The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism by Dave Rich (London: Biteback Publishing, 2016, 292 pages, no illustrations, £12.99, ISBN 978 1785 901 201, paperback)
A contentious issue during the Corbyn revolution has been the relationship between the Labour left and the Jewish community. Historically this is an aberration, as the British left was long considered a welcoming place for Jews, whether practising or secular. Of the main parties, Labour was perhaps the most explicitly pro-Israel until at least the 1960s, whilst at one point the Communist Party of Great Britain had an estimated 10% of its membership of Jewish heritage (p.6) How then do we get to a situation where Jewish Chronicle (04/05/16) poll data suggests only 8.5% of British Jews are likely to vote Labour, and where the party has conducted three inquiries into alleged anti-Semitism almost in succession?
Dave Rich is arguably better placed than anyone within the Jewish community to analyse this dislocation. Deputy Director of Communications at the Community Security Trust, the primary organisation established to provide security advice and protection to British Jews and their property, Rich was completing a PhD on left wing anti-Zionism from the 1960s-1980s as Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party. His historical knowledge ensures that as well as seeking to explain contemporary political controversies, there is plenty here for the political train spotter and fan of socialist esoterica. That the Young Liberals considered themselves part of the new left (p.42), that George Galloway was a member of the British Anti-Zionist Organisation (BAZO) or that Israel produced an anti-Zionist communist party, Matzpen, that significantly influenced British Trotskyists (p.101) is easily forgotten.
Rich situates the formation of Israel in a distinct background – that it was created by Jews within Europe’s left tradition. Zionists had to fight a traditional colonial power - Britain - in an insurgency to establish their state. This is a book which works hard to bring in overlooked and perhaps inconvenient historical facts – in 1944 Labour supported transferring Arabs out of Palestine to make way for Jews (p.5) and the Soviet bloc’s initial support for Israel came via both rhetoric at the United Nations and arms shipments to fight Arab forces (p.2-3).
Public criticism of Israel on the left seems to have begun not in 1948 with what Palestinians designate the nakba, but with Israel’s greatest military triumph – the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The noun ‘Palestinian’ did not appear in New Left Review before 1967 (p.24). Rich observes the seismic change that was commencing on the left as identity politics began to meet, match and in time supplant socio-economic concerns. His categorisation of the new left in class terms is particularly valuable:
… the new Left effectively represented a new social class, rooted in intellectual and cultural professions, populated by public sector workers, and whose political agenda would come to be dominated by identity and iconoclasm (p.8).
From the new left is seen to come the view Zionism is racist and Israel a remnant of western imperialism (p.11). Organisations such as the International Marxist Group began to conceive of revolution spreading from the third world inwards, and Tony Cliff’s International Socialists declared Israeli workers could not be revolutionary. Zionism is an issue where definitions really do determine debate, and Rich gets his in early with regards to Israel, arguing that criticisms of the state may become anti-Semitic when they “use language and ideas that draw on older anti-Semitic myths about Jews” (p.xxii). This was a problem for both the new left and orthodox communists, as by 1967-8 the much-admired revolutionaries of the FLN in Algeria were adopting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and the USSR returned to one of its periodic bouts of anti-Semitism (p.20-1). Interaction between Matzpen, the new left and Palestinian exiles in the UK seems to have run aground though on more concrete problems, which Rich perhaps sums up adroitly:
….. is it a conflict between two competing national movements, both with a legitimate claim to the same piece of land; or is it a case of coloniser and colonised, with all the right on one side and all the wrong on the other? (p.104)
In 1975 the UN General Assembly declared Zionism to be a form of racism (a position it rescinded in 1991). Rich gained access to the National Union of Students archives, and there is much here on how the UNGA resolution led to attempts to ‘no platform’ both Zionists and Jewish Societies (JSOCs) on campus. Here the left divided, with the Broad Left and Communists generally opposed, the Trotskyists for (p.129-131). In this controversy, we again see the centrality of identity politics, and its ability to produce division and stalemate. In the 1970s JSOCs had responded to criticism by using the language of democratic rights and free speech. By the 1980s they too had adopted that of identity politics, comparing themselves to “every other minority group” (p.137-8). To deny Jewish students their right to organise on campus would be deeply problematic. But to anti-Zionists, if Jewish students use that political space to exercise a Zionist identity, they are propagating racism. Student unions are yet to square that circle.
Chapter five “The New Alliance: Islamists and the Left” critiques the relationship between exiled Islamists, usually but not always from Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds, and both the revolutionary and Labour left. Jeremy Corbyn has been central to these alliances. Whilst they did not stop the Iraq war nor bring freedom to Palestine, they have changed the composition of the left in Britain (p.162) paving the way for Corbyn’s eventual victory. However, for these relationships to prosper, the left has had to turn a blind eye to political attitudes it would usually reject, and actively opposes, when articulated by the far right. In what is the strongest section of the book, Rich cites examples in the fields of human rights, suicide attacks and racism.
The Hamas Charter cites anti-Semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact, whilst believing the United Nations was created by the Zionists (p.176). The British left is inexorably sucked into this nonsense via its affiliations with Islamic actors in the Middle East and here. In 2003 the Cairo anti-war conference, which brought together regional activists with anti-war figures such as Corbyn and John Rees, adopted the position the Iraq war was “part of the Zionist plan” (p.189). Socialists chanting ‘We are Hezbollah’ at Stop the War’s 2006 protests against the Israel-Hezbollah conflict either did not know, or did not care, Hasan Nasrallah has called for all Jews to go to Israel, so they can best be killed in one place (p.178).
Labour’s recent anti-Semitism controversy has involved former Mayors in London, Bradford and Blackburn, plus councillors in Luton, Nottingham, Burnley, Newport and Renfrewshire (p.197-8). Rich’s book goes a long way in explaining how we got there. It ends with the hope that the left and British Jews can again have a positive relationship. The re-admittance of Momentum’s Jackie Walker to Labour demonstrates how tricky this will be. Rich traces her ‘analysis’ that the Jews financed the slave trade, to a 1991 book by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Identity politics has brought the left more problems than answers.
Dr Paul Stott, 14 December 2016.