Thursday, April 28, 2016

The 'antisemitism' panic

It's an interesting political moment. With the Hillsborough finding, the junior doctors' strike, the ongoing reverberations from the Panama Papers, a backlash among Tory backbenchers against forced academisation and even a loss of face for the government over child refugees, the government is reeling. It is not that Corbyn looks strong, although he does have the initiative for now: Labour even has a small lead in a series of YouGov polls. It is rather that the Tories are surprisingly weak, cutting against the grain of popular 'common sense', and being forced into a series of graceless retreats. So what is the relationship between that fact, and the current ideological offensive against Labour's left-wing, under the rubric of uncovering antisemitism? And why is this offensive assuming some of the characteristics, if not the proportions, of a moral panic?

There is happily no need for me to revisit the specific allegations that have been made, since Jamie Stern-Weiner has already judiciously dealt with them in a characteristically forensic demolition job on the whole panic. There isn't much one can say about them - they are so small in number that it is impossible to extrapolate any wider conclusion. They are just a series of individual cases, nowhere near large enough to constitute a pattern. Can anyone seriously, without recourse to impressionism and hand-waving, demonstrate otherwise?

Of these allegations, one can say that some of them do genuinely constitute obnoxious anti-Jewish racism, while others fall into the category of criticism of Israel, or of Zionism. What is more, anyone remotely experienced on the Left can see the difference right away - it is not subtle. The only people who don't see the difference are antisemites, Israel's apologists, and those whose political strategy rests on not seeing a difference.

With those points in mind, there is a rather obvious gap between the scope of the allegations, hyped beyond all reason, and the scope of the claims extrapolated from them. These claims can be distilled to the argument that because of the victory of Jeremy Corbyn, and the change in the composition of the Labour Party's membership that made this possible, Labour is now institutionally antisemitic.

This, clearly, is a gross travesty, indefensible from any point of view. But it doesn't need to pass any test of intellectual probity. Like other moral panics, the power of claims made in the context of this panic derives from something other than their truth value. Like what? Well, for one thing, the fact that they resonate with a series of existing ideological representations. After all, this meme is not new. The 'new antisemitism' thesis is as old as the hills now. Right-wing newspapers have been using this sort of thing to bait the left for years now. And the attacks on Corbyn on this axis began before he was elected.

For another, there is a diverse coalition of people for whom believe in such a claim serves a purpose, or helps to encode a particular fear - that, for example, Labour has gone to the 'loony left', that the political establishment has lost control, that a black Muslim woman now leads the NUS, that Israel no longer commands near unanimous sympathy in the UK, that you can't support bombing a country any more without people calling you a warmonger, and so on. The idea, utterly absurd in itself, that Labour is now institutionally antisemitic because of the Left, is in this context an extremely useful modulation on standard red-baiting. It tells a seemingly coherent story, drawing on the tropes of 'antitotalitarianism', about how the centre disintegrated, and to what effect. And it restores the taint once associated with being a Red, by means of the association with antisemitism.

And finally, of course, the opposition to such claims is cowed and weak. Corbyn and McDonnell are understandably desperate to shut this issue down, rather than enter into a difficult and - from a public relations point of view - potentially toxic series of arguments about the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. They will undoubtedly feel a tremendous burden of responsibility - just yesterday they were marching with the junior doctors on strike, going for the Tories in a way that no previous Labour leadership would have done. How, they will reason, can they afford to blow all that momentum on a series of arguments they can't possibly win?

Understandable as that may be, this also puts the Labour Left in a particular bind. The leadership is keen to kill the issue stone dead, and doing so with as much economy of energy as possible. So what will Labour activists say and do? What will Momentum and like-minded groups say and do? They will presumably feel under pressure to "defend Jeremy" and not embarrass him by raising difficult, complex discussions that are likely to blow back in everyone's faces when some snippet of some conversation in a pub somewhere becomes a Daily Mail headline. And perhaps they will not want to polarise Labour on issues like Israel-Palestine, especially since 'everyone' seems to agree on the principle of Palestinian statehood. Maybe just let it lie for now. Maybe prioritise, focus on the things that matter. Sit tight, weather the storm, and get back to the real issues.

The problem, if they are tempted by this option, is that it doesn't actually exist. Not every ideological battle can be won on the ground of short-term media cycles. This argument itself is going to keep coming back. Why? Because it has just been demonstrated that it works. It is very effective, not least because those targeted by such tactics feel compelled to cave in almost immediately. And it won't be difficult to repeat. Why? Because if you want to find examples of antisemitism in a racist society, you only have to be patient and wait: antisemitism exists and, as a matter of sheer probability, some of it must exist among some Labour members. And if you expand the definition of antisemitism to include any and all expression of anti-Zionist politics, then you will assuredly find some examples of that. And maybe, if direct expressions of anti-Zionism are deemed antisemitic now, perhaps in the future other forms of pro-Palestine politics - BDS, for example - can be subjected to the same calumny. Soon, perhaps, they can return to Corbyn's 'connections' to Hamas, or the 'abuse' allegedly received by Louise Ellman MP supposedly at the instigation of Momentum, and so on. The more you give ground to this type of campaign, the more ground you are compelled to give.

So the de facto coalition between the Labour Right, the Conservatives, and most of the media, initially launched during the 'Project Fear' campaign against Corbyn, will certainly find other occasions to converge on this line of attack. The only question is whether this attack is consistently countered by an informed, confident rebuttal, or met with lamb-like docility.

ps: note the list of Labour right-wingers queuing up to demand Ken Livingstone's suspension for referring to an 'Israel lobby'. So let us, please, have one extended interview with one of these people where they are forced to rigorously, in detail, lay out exactly what they are claiming is antisemitic. I want them to be compelled to give specifics. I want them to be forced to defend their logic. Because otherwise it comes across as a clamorous, opportunistic attempt to silence debate. I mean, it's almost like they're a 'lobby' or something.