Readers may have noticed that the British Labour Party has gone kind of mad this week, and decided to make the question of whether Adolf Hitler was a Zionist a key issue in the local election campaign. I’ve written in the past on Crooked Timber about why I think it is that the general question of Israel and Palestine is so unfailingly nasty and full of toxic bullshit. But I think it’s also worth looking at why this is specifically a problem for left wing politics in the UK. Below the fold, a loooong attempt at a structural explanation of a persistent phenomenon.
1. Starting from the start – the basic facts.
There aren’t that many Jewish people in the UK; about 250,000 at the last census. That means that they’re somewhat less than half the proportion of the population as in Canada, a bit more than half the proportion as in France, almost exactly a quarter as much as the USA. The overwhelming majority of them live in London; there is still what might be described reasonably as a “Jewish community” in Manchester and (albeit to a declining extent) Leeds, but that’s about it. In Wales and Scotland it’s even more extreme – something like two-thirds of the Scottish Jewish community live in one parliamentary constituency (East Renfrewshire, a Glasgow suburb), and there are roughly 2000 Jews in the whole of Wales (there used to be a lot more in the days of coal and steel and they left behind some of the oldest and most architecturally significant synagogue buildings in Europe – they left because of long term economic decline rather than persecution).
So the general level of ignorance in the population is pretty high. Anyone who went to school in the old county of Gwynedd would have learned precisely one fact about the history of Israel, which was that the Welsh Division liberated Jerusalem from the Ottomans. This fact isn’t even necessarily true (a number of other army units make the same claim), and I suspect that people who went to school in places where it wasn’t on the local regiment’s battle honours wouldn’t even know that.
Given this, your average British leftist is an empty vessel into which information can be poured on this subject. Pause to consider the general quality of the information about Israel-Palestine which is generally available, and the considerable time and effort which goes into making it worse.
2. Picking sides – how the conflict looks to an outsider.
As I’ve mentioned in a number of contexts, people who are not very bright have this terrible tendency to pick a side in major intractable geopolitical conflicts, and support it as if it was a football team. Note that the phrase “as if it was a football team”, given the context is the UK, is potentially a little bit of foreshadowing on my part.
How do people pick sides in Israel/Palestine? Well, the first way is that if you had an existing interest in the Northern Irish conflict, then your side basically got picked for you. Lots of things in British politics which are otherwise incomprehensible, make sense when you realise they’re really about Northern Ireland. And the Israel/Palestine conflict was not a difficult mental exercise. The Israelis are a small tightly-knit community defined by religion, they’re outnumbered by a population generally less well-educated and prosperous, they got to where they are by a historical process which doesn’t make much sense, but they’ve got nowhere else to go and they’ve got an entirely legitimate fear of being pushed into the sea. Are they like Irish Catholics, or like Protestant Ulstermen?
Even if it weren’t the case that the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley’s theological views implied very strong affinity with Israel (and he brought this one to American Protestantism, by the way, via Bob Jones), this wasn’t a difficult call to make. And partly out of oppositionism, partly out of the fact that the Palestinians are an oppressed people who feel like there’s an alien occupying force in their land (and the simple economic logistics of arms smuggling which kept on linking the PFLP with the IRA), the other side picked the Palestinians.
Nearly everyone on the British Left was basically convinced of the fairness of the Irish Republican cause, and a lot of them (Ken Livingstone was in the vanguard of this strain of idiocy) spent the 1970s and much of the 80s getting a lot of practice in making mealy mouthed apologia for terrorism.
Assuming that you were one of the people for whom it was not all about Northern Ireland, you got another chance to pick sides because … I know this is going to piss people off but I’m going to say it. The other big campaign of the British left for most of my life was a campaign against a state which gave systematic privileges to a particular ethnic group, kept a largish proportion of its population in nominally independent territories in unbelievable squalor, had an out of control law enforcement operation which was not only brutal in domestic policing but regularly attacked state enemies overseas, and so on. The similarities between Israeli policy and that of apartheid South Africa were well remarked at the time, and noted by leaders of both countries periodically. Frankly, I’m surprised that so few people have bothered to look at the multi-decade embarrassment which was Israeli-South African cooperation.
So, everyone picked a side, and the main stream of the British left tended to have fairly strong reasons to pick the Palestinian side. If you were a Briton of Pakistani descent, like Naz Shah it was even easier because you had a religious affiliation.
3. We All Agree, My Team Is Better Than Your Team – how people behave
Having picked their sides, how did people proceed to behave. As I mentioned before, the answer is generally “like a bunch of football supporters”. You only have to take a cursory look at football websites after a contentious game (or, God help us, in a week when a star player has been charged with aggravated or sexual assault) to see that sports partisanship can blind people to any hint of impropriety on the part of anyone on their own side, while giving them an all-seeing insight into errors on the other side. And when they believe themselves to be supporting their team, it is astonishing how low people will stoop in their attempts to taunt the other side. At the Liverpool/Everton derby last week, the week before the Hillsborough inquest reported, there were credible reports that Everton fans were making a “bars across face” gesture – in other words, a simulation of a person being crushed to death against fencing. This was, of course, as it always is, a small and unrepresentative minority. But it’s the sort of thing that happens.
Politics – not exclusively British left wing politics, but that’s what I’m talking about here – can get this way too, and when it does, the partisanship tends to skew a lot more Glasgow Old Firm than Friendly Local Rivalry. When I was a lad, it was universally recognised that white South Africans were scum. The B-Side of “The Chicken Song” by Spitting Image was a ditty called “I’ve Never Met A Nice South African” and it was at number one for weeks (check out that link, by the way – it’s quite flabberghasting; borderline trigger warning stuff). Having a South African accent would definitely make it difficult to get served in a pub, and it was not at all unknown for them to be spat on a couple of times over the course of a night out. This was, of course, when you think about it, amazing bullshit even in its own terms, because white South Africans living in the UK in the 1980s were vastly likely to have left the country specifically because they couldn’t stand apartheid, and in many cases even to have left the country one step ahead of the Bureau Of State Security. But, when you’ve convinced yourself that you are acting in solidarity with a political cause that’s toweringly obvious in its justice and rightness, standards of behaviour tend to slip.
This is, I repeat, not a phenomenon exclusive to left wing or pro-Palestine politics and I’ll mention another important example below. But it does happen. Please don’t tell me it doesn’t.
4. The drip drip effect – why it is a problem that people don’t take seriously
(I am indebted for this point to Alex Harrowell). It is noticeable that the original Naz Shah Facebook post was an example of something that’s really quite difficult to make as big a deal of as was actually made (unless you’re the kind of skilled PR guy who can gussy up a dumb meme into the Final Solution). It was a dumb joke which had previously been made by Michael Moore (he claimed that the Jewish state should have been declared in Bavaria, so that the Germans had to give their land up rather than the Palestinians), and he is not the only person to have done so; suggesting that the State of Israel would be easier to defend if it was located somewhere other than Palestine is not advocating deportation or transportation, and I don’t really see how anyone could sincerely claim it was. To their credit, a lot of British Jewish organisations seem to have recognised this early on and accepted Ms Shah’s sincere apology; the continued outrage is being supported purely by the professionally enraged, as far as I can tell.
But conversely, although it was a joke, it’s a very bad mistake to say that it was “just” a joke, because the trouble with these Facebook memes and email forwards and all the like is that there are effing millions of them, and people keep producing more. People support their team, and they keep arguing with each other, and they won’t shut up about it. I won’t repeat my analysis of why this happens, but it does happen; I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been in some meeting or other, plaintively insisting that the Israel/Palestine conflict is not one of the issues that the organisation in question is about.
And this must be just incredibly wearing for British Jewish people. It’s the “microaggressions” concept – each one of these “god the Israelis are really unfair to the Palestinians” memes and forwards is individually not particularly objectionable, but if you have to deal with a dozen of them every day it is going to be a burden. And of course actually, you deal with a dozen heavy-handed but not-malicious memes on a good day; on a bad day, you get one of the real idiots who has decided he wants to flex his muscles and say something that will ruin someone’s morning; the equivalent of a football fan who has just learned the words to a comedy song about a stadium disaster. Of course, British Muslims (and their supporters’ club) will say that they have to deal with half a dozen terrorist and Mohammed-was-a-paedophile memes per every Israel-is-like-the-Nazis meme they send out, but that is a shitty excuse. This is a bad thing, and it’s a problem and people should knock it off. And, once more, it happens.
5. The other push of the piston – the role of bad faith and PR
The trouble is, of course, that running a broad-based “people, knock it off” campaign based on a general realisation that harassment is shitty behaviour, is nothing like as fun as picking one of your existing political enemies and firing up the internet shame machine. A major contribution to the British Left’s problem with anti-Semitism is the way in which this genuine problem has been weaponised by the opponents of the Palestine Solidarity cause.
One claim that is regularly made in this whole debate is that “any critic of Israel gets called anti-Semitic”. This is usually said with a heavy tone of self-serving bullshit (ie, it’s usually said when someone has said something dodgy and is being called out for it), but this doesn’t change the fact that it is, broadly speaking, a fact that this happens. The reason is the same one that I mentioned above – people act like football supporters, and they know that an accusation of anti-Semitism is a very serious charge that can get people fired from their jobs or severely damage their political careers. If you have access to a rhetorical weapon like that and you’re not very bright and you’ve got into a place where partisanship has blinded you to how far you’ve lowered your standards, why would you not over-use it? Particularly since if you’re a supporter of the State of Israel, you are pretty much locked into a four-year cycle in which periodically, you’re going to find yourself, like a supporter of a team which employs Luis Suarez or Joey Barton, in a position where you have to defend the indefensible.
It has the effect of entirely toxifying the debate, and causing people who would otherwise take anti-Semitism seriously to be less inclined to do so; nothing hardens minds faster than seeing a friend run out of a job over a bullshit scandal. In my assessment, a lot of the people involved in these sorts of campaigns are intelligent enough to have been very successful in their private life, intelligent enough to have done well in student politics, and even sometimes in national politics (although very rarely in elected office), but not quite bright enough to realise that it is amazingly toxic to your long term credibility if you a) very blatantly choose your targets and timing based on political convenience and b) don’t bother to pay even token lip-service to consistency and literally simultaneously campaign for the strictest sanctions on anti-Semitic gaffes while also campaigning for the free speech of quite virulent Islamophobes.
The role of the public relations industry in the Israel/Palestine debate is another key part of why there are so many problems in responding to genuine anti-Semitism. I don’t think one needs to postulate anything in particular about the media – just that a PR person for biscuits is capable of placing stories about biscuits in the press and a PR person for Israel is capable of placing stories too. The UK has one of the world’s biggest and best media industries and a lot of very good PR people. And so you regularly get launches of a somewhat odd kind of campaign, which has a four stage life cycle. First, it launches as a campaign about antiSemitism in British life. Second, it decides that the best use of its resources is to monitor the British media for antisemitic tropes. Third, it starts mission-drifting into straightforward defence of Israeli policy. Finally, it falls apart acrimoniously as Israel has just invaded somewhere and the members of the campaign disagree about the extent to which they are prepared to provide unconditional support to the resultant war crimes. In the mean time, at the same time as the official communications arms of the IDF are ramping up their efforts, their amateur hangers-on and wannabes are also taking to the keyboard, and it becomes inevitable that genuine complaints about anti-Semitism get linked in everyone’s mind with obvious attempts to provide apologia for war crimes (the phrase “singling out for criticism” seems to act as the bridge between the two; if you can find anyone who has ever been convinced by this rhetorical device, I’ll buy them a drink).
6. And so here we are …
And so here we are, in a situation where Jewish people in Britain have to put up with an unacceptable torrent of anti-Semitic crap, which the people generating it don’t take seriously because they don’t look at the cumulative effect. And in which it is far more difficult than it needs to be to get the British left to take anti-Semitism seriously, because it is much more difficult than it should be for sincere campaigners against bigotry to distinguish themselves from people trying to do fan-fiction propaganda.
That’s where this post ought to end. But it can’t end quite yet, because I need to explain why things have blown up right now … actually, what I really need to explain is:
7. Why it is specifically bullshit to try and tie this one on to Jeremy Corbyn.
It would have been a hell of a lot more convenient for a lot of people than it actually was if Jeremy Corbyn had ever said anything colourably anti-Semitic himself. A lot of people just presumed he had done, because he’s been on the left since forever, he’s spoken at more Palestine solidarity meetings than I’ve had cooked breakfasts, he’s on that team … he must have compared Israel to the Nazis one time, mustn’t he? And yet, the trawl through Corbyn’s back pages produced basically zip. I wasn’t surprised. Islington Constituency Labour Party is a North London borough and I would guess it’s in the top five most Jewish CLPs in Britain. Islington is also home to a lot of members of extreme left-wing parties (the phrase “a lot” being considerably contextualised by “members of extreme left wing parties” here), who as far as I can tell spend more time arguing about Israel on the internet than a really keen bird-watcher would spend birdwatching. Corbyn’s whole political career has been spent in a milieu where “doing Palestine solidarity without anti-Semitism” is a game being played at a very high level. The best they could come up with was a donation to a charity run by a man who later went mad and became a Holocaust denier.
The UK media then went through the back pages of everyone Corbyn had appeared with. They got one Palestinian representative, who had been invited to address a group of MPs by Corbyn and was later convicted under the incitement to racial hatred laws for a blood libel. The return on investment in terms of substance generated for the time and effort spent was lousy, and people were beginning to notice.
So now we have the third stage – finding stuff that Corbyn obviously isn’t responsible for and couldn’t reasonably have been expected to know about, like two year old Facebook posts and university Labour Club scandals from before he was leader, and then declare that he hasn’t acted fast enough, nudge nudge. He Just Doesn’t Take It Seriously Enough If You See What I Mean.
Of course, Corbyn has a very ramshackle media team, because the old machine built by Alastair Campbell won’t work with him. And he is very isolated with few friends in the party, most of whom are the constant subject of a shower of bullshit allegations of all sorts, mixed in with some legitimate ones. It’s basically impossible for him to react any faster than he did. What’s going on here is that Corbyn’s party enemies have made the party uncontrollable, then blamed him for not being able to control it. It’s fair enough – by which I mean it’s an absurdly crappy way to behave but politics isn’t whiffle ball – but we shouldn’t be confused ourselves about why this has blown up right now. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party think that Corbyn is an electoral disaster area, and they know that constantly doing and saying dodgy things in the service of being anti-Israel is a massive Achilles heel for his wing of the party. I would hope that they are very confident that any long term damage done to the party’s reputation will disappear as soon as they are in charge, and although there is never a wrong time to fight racism, I confess to being surprised that two-year-old Facebook posts were considered too urgent an issue to wait until after the local elections. But this is by no means even in the top ten worst party machinations that Labour has seen in my lifetime, and the problem is a genuine one which would have had to be addressed sooner or later.
So, I’m glad that the Labour Party is having a proper look at anti-Semitism. I’d be more glad if it was doing so because it’s the right thing to do, rather than as a pretty transparent way of fighting a leadership battle by proxy. I’d also be more glad if I thought I could remotely trust the people involved in the campaign to stick to the actual issue, rather than trying to push through policy victories with respect to support of the Israeli government’s actions. But there you go.
I think my view is a fundamentally hopeful one, though, and I think I can back this up with evidence. I don’t believe that the British population or the British left are fundamentally anti-Semitic. I think they’ve chosen a side, and that lots of them are too dumb to understand that their behaviour is not OK. Which means that if the actual underlying conflict reaches resolution one day, there will be no more problem on the British left. That’s what happened with respect to South Africans, after all – more or less overnight, the state of affairs which I described above came to an end, and people who had been in the habit of behaving extremely badly to white South Africans more or less forgot that this had ever been a thing. This isn’t about age old hatreds; it’s about an even more ancient bad habit, that of lowering your standards of behaviour while supporting a team.
 I’m a Blue myself. Don’t tell me that Everton fans don’t make Hillsborough jokes. You might as well try to convince me that it was a coincidence that they were the last team in the League to have a black player.
 See, for example, the Fraser tribunal case, an unmitigated fiasco in which formerly useful anti-boycott campaign ENGAGE wasted uncountable amounts of time, money and credibility in a doomed attempt to prove that the Universities and Colleges Union was institutionally anti-semitic.
 These names were selected from the whole grisly record of the Barclays Premier League on the objective criterion of me wanting to wind up Chris. What did I tell you, I said I was a Blue.
 The relationship between the state of Israel and its online wannabes is interesting, but not so interesting to me that I want to spend a lot of time on it. The facts about what happens are what they are. Other countries (Russia and China) also have similar online supporters.