This week’s furore over Ken Livingstone’s ongoing membership of the Labour Party has once again put antisemitism at the top of the news agenda – and at the heart of the battle over the future of the party.
A tribunal of Labour’s National Constitutional Committee found Livingstone guilty of bringing the party into disrepute with his claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism” – a claim he has repeated and expanded in the year since he first made it – but decided that his offence was not worthy of expulsion.
This was not a decision that can be pinned on Jeremy Corbyn or his far-Left clique at the top of the party. Nor can Livingstone’s non-punishment be put down to a lack of familiarity with the issues at hand. This was an institutional decision by the party’s regular disciplinary body, having gone through all of its formal processes and a mountain of evidence – and as such it points to an institutional problem.
It means that the Labour Party, as an institution, decided that it is fine for its members to repeatedly and deliberately abuse the memory of the Holocaust to wind up the Jewish community. It is also fine for them to defend antisemitism: Livingstone’s original comments were in defence of antisemitic social media posts by Naz Shah MP that Shah, to her credit, has admitted were antisemitic.
Whether this makes the Labour Party institutionally antisemitic is a question of political semantics. But that is certainly how it is now seen across much of the Jewish community.
Yet the revolt against the Livingstone verdict from inside the Labour Party has been just as powerful as the revulsion it evoked outside. Over 100 Labour MPs and 50 peers signed a Jewish Labour Movement statement declaring that “the institutions of the Labour Party have betrayed our values”. Several spoke of their shame and called explicitly for Livingstone to be expelled.
Even Corbyn has referred Livingstone for a new disciplinary investigation due to comments he has made since his original suspension.
If the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic, then this institutional antisemitism is resisted by large numbers of its most important members. Yet several of these responses looked more like existential cries about the current state of the Labour Party than simple disagreements over the decision of a one-off tribunal.
“This pathetic Livingstone sentence is an important moment Labour members: do we stand for decency against this or are we part of the decay?”, tweeted John Woodcock MP.
This pathetic Livingstone sentence is an important moment Labour members: do we stand for decency against this or are we part of the decay?
— John Woodcock (@JWoodcockMP) April 4, 2017
Ian Austin MP’s bewilderment could apply to just about anything in the Labour Party right now: “How did the party I joined as a teenager end up in a crisis like this?”
The answer to Austin’s lament is that today’s Labour Party leadership, and much of its new membership, are radically different from just a few years ago.
One consequence of that change is that all the obsessions and fantasies about Jews, Zionists, Israel, antisemitism and the Holocaust that have built up on the fringes of the radical Left for decades have flooded into the mainstream of the Labour Party.
Ken Livingstone did not invent the idea that the Zionist movement collaborated with Nazism. That honour belongs to the Soviet Union, which built up a repertoire of anti-Zionist slanders in the 1950s and 1960s and successfully sold it to the Western radical Left that emerged at the end of that decade.
By this telling, Zionism was not, as most of the Left had previously thought, a legitimate expression of Jewish national longing. It was in fact a racist, colonial movement that collaborated with fascism before and during the Second World War, conspired with imperialism after it, and created an apartheid state in place of Palestine.
This narrative appealed to a youthful Western Left that did not remember the Holocaust, did not see Jews as victims of racism and romanticised the nationalist violence of anti-colonial liberation movements in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
It spread through anti-colonial and anti-apartheid networks in the 1960s, appeared in student unions in the 1970s and made its first real impact in the Labour Party during its last turn Leftwards in the 1980s. That was the decade when Ken Livingstone first developed his Nazi-Zionist theories, which led to an unsuccessful appeal for his prosecution by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
It was also the decade when Jeremy Corbyn arrived in Parliament as a Labour MP and sponsor of a radical anti-Zionist group, the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, that opposed Israel’s existence and pledged to “eradicate Zionism” from the Labour Party.
The overwhelming majority of British Jews see Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and say that it plays an important role in their Jewish identity. This doesn’t make them the heirs to Nazi sympathisers, whatever Ken Livingstone might think. But it does mean that the radical Left’s caricature of Israel and Zionism will put them in direct conflict.
This same strand of Left-wing thought sees antisemitism as a relic of history, only to be taken seriously when it is paraded by one of the tiny groups of Britain’s failing far Right.
It can’t come from people on the Left, because people on the Left are anti-racist and therefore, by definition, can’t be antisemitic. Nor can it come from other minorities, such as Muslim communities, because they are victims of discrimination themselves. And anyway, Jews are white, wealthy and integrated – so the theory goes – so racism can’t really affect them.
The flaws in this thinking are not hard to spot.
This blind spot regarding any type of antisemitism that does not come bearing a swastika armband is one reason why so many cases have come to light involving Labour Party members, activists and councillors using antisemitic language. This isn’t about people having a visceral hatred of Jews: it’s about a particular way of thinking that has spread unchallenged, and become normalised, across swathes of the Left.
So the conspiracy theory that “Zionists” are behind ISIS (it stands for “Israeli Secret Intelligence Service”, apparently) is remarkably common, as is the idea that the Rothschilds are behind the world’s banking problems. Comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany are ubiquitous. And so on.
Labour’s efforts to get on top of this problem have so far had little impact, and at times made things worse. Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into antisemitism was superficial and, for many, discredited by her peerage. The lack of action against students from the Oxford University Labour Club, despite Baroness Royall’s conclusion that they were guilty of antisemitism, led many to conclude that “zero tolerance” was an empty phrase.
But nothing has caused as much damage as the refusal to expel Livingstone. The Jewish community’s reservoir of trust for the Labour Party, built up over many decades, has finally run dry, and its relationship with the party is completely broken.
That there has been such a large, angry reaction within the party to the Livingstone decision is heartening. But words and tweets are not enough. This is about institutional values, not simple errors of judgment.
There are plenty of people in the party who recognise the depth of the problem. Time will tell whether they have the strength and the ideas to fix it.