What's driving the Labour right’s assault on Jeremy Corbyn over antisemitism—sheer opportunism or ideology? Certainly the former. Even BBC Radio 4’s Today programme briefly took time off from feeding the frenzy over Ken Livingstone’s remarks to concede that “Livingstone is a proxy for Corbyn”.
The game plan is obvious. Brand Corbyn and the Labour left as antisemites, sabotage Labour’s campaign in this week’s elections and then stage a coup. The fact that all this is letting David Cameron off the hook when the Tories are suffering their worst crisis for 20 years is an irrelevance.
But the virulence of the assault suggests that it isn’t pure tactics. Support for Israel has become a badge of identity of the Labour right. Compared to Israel’s early years, this marks a reversal. It was the Labour left that strongly supported Israel.
The subsequent shift indicates New Labour’s subservience to US imperialism, to which Israel became increasingly important after the late 1960s. Tony Blair sharpened the dividing line by flaunting his support for both the “war on terror” and Israel.
By contrast Tony Benn, Corbyn, and Livingstone rallied a weakened Labour left in support of the anti-war movement and in solidarity with the Palestinians.
So from a Zionist perspective Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a disaster. It came against the background of the growing international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and deep popular revulsion at the savagery of successive Israeli assaults on Gaza.
Indeed, attempts to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism long predate Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Remember the media campaign to portray the mass demonstrations of solidarity with Gaza in summer 2014 as anti-Jewish on the basis of a tiny and unrepresentative handful of placards?
But, at a time when the Tories’ divisions over Brexit were lending strength to Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance, the accusation that he is soft on antisemitism serves a double purpose. It is both to prepare for his overthrow and make Labour safe again for Zionism.
In this context, Livingstone walked into a trap. Of course, he has taken an exemplary anti-racist stance over many decades. What he said on Radio London wasn’t antisemitic. But it was ill-judged.
Livingstone’s standard technique of responding to attacks with provocations badly rebounded this time.
The key argument with Labour’s pro-Israel wing isn’t about obscure historical controversies around various Zionist factions’ dealings with different wings of the Nazi regime during the 1930s.
It is that there is nothing antisemitic about condemning the mass dispossession of the Palestinians and the atrocities continually committed by the Israeli Defence Forces.
This is the high ground where the Zionists are weak and on the defensive. The anti-imperialist left should stick to it.
The election of a principled socialist as leader of the Labour Party was an incredible victory for this left. Now our enemies are trying to reverse it. Notice also the way both the Blairites and the Tories constantly cite cases where Labour figures, such as Corbyn or Sadiq Khan, have shared platforms with political Muslims. They claim this supports the accusation of them being soft on antisemitism.
So this campaign is part of the broader Islamophobic offensive being pressed by the Tory government. A great achievement of the anti-war movement was the alliance it built between the secular left and political Muslims.
This offered a progressive and internationalist way of challenging imperialism as an alternative to Islamist terrorism. The establishment now aims to drive Muslims back into submission and silence.
Faced with this onslaught, we should not offer unnecessary provocations. But it’s essential to defend the right of socialists and anti-imperialists to criticise Israel and oppose Zionism.
There’s a real danger that, in their seemingly endless adjustments to pressure from the right, Corbyn—and especially John McDonnell—may lose sight of this.