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A left response to left antisemitism: Is it too late for education?

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In June 2020, Keir Starmer dismissed Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour front-bench after she approvingly tweeted a link to an interview with the actress Maxine Peake. In the interview, Peake claimed that the US police tactic of kneeling on a suspect’s neck was ‘learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’

I don’t want to disinter the details of this particular incident in the long-running Labour Party antisemitism controversy here. The reason I raise it is that I was struck by a number of tweets at the time from Jewish and other Labour left activists that, while they didn’t defend Long-Bailey tweet or Peake’s article, argued that the swift sacking was a missed opportunity for political education. This was a ‘teachable moment’ that could be used to advance awareness of how to avoid slipping into antisemitic discourse. It was argued that a purely disciplinary response simply enraged Long-Bailey’s supporters on the Labour left, rather than helped them understand the issues at stake.

I remembered this incident on reading two recently-published books on left antisemitism, Daniel Randall’s Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists and David Renton’s Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From ItBoth authors are on the left of the Labour Party, both believe that antisemitism was a serious issue in the Party under Corbyn, and both are sceptical of the kind of disciplinary approach to antisemitism that seems to have dominated Keir Starmer’s attempt to address the problem.

To be a Labour leftist who acknowledges a significant problem of antisemitism on the Labour left, is to inhabit a very uncomfortable space. While, in the early months of Corbyn’s leadership there was a brief window of opportunity for a more open conversation about such issues, by the time of Owen Smith’s leadership challenge in July 2016, that window slammed shut. As antisemitism became a defining issue in the bitter factional fighting within the Party, so it became exceptionally difficult for the left of the Party to face left antisemitism head-on.

For that reason, David Renton’s book has a kind of elegiac quality. As he states:

…the initial responsibility to put Labour in order fell to the left, including the non- Labour left. Long before the crisis made its way into the press, people on the left should have challenged the first signs of antisemitism’s re- emergence. On social media, people should have criticised posters on groups such as Palestine Live and the Labour Party Forum. They should have done this without favour to the reputation of anyone involved. Life would have been so much easier if, for example, in 2012, when Corbyn expressed his initial cautious and questioning support for Mear One, his left- wing admirers had challenged him.

While Daniel Randall would, I am sure, endorse this call for such a culture of self-criticism, his own take on left antisemitism is part of a much broader project of left transformation that would involve ‘a back-to-basics reconnection with foundational ideas and approaches that have been distorted or abandoned.’ Deeply conversant with the history of left antisemitism, Randall also wants to show that the left has the resources it needs to deal with the problem. He shows how such pathologies as ‘campism’ – the automatic support for any anti-western force – and a tendency to abandon class analysis for the identification of individual class enemies, are a deformation of what Marxism can be and sometimes has been.

Randall honours and builds on Steve Cohen’s classic work That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic (which has been re-published by the publisher of his own book, No Pasaran Media). Cohen’s book has the rare distinction of being a leftist work on antisemitism that is respected by those further to the right and maybe Randall will also go on to be the kind of Marxist that centerists cite. Yet Randall’s positioning as an heir to Cohen also highlights a problem that nagged away at me while reading both his and Renton’s books….

If the left has all the resources it needs to educate itself out of antisemitic ways of thinking and speaking, why did they not ‘work’ when they were most needed?

Part of the answer to that question is that the currents within the left that have produced the likes of Steve Cohen and Daniel Randall are only one of many. The presence of figures like Seamus Milne within the Corbynite high command is certainly not of this anti-antisemitic tradition.

Another part of the answer is that it is unrealistic to expect nuanced self-reflection from any political faction when it comes close to power and is constantly assailed by political enemies from within its own party. The defensiveness of the Corbynite left that made engaging with left antisemitism so difficult was perhaps an unhappy inevitability. The time to do the deep work of political education was prior to 2015.

Such explanations might also have applied had a figure like Corbyn been elected Labour leader at any point in the history of the Party, but there are also good reasons to think that, post-2015, there were a new set of circumstances that posed unique challenges to addressing antisemitism on the left. One is, of course, the role that social media and online discourse played in disseminating antisemitism and intra-Party conflict more generally. The other is the rapid influx of ‘affiliated’ Corbynite members into the Party who were only loosely anchored into the institutional structures of the Party, which had suffered considerable attrition in the New Labour years.

What this added up to was a Labour Party space that was febrile, undisciplined, replete with members with very little knowledge of the history and the traditions of the left, and disinclined to moderate their language. In such a context, the criticism one can make of Corbyn and his team is less that they didn’t really know how to deal with this newly fluid reality, but that they barely acknowledged the scale of the challenge. As Renton shows, what Labour under both Corbyn and Starmer shared is an obsession with disciplinary processes and an absence of a more thoroughgoing educational effort. Perhaps this legalistic obsession is a tacit expression of despair that the wider situation resists control to the extent that all that can be done is to make decisions about who can and cannot be allowed to be a member of the Party.

Renton and Randall are absolutely correct to point out that disciplinary procedures cannot, in and of themselves, address deeper issues in the culture of the left. As Randall points out, simply kicking people out of the Party displaces the problem elsewhere. And in a world where everyone has an online platform, what happens when members are kicked out for antisemitism is that they continue their abuse as before, now with added self-righteous martyrdom. 

Yet if the alternative is deep and systematic political education, it’s difficult to know how to pursue it. Randall makes a number of suggestions here, and I have no quarrel with them. Political reading groups could certainly help ensure the Labour left is more aware of the left antisemitism tradition and its critics. His suggestion of solidarity with Israeli-Palestinian groups working for peace and justice is certainly welcome. The problem is that Randall’s programme still presumes a Labour Party that would have been recognisable to Steve Cohen in the 1980s – one made up of committed activists rooted in party branches and prepared to sit through meetings. And while such individuals do exist, we are living in a world where institutions like political parties have less and less hold on their members; where activism can be done individually, online; where self-critical private discussions are replaced by self-righteous public discourse.

There’s another problem too: We ignore the exhausting intensity of the last few years of conflict in the Labour Party at our peril. To return to my reaction to Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking from the Labour front bench, the suggestion that this was a ‘teachable moment’ was naive: Too many of those who had been hurt by antisemitism in the Party had no more patience for careful explanations of what the problem was and no more faith that people like Long-Bailey would listen. Too many of those on the left of the Party were now on the back-foot and had no more inclination for the stoic work of self-criticism.

I hope that David Renton’s book encourages open self-criticism on the Labour left regarding antisemitism. I applaud Daniel Randall’s nuanced programme for transforming the left so that it can uphold the best of its traditions. Yet I can’t help thinking that for such works to gain traction, there is a prior piece of work to be done in order to create a space for education in the Labour Party and on the left. Creating that space inevitably involves confronting challenges that no one really knows how to face. In an age of hollowed-out institutions and online cacophony, how do we find ways to build structures that leverage our more thoughtful, open and honest sides? How do we build parties and activist groups that draw on the potential of the online world to mobilise without its potential to encourage us to perform the worst sides of ourselves?

Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists by Daniel Randall is published by No Passaran Media, priced £9.99.

That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic by Steve Cohen is published by No Passaran Media, priced £7.99.

Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It by David Renton is published by Taylor & Francis Ltd, priced £19.98.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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Gloria Tessler
Gloria Tessler
23 days ago

Thank you,Keith Kahn-Harris for your thoughtful analysis of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Your penetrating article reaches into a space never truly explored before. Let’s hope it will have some traction.

Mark Drukker
Mark Drukker
20 days ago

This space has been explored by me and many others for the last 54 years (since I was a 1967 volunteer on a Kibbutz), but without much success. Apart from developments in the Labour Party, we have recently seen changes in language (words like democracy, socialism, antisemitism, Zionism and apartheid now have completely different meanings for the various groups) and the opportunistic alliances with Islamism (instead of nationalism). What has not changed is the antisemites’ alliance with people who claim to be Jewish (JVL and JSG are similar to Jews for Jesus). The language used in social media against the Zionist and Jewish left is remarkably similar to the language I and my fellow Shul officers got from a certain supporter of a Tory Freemason Rabbi.

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