Nick Cohen

The old left and the new anti-Semitism

The old left and the new anti-Semitism
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The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945

Barbican Art Gallery, until 25 June

This  is the English version of a piece of mine that was first published in DIE WELT on 4 August 2018, in which I attempt to explain to German readers why anti-Semitism, of all things, is dominating politics in Britain, of all places.

Germans visiting Britain before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party in 2015 would have struggled to find anyone who believed anti-Semitism was worth discussing. I and a few others had warned that the collapse of socialism had allowed a strange post-Marxist left to emerge that endorsed ideas previous generations of socialists would have dismissed as fascistic. There appeared to be no reason for the rest of the country to listen to us. Surely, we were told, you are just talking about marginal extremists.

Never neglect the extremes for they can turn into the mainstream. Today the scale of left-wing anti-Semitism has ‘shocked and ashamed’ moderate Labour politicians. It may yet cause a split between the party’s social democrats and its far-left leaders and members. In the past month, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has warned  that ‘Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour party into a dark place of ugly conspiracy theories’.  Rabbis representing competing varieties of Judaism, which in normal circumstances cannot bring themselves to talk to each other, have united  to condemn Labour for choosing ‘to ignore those who understand anti-Semitism the best, the Jewish community’ by unilaterally rewriting the internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism. The rival editors of Britain’s three Jewish newspapers followed their example and jointly condemned the ‘existential threat’ to Jewish life of a Corbyn-led government .

Corbyn himself has endorsed many varieties of anti-Semitic prejudice. It tells you all you need to know about the British left that it accepts a leader who worked for the propaganda channel of an Iranian state that subjugates women, mandates the death penalty for homosexuals and imprisons trade unionists. While he was a guest on shows on its Press TV,  Corbyn said he suspected Israel was behind an Islamist attack on Egyptian forces. Elsewhere, he defended a pastor who had been banned by his church for sharing anti-Semitic material blaming Israel for the 9/11 attacks . Corbyn also declared his friendship with an Israeli Arab activist who had revived the medieval folk hatred that Jews baked bread with the blood of Christian children and stood up for an 'artist'  who showed hook-nosed Jewish bankers oppressing the poor in a work Joseph Goebbels would have applauded.

The best way of understanding Corbyn’s Labour is to see it as a British version of Trump’s Republican party. Under its previous leader, Labour effectively adopted the American primary system. By paying just £3, supporters could register and vote in leadership elections. In theory, Labour politicians retained a gate-keeping role. No one could stand for the leadership without the endorsement of 15 per cent of Labour members of Parliament. It is a sign of how little they understood the power of the new forces on the left that MPs gave Corbyn their backing because they wanted to ‘encourage debate’ or advance their careers by courting favour with the left. Few, if any, believed he could win.

Supporters of the Green party and Britain’s various far-left groups flooded into the Labour party. Meanwhile many existing Labour members were sick of the status quo. Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war and Labour’s failure to see the great financial crash of 2008 coming discredited the party’s old guard. Labour had lost the 2010 and 2015 general elections. Supposed moderation had not brought it back into government. Why should they not support a candidate who said he spoke for their values? The 2017 general election appeared to vindicate their decision. Labour did not win, but it did far better than Corbyn’s critics expected. Labour members could dream that soon Britain would have its first socialist government.

They fell into a personality cult. Corbyn – or the more familiar ‘Jeremy’ as his supporters call him – is greying, bearded and earnest. He has no significant educational achievements and appears not to have changed his mind about a significant issue since the 1970s. But Corbyn’s apparent stupidity and dogmatism look like virtues in today’s chaos.  The financial crash had proved the clever experts wrong, and the compromises of power had left Labour members tired of their undogmatic leaders. The resulting worship of Corbyn is extraordinary. Labour supporters, who pride themselves on being sophisticated sceptics, abandon all robust judgement. Corbyn’s age and air of virtue make them want to protect him. Only the wicked could wish to criticise such a self-evidently good man.

The cultism persuades Labour supporters that accusations of anti-Semitism are Zionist ‘smears’.  As if to prove the point, a recording was leaked of a member of Labour’s ruling executive  shouting at his colleagues that rabbis warning about Labour racism were not sincere critics, but ‘Trump fanatics’ who were ‘making up’ false claims.

British Jews, and by extension all who oppose irrational hatreds are thus caught in a trap. When they protest against Labour’s embrace of the Jewish conspiracy theory, the party’s supporters accuse them of being part of a conspiracy to spread false accusations in order to silence criticism of Israel or destroy the left.

Corbyn protests that he is a ‘militant opponent’ of anti-Semitism. His supporters say that support for the Palestinian cause may occasionally drive some on the left too far, but there is no systemic racism. As the party explained when it rewrote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, it was not providing a charter for racists, but the ‘most detailed and comprehensive guidelines on anti-Semitism adopted by any political party in this country’.

Only the handful of Jews who have stuck with the far left believe that now. There are abundent examples of Labour members  endorsing racism. The supernatural Jew of Nazi Europe has been reinvented by the left. The Jew is now ‘the Zionist’: the sinister force behind  9/11, the Iraq War, the banking crisis and attacks on the beloved leader.

This sounds like fascism. The convergence between the extremes should not hide the fact that the disgrace of the British Labour party flows from distinctly left-wing sources that threaten the German and wider European left.

The first is failure to come to terms with the crimes of communism. Corbyn was a regular writer for Britain’s communist newspaper, the Morning Star. His chief adviser, the upper-class socialist Seumas Milne, defended the old GDR. The racism on the British left, in its content and tone, dates back to Stalin’s almost forgotten ‘anti-Zionist campaigns,’ at the time of the Slansky trial and ‘doctors' plot’. I have no doubt that if Corbyn and his allies were Germans, they would be in Die Linke.

There is a second factor. After the fall of communism, the dominant section of the British far left preferred to make common cause with radical Islam or the secular Middle Eastern dictatorships of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad than to make their peace with liberal democracy. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories did them no harm for decades. In Britain, as in Germany, Jews are a tiny minority. The far larger Muslim minority is a key part of Labour’s base now. Although it is a libel to say that all British Muslims are anti-Semitic, it is a statement of fact that the Islamist groups who back Corbyn are reactionary on all questions including Judaism. In any case, because Britain never experienced communism or fascism there is little understanding here about what anti-Semitism is and how dictatorial movements from the Tsarists to Islamic State have used it to attack liberal values.

Let me end with a warning. Labour under Corbyn has avoided the collapse in support that has afflicted social democratic parties across Europe. Corbyn’s acolytes are now telling German social democrats to follow his example. Let the shameful state of the once proudly anti-fascist Labour party stand as a warning to them. They may win more votes. But they will never produce a centre-left politics worth having.