. Currently this simply allows for action against those who “are considered to have acted in a way that is grossly detrimental to the Party”, without specifying particular types of misbehaviour. The aim of the proposed rule change is to install ‘stricter rules and sanctions to be placed upon members who have made racist, antisemitic or islamophobic statements’, and enable the Party to move ‘immediately’ against those who make such statements.

In support of this rule change the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM)

  1. argued for a strong reading of the Macpherson principle as privileging the view of the complainant
  2. accepted that criticism of Israel can be legitimate, but tries to restrict the deployment of critiques of Zionism as a political project
  3. asserted that Zionism “is no single concept other than the basic expression of the national identity of the Jewish people, a right to which all people are entitled”.

Of these points the first is explicitly recommended against by Chakrabarti, the second goes against her commitment to priority of free speech, while the third is an assertion they may make but which others are not obliged to honour.

A small digression on JLM and its chair Jeremy Newmark is in order. Newmark was formerly Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, which vied with the Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation to ‘speak for’ the UK’s Jewish community. It was in that role that he gave evidence for Ronnie Fraser in the latter’s notorious law suit against his own union, the University and College Union (UCU) which alleged antisemitism in its conduct of debate on academic boycott. In Judge Snelson’s excoriating judgement on that doomed enterprise there were a range of criticisms of Newmark’s evidence for playing to the gallery, making preposterous claims, and making extraordinarily arrogant but also disturbing remarks. Crucially “we have rejected as untrue the evidence of A N Other and Mr Newmark [about an incident at the 2008 UCU Congress]”. It is striking that this is the man leading the charge to ‘reform’ the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism.

The JLM rule change proposal is still active, and has been adopted by some constituency Labour Parties as motions to the impending Labour Party conference. It is wholly contradictory to the spirit of the Chakrabarti report. In September we will find out, in Lewis Carroll’s words, who is to be master.

End note

The Chakrabarti Report does not analyse the nature of settler colonialism, or the ideological roots of the Zionist project. It does not define racism in terms of power relations. It does not explore, let alone expose, the motives of those who conspired to foment the moral panic about antisemitism. It largely avoids historical analysis.

This is because the Report is not a political treatise, it is a political intervention. Its content and tone necessarily reflects that fact. Its function is to mobilise a new political consensus in place of the invective-filled hostilities around this topic over the past 5 months. It cannot do that by adjudicating that one side or the other is the winner. Rather such a report needs to enunciate irreproachable general principles from which certain consequent actions logically flow. If the principles are well chosen and the logic clearly articulated then the previously competing sides will need to accept this new definition of the terrain, because to be seen to reject so reasonable a resolution has costs that are too great.

I believe that the Chakrabarti Report fulfills this function very well. Many of those who work for the achievement of justice for the Palestinians were concerned during the months of the fomented antisemitism crisis and the cavalcade of unjustified suspensions from the party, that the space for critique of Israel and Zionism would be drastically curtailed. If anything the reverse has happened. Free speech, including the freedom to criticise Israel and its policies, has been resoundingly reaffirmed. Improved procedures for investigating complaints of antisemitism, provided they are implemented, will prevent the demonstrative harassment and exclusion of those who advocate for the Palestinians. Rather than criticizing the report for not providing a swingeing critique of Israel’s malfeasance we should be celebrating its good common sense and doing all we can to ensure that it is put into practice.

Jonathan Rosenhead

Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics,
Chair, British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP)