There are many good reasons to be critical of the Labour Party. Its refusal to debate, let alone back, Brexit is one. Yet it is the charge of anti-Semitism, levelled against party members who have made political capital out of campaigning against racism, that has most stuck. From the suspensions of Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone and up to 50 other Labour Party members to (now Baroness) Shami Chakrabarti’s non-investigation to the removal of Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker, accusations of anti-Semitism have provided an ever-present backdrop to Jeremy Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership.
The publication of the House of Commons report, Anti-Semitism in the UK, last week lent further fuel to those intent on a Labour witch-hunt. But the report highlights that anti-Semitism is on the rise not just in the Labour Party, but across the UK: ‘A survey of British Jewish people by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that a fifth of respondents had experienced at least one incident of anti-Semitic harassment during the previous 12 months. In 68 per cent of cases, comments had been encountered on the internet.’
Despite being widely interpreted as another blow to the Corbyn camp, Anti-Semitism in the UK reminds us that ‘around three quarters of all politically motivated anti-Semitic incidents come from far-right sources’. On the one hand, this rise in anti-Semitism needs to be seen in the context of increased hate-crime reporting overall. But it also needs placing within a political climate where the condemnation of Israel, which goes way beyond the condemnation levelled at any other country, has become routine and legitimate, at least in part due to the popularity of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Although right-wing anti-Semitism has not gone away, today it co-exists all too comfortably with left-wing anti-Semitism. Writing in Dreams Deferred, David Hirsh argues: ‘The most threatening anti-Semitism comes from those who believe they are opponents of all racism. Today’s anti-Semitism thinks Israel is a key evil on the planet and Israelis need to be excluded from the global community. It thinks Israel murders Palestinian children out of evil and that Israel is a false nation, founded to steal and occupy other people’s land. Today’s anti-Semitism thinks Israel is powerful and controls opinion and governments around the world.’ (1)
The anti-Semitism Hirsh describes uses rhetoric once reserved for Jews against Israelis. Its particular focus is Zionism. It can be seen in US academic Steven Salaita’s declaration: ‘Zionists: transforming “anti-Semitism” from something horrible into something honourable since 1948.’ It can be seen in British Labour councillor Salim Mulla’s 2014 sharing of video footage allegedly showing a Palestinian boy being arrested, with a comment stating: ‘Apartheid at its best. Zionist Jews are a disgrace to humanity.’ It can be seen in the National Union of Students president Malia Bouattia’s claim that the University of Birmingham is ‘something of a Zionist outpost’, as well as in Oxford University Labour Club’s executive members ‘throwing around the term “Zio”’, and a former co-chair claiming ‘most accusations of anti-Semitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’.