MP Joan Ryan said on Sunday that antisemitism is “intimately related” to Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing politics, claiming “we never had this problem in the Labour Party” before he was leader.
That, in a nutshell, is the smear that has slowly ground down Labour’s left wing leadership.
When the right claims that Corbyn’s politics are responsible for making Labour “institutionally antisemitic,” they’re usually talking about his support for Palestinians.
Ryan in particular has repeatedly and openly linked antisemitism to criticism of Israel.
One argument is that anyone who opposes Zionism—the ideology that justifies Israel’s racism towards Palestinians—is antisemitic because they deny Jewish people their “homeland”.
The people who argue this always gloss over the fact that this “homeland” was built on the expulsion of 850,000 Palestinians.
A linked argument is to insinuate that anyone focused on Palestinian solidarity, or who boycotts Israeli products, targets Israel because it’s a Jewish state.
A more recent tactic is to label anyone who vocally supports Palestinians as “Jew-baiters”.
This strategy has been used to discredit anti-imperialism and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for years—and not just in Britain.
In the US, Democratic politician Ilhan Omar is facing an Islamophobic onslaught for speaking out about the right to criticise Israel and support Palestinians.
In fact the whole assault has a sinister Islamophobic undercurrent.
Omar said recently that many people consider “everything we say about Israel to be antisemitic because we are Muslim”.
Muslims are often painted as being antisemitic for supporting Palestinians, just as they’re branded terrorist sympathisers for opposing the West’s wars.
In France supporters of embattled president Emmanuel Macron have also reached a new low by saying that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
Such attacks are helped by the false, racist claim that the conflict in Palestine is about a clash between reactionary Arabs and Israel’s “liberal democracy”.
In Britain this really came to the fore to discredit the Stop the War Coalition when it formed to oppose the War on Terror in 2001.
Supporters of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq latched on to the fact that Stop the War involved Muslim organisations.
They came up with an argument that the left’s “obsession” with anti-imperialism and Israel found common cause with the inherently antisemitic and backward Islam.
Mass demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians during Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014 also led to claims of a rise in antisemitism in Britain.
So when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, those same people warned of his “past associations”.
Every retreat over false claims of antisemitism led to more attacks
The first real attack on the left came in February 2016 when accusations of antisemitism were made against members of Oxford University Labour Club. The accusations were tied completely to the club’s support for Palestinians.
The club’s chair Alex Chalmers resigned from his position after a vote to support Israel Apartheid Week—an annual event organised by Palestine societies at universities.
Chalmers—previously an intern at the pro-Israel “think tank” and lobby organisation Bicom—made unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitic behaviour against other members.
But in an article for Bicom titled “Antisemitic Anti-Zionism,” he made clear his objection was support for Palestinian resistance and criticism of Israel’s racism.
He complained that pro-Palestinian activists were too interested in “justice,” and “organising boycotts which only poison the well further and focus exclusively on delegitimising Israel”.
Labour MP Lousie Ellman, vice chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said she was “deeply disturbed by the news that Oxford University Labour Club has decided to support Israel Apartheid Week”.
She added that comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel were “a grotesque smear and the Labour Party should dissociate itself from them”.
The row pre-empted a concerted campaign to shut down Israel Apartheid Week events on campus the following year.
It also saw the first calls by supporters of Israel for the Labour leadership to “investigate” allegations of antisemitism.
Labour began an investigation into the society, led by the peer Janet Royall. It also launched an inquiry into antisemitism in the party led by Shami Chakrabarti.
The inquiry followed comments by Bradford West MP Naz Shah and former London mayor Ken Livingstone, the suspension of Labour activist Jackie Walker, and the demonisation of then NUS president Malia Bouattia for her support for Palestinians.
The fanatically right wing Guido Fawkes blog found that during Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, Shah posted a satirical image saying “Solution to the Palestine conflict—relocate Israel to the US”.
The point of the image was to highlight the scale of military funding the US sends to Israel, and the land that Palestinians have lost.
The furore that followed drew on some overtly Islamophobic characterisations of Bradford that sought to paint its Muslim population as antisemitic.
One article on the Independent news website described Bradford as a “dystopia” and an “absurdistan” with a “large and miserable Muslim population” too concerned about Palestine.
Defending Shah in an interview, Livingstone claimed that Hitler had supported Zionism.
Right wing MP John Mann—who calls for racist immigration controls—called Livingstone a “disgusting racist” and a “Nazi apologist” on television.
Both Shah and Livingstone’s comments were careless—and in the case of Livingstone, historically inaccurate—but they weren’t antisemitic. They didn’t target Jews for being Jews.
Nevertheless Shah was made to apologise and Livingstone later quit the party.
How the IHRA definition was won by the right wing
The setting up of the Chakrabarti Inquiry was the first major concession by Corbyn to the claim that his leadership had caused an increase in antisemitism in Labour.
It also showed that such concessions only encourage the right to go further.
When published, the report sensibly said Labour members should avoid comparing Israel to the Nazis, and that “Zionist” should not be interchangeable with “Jew”.
Yet the Labour right branded it a whitewash. Corbyn was attacked for saying Jews are not responsible for the actions of Israel in the same way that “our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”
And anti-racist Marc Wadsworth was suspended and later expelled for accusing right wing MP Ruth Smeeth of “working hand-in-hand” with the Telegraph newspaper. Smeeth accused him of using “traditional antisemitic slurs,” in a statement since deleted.
Attempts to paint Labour as “institutionally antisemitic” increased with a parliamentary report published in October 2016.
Despite acknowledging that most antisemitic attacks are carried out by the far right, it singled out Jeremy Corbyn and then NUS president Malia Bouattia.
And it linked antisemitism to opposition to Zionism.
It asserted that it is antisemitic to deny “the Jewish people the right to self-determination, by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
That’s a sentence from an example attached to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
It restricts the right to call Israel a racist, apartheid state, or to call for a one state solution in Palestine with equal democratic rights for all its citizens.
The right was outraged when Labour published a detailed definition of antisemitism. This took the main part of the IHRA definition, which is that antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”.
But it clearly distinguished between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. It said, “It is not antisemitism to refer to ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionists’ as part of a considered discussion about the Israeli state.”
Yet Labour was accused of being “driven by the Corbyn faction’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish state”. Over the next few months Corbyn and the Labour leadership came under intense pressure to accept the part of the definition that ruled out criticism of Israel.
Demonstrations outside parliament accused Corbyn himself of encouraging antisemitism.
MP Margaret Hodge called Corbyn a “fucking antisemite and a racist”.
A meeting of Labour’s national executive committee adopted the right’s definition, thanks to the votes of left wing members and trade union delegates.
Corbyn reportedly tried to introduce a caveat that it should not be considered antisemitic “to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict”. But he was defeated.
Left figures betray Palestine
At every turn, prominent left wing activists such as Momentum founder Jon Lansman and trade union leaders such as Len McCluskey have given in to right wing demands.
They hoped that by accepting the full IHRA definition, the left could stop the right wing attacks.
In reality this was a major concession to the idea that criticism of Israel and support for Palestine inevitably lead to antisemitism.
Appeasing the right in their party in the vain hope of securing “unity” was more important to the Labour left than defending the right of Palestinians to speak out against their oppression. Accusations of antisemitism have become a stick to beat Labour members with, who are now bullied simply for denying that their party is antisemitic.
The right wants to push the left into conceding that they are “institutionally antisemitic”.
They want the left to accept that the solution is for Corbyn to stand down.
This would be another way to silence the voice of Palestinians. Labour members who waved Palestinian flags at last year’s party conference were accused of “baiting Jews”.
Right wing Labour MP Jess Phillips recently accused a Labour students’ twitter account of being antisemitic for tweeting “Palestine lives”.
Any further concessions would be a disaster.
They would discredit and demoralise the whole of the left and the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Standing up to the smears means refusing to be constrained by the “unity” with the Labour right any longer.