The response of some people to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was to accuse Labour and the Left in general of antisemitism. We spoke to some Jewish socialists in the UK about their experiences and perspectives
Interviews with Rob Ferguson (RF), Lisa Hallgarten (LH), Ilan Pappe (IP), David Rosenberg (DR) and Saira Weiner (SW) by Phil Butland.
Could you start by introducing yourselves. In particular, what is your relationship to the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn?
DR: My name is David Rosenberg. I have lived in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency since 1996, and rejoined the Labour Party in 2015 after an absence of nearly 30 years. I was a signatory of a recent joint letter signed by 25 Jewish members of the constituency expressing our personal support for Jeremy Corbyn and support for his honest comments on the EHRC Report.
SW: I am Saira Weiner, a lecturer at a University In Liverpool, but live in Manchester and have been active in left wing politics for over 30 years. I am a member of the SWP. My mum is active in her local Labour Party in the south east. I was enthused and encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
IP: My name is Ilan Pappe. I am the Director of the European Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter and professor of history. Long time supporter of the Labour party and know Jeremy quite well, especially from the days before his election as leader of the party, through out joint work in the Palestine solidarity movement.
RF: I am Rob Ferguson, a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party (Great Britain); I am also on the steering committee for Free Speech on Israel and an activist in Stand Up To Racism. I have written on the ideological offensive of “the new antisemitism” waged against the left internationally and in the UK. As a revolutionary outside the Labour Party I stand in absolute solidarity with comrades in Labour. However, I am of the strong view that we must draw lessons from the defeat of the Corbyn project; we have to build where our strength is – in the mass movements – and independently of the Labour Party.
LH: I’m Lisa Hallgarten, and have been a member of the Labour party on and off since about 1985 when I was a student. I stopped being a member under Tony Blair, as I was disillusioned with many aspects of Labour party politics, particularly going to war in Iraq. For 18 of the last 24 years I have lived in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, but not been very involved in the local party. I rejoined the party in 2015. Whenever you canvass in this area everyone has a story about Jeremy visiting their child’s nursery, helping in the local foodbank, sorting out an immigration or housing issue. Often the very active Labour party in his constituency send out teams to canvas in other boroughs because he is so well liked in Islington that our efforts are not needed here.
People in Germany are finding it difficult to follow what’s going on in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn was suspended then reinstated, but he’s still not allowed to sit as a Labour MP. What’s happening and why?
LH: When Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour party in 2015 the party went into shock. They had just assumed a centrist would win and inherit the Blairite mantle. They had convinced themselves that Ed Miliband who led the party from 2010-2015 had lost because he was too left wing. Many of us could see the opposite was true. Miliband’s party parroted, instead of challenging, anti-immigration narratives – even producing Labour party merchandise with anti-immigration messaging.
Miliband lost the 2015 General Election and resigned after an insipid campaign and a manifesto completely lacking in a ‘story’. The nation was already tired from 7 years of post crash cuts and desperate for a story. Something that told them how a new Labour government could change things for the better. When Corbyn won the leadership it was because he inspired hundreds of thousands to join the party with a story of hope and a promise of a kinder less confrontational politics in keeping with Corbyn’s personal style.
RF: The important question here is the “why?”. The immediate trigger for Corbyn’s suspension and then the removal by Labour leader Starmer, of the “whip”, (his right to sit as a Labour MP in parliament) – was Corbyn’s response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry into antisemitism in Labour. Corbyn, in fairly moderate and restrained terms, had stated a simple truth – that the the scale of antisemitism in Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents inside and outside the party and by the media.
However, this is a pretext. The Labour right and the neo-liberal centre are determined to destroy the Corbyn project. They intend to smash the left, restore their traditional dominance and ensure no future repeat of a left challenge. A year ago Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour party; today, he is no longer a Labour MP. This reflects the confidence and strength of the right.
SW: I think this needs to be seen in a wider context. Corbyn’s suspension was about trying to silence the left of the Labour Party and establish the new centrist leadership further. The report from the EHRC has been used as a tool to “trap” Corbyn into saying something which would enable him and his supporters to be vilified further. Corbyn said that while he accepted the recommendations of the report, that it was in parts flawed and didn’t represent the reality. He said that the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party had been overstated for political reasons.
DR: There are no doubt complex political reasons to analyse but I think we cannot rule out petty jealousies and vindictiveness. It does really hurt Starmer that Corbyn still has great loyalty, repect and admiration from so many grassroots members. In the first eight months of Jeremy’s leadership the LP grew massively – it probably doubled in size. In the equivalent period since Keir Starmer became leader the party has lost tens of thousands of members, of all ages. It is particularly sad to see the young people, first time joiners who were so enthused in the Corbyn years, and given real hope, feeling so let down, but also older activists, who have given so much voluntary commitment to the party, becoming so alienated, or in some cases getting suspended for speaking out on important matters.
A key figure in these events is the un-elected acting General Secretary, David Evans, a right winger, effectively imposed by Starmer. His background has included a spell working for Margaret Hodge some 10 years ago as her local campaign manager. She is a very embittered enemy of Corbyn, and has been very instrumental in throwing around loud accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn (without evidence to back them up). I don’t know if there are current connections between Evans and Hodge, but it is a question worth pursuing.
IP: The new party leader and the Blarite establishment around him have for all intents and purposes thrown Corbyn out of the party. Although this is a procedural process and therefore can be challenged and has not as yet been completed, it will not be unrealistic to say that his political career in the Labour party has come to an end (even he is restored to the back benches of the party). So he is now an Independent member of Parliament and such he can re-run in his constituency.
It’s not just Corbyn. There have been further suspensions, including those of prominent Jewish members Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Moshe Machover. What on earth is going on?
DR: There are draconian rulings being announced that limit free speech in the party on very important matters. Anyone breaching these is vulnerable but members feel strongly that the leadership is accountable to them not the other way round, and find it hard to muzzle themselves. I don’t know the full list of people who have been suspended recently, but this goes back longer. Several others have been suspended or told they are under investigation in recent months, and a significant proportion of them seem to be non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish Leftists. They seem to be being specifically targeted. They have also long been targeted publicly by right wing pro-Zionist Jewish bodies outside of the party (who do not have the welfare of the Labour Party at heart), and also by the party’s Zionist affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement, who are embarrassed by the fact that a lot of Jewish labour party members are not Zionists!
IP: Since the election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour party two different groups did all they could to bring him down: the Zionists and their supporters on the one hand, and the Blarites (supporters of a center Labour party on the model of Tony Blair). Both his pro-Palestinian positions and his socialist stances seemed dangerous to this group. Israel and its lobby in particular were active, using Anglo-Jewish bodies such as the Board of Deputies to assassinate Corbyn’s character and integrity. And indeed not only him. Anyone who is a known supporter of the Palestinian was targeted in the same way.
SW: It’s about trying to silence supporters of Palestine and opponents of Israel by equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This then positions many Jews as being antisemitic (including myself), particularly those of us who want a secular state, not a Jewish one. Noam Chomsky would be suspended or expelled from the LP if he was a member (as I would). In reality I think it’s more about an attack on the left of the Labour Party. What more damaging thing can you say but to accuse people of than antisemitism? The media searched for ways to discredit Corbyn and failed. This piece of mud somehow stuck.
RF: There has been an ongoing tide of administrative suspensions, investigations and fast track expulsions. This has accelerated following the EHRC inquiry. This is important. The EHRC is a statutory body and its findings and recommendations are legally binding. Its finding of “unlawful harassment” on the part of the party is founded on two premises: first, a conflation of Zionism with Jewish ethnicity; second is the judgement that to claim that complaints of antisemitism are being weaponised, exaggerated or are cynically motivated, in itself constitutes harassment. The EHRC is acting as external enforcer, buttressing the onslaught by the Labour right, the party machine and the British establishment.
Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, has ruled that local branches cannot discuss Corbyn’s suspension or the removal of the “whip”. There is to be no discussion of the EHRC report, or the adoption of the IHRA “working definition” of antisemitism. The party machine has ruled to do so will be considered as creating an “unwelcome environment” for Jewish members. Constituency Party officers who have defied these instructions, or even simply voiced criticism, are being been suspended wholesale. They are forbidden from making the charges public. Moshe Machover took the decision to refuse to bow to the witch hunters and has published his own documents.
These attacks are part of an offensive to permanently break the Labour left.
Does Labour have an antisemitism problem?
SW: Not as far as I’m aware of. Nor of anyone I know. I do think there’s a rise in antisemitism both nationally and internationally fed by conspiracy theories about Jewish financers, George Soros etc and the depiction of the elite offered by conspiracy theorists is often of hook nosed bankers.
IP: A myth of an institutional antisemitism in the Labour party was invented in order to justify this witch hunt. Any criticism on Israel was immediately reported as antisemitism and thus you got the impression of a widespread phenomenon. There is not institutional antisemitism in the Labour party. This whole affair was an attempt to stifle the debate on Palestine and to prevent socialist policies from becoming an integral part of a future Labour government.
DR: I never accepted the assertion that it did during the Corbyn years. Despite the accusations liberally sprayed around from 2015, In those Corbyn years I saw a lot of left wing Jews returning to the party, and lots of younger radical Jews joining for the first time. In my own constituency we have Jewish members in elected positions in the party at ward level and branch level, as well as Jews becoming council candidates and serving on the local Council. The deputy leader of the Labour-dominated council in Islington is a relatively young person of Jewish and Black heritage, whose Jewish communist grandfather was interned by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp before the war.
Jeremy Corbyn went out of his way to try to engage with a range of Jewish voices in the party. The main problem we face now is that Keir Starmer says he has engaged with Jews across the community but has only really engaged with the more conservative Jewish establishment groups. He doesn’t engage with leftist, non/anti-Zionist Jewish members and effectively colludes with that conservative Jewish leadership in marginalising other Jewish viewpoints. Nor does he seem to engage with ultra-orthodox Jews who are not that keen on Zionism and happen to bear the brunt of physical antisemitic attacks. There is an old Jewish joke that if you have two Jews you have three opinions. Our self proclaimed communal “leaders” seem to prefer Britain having 300,000 Jews but only one legitimate opinion. But why should the leader of the Labour party go along with that?
RF: The short answer is no. Even to pose the question in this way is to bestow legitimacy upon what is a cynically motivated attack. If the question was “Are there instances of antisemitism in the Labour Party?” or even “Does criticism of Israel and Zionism sometimes spill over into conspiracy theory, or antisemitism?” that would be different.
All surveys show that antisemitic attitudes are far higher on the right. My Labour comrade, David Rosenberg, has repeatedly pointed out that Conservative MEPs were linked through the Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, to far right Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma parties. In the Council of Europe, Conservatives are now allied with far right antisemitic parties, many with a Nazi core: the AfD in Germany, Vox in Spain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, United Patriots in Bulgaria, the Danish People’s Party, Salvini’s Northern League and more. Boris Johnson recently paid tribute at the unveiling of a statue to Lady Nancy Astor, one of the foremost advocates of appeasement with Hitler, and avowed Jew-hater.
Antisemitism is indispensable for the far right. It acts to divert rage at the crisis, posing a powerful, hidden hand manipulating global crises and fomenting social conflict. It is an ideological weapon the far right and fascist movements use to mobilise physical force against their opponents and targets. These narratives in turn fuel notions of “The Great Replacement”, “white genocide” and the counter jihad and counter “Islamification” movements, whose outriders wreaked terror in Pittsburgh, Halle, Christchurch, Poway and El Paso. The weaponising of the “new antsemitism” narrative that underpins the attack on Corbyn serves to conceal and disguise the ideological character of antisemitism itself and its roots in the forces of reaction.
However, antisemitism, like any form of prejudice, can and does permeate the left and the labour movement. Such prejudices prise open the door to reactionary influence and undermine unity of the oppressed. Some of the most important parts of our history reflect the battle to defeat such influence and unite workers against the common enemy.
LH: Yes I think Labour does have an antisemitism problem.
Labour under Starmer’s leadership speaks about Jews as a homogenous group with uniform beliefs on Israel, a narrative which in and of itself is racist. It denies diversity, heterogeneity, conflict, lively discourse and disagreement within and between Jewish communities. This in itself is a form of stereotyping and racism and paradoxically reinforces a classic antisemitic trope which is of Jews not being loyal to the country in which they live or having ‘split loyalty’. This makes many Jewish people feel unsafe because they feel that it actually repeats the falsehood that “Judaism = Zionism” and they feel held responsible for Israel’s actions.
Some of those vocal in this campaign have even claimed that when people criticise capitalism, capitalists or bankers that they are being antisemitic. This is the most egregious reiteration of the antisemitic trope of the greedy Jew, and again eradicates the long history of Jewish thinking and activism on the left.
A shocking number of people who have been expelled for claims of antisemitism or ‘disloyalty’, have been Jewish party members seen to be the ‘wrong kind of Jew’. Non-Jews in the party have had licence to determine who is or isn’t a real Jew or good Jew. If that isn’t an antisemitism problem I don’t know what is.
Finally, I know many Jews within and beyond the Labour party, religious and secular who have observed, but not been subjected to antisemitism in wider society, but now feel really fearful of a backlash against Jews as a result of a perceived Jewish exceptionalism – Jews demanding special treatment or attention, while the party ignores Islamophobia and racism against Black members.
You probably wanted to know if the claims of antisemitism made by the right against Corbyn and allies are legitimate. I don’t think so. Corbyn brought hundreds of thousands into the party and filled the streets wherever he went. For all those hundreds of thousands they found a few dozen legitimate claims of antisemitism.
Leftists like John McDonnell and Paul Mason have said that Jeremy Corbyn should just apologise and move on. Are they correct?
LH: Haha – is Paul Mason a leftist? There is this idea that if only Corbyn and others would do the right thing – this would all go away, but it’s just not true. Corbyn has apologized many times, and it’s really like the ducking stool – the more abjectly he apologises the more he’s seen to be admitting to an enormous problem and a personal failure to deal with it. Yet if he doesn’t apologise it’s proof he’s an unapologetic antisemite.
IP: No they are totally wrong. You do not apologize for something you have not done. And on the other hand, such a defeatist approach would only invite even more abrasive and offensive assault by the pro-Zionist lobby in Britain. In fact, part of his past apologies did exactly that.
RF: No. The situation we are in now is a direct consequence of four years of ever greater concession and retreat. Each concession has given ever greater confidence to the right, the establishment and the media. Each retreat has led to a greater escalation of the witch hunt. The retreat in Labour has now opened up an attack on Palestine solidarity and the wider movement. McDonnell and Mason thus reflect a far wider retreat, and the Labour left’s inability to launch an all-out political confrontation with the Parliamentary Party and the Labour machine. Far from being an avenue for radical transformation of society, the left found themselves within party structures it could never control.
So the real question is not “Are McDonnell and Mason right?” but why do they and others always argue for retreat? The answer lies in the electoral project itself; in seeking to bring about social change from above through election of a Labour government. For all their important differences, both left and right in labour are united in this common project. Party “unity” always plays to the strength of the right. The nature of the electoral project always puts disproportionate power in the hands of unaccountable MPs and the party apparatus, over and above even a mass membership. In addition, whilst some elements of the trade union bureaucracy may wish to influence the Parliamentary party (PLP) leftwards they are ultimately dedicated to supporting the PLP as a future Labour government. Throughout Labour’s history therefore they have been a bulwark of defence against any left challenge that threatens the PLP majority. Corbyn only ever had the support of a handful of MPs, the left were incapable of de-selecting even one MP – despite the mass membership of over half a million.
DR: I don’t think they are. Both McDonnell and Mason are rightly very keen for Labour to move beyond this recurring argument, but I believe that will only happen through a vigorous pushback which says: Let’s hear a range of Jewish voices on this matter. Let’s have open debate. It will become clear that a lot of Jewish Labour Party members do not share the politics of those who keep insisting on more and more apologies.
As a general rule in life I think people should take credit for what they have done right and apologise for what they have done wrong. I think that Corbyn has been treated abysmally by certain right-wing groups both within and outside the Jewish community, and his response has always been to listen and try to tackle any real problems and bring people back to a focus on the problems that are pressing for both Jews and non-Jews. That seems more constructive than conceding to demands for apology that are meant to humiliate him. His comments on the EHRC report for example were honest and principled, and actually welcomed by many, many Jewish members I know, who more than anything want a calm and rational evidence-based discussion of whatever problems there are of racism in the party , including antisemitism, and how best to address them.
Do the attacks on the Left make sense in electoral terms? Will Keir Starmer gain more votes as a result of his current actions?
LH: The election is so far away I’d hate to predict what issues will capture the public imagination by then. However I would guess that most of the British public are tired and bored of internal Labour Party politics and may well see Starmer’s dictatorial approach as backfiring: extending rather than nipping in the bud the dissatisfaction and fragmentation of the party.
Most people in the UK want to see real change. Our economy has been one of the worst hit by the pandemic, not only because of mismanagement, but because there was no resilience in the system after 10 years of Tory austerity and all public services shredded. For example, my local council has lost 70% of its’ funding despite still having to deliver the same services. We have hungry children, a huge housing shortage, job precarity with a predicted spiralling of unemployment over the next 12 months, a child and adolescent mental health crisis and this is before Brexit. If Starmer occupies himself with internal politics which nobody but political hacks and journalists care about, instead of a vision and a programme to rebuild the economy and tackle climate change he cannot win.
SW: If you look at what the Labour Party achieved in the 2017 election, where against all odds and with a radical programme, they took away the Tories electoral majority. The night of that election was amazing, and there was a real sense of the possibility of change. I think there was a real groundswell of support for Corbyn. I was at the concert on the Wirral where the chant of “Oooh, Jeremy Corbyn” was heard as he addressed a crowd at a music event. It was amazing, and gave me a sense at that time that things were changing. So electorally I don’t think Starmer makes sense to ordinary working class people, or certainly didn’t then.
RF: Well, given the utter crisis and shambles of the Tory government, with its appalling and deadly negligence over the Covid pandemic, Labour has been virtually absent from the field. When Starmer does criticise the government, it is framed as incompetence on the part of the government rather than putting wealth before health, profits before lives and attacking the handing over millions to private companies and friends of ministers, with no experience of dealing with a health crisis. Starmer’s key concern is to portray Labour as a safe pair of hands for business.
The world economy had not recovered from the crisis of 2007-8 even before the pandemic. Far from receding the crisis is going to deepen enormously. That will be reflected politically. We are seeing a long term crisis of what Tariq Ali has called the “neo-liberal centre”. For the Labour right, the question is not simply a question of what political stance is a “vote winner” but what is achievable within the constraints imposed by the interests of business and state interests with which the right identifies, within the constraints of the capitalist system.
DR: He may gain among soft-Tories, who know that the Tories are now led by the extreme right, but Starmer will lose the commitment and enthusiasm of many grassroots members and they are not only walking. Some are saying they won’t vote Labour again, which is especially tragic in the circumstances where we have such a rampant government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
IP: It will be difficult to assess because it is obvious that the failure of the Johnson government to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and possible negative repercussions from BREXIT might give Labour more power. I doubt very much, if this is going to happen that it will have anything to do with Starmer’s pro-Zionist positions. On the other hand, if there were to be a new party – one on the model of RESPECT – combining left ideas with the needs of minorities like the Muslim minority, Stramer’s views will prove to be disastrous. Moreover, I think the many young people who voted Labour because of Jeremy might find their way to no parliamentarian parties such as the Socialist Workers Party.
Is it correct to talk about a witch hunt? And what is being done to counter this?
SW: Yes, it is a witch hunt. Good Labour activists are being suspended by the day, the latest being Louise Regan, a national officer on former vice president in the NEU teaching union. It is being used to try and push the left of the LP out of the door, or silence them in other ways.
LH: I think for the past few years it has felt that a few dozen people have been targeted for their politics and now the faction in control of the party have the power to really ‘purge’ the left. The Deputy Leader of the party, addressing a meeting of the Jewish Labour Movement and Jewish Friends of Israel played to her audience, by promising to suspend thousands of members if necessary.
However, it is not the scale of this that makes it feel like a witchhunt, but the range of activities that represent an offence. For example declaring solidarity for Jeremy Corbyn is prohibited in Labour party meetings; referencing or showing solidarity for someone who has been suspended is an offence, as is criticizing reports from external organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is now considered to be a form of antisemitism denial to challenge the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism [the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has issued a disputed definition of what counts as antisemitic]. Most sinister of all anyone who challenges the narrative that antisemitism was an enormous problem in the Labour party under Corbyn (the facts speak for themselves, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story as they say) is said to be denying antisemitism, which is tantamount to …. antisemitism.
DR: I don’t like the term myself but I think it is being pursued by a party leadership and bureaucracy that seems relaxed about becoming a much smaller party again in membership numbers, that wants to weaken the links with the unions and take the party back to the centre right. People have to resist this not only by challenging unjust disciplinary measures but making a much more positive case for the benefits of free speech and democratized processes within the party.
IP: Yes it is a witch hunt in the sense that a certain group of people have been targeted and their major ‘sin’ is supporting the Palestinians and everything possible was done to oust them. There are new initiatives like “Jews for Labour” and internet networking of people countering this through writing and action. It is a good question to ask: Do we go for change from within or do we go for a new party?
RF: Yes. There is no other way to describe it. It is extremely dangerous. Ultimately the principal beneficiaries of the weakening of the left will be the far right and the racists. The conflation between criticism of the state of Israel and opposition to Zionism with antisemitism gives the far right, the fascists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis a get out of jail free card. On the one hand they peddle deeply antisemitic tropes about “globalists”, “cosmopolitans”, “cultural Marxism” and attack Jewish figures such as George Soros; on the other they declare they cannot be antisemitic because they support Israel and oppose BDS.
The meaning of antisemitism as hatred of Jews as Jews is being debased. In Labour we see a growing animus against left wing Jews, an animus that historically has provided the soil upon for the most violent forces of antisemitism.
To openly confront the witch hunt politically within the Labour Party now would lead to automatic suspension and expulsion. This is why motions of support for Corbyn and opposition to the instructions from the general secretary are framed in term of “democracy”. And even these are now ruled out of order and are grounds in themselves for suspension. This is because so-called “denialism” has itself been ruled as “harassment”, as determined by the EHRC. Once to deny you were a witch, to refuse to confess, or to defend others accused of witch craft – was proof in itself of one’s own guilt. We are back in the realm of McCarthyism.
The other strategy of the left is to resort to legal action in the courts. Now, even if this were to be successful, which is a big “If”, it would do nothing to stem the attack on the left. This is a political offensive and can only be defeated politically and by mobilising the wider movement outside Labour and by recentering the issue of Palestine over Labour’s internal battles.
A few years ago, many German socialists saw Momentum as a role model for how we can organise the left. Yet from where I’m sitting, Momentum seems to have been paralysed in the face of right-wing attacks. Is this a fair understanding of what’s going on?
SW: Yes, I think so. I don’t know a lot about Momentum apart from the fact that the best people I know were members and it was a magnet for those people in and outside of the LP who wanted change. However I believe that because it is wedded to, and is within the LP – it was unable to do what its members wanted and has ended up with various splits it seems. Loads of people are leaving the LP who previously joined Momentum
RF: Yes it is. This is because Momentum’s primary focus has always been an electoral one, centred on winning internal positions on committees, canvassing and electoral campaigning. A core of Momentum members did not mobilise around anti-racist campaigns, housing, and climate change, but the central focus was always an electoral one; the majority of Momentum’s membership only mobilised for elections. This reflects a wider reality. The vast majority of Labour members who joined to support Corbyn, never attended a constituency meeting. They joined to vote for Corbyn to lead a Labour government. This is why when that no longer seemed a realistic prospect, so many of them voted for Starmer. This is the logic of electoralism.
The real question to be asked is why did the Momentum model fail? That is a question for the whole of the European left. It has to be seen too in the failure and retreat of other left reformist projects.
DR: I’m not sure it has. I’ve not been very involved in Momentum but I went to a Zoom meeting the other night – a Q&A with members of its National Coordinating Group, and I was impressed by the energy and spirit of the meeting. It had certainly been increasingly hampered by its lack of democracy. I think this is changing. I hope so.
IP: It is a fair understanding. The strength of Momentum was its clear socialist stances and clear moral positions on the issue of Palestine and other anti-colonial struggles in the world. The campaign of intimidation unfortunately succeeded with many of them who thought they could abandon the latter agenda. It does not work, these are two sides of the same coin. If you stick only to one and abandon the second, your movement will not survive.
The attacks on Corbyn are not isolated. Last year the German Bundestag ruled that BDS is antisemitic. In the USA, some Black female politicians and even Bernie Sanders have been accused of antisemitism. What is the international dimension of what is going on in Labour?
IP: This is all part of two campaigns. One started in 2010 by Israel through its Ministry of Strategic affairs that was worried of the erosion in Israel’s international legitimacy and moral standing (which was manifested among other things in the BDS campaign). So the local Jewish communities and other pro-Zionist elements were recruited to demonize and undermine the political career of known pro-Palestinian figures (very much as AIPAC did to Senator Fulbright and others in the 1960s). The second campaign is part of the ‘Deal of the Century’ – an attempt to depoliticize the Palestine question and therefore assault anyone who talks about political rights for the Palestinians and stand in the way of wiping out Palestine and the Palestinians.
RF: I have written on this elsewhere. The great financial crash of 2008 prompted the collapse of the neo-liberal establishment in the face of challenges from the far right on one hand and the radical left on the other. It was in this context that the narrative of the “new antisemitism” now took on the shape of an ideological offensive against “radical Islam” and Muslim communities, the left and movements for liberation… and of course Palestine. It is in this context that we have to understand the onslaught on the Corbyn project and how the narrative of the “new antisemitism” was weaponised against the Labour left.
This is not going to disappear with the defeat of Corbyn. On the contrary, its proponents are going to seek to gain advantage. This offensive poses a challenge to the left in Europe and north America. It is a narrative that is being institutionalised not only in Britain but in France, Germany, Austria, the United States, Canada and elsewhere. It is not yet so evident in Britain, because of the focus on Corbyn but it marches hand with a vicious Islamophobia, very evident in France for example but also in the US and elsewhere in Europe.
LH: Basically the same messages and the same narrative are being used globally to prevent criticism of Israel.e.g. The BDS movement has been framed as antisemitic sometimes people drawing comparisons to the Nazi boycott of Jewish business in Germany in the 1930s which is pretty twisted.
DR: I believe this is a tribute to the success of the BDS campaign. It is striking a chord. But this is not simply about antisemitism/Israel/Palestine, it is about the attitude of social democratic parties to radical struggles internationally. The struggle for Palestinian rights rights and justice is just one among many struggles of the oppressed that are asserting themselves.
Some people argue that the attacks on Corbyn are being orchestrated by the Israeli government or an Israeli Lobby. How do you react to such claims?
IP: I think the excellent investigative al-Jazeera program “The Lobby” has proven without any doubt how deeply Israel was, and is, involved in this campaigns. I am currently writing a book on the history of lobbying for Zionism and I will expand on this there.
SW: We have to be careful with this. The attacks on Corbyn are being orchestrated by the right of the Labour Party, and more widely by the British ruling class (media etc.). Clearly there is a strategic interest to support Israel (oil, oil and more oil) and those supporting Zionism are keen to label any opposition to it as antisemitism. But we also know the British ruling class will use anything to divide us. So no, I don’t think it’s orchestrated by Israel.
RF: Obviously the state of Israel is seeking to take maximum advantage and to de-legitimise criticism and support for Palestine. Its agencies and embassies will lose no opportunity to do so. But this has always been true and it cannot explain the extent of this ideological offensive and its scope. The primary actors here are our own governments and states and the neo-liberal establishment who have made this narrative their own. It has proved a powerful weapon in weakening the left, dividing opposition, and undermining the legitimacy of a radical challenge to the system.
Some have fallen into the trap of arguing that our governments and politicians are being manipulated by an all-powerful “Israel Lobby” or even influenced by donations and so on. This is to get things the wrong way round. The major imperialist powers do not need to be persuaded that a fortress Israel in the Middle East is in their own interests. The tail does not wag the dog.
LH: I think the Israeli’s pride themselves on their ‘hasbara’ or propaganda programme so it’s no secret that they are active in promoting their country (as most countries do) through cultural, commercial diplomatic and political means and in combatting criticism of their country. Obviously there is a glaring conflict between Israel’s presentation of itself as the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, and its 53 year illegal occupation of the West Bank and new Israel nationality law. So its propaganda machine has some heavy lifting to do!
There’s no doubt that the election of Corbyn as an opposition leader with a track record of solidarity with Palestinians and criticism of Israel mobilised those concerned with defending and promoting Israel’s reputation both inside and outside of Israel, and almost immediately led to a ramping up of claims of antisemitism.
However, I think we should be a bit cautious about simply pointing a finger at Israel itself. Importantly that would ignore the fact that such efforts would not get traction unless they were pushing at an open door because of: UK strategic and political interests in maintaining and supporting Israel and silencing criticism of Israel; and an active and vocal pro-Israel lobby in the UK which works with and across political parties.
DR: I don’t go in for conspiracy theories! Political lobbies exist, and what I’ve seen of the Israeli press over recent years has been very un-complimentary about Corbyn. But Britain no longer has an Empire. It is a small bit-player. Israel could co-exist with a more Palestinian-Friendly British government. I think Israeli strategists have been much more concerned about a shift in attitudes and policy coming in America in the long run. And with the fall of Trump, albeit not to a very inspiring centrist candidate it does create an opportunity for making demands from the left.
But to be honest I think the main anti-Corbyn forces have been domestic, and it is also a mistake to see right wing Jewish organisations in Britain only being concerned about Corbyn over Israel-related matters. Groups like the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council are keen to shift the centre of gravity of the Jewish community towards the right, as that is where they stand politically and they think their own position within the state will be bolstered by that. But there are dynamics within the community that they can’t control. The two political leanings that are growing within the grassroots of the Jewish community are those of the further left and the further right. The centre is getting weaker. The average Jewish person in the centre does not have a high opinion of the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council, seeing them as having a very inflated sense of their own self-importance.
As all this is happening, British politics is carrying on. Britain has the highest COVID death rate in Europe, and will leave the EU in less than a month. How are the debates within Labour affecting general political discussion in Britain?
SW: I have friends who are currently being suspended from the LP, really good activists who want to get out and campaign, challenge the Tories etc., but are impeded by the in-fighting. The Labour leadership are virtually silent on the Tories’ culpability for the continuing mass avoidable deaths (over 600 yesterday). It’s hard to really know what the debates are, as I’ve been stuck at home in one kind of lockdown or another since August (I’m in the NW of England). So I can’t really gauge it. Labour are invisible on a national level. It’s really disappointing.
IP: By the way, I think Belgium has a higher rate. The main impact is that instead of dealing with real crisis brought jointly by COVID-19 and Brexit are put aside and ignored by the mainstream media and as always it will be the poorer sections of society, and the younger generation that are going to pay the price for it. This why we need either a totally revised Labour party or a new one.
DR: It is very frustrating. For the last five years if any one asked me what Labour stood for, I could tell them. I have no idea what they stand for now. It is tragic that faced with a narrow minded, right wing dominated , eugenicist government in charge of the response to the COVID crisis, Labour has barely developed an alternative strategy. The more progressive scientists have been calling for months for a “Zero COVID” strategy that seeks to eliminate the virus rather than manage it/live with it. Labour wasted months calling the government “incompetent” and “chaotic”, which they were – but Labour did not offer a clear alternative. When they finally did pressure the government into a much-needed second lockdown (which they preferred to call a “circuit breaker”) they did not include schools – one of the most important sources of infections spreading. But they were hampered because very early on back in April, Starmer refused to listen to the common sense that the teaching unions were arguing. He seemed to take his cue instead from the prescription of the Tony Blair Global institute which stressed keeping schools open to “save the economy”.
LH: Despite getting elected on a promise of policy continuity and party unity, and despite being promoted as a more credible and formidable opposition leader Starmer’s tepid criticisms of the Government’s Covid response have been overshadowed by his mismanagement of party democracy and the continuation of the project to discredit Corbyn.
Starmer in an apparent attempt to look like he’s a more pragmatic and less ‘ideological’ leader than Corbyn, has failed to effectively hold the Government to account for its flawed and corrupt management of Covid-19. This has been presented as not wanting to look unnecessarily partisan or undermining the management of the crisis. But it has done little to highlight/address or stem an enormous movement of £billions of public resources into unaccountable private sector organisations engaged in PPE procurement and test and trace without due process; and by-passing public sector organisations and structures which could have a) responded more effectively; and b) benefited from a boost to workforce capacity after 10 years of defunding.
This week will see the question about whether Starmer will whip (compel) his MPs to vote in support of whatever Brexit deal Johnson presents to Parliament. It looks likely he will support the deal, however damaging it is for the UK – a continuation of his soft support for the Government. Many have noted how instantly Starmer pivoted from a manifesto position he pushed for having a referendum on the Brexit deal (and which many believe was what lost key seats for Labour in Leave-supporting areas), to probably supporting the deal.
RF: Some on the left argued that Corbyn could still beat the right by appealing on broader issues that affected ordinary people: austerity, privatisation, housing and so on. This was to misunderstand the dynamic inside the Labour Party itself.
However, outside labour it is another matter. We have seen ‘Black Lives Matter’, the protests over climate change, and there is an underlying rage over Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. Obviously the protests have been suppressed to an extent by the pandemic but Britain is part of a wider international picture from Belarus to Lebanon, the US and now India. This is why it is a mistake to remain trapped inside the Labour Party. This is where the real prospect of social change lies, in the mass mobilisations of ordinary people. The left needs to build in the movements, and above all in the workplaces.
What is the best thing for British socialists to do in the current circumstances? And how can the international left support you?
LH: I’m devoid of hope, ideas or optimism right now!
IP: As I said there needs to be a serious discussion of the strategy. There are cons and pros for both attitudes. But a decision needs to be taken and action be carried according to it. If we all stay with the Labour party than we need a far more assertive campaign against Starmer and his ilk. If not, it will take time, but one can build a new party.
RF: The role of the international left is critically important. It is not so much a question of how you can support us but on drawing the lessons in order to fight effectively. In Germany for example there is terrible confusion over ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’, criticism of the state of Israel and support for Palestine. I was chilled to the bone to see in the Bundestag debate how the AfD were baying for the criminalisation of BDS and portraying themselves as the foremost defenders of Israel and the settlers in a common front against “Islam”. We are seeing the same disastrous development in Austria and France.
But the left also needs to draw the wider lessons of the defeat of left reformist projects that seek electoral solutions to deliver social transformation from above: Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn, Sanders. This is an international feature. At the same time in every country there are huge social struggles, not least against racism and the far right but also climate change and the future of the planet and austerity and economic crisis will provoke mass resistance at key points, even if in unpredictable forms. It is in these struggles that the future of the left lies and in the building of a revolutionary alternative that can transform society.
DR: I have chosen to stay in the Labour Party rather than abandon it but I cannot judge those who have taken the decision to leave. I am in a privileged position having a very left wing MP (although he is currently in limbo). I just hope those that leave will find useful outlets for their political beliefs through practical campaigns rather than seek salvation in the myriad of small left sects which have hardly grown in recent years, and often suffer their own dogmatism and narrowness.
I am interested in groups like the ‘People’s Assembly’ that draw on the energy of people within and outside Labour and can unite us. Some of the new independent unions are doing very good work, and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has captured the imagination of many people, especially younger people. How can the international left support us? Just to return to some of the earlier discussions – do what you can to validate and amplify non and anti-Zionist Jewish perspectives wherever you are. Also amplify the struggles not only of the Palestinians facing daily repression but of the internal left-oppositionists, army refusers, anti-occupation groups within Israel.
SW: We need to continue our vocal support for the Palestinians, and opposition to Zionist Apartheid, particularly as Jews. We have a responsibility to say “not in our name”. More generally we have to carry the arguments that a better world is possible and our vision of that, whether by fighting for the BLM movement, abortion rights, against the deprivations laid on the doors of the working class by our Governments and bosses. Importantly we have to also continue fighting for the BDS movement (for example) and all campaigns supporting the Palestinians and refused to be cowed and intimidated by those attempting to silence us around Israeli Apartheid, and as the most committed anti-racists. Let’s not give them an inch.
What is your reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s new ‘Peace and Justice’ project?
IP: One can only welcome it. A network of identification and not just of politics of identity can cast a new meaning for what it means to be on the Left in the 21st century. Social and economic justice should be intertwined with the struggle of ethnic and indigenous people social movements for justice and still ongoing anti-colonialist struggles such as still goes in Palestine.
DR: I feel very positively about it. A smart move, where he and others get to set an outward looking radical agenda. He announced it on the very weekend when Starmer’s “new leadership” devotees were gloating, in tweets and FB posts, over Corbyn’s defeat exactly one year ago, and trying/struggling to put a positive gloss on the fact that the party has lost 10s of 1,000s of members since April and remains behind in the polls.
SW: I agree. It looks to forces beyond the Labour Party, and away from the “get elected in 2024” message that seems to be coming out from the LP.. For me, as a revolutionary socialist it provides a really positive link between activists without the false divide Momentum had (join if you’re in the LP, don’t if you’re not). I think this reflects Corbyn’s politics and the movement of hope that grew around him, much more effectively. I’m curious as to whether John McDonnell, Diane Abbott etc are involved. There’s been some suggestion this might be a precursor to a new left of Labour political party but I’m not sure.
LH: I haven’t seen much detail, but in terms of the UK context I think it gives the lie to idea that Corbyn can’t move on; and it demonstrates his consistency in supporting progressive movements, before, throughout and following his leadership. The current Labour leadership’s priorities not only have a very narrow scope (delivering party unity and holding the government to account over Covid) but are patently failing. Many people are depressed at the shameless jingoism of the English nationalist government. Yet Starmer is not challenging this ‘little Englander’ narrative at all. People will be looking for something to get involved with that brings some vision and hope, some sense of connection to the rest of the world etc. I think this is good timing.