Rich as honey dew – supplemental

I agree with Jonathan Freedland, up to a point.

On the notion that antisemitism is being “weaponised” against the Labour leadership

Freedland’s argument on this point is odd. It starts well

It’s quite true that the issue has been picked up by those on the right with no love for Labour, or for Jews for that matter. It’s hard to take seriously the outrage of the Mail or Telegraph when both have reached for the antisemitic dog whistle in the recent past, attacking Ralph Miliband or George Soros using the familiar old codes.

but takes an odd swerve

you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge. As one who knows this community well, I can tell you: what’s motivating those Jews protesting about antisemitism in Labour is fear of antisemitism, no more and no less.

and then goes right off the rails.

This needs to be stressed because what lies beneath such a view is a notion that is itself antisemitic: that Jews do not act sincerely, but always with an ulterior motive or hidden agenda.

We might not like to think of Jewish people operating cynically and in bad faith, particularly on as important an issue as antisemitism – and there are certainly good reasons not to rush into such an accusation. But ruling it out altogether smacks of a rather patronising essentialism – as if it wasn’t possible for anyone who was Jewish to be a political operator. Which would be nice, but really, it ain’t necessarily so. As for the second point, certainly it would be antisemitic to say that Jews in general usually have a hidden agenda, but logically you can’t get from there to assuming antisemitism every time a particular Jewish person, or a particular Jewish group, is said to have a hidden agenda. Disprove “all Xs are Y” and you don’t make a dent on “some Xs are Y”, let alone “this particular X is Y”.

On the view, tweeted by the former minister Chris Mullin, that Jewish leaders were “ganging up on Corbyn” because of “criticism of Israel”

According to Freedland, this “falls apart on the facts”, inasmuch as the prompts for the current controversy had nothing to do with Israel but involved straightforwardly antisemitic themes and accusations. But this, again, fails on logic. If Jo goes over Nik’s performance of a task with a fine-toothed comb, it may mean that Jo cares deeply about the task, or it may just mean that Jo is gunning for Nik. And, of course, this pattern of behaviour is all the more credible when the reason why Jo has it in for Nik has some connection with what Nik’s been tasked with – as in the case of the supposed grounds for criticism of Corbyn (Israel) and the actual topic (antisemitism). Or is Freedland suggesting that Jewish leaders who oppose Corbyn’s stance on Israel don’t see the nation of Israel as having anything to do with the interests of the Jewish people? Huge if true.

On the view that a political party will always reflect wider society, that for as long as there are antisemites in the UK there will be antisemites in Labour

Freedland says that this won’t do, and I entirely agree; Labour and the Left need to take antisemitism more seriously and do much better.

For one thing, the left exists to change society, not simply to reflect its existing defects: it’s right to expect better of Labour than of other parties.

Yes, absolutely. Later in the piece, in fact, Freedland quotes a piece from the Morning Star which is a perfect example of the kind of disdain for the gains of liberalism (at least, this particular gain of liberalism) that I talked about in the previous post.

when you are homeless and your bed is a piece of cardboard, rows about alleged anti-semitism are not on your list of priorities for the day and night ahead. Staying alive, being warm, having food is.

When your family are housed in a one-room bed and breakfast and your children have nowhere to play, nowhere to do homework, nowhere to bring friends back to, anti-semitism accusations don’t figure much in your daily list of getting by.

When you are a carer on £64 per week, living a humdrum, relentless everyday routine of caring for a disabled person, attending to their needs and ignoring your own, a break and a holiday is more pressing than what people thought of a mural back in 2012.

It’s carefully worded – with her references to “alleged anti-semitism”, “anti-semitism accusations” and “what people thought of a mural”, at no point does the writer actually say that actual anti-semitism couldn’t be a problem for people experiencing poverty and hardship. But then, she only acknowledges in passing that there is such a thing as actual anti-semitism, or that the recrudescence of anti-semitism is something people might reasonably worry about. In any case, it’s an odd and stunted form of socialism that rejects liberal demands on the grounds that they operate too high up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (“Votes at 16? That’s not going to get many rough sleepers off the street!”)

On Labour, antisemitism and conspiracy theory

the antisemites exposed within Labour … have not wandered into the wrong party by mistake. They’re not BNP-types who misread the sign on the door. On the contrary, their racism is a warped deformation of their leftism.

Here, though, Freedland goes wrong (again). In assuming that there is some connection between antisemitism and some form of Leftism, he is necessarily assuming that antisemitism is more common on the Left than on the Right, or at least letting himself in for some very fancy footwork involving multiple forms of antisemitism and countervailing factors operating differentially on different parts of the political spectrum. The evidence says that antisemitism is no more common on the Left than on the centre or centre-right (and, as I said the other day, the fact that it’s no less common is quite bad enough to be going on with). That being the case, my old friend William of Ockham says that there’s no reason to assume multiple forms of antisemitism operating in different parts of the map, least of all when we also need to assume countervailing factors merrily (and quietly) epicycling away to offset some of them. Chances are, Labour antisemitism looks a lot like Liberal Democrat antisemitism or even Conservative antisemitism.

Remember, antisemitism differs from other racisms in its belief that Jews are the secret masters of the universe, pulling the strings that shape world events – and always for the sake of evil.

With respect, no; this is in no sense unique to antisemitism. Nils Christie wrote about an old woman he’d met who suffered from psychotic delusions; she believed she was regularly visited by the Devil and by smaller demons who tormented her. Lonely, shunned, living in poverty and continual distress, this woman was voiceless and powerless; and she was very lucky not to have lived 400 years ago, when she would have been seen as a witch by people who hung on her every word and lived in fear of her power. This weird psychological inversion – the projection of vast power and wealth onto people who are clearly poor and powerless – is at the heart of witchfinding as well as the pogrom. More generally, it’s a framing that recurs again and again, from Britain to Bosnia to Russia to Rwanda, when people turn against a minority that lives among them. In the pogromist mind, the fantasy of the victims’ power and the reality of their vulnerability are stitched together with the half-believed justification that the violence is pre-emptive: they need to strike now, while the victims are still weak, or it’ll be too late – the fantasised power will have become real. The pogrom mentality is an identifiable thing – but not all pogroms are directed against Jews.

Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

And, once again, we’re right off the rails, ending up with the weird and rather insulting suggestion that we should care about antisemitism because of what it says about where society’s going. I’m not an expert on the Nazis, but I do tend to think the Holocaust was the worst thing they did, in and of itself, rather than being an indicator of just how bad things were getting for subjects of Nazi rule in general. As for ‘conspiracy theory’, let me put in a word here for all those who believe that Lee Oswald was neither a leftist malcontent nor a lone gunman; that, while Harold Wilson may have been paranoid, elements of the British security state actually were out to get him; or for that matter, that there are such things as a “security state”, a “permanent government”, “deep politics” or an “international drugs/guns network” (particularly, in the last case, those who were writing about it before the Iran/Contra story blew (hi Robin, hi Steve)).

The trouble with conspiracy theories is the ‘theory’ element, not the ‘conspiracy’ – conspiracies are a perfectly normal (albeit illegitimate) organisational form, used throughout history by groups of people (pre-existing or ad hoc) who want to pursue common interests while minimising accountability. Conspiracy theories, by and large, are readings of episodes in contemporary history that give conspiratorial modes of organising greater prominence than usual, and they’re not inherently any less valid than any other type of theory. Deterministic conspiracy theories are bad because they’re deterministic; racist conspiracy theories are bad because they’re racist; conspiracy theories that assume everyone involved acts in perfect unity to achieve long-term goals which don’t benefit them directly are bad because they’re wildly implausible, and so on. Anyone who classes all conspiracy theories as deterministic, racist and/or implausible hasn’t thought very hard about the meaning of the word ‘conspiracy’ – or else they’ve tacitly redefined it to include one of those disqualifying characteristics.

This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, because conspiracy theory – properly understood – is a useful resource, a way of looking at the world that affords genuine insights. Secondly, because conspiracy theory is associated with unofficial and ‘alternative’ readings of history; by bracketing conspiracy theory with antisemitism, Freedland effectively (re-)draws the line between official and unofficial, mainstream and alternative, acceptable and ‘crank’, and loads the second term in each pair with all the opprobrium that antisemitism fully deserves. This, clearly, is not helpful – not least because (thirdly) there are good and bad ways of looking at history and current affairs, approaches worth following and approaches to avoid; and forswearing ‘conspiracy theory’ won’t reliably keep you among the good guys. “Yeah, well, Zionist lobby innit” is bad history and bad analysis, but it’s bad because it’s lazy and relies on othering, not because it’s a conspiracy theory: “yeah, well, Corbynites innit” is no better. “We think it’s worth noting that X met Y on [date], after which Y co-signed a letter with A, B and C” may have the form of a conspiracy theory, but it’s good analysis (or at least it may be).

In sum, antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness of it. But it is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies (whose Jewishness is no proof against political cynicism), and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed.

That said, we can also follow an example from Bertolt Brecht and run the same thoughts in the opposite order. Anti-semitism is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies, and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed. But antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness.

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2 Comments

  1. Guano
    Posted 17 April 2018 at 16:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Freedland wrote:- “Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.”

    Freedland has taken some hotly-disputed concepts and thrown them together, producing something very vague indeed.

    • Phil
      Posted 17 April 2018 at 19:46 | Permalink | Reply

      Agreed. I’m working on a piece about the conspiracy theory connection at the moment.

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