Anyone concerned about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party should welcome the appointment of Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty, to lead an internal inquiry into the matter, but it’s a little late in the day to be addressing this issue. And will the inquiry’s terms of reference allow her to investigate the leader of the party?
The Jewish Chronicle drew attention to Jeremy Corbyn’s links to a rogues gallery of “Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites” back in August of last year. Among other dubious acts, Corbyn donated money to an organisation run by Paul Eisen, a self-confessed Holocaust denier who boasts of links to the Labour leader dating back 15 years. Corbyn’s own brother has strayed dangerously close to anti-Semitism, such as the time he described Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman as a “Zionist” who “can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”. When questioned about this, Corbyn insisted his brother “was not wrong”.
The hard left has had a problem with Jews that dates back at least as far as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay called ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’ in which he pointed out it was as much of a problem on the left as it was on the right. Orwell thought it was a kind of “neurosis”, “an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”.
For those seeking to understand the phenomenon, I recommend this article in The Tower by Jamie Palmer, which documents changing attitudes towards Israel on the hard left, from broad sympathy to fanatical hatred. It was written before Ken Livingstone made his bizarre claims about the links between Hitler and Zionism, but traces this particular smear (as well as many others circulating among Corbyn’s supporters) back to a barrage of anti-Semitic misinformation disseminated by Stalin’s propagandists in the late 1940s and early 1950s to justify the Communist’s state’s systematic persecution of Jews, including purges, torture, show trials, imprisonment and execution.
Palmer tries to explain why so many on the left don’t consider anti-Semitism as on a par with other forms of racism, such as Islamophobia, and, in some cases, don't regard it as racism at all:
This is partly because those in charge of arranging ethnicities into a hierarchy of oppression are still trying to decide whether or not Jews should to be considered “white” and therefore “privileged,” and, as such, undeserving of the social protections from racism afforded to other minority groups…
According to the precepts of critical race theory, racism only results from a combination of prejudice and power. Since anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the malign influence of a powerful and mendacious world Jewry, it essentially holds that the Jews are experiencing hatred on account of the power they hold. Anti-Semitism, therefore, is not racism at all, but something more akin to resistance
One of the reasons anti-Semitism has been allowed to take root and flourish on the hard left is because of the unholy alliance that has sprung up between various neo-Marxist groups and Islamists, something I wrote about in the Spectator back in January. I’d just read The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman which, in large part, is about the failure of the European left to see Islamism for what it is, namely, a Middle Eastern form of fascism. That may sound like a recycling of Livingstone’s smear against Zionism, but the difference is that Hitler really was ideologically sympathetic to Islamism and did what he could to promote it, not least because he hoped Islamists could be enlisted as co-conspirators. Berman documents in painstaking detail how Islamism was transformed into a mass movement by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s to foment anti-British insurrection in the Middle East and as an instrument for carrying out the extermination of the Jews in Palestine and elsewhere.
The evidence linking Hassan al-Banna, one of the intellectual architects of Islamism and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Nazi-ism is substantial. (Berman draws on the work of the German historian Herbert Eiteneier, which you can read more about here.) For one thing, al-Banna singled out Hitler as a political role model in one of his seminal political tracts. For another, he was a close ally of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who helped set up a Muslim division of the Waffen SS in the Balkans. The Nazis provided the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies with a good deal of financial and ideological assistance, including a network of radio stations throughout the region that the Grand Mufti used to disseminate pro-German propaganda. In 1942, one of these stations broadcast a speech calling on Arabs to rise up against the Jews: “You must kill the Jews before they open fire on you. Kill the Jews who appropriated your wealth and who are plotting against your security. Arabs of Syria, Iraq and Palestine, what are you waiting for?”
Initially, the hard left had no difficulty in condemning Islamism. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a pamphlet in 1946 drawing attention to the fascist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. But various Trotskyist sects began to warm up to Islamism in the 1980s and 90s, culminating in a full-blown coalition in the run up to the Iraq War. In the mass protests organised by the Socialist Workers Party and its European counterparts in 2003, Islamists carrying the banners of Hamas and Hezbollah marched alongside veterans of the European internationalist left, including Jeremy Corbyn. For the most part the different groups got along well, although there were occasional flare-ups. For instance, during an anti-war demo in Paris a gang of Islamists broke off from the main body of protestors to beat up a group of skull cap-wearing Jews, even though the Jews had turned up to support the cause.
One reason for the hard left’s change of heart about Islamism was straightforward political expediency. Here was an anti-Western political movement boasting huge support among disadvantaged groups of young Muslims in Europe’s major cities. If Trotskyist front organisations like Stop The War Coalition could be used to harness these disaffected youths to their cause, it might lead to a much-needed injection of energy and resources. And to a limited extent, that tactic succeeded, with new hybrid political groups springing up, such as Respect.
But as Paul Berman points out, it was also an expression of a wilful political blindness. The hard left had so much in common with the Islamists – a history of fighting colonialism, a hatred of Britain and America, a contempt for liberal democracy, a romantic attachment to revolution and a willingness to countenance violence as a tool of political change – that they were prepared to overlook some of their less savoury views, such as their virulent anti-Semitism, not to mention the belief that adulterous women should be stoned to death and homosexuals pushed off walls. They were also prepared to make excuses for the activities of their more radical elements, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who were embraced as fellow freedom fighters in the struggle against colonial oppression.
Back in the 1940s, few would have predicted that this bastard child of Nazi-ism would find an ally in the leader of the Labour Party or that the Party would be plunged into an existential crisis after a string of scandals linking senior figures, including one of the leader’s closest allies, to anti-Semitism. But it looks increasingly as though that has happened and I doubt Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry will be enough to restore Labour’s reputation or save it from well-deserved oblivion.