On left antisemitism

This from Dave Renton is a fascinating post on the issues posed by the possible return to the Labour Party of ex-MP Luciana Berger, and in particular on the abuse suffered by Berger from the Left.

I hope Dave doesn’t mind if I set up this post with a couple of comments from the blog, one mine and one his. Me first:

We do tend to forget that what Berger charged Corbyn with didn’t involve guilt by association or the reinterpretation of words which also had a more innocent meaning or the expression of political views which (while legitimate) may cause offence, or any of the other more or less strained ways in which charges of antisemitism have been weaponised. It was inconvenient for us, God knows, but she had Corbyn bang to rights – he was self-convicted of unthinking tolerance of straightforwardly antisemitic tropes. (Why this happened and what lessons we should have drawn from it is another matter; suffice to say I don’t think it rose to the “Corbyn must go” level, but “Corbyn must do something” should have got through a bit more clearly.) We also forget that Berger had a record of calling out left antisemitism of precisely this kind (use of antisemitic tropes for emphasis) dating back to before she was an MP.

Having said all of which, I don’t think she’s any friend of the Left – and I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to readmit somebody who sat in Parliament as a representative of Change UK and the Lib Dems.

Dave’s reply:

Agree on your first half, Phil. On the other points, a friend on facebook pressed me and I ended up writing the following: One of the ways I’ve often thought about this is – imagine I was going to someone’s home and ask them to take part in an anti-fascist demo, and I realised they were Jewish, and mainstream, middle of the road Jewish, i.e. someone who backs Israel against Palestine, the Labour right against the left, etc. And they said, Why should I support your demo when I remember how the left treated Berger? I’d want to be able to say I remember that, and explain what I did, without feeling any shame. So, the first part of the conversation would have to be Yes, I remember that and saw it. (Seeing is a big deal). Then – in order to feel proud in that situation, there might be different things you could say. EG when I realised what had happened, I didn’t stop criticising her. Why should I, when she was criticising me and my politics? But I tried to think of her with respect. EG, when I criticised the people who left with Change UK, I never singled her out, I never treated her as worse than the others. I never used her name as a shortcut for all of them. I never spoke about her with derision or used insulting words. I knew that she’d become a symbol in people’s heads, and that process of turning her into a symbol was itself a problem. And when I saw other people doing the same, I had words with them. I continued to disagree with her, but I always treated her as a whole human being.

And back to me (this began as a comment but has clearly grown to the length of a blog post in its own right).

I think one of the things that makes this so difficult to talk about is that people feel they’re being accused of a kind of active, deliberate antisemitism – in other words, accused of being primarily motivated by hatred of Jews; as if nobody on the Left had the slightest problem with Berger until they realised she was Jewish, and as if any Jewish member of the party would have attracted the same kind of hostility. And when I say “people feel [etc]”, it’s more that people on the Left are being accused of this kind of brute antisemitism, by opponents and enemies from Margaret Hodge on rightwards. It’s an outrageous, hurtful and (almost always) entirely baseless slur, and people get defensive; it’s understandable if, when people try and raise the issue of antisemitism within the Left, they feel that they’re being accused of it all over again, and shut down as a result.

It’s understandable but it’s also idiotic, and demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding of antisemitism – a failure to treat it in the way that we’ve always claimed to treat it, as just one form of racism among others. What kind of defence against a charge of anti-Black racism or Islamophobia would it be if we angrily insisted that we didn’t bear Black people or Muslims any malice, and then refused to hear any more? It’s like something from the 1980s – nobody on the contemporary Left would suppose that that kind of defence was adequate if they were told their words or actions expressed racism, or homophobia or sexism or even class prejudice.

Antisemitism is different somehow. The old line is that racism equals prejudice plus power; at one time I remember Alexei Sayle extending that logic to argue that the British working class was relatively powerless in comparison with BMW and Nissan, ergo anti-German and anti-Japanese jokes weren’t really racist. I suspect the reason why antisemitism of any but the most blatant kind tends to get overlooked is similar – British Jews aren’t systematically deprived or marginalised, and on average they’re doing OK, so where’s the structure of prejudice backed by power? But if you think about it, racism doesn’t have to actually be backed by power every time a racist statement is spoken or decision made. It is prejudice plus power (I think that’s still a useful formulation), but in the sense that it expresses the desire to bind power to prejudice. To put it more straightforwardly, if I use racist (or sexist, or homophobic…) language as a put-down, I’m saying that I want it to be a put-down. I’m saying, in that moment, that I want to live in a world where being identified as non-White or Jewish (or as a woman, or gay, or…) is bad for you – because it would be bad for you, in a way that it isn’t for me. Racism is power plus prejudice, even when – pace Alexei Sayle – there is no power involved: racism goes beyond prejudice because it invokes the power that I want the prejudice to have. But not everyone is going to grasp that – particularly when grasping it involves asking yourself some hard questions.

If this explains why people on the Left might overlook or tacitly tolerate antisemitism, it doesn’t explain why they might express it themselves. To understand that I think we need to go back to the 80s again: to the argument (which I’m pretty sure I heard in more than one workplace) that (a) being bullied by the people in charge was normal and (b) those people would use anything for the purpose – including any stereotypical or prejudiced attitude that might apply to you – without themselves being bigots. Why did they do it? They did it to get under your skin, to put you on the back foot – nothing more than that. No harm intended; it was just part of the working life (so toughen up, bloody toughen up…). So now, in a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, what do you do when you want to get the Right on the back foot? You hit them with whatever you’ve got – and if that includes insinuations about paymasters and puppetmasters, well, they should bloody toughen up.

I’ve explained one thing that seems incomprehensible (leftists using antisemitic tropes) with another (leftists being bullies). But this is progress: all we’ve got to do now is explain why leftists might want to be bullies – and, for a bonus point, why more leftists might, perhaps, want to be bullies now than at other times. It comes down to that old – and deceptively difficult – question, “is your hate pure?”. I know from introspection that I feel an unquenchable hatred for everyone I know to have played a part in undermining Corbyn’s leadership (see leaked report for details). I also know from introspection that an unquenchable hatred is an uncomfortable thing to live with, particularly when there’s never likely to be any way to express it.

Now, a feeling adjacent to that hatred but quite different from it – and in a way offering relief from it – is the furious anger that builds up and discharges (often on Twitter) when it seems like somebody’s taking the piss or overstepping the mark. What they’ve actually done doesn’t need to be that bad – it certainly doesn’t need to be anywhere near bad enough to incur unquenchable hatred, for instance. They just need to have been really stupid, or shown their true colours, or let their guard down; they just need to have made themselves available as a target. Because then you can rage, and you can let them have it, and you can feel a bit better for letting your hatred out. But it’s not a pure hatred; it’s disproportionate and vindictive. It’s bullying, in fact, or it would dearly like to be – in that moment, you want to make somebody squeal.

I’m afraid one of the disservices Corbyn did the Left was his eternal “they go low, we go high” policy, which in practice meant that the hatred and anger we – inevitably – felt (what with being kicked around and mocked by the Right and their mates) was repressed. And we know what happens to negative emotions when they’re repressed: they return, with added righteousness and lack of proportion. Combine that with the Left’s reluctance to take antisemitism seriously and we’re in trouble. There’s also a willingness to turn a deaf ear to antisemitism which can come with the territory of Palestinian solidarity, purely because you can’t engage with Palestinian opinion for very long without hearing from people who sincerely and unreservedly hate Jews; I don’t think this is a big factor for many people, but it may be for some – Corbyn himself included.

Put all of that together and you can see how a weird and toxic emotional pathway gets built: how sincere and principled anti-racist leftists, wanting relief from getting shafted by the Right, can end up venting borderline antisemitic abuse against people who scarcely even deserve to be a target of their anger. Perhaps.

2 Comments

  1. Mal
    Posted 5 December 2020 at 10:52 | Permalink | Reply

    As a teenager in the mid 2000s, I’d recently learned of David Bowie and Googled the lyrics “ain’t that close to love?”. I stumbled across “Actually Existing” and your musing on the movie, “The Breakfast Club”. I didn’t have the right perspective to appreciate your words then, but I am in my early 30s now and somehow stumbled across my bookmark of that very page, buried in a decades-old hard drive, nested several folders deep, in a directory of very obscure bookmarks. This was fourteen years ago and I felt a wave of nostalgia reading through it again.

    I know this is way off topic to this post, but I just had to know: how was raising the teenager? Did things turn out all right? Has your perception of the Breakfast Club changed for better or worse? Do you even think about that movie anymore? When I read in that post about how you’d react to scenes “twenty years ago”, I find myself able to say the very same thing today… and smile sadly about how much time has gone since then and how quickly it seemed to go.

    • Phil
      Posted 21 December 2020 at 16:24 | Permalink | Reply

      I think he turned out OK! (He’s 25 now, which makes looking back at that post even more vertiginous.) Still a great film – and yes, it’s weird how the time goes.

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