The British Labour party leadership will be hoping it has now parked its antisemitism crisis for the summer. MPs have gone on holiday, tempers will cool, the fury and uproar of the last few weeks over the party’s definition of antisemitism will now all die down. Or so the leadership is presumably telling itself.
But this issue isn’t going away. Exchanges over the past few days have underscored the fact that it is still shockingly unresolved.
Last week, the party was electrified by reports that its grandee Dame Margaret Hodge, whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, had called its leader Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite and racist to his face – and that for so doing she was being threatened with disciplinary measures.
There had already been convulsions, which I wrote about here, over the way the party had in its own new code of practice narrowed the wording of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in order to allow the continued defamation of the State of Israel. Now one of the party’s very grandest of grandes dames was accusing Corbyn of antisemitism and racism.
To his supporters, it was akin to calling Mahatma Gandhi a war criminal. To those already horrified by Corbyn’s refusal to deal with the antisemitism now rampant in his party, it was an unconscionable attempt to punish a Jew for protesting about antisemitism.
The main reason why this issue is continuing to erupt is that it has still not been accurately defined. Not only are the warring factions speaking at cross purposes, but even some of those protesting against the party’s failure to deal with antisemitism are failing properly to define the problem.
This morning, the party’s hard-left shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell— who has said he intends to overturn capitalism – sounded upset and perplexed about the row when he was interviewed on BBC Radio’s Today programme.
There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. He believes he and Corbyn are anti-racist and anti-antisemitism. Indeed, their core belief is that they stand against all such prejudice and hatred. The reason for his puzzlement, however, is that he defines antisemitism as bigotry against Jews as people. He cannot accept that it is also bigotry against the State of Israel – almost certainly because he sincerely believes at least some of the foul lies about Israel which constitute the default position of today’s progressive classes. And that’s the essence of the problem with Labour’s antisemitism code.
McDonnell told Today that, having heard Hodge on the same show on Monday morning, he now understood why she had been so upset. It was because of her “complete misinterpretation” of the party’s new code of conduct. He did not explain exactly what, in his view, Hodge had misunderstood.
But when I listened to her Monday interview, I also thought she was missing the point — although undoubtedly not the same point that McDonnell thought she had got wrong.
For although she rightly railed against Corbyn’s failure to deal with the antisemitism in the party, and although she rightly condemned its refusal to adopt the full IHRA definition of antisemitism, she did not identify the core of the problem. With understandable emotion, she described how she herself had been subjected to a volley of antisemitic insults. “I have been called a ‘Zionist bitch’ and told I was ‘under orders of my paymaster in Israel’”, she said.
And as she went on to protest, the irony was that she had been “a vocal critic of successive Israeli governments on many counts.”
Merely a “vocal critic”? Surely she is being too modest. For here she is accusing the Israel Defence Forces of murdering unarmed civilians in Gaza during the recent border riots. “Many of my constituents have written to me about the Palestinians murdered and wounded in the most recent protests in Gaza. The use of live ammunition by the Israel Defence Forces must always be a measure of last resort. There is no justification for shooting unarmed civilians behind the border of Israel, inside Gaza.”
This is of course the widespread and wicked misrepresentation of the riots, which were actually perpetrated by Gazans armed with Molotov cocktails, aerial incendiary devices and firearms and using civilians as human shields in order to storm the border with Israel to attack and murder as many Israeli civilians as possible. The Israelis were struggling to defend their country against this psychotic onslaught. Falsely demonising them for having “murdered” unarmed protesters, Hodge thus presented Israelis as diabolical killers. In doing so, she joined the frenzy of defamatory lies which are being used to delegitimise Israel – and which directly inspire hatred of and attacks upon supporters of Israel too.
So you can see why Hodge might be outraged at being called an Israeli stooge, can’t you?
What Hodge has experienced is undoubtedly antisemitism: the word Zionist, in her case, is clearly being used as code for Jewish. But because Hodge is a fully paid-up member of the progressive classes, she genuinely cannot see that the demonisation of Israel in which she herself has joined is itself a form of anti-Jewish bigotry. While people may themselves be genuinely horrified
by antisemitism, which they think of as prejudice against Jewish people, the discourse to which they may subscribe is prejudiced against the collective Jew in Israel. This new antisemitism has thus eaten its own. Were this all not so tragic, Hodge’s outrage at being caught up in this would surely be the stuff of the most savage satire.
Throughout this whole uproar, you hear over and over again the perplexity of those who just don’t get it. Media interviewers are scratching their heads over the fact that an apparently trivial difference over a few words, a few missing examples of antisemitism in the Labour party code, has caused such uproar. But it’s not just a few missing words or a few missing examples. It’s the fact that the code makes the definition of antisemitism conditional in a way that confines it to bigotry only against Jewish people or institutions and does not include bigotry against Israel – and moreover subjects the suspected prejudice to a further test of unproveable “antisemitic intent”.
So under Labour’s code, it would seem that someone can defame Israel as a Nazi apartheid state whose soldiers are savage and wanton child-killers and yet not be guilty of antisemitism unless a) that person was proved to have antisemitic intent or b) used language defamatory of Jews as people.
Under the code, it seems, it would be antisemitic to blame all Jews for supporting the Nazi apartheid child-killing State of Israel, but not for the demonisation of Israel itself through such vile and deranged falsehoods.
It is this evil against Israel that forms the deep moral sickness in the Labour party and beyond; it is this evil sickness that the party just cannot understand; it is this evil sickness that now threatens to destroy it as a moral force altogether.