Both sides of the fence
Leftist intellectuals have taken fright when faced with the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. Tony Greenstein responds to Richard Seymour
Jacobin is not a site that most people on the left in Britain will be familiar with. It is, however, a major leftwing journal in the United States. I once wrote an article entitled ‘Rewriting the holocaust’ for Jacobin, in the wake of Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the 2015 World Zionist Congress, when he described how Hitler was ‘persuaded to adopt the final solution’ by the mufti of Jerusalem.1
Now Jacobin has published an article by Richard Seymour, who is undoubtedly a gifted and capable writer. He was, until the 2013 rape crisis, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, when he led the resistance on his Lenin's Tomb blog to the attempts by the SWP leadership and Alex Callinicos to cover up what had happened. Since then he has drifted politically, writing a couple of books, becoming immersed in intersectionality and flirting with Left Unity. Seymour’s latest article in Jacobin suggests he is wandering aimlessly across the left, dragged in the undertow of conflicting political currents without either ballast or firm conviction.
Seymour is mired in the swamp of identity politics and this is causing him to lose his political bearings. After all, a Jewish identity based around Israel and Zionism, suitably dressed up as a concern with anti-Semitism, is equally as valid as a Palestinian identity based on ethnic cleansing. If Jews can claim that they are oppressed because of hostility to Israel who is going to countermand this? When class and race are removed from the equation how can we decide who is oppressed and who is the oppressor? Everything is subjective and personal. All identities are equally valid, albeit some are more equal than others. By what criteria can one say that an identity based on Zionism is reactionary if one does not have an analysis based on class and imperialism?
Seymour’s article, entitled ‘Labour’s anti-Semitism affair’, on Labour’s media-manufactured anti-Semitism crisis, proves the maxim that those who leave the SWP invariably drift to the right.2 In Seymour’s case this involves a wholesale abandonment of class politics in favour of subjectivism and a crude empiricism.
The article is a deep disappointment - he tries to bridge the gap between the two sides of “Labour’s anti-Semitism affair”. His purpose is blindingly obvious. He wants to find something innovative to say. He wants to put new wine into old bottles and thus he imagines he is being daring and brave in seeking to break the mould of the politics of anti-Semitism. Like those who have tried this feat of political acrobatics before him, he ends up satisfying no-one. It is a tilt to the right and an abandonment of the left. It stands in marked contrast to the subsequent Jacobin article, ‘Corbyn under fire’,by Daniel Finn.3
One of the hallmarks of socialist or leftwing writers is their commitment to the overthrow of the system we live under. They employ their talents on our behalf, not just their own. There should be no room to doubt where they stand on the major issues of the day. They are against the mainstream. People such as John Pilger, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Tariq Ali have demonstrated their commitment under fire. However the left is also plagued by opportunists and turncoats - fair-weather friends and erstwhile socialists like Owen Jones, The Guardian’s resident leftie and friend of the Israeli Labor Party/Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). Others, like Nick Cohen, simply jack-knifed to the right. American neoconservatism is littered with the bodies of ex-leftists such as Nathan Glazer, James Burnham and Irving Kristol (see ‘The neoconservative counterrevolution’, also published in Jacobin4).
I would have expected Richard Seymour to have put Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ crisis into some kind of context in the course of his 5,000-word article: from where and why did it arise? Or was the ‘anti-Semitism’ controversy a spontaneous eruption when the prospect of a Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party materialised? A narrative of ‘anti-Semitism’ that is espoused by every rightwing newspaper in Britain - from the Daily Mail and The Sun to The Guardian - surely demands some explanation as to its origins?
I find it wholly dishonest that, when describing the fabricated anti-Semitism controversy at Oxford University Labour Club in January 2016, Seymour referred to the central villain - the club’s chair, Alex Chalmers - as “a former intern at the pro-Israel group, Bicom [the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre]”.
Chalmer’s resignation as chair sparked the crisis and led to the Royall report, which in turn led to the Chakrabarti report. The information about his links to Bicomwas discovered by Asa Winstanley, a researcher and writer for The Electronic Intifada, whose articles, ‘How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis’ and ‘Instigator of anti-Semitism scam kicked out of Labour’, are indispensable to anyone seeking to make sense of what was happening.5 Yet, although purloining the fruits of Asa’s investigative work, Seymour did not deign to give him credit. The Guardian and other papers get frequent references but the writings of a journalist on our side are simply ignored.
As people will know, I was one of the major casualties of this crisis. I was suspended on March 18 2016 and expelled on February 182018. I have detailed the various stages of my suspension - from my investigation hearing6 to my successful application for an injunction against the Labour Party7 - on my blog. I have tried to put what has happened to me into a wider context: for example, detailing the suspension of people like Jackie Walker.
So I find it difficult to empathise with so-called intellectuals who divorce themselves from that which they write about. People who pride themselves on their detachment from the struggle and who adopt an aloof and condescending attitude to those who are involved in political battles are destined not to hang around for too long. People like Richard Seymour believe themselves equipped to offer their advice from on high without ever getting their hands dirty.
I do not doubt that Seymour can sometimes write interesting and insightful articles, but he can also be extremely arrogant. Although he has escaped from its clutches, Seymour has nonetheless retained the mentality and psychology of the SWP, where everything is subordinate to ‘building the party’. Perhaps, having kept away from left sectarian politics, I find myself irritated at the cynicism of a group from which I was expelled at the tender age of 19. To repeat all its mistakes over and over again, without ever learning from them, and to operate in the same way as you have always done, with front organisations which garner less and less support, merely proves Einstein’s maxim that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.
As I have pointed out, there is no attempt in Richard’s article to explain the origins of Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign. It apparently appeared as if by magic. The idea of a deliberately coordinated plan to destabilise Labour does not even seem to have occurred to him, and the possibility of state interference and involvement completely escapes him.
Seymour begins with the minutiae of the latest incidents of ‘anti-Semitism’ - from Jewdas to the famous mural by Mear One, which he automatically assumes is anti-Semitic, to Christine Shawcroft. Seymour concludes:
There is, clearly, a problem somewhere. Unfortunately, the way in which allegations of anti-Semitism have been used for party-political purposes has tended to obscure the need to address it.
This is the key defect of his article: he accepts that “There is, clearly, a problem somewhere.”
Seymour’s article provides justification for the statement by Momentum that was issued in the wake of the latest episode of ‘anti-Semitism’. It bears the imprint of Jon Lansman, a left Zionist who heads Momentum. Lansman has consistently refused to mobilise Momentum in the fight against the witch-hunt in the Labour Party - and still less to counter the activities of the JLM, the Israeli state’s representatives inside Labour. The statement reads:
Momentum’s NCG believes that accusations of anti-Semitism should not and cannot be dismissed simply as rightwing smears nor as the result of conspiracies. Current examples of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party are not only a problem of a few, extreme ‘bad apples’, but also of unconscious bias, which manifests itself in varied, nuanced and subtle ways and is more widespread in the Labour Party than many of us had understood even a few months ago.
It is possible to accept that anti-Semitism is a problem in parts of the left and needs to be loudly denounced, whilst also accepting that some of Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents are opportunistically using this issue as a way to undermine his leadership.8
There is nothing in the above statement that Seymour could disagree with. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the second major party in the US’s closest ally in Europe - someone who was both anti-Nato and anti-US imperialism - could not but help provoke panic in the security establishment. If the CIA and all the other spooks at the US embassy were not discussing what to do when Corbyn appeared to be winning the Labour leadership contest, they were not doing their job.
Perhaps Seymour believes that, whilst the CIA has no compunction in destabilising governments and parties in Latin America, it would not do such a thing in Britain? Maybe he has not heard of Operation Gladio.9 It does not seem to have occurred to Seymour that the Labour Party is being destabilised via the United States’ chosen friend, Israel. It is as if the Al Jazeera undercover series, The lobby, had not been shown and Shai Masot, the Israeli agent, had never existed.
Seymour takes certain facts and ignores others - for example, the attack on Corbyn even before he became leader as a holocaust-denier. He lacks any perspective, making empiricism into a fine art. Indeed the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign is all our fault: “If you walk straight into the constantly whirring propellers of a hostile media with eyes wide shut, then what is the use of complaining about the ‘Israel lobby’?” So the false anti-Semitism campaign has nothing to do with the media or those who own them. The blame lies rather with their victims.
Seymour’s factual grasp also leaves a lot to be desired. When talking about Ken Livingstone’s remark that Hitler supported Zionism, Seymour says of Ha’avara - the transfer agreement between the Jewish Agency in Palestine and the Nazi state: “Hitler was not ‘supporting’ Zionism so much as using every expedient to expel Jews from Germany.”
This is simply not true. The Nazi government made it clear that it did support the German Zionist movement against its non-Zionist counterparts. David Cesarani has described how “The efforts of the Gestapo are oriented to promoting Zionism as much as possible and lending support to its efforts to further emigration”.10 Lucy Dawidowicz, another Zionist historian, described how, on January 28 1935, Reinhardt Heydrich issued a directive, stating: “... the activity of the Zionist-oriented youth organisations ... prior to their emigration to Palestine lies in the interest of the National Socialist state’s leadership”. These organisations therefore “are not to be treated with that strictness that it is necessary to apply to the members of the so-called German-Jewish organisations (assimilationists)”.11
Francis Nicosia writes of how Berl Katznelson - a founder of the Israeli Mapai party and editor of its paper, Davar - saw the rise of Hitler as “an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have”.12 The attitude of Zionist leader David Ben Gurion to the holocaust is best described by his official biographer, Shabtai Teveth: “If there was a line in Ben-Gurion’s mind between the beneficial disaster and an all-destroying catastrophe, it must have been a very fine one.”13
Ha’avara was not set up in order to help Jews emigrate from Germany. The Jews it helped were amongst the richest, with sufficient capital to enable them to enter Palestine without an immigration certificate. They could have left anyway. Ha’avara’s purpose, from the Nazi’s point of view, was to undermine the international Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany, which was destroying the German export economy. From the point of view of the Zionist Organisation, Ha’avara was the sole way of bringing into Palestine the maximum amount of German Jewish capital. According to Edwin Black, Ha’avara’s main purpose was “saving the wealth” of German Jewry and “rescuing the capital from Nazi Germany”.14 The Jews themselves were a secondary matter.
Baruch Vladech, chair of the American Jewish Labor Committee and editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward, described Ha’avara’s purpose as “not to rescue the Jews from Germany, but to strengthen various institutions in Palestine”.He observed that, whilst “the whole organized labour movement and the progressive world are waging a fight against Hitler through the boycott”, the “transfer agreement scabs on that fight”.15
Seymour’s criticisms of Jackie Walker, the black-Jewish activist who was vice-chair of Momentum, are even more off beam. By attending the ‘training session’ of the Jewish Labour Movement on anti-Semitism, she was waging a “factional war”. Seymour describes her comment that holocaust day was not “open to all people who experienced a holocaust”as wrong. It is not: various African holocausts are excluded, while the extermination of the disabled and Roma are classified under ‘Persecution’ rather than ‘Holocaust’ by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
Seymour describes Jackie’s behaviour as “tendentious”, in that “she was splitting hairs, belittling anti-Semitism”. This reveals his ignorance of the subject. Jackie was challenging the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The IHRA is at the centre of the debate over false allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’. If Seymour is so unaware of the ramifications of the IHRA, then he should read the criticism of it in London Review of Books May 2017 by former court of appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley.16
Seymour concludes by saying that “Walker’s tactical misadventure inadvertently damaged her own cause”, implying that it was her own fault that “she was drummed out of the Momentum leadership”.What kind of socialist blames the defeat of workers on their own mistakes as a means of making a rhetorical point? It is noteworthy that Seymour has nothing to say about the Momentum leadership itself.
Seymour claims that precisely 56 individuals have been suspended because of allegations of anti-Semitism, citing Thomas Jones’s article, ‘Labour and anti-Semitism’.17 The only problem with this is that it was written in May 2016 - we are nearly two years down the road and the numbers are far greater. We had thousands of suspensions in the summer of 2016 during the leadership election, many of which were based on ‘anti-Semitism’.
Seymour is right when he says that Israel has become a “totem issue ... a displacement for other issues”and that this is one of the reasons for the false anti-Semitism campaign. It is because Israel has become symbolic of the divide between right and left that we have to confront Labour’s role in supporting the world’s only apartheid state - not allow ourselves to be bogged down in refuting the false allegations of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately Seymour proposes the opposite course: namely that we should take seriously that which he describes as a displacement issue.
In the section on Jewish anti-Zionists, Seymour writes that the reaction to what he calls anti-anti-Semitism “has many sources, and some of it, as Momentum suggests, might be rooted in shades and variations of unconscious anti-Semitism”.18 Momentum’s own statement speaks of an “unconscious bias, which manifests itself in varied, nuanced and subtle ways and is more widespread ... than many of us had understood”.
Racism, if it is “unconscious” is not worth the candle. At a time when the government has stripped people of the Windrush generation of their citizenship rights, when we face the continuing issue of black deaths in custody at the hands of a racist police force and the incarceration of refugees, to talk about an invisible or “unconscious” racism that is deployed on behalf of white privileged people is obscene and racist in itself.
Momentum’s statement calls for “unconscious bias training” and “awareness training”. As Virou Srilangarajah wrote in an obituary for the legendary anti-racist writer and activist, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who died earlier this year, “racism awareness training” has removed state and institutional responsibility for racism, instead turning it into a ‘natural’ social phenomenon independent of material conditions - a ‘white disease’.19
Racial awareness training - which Chakrabarti opposed but which the Labour Party has ignored - is based on the idea that racism exists inside one’s head, not in society. It reaches its apotheosis in the absurdity of the JLM, the ‘sister party’ of the racist Israeli Labor Party - which supports the segregation of Jew and Arab and Netanyahu’s deportation of 40,000 black African refugees from Israel - running training sessions on ‘anti-Semitism’. You might as well have the Yorkshire Ripper give a lecture on violence against women. This is the nonsense that Seymour is subscribing to.
If what Seymour (and Lansman) argue is correct, the false allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ have nothing to do with labelling all criticism of Zionism as ‘anti-Semitic’. They have nothing to do with the right’s use of the issue as a means of attacking Corbyn: it is all down to the unconscious mind. I just hope that if Seymour decides to abandon writing for a career he does not choose psychoanalysis or psychiatry as his chosen profession. Freud undoubtedly has a lot to answer for, but surely not the vacuity of Richard Seymour.
There is, of course, a simpler explanation. Momentum has resolutely avoided opposing the anti-Semitism witch-hunt. This nonsense about “unconscious anti-Semitism” is intended to explain why there are so few genuine examples of anti-Semitism to be found.
Seymour’s description of Jewish Voice for Labour, Free Speech on Israel and Jewdas as anti-Zionist is simply wrong. None of the groups say that they are anti-Zionist. Although Seymour is right about the decline of leftwing Zionism, I fail to understand his analogy with Wallace baiting Truman. Seymour describes, but doesn’t analyse.
Seymour’s section, ‘The limits of anti-anti-anti-Semitism’, suggests that anti-Zionists in the Labour Party are posturing as being politically tough. He tells us that “it is not helpful for the left to adopt this attitude, or the performative political ‘toughness’ that often comes with it. Defensiveness has to give way to reflexivity.” This demonstrates the superficiality of this article and also how far removed Seymour is from what he writes about. We are in the midst of a war, waged by the right and using anti-Semitism as a weapon, and all Seymour can suggest is that we should be “reflexive”.
What he really means is that we should accept that there is some factual basis to the allegations of anti-Semitism. Seymour uncritically quotes from a survey by the far-right-Zionist Campaign Against Anti-Semitism without asking any deeper questions, such as whether the survey was flawed, whether it was designed to produce certain outcomes or indeed anything about the CAA itself.
In the CAA’s survey people are asked different questions relating to Jews (for example, ‘Do Jews chase money?’) and because nearly half of the population answer positively to one of the questions they conclude that we are in the middle of a wave of anti-Semitism and that nearly half of British people are anti-Semitic. Seymour goes along with this.
Dave Rich, the deputy director of the Zionist Community Security Trust, with whom I agree on virtually nothing, observed:
This latest poll showed something else that is interesting ... that people who believe anti-Semitic things about Jews rarely think of themselves as anti-Semitic ... It is as if anti-Semitic ideas circulate in society and influence the stereotypes people believe about Jews, but this does not affect how people imagine they relate to actual, living Jews who they know or might meet ... Even people who believe there is a global Jewish conspiracy or deny the holocaust are affronted by the notion they might be anti-Semitic.20
The normally restrained Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that the CAA’s “barometer” report was “littered with flaws” and the group’s work “may even be rather irresponsible”. The IJPR criticised the way that the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism had used data to make the “rather sensationalist claim that almost half of all British adults harbour some sort of anti-Semitic view”. A “far more accurate and honest read” of the data would “highlight the fact that between 75% and 90% of people in Britain either do not hold anti-Semitic views or have no particular view of Jews either way, and only about 4% to 5% of people can be characterised as clearly anti-Semitic”.21
The CAA also claimed that more than half of British Jews felt that current anti-Semitism echoed that of the 1930s. Anshel Pfeffer witheringly observed in Ha’aretz that if the CAA “actually believe that, then it’s hard to take anything they say about contemporary anti-Semitism in their home country seriously.” Pfeffer noted, regarding the statement that Jews talk about the holocaust too much in order to gain sympathy, “too many Jews … are often too quick to bring up the holocaust in order to make a point … Holding that opinion doesn’t necessarily make you an anti-Semite.”22
According to the respected Pew Research Centre’s 2016 global survey of attitudes, just 7% of British people are anti-Semitic. Compare this to 28% in the case of Islamophobia and 45% in the case of anti-Roma racism.
The problem with Seymour is that he is still faithful to the SWP notion that all forms of racism are equal, even when anti-Semitism is a marginal prejudice that does not involve power relations within capitalist society, state racism or economic discrimination. Instead of researching the subject, Seymour reaches for Google and takes what the CAA says at face value without any attempt to find out what its motives might be.
It would also appear that Seymour has adopted - or rather swallowed - the concept of “left anti-Semitism” that is normally associated with the pro-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. He describes the self-publicising narcissist, Gary Spedding, as a “Jewish leftwinger”, citing his article in Ha’aretz, ‘We in the Palestinian solidarity movement have a problem with anti-Semitism’.23 Whatever else Spedding is, he is certainly not Jewish (nor is he leftwing) - although that does not prevent him telling Jews just what is and is not anti-Semitic.
Spedding bases his experience of ‘anti-Semitism’ on being told at a Palestine solidarity meeting that the term ‘anti-Semitism’ applies equally to Arabs, since they too are Semites. This is a common fallacy which is quite easily corrected. Words and phrases take on certain meanings over time. There is no such thing as ‘Semites’, which are the product of Wilhelm Marr’s attempt to racialise anti-Jewish hatred in 1879.
Spedding is not a Palestine solidarity activist. His claim to have spent 10 years fighting anti-Semitism in the Palestine solidarity movement is a lie. When the fight against the influence of Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir were at their height, Spedding was nowhere to be seen. It was people like Ali Abunimah, the editor of The Electronic Intifada, whom Spedding has gratuitously abused, who dealt a lethal blow to Shamir and Atzmon with the issuing of a declaration, ‘Granting no quarter: a call for the disavowal of the racism and anti-Semitism of Gilad Atzmon’,24 signed by over 20 prominent Palestinians and Arabs, which destroyed Atzmon’s reputation. It was at my urging that JVL expelled Spedding.
Another example of the ‘anti-Semitism’ that Seymour asserts is that of Annie Kehune of Jewdas, who “writes of being ‘fed up’ of having to follow ‘I’m Jewish’ with ‘but I’m not a Zionist’” in leftwing circles.25 It may well annoy Annie, but unfortunately the leadership of the British Jewish community claim that all Jews support Israel and its actions against the Palestinians. It is no surprise therefore that people associate being Jewish with being a Zionist. I see nothing wrong with Jewish people making their position clear, just as one would have expected white opponents of apartheid in South Africa to do.
Seymour quite unbelievably concludes by arguing: “However, while every claim has to be evaluated carefully, a precondition for that is that they should be taken seriously in and of themselves, and not merely and a priori as a manifestation of the ‘Israel lobby’.” Why, when these allegations are made maliciously, should we take them seriously? If allegations of anti-Semitism are made to deflect from support for the Palestinians then they should be seen for what they are. So, when Jonathan Arkush of the Board of Deputies states that Jewdas is a “source of virulent anti-Semitism” and goes on to claim that its members “are not all Jewish”, should we investigate such matters? Perhaps we should call for blood tests just in order that the matter can be resolved conclusively!
Like most SWP exiles Seymour is trying to find a progressive space between the politics he once espoused and its rightwing critics today. He does not even like talk of the Israel lobby and would prefer if we would simply turn a blind eye to the activities of the JLM and Labour Friends of Israel.
Seymour ends in true SWP style with the statement that “At a time when nascent far-right movements are surfacing, with anti-Semitic tendencies linked to state power in Hungary and the United States, the left has a particular responsibility to lead on this issue.” Yes indeed and who is it, in the USA and in Hungary, who is hand in hand with these anti-Semites, if not the Zionist movement? I can only presume that Seymour in his ivory tower is unaware that the founder of the alt-right himself - the neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer - has declared himself a “white Zionist”.26 Or that Jonathan Arkush, one of the main players in the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign, welcomed Donald Trump’s election with all his campaign’s anti-Semitic dog whistles?
The last thing we should do is be diverted into every alleyway that the Zionists want us to go down. What Seymour is really proposing is that the Zionists be allowed to set the agenda. Yes, of course anti-Semitic nonsense should be countered. However, it endangers not a single Jew, because racism against Jews is a matter of prejudice, not of life and death. As I wrote over a decade ago, opposition to anti-Semitism has become the “‘anti-racism’ of the political right”.27 No-one has died from a tweet or social media post.
The irony is that it was the SWP itself, when Seymour was a member, which was allied with Gilad Atzmon. In June 2005 Jews Against Zionism picketed a meeting of the SWP where Atzmon was giving a talk. I wrote an article in the Weekly Worker, ‘Blind eye to anti-Semitism’, attacking the SWP’s support for Atzmon.28 Although Richard was not happy about the SWP position, he was not exactly outspoken either - tellingly he chose to remain a member. It is not for Richard Seymour to now lecture us on the evils of anti-Semitism.
I was surprised that Jacobin published Seymour’s article, but reassured that the current editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, has told me that he completely disagreed with the thrust of the article. The previous editor, Max Ajl, has told me that he would never have published “such a shoddy piece”! So I still find it puzzling why Jacobin thought it worthy of publication, when so many rightwing sites would have welcomed such a ‘repentant sinner’! l
10. D Cesarani The final solution London 2016, p96 (my emphasis).
11. L Dawidowicz War against the Jews New York 1991, p118.
12. F Nicosia Zionism and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany Cambridge 2008, p91.
13. S Teveth The burning ground 1886-1948 Boston 1987, p851.
14. E Black Ha’avara - The transfer agreement Northampton 1999, pp257-58.
15. See L Brenner 51 documents: Zionist collaboration with the Nazis Fort Lee 1972, pp92-93.
28. Weekly Worker July 7 2005.