The politics of offence
Does it matter if Labour adopts all of the IHRA’s examples of ‘anti-Semitism’? Eddie Ford thinks so
Predictably, Jeremy Corbyn is coming under increased pressure to accept all of the examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ supplied by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.1 This has now become a totemic issue for Corbyn’s critics inside and outside the Labour Party - even for some of his supporters. The fact that the Labour leadership has accepted in full the IHRA’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism makes no difference, of course. Unless Corbyn commits himself to the IHRA’s full text, it will be yet more incontrovertible proof that he is not serious about tackling Labour’s supposed ‘anti-Semitism’ problem.
Hence the leaders of the Unison, GMB and Usdaw unions have now all called upon Corbyn to back down and sign up to the entirety of the “internationally recognised” IHRA document. Sounding as innocent as a virgin, Paddy Lillis, Usdaw’s boss and member of Labour’s NEC, told the Jewish News he was “shocked” to find Labour mired in allegations of racism - how on earth could this have happened to his beloved party? Nothing to do with the systematic and extremely well organised slander campaign against the Labour leader, of course. Jeremy Corbyn has “clearly stated that there is a problem with anti-Semitism” in the party, Lillis declared, and “is right in his determination to tackle it”. This only serves to demonstrate that Corbyn should not have issued his absurd apology for “pockets” of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, which only exist on the fringes of the fringe: just go to a Labour Party meeting if you don’t believe me. Anyway, like a mantra, Usdaw’s chief thinks it is “essential” that the party “regains the trust of Jewish communities” - as if they were a monolithic entity. All Jewish people are morbidly sensitive Zionists, it seems, who take terrible offence at the slightest of things - not least criticism of Israel, which is what the IHRA’s carefully crafted examples are actually aimed at.
The GMB’s Tim Roache and Unison’s Dave Prentis have come out with similar sentiments. Prentis argued that Corbyn’s refusal to adopt the examples is costing the party “the moral high ground” from which to oppose racial hatred and oppression. In fact, according to him, when Boris Johnson “shed his court jester act this week to engage in flagrant Islamophobic bigotry” about fully-veiled Muslim women, it was made easy for his supporters to wave away criticism by pointing to the ongoing ‘anti-Semitism’ crisis gripping the Labour Party. It never occurs to Prentis, alas, that if the Labour leadership had stood up to the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign from day one then these Johnson supporters would never have been able to make such a comparison at all - what would there be to criticise?
The anti-Semitism question “should never have become such a divisive issue,” we learn, as it is “an unnecessary schism in a party that on so many issues is genuinely united”. Tell that to the Labour right, which has done everything it can to provoke this “unnecessary” split. In the same way, Tim Roache of the GMB protests about party members “knocking lumps out of each other” when they should be exploiting Tory divisions over Brexit and everything else. For Roache, it is “abundantly clear” that Labour has to accept the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism in full - while “agreeing” that criticism of the Israeli government and supporting the rights of the Palestinian is not being anti-Semitic. Well thanks a lot, Tim. It would probably come as news to the oppressed Palestinians that the colonial-settler state of Israel is not “a racist endeavour”, as the IHRA insists in one of its examples of ‘anti-Semitism’.
Meanwhile, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, demanded that Corbyn “comes out of hiding” and face up to the music - primarily, it almost goes without saying, by acknowledging “the problematic nature of his own past actions”. That is, the Labour leader should apologise over and over again in the most abject possible way for any expression of solidarity with the Palestinians. Not wanting to be left on the sidelines, Jim Murphy, the former Labour leader in Scotland, took out a full-page advert in the Glasgow edition of the Jewish Telegraph to accuse the party’s leadership of being “intellectually arrogant, emotionally inept and politically maladroit.”
In other words, what our happy trio of union bosses are saying to Jeremy Corbyn: just adopt the IHRA’s damned examples as demanded by the JLM, Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Telegraph, etc - bring an end to this divisive row - it does not really matter at the end of the day.
But it does matter. The reality is that the campaign is not just about strengthening Zionism, but strengthening the right - not just within Labour, but society as a whole - as part of the campaign to delegitimise the Corbyn leadership. One irony of the current wretched situation is that all these calls and demands are done using the language and prevailing common sense of the left. Rather, stop banging on about Zionism, Israel, Palestine, US imperialism, etc. In fact, avoid anything controversial. Instead, we should concentrate on austerity, the NHS, jobs, wages and conditions - then we will win, and a Labour government can deliver all things wonderful to the people. This is the dismal economistic common sense of the left.
That is precisely why the likes of Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbot are willing to compromise and issue endless apologies on this question and many others - believing they are keeping their eyes on the prize of governmental office.
The problem, of course, is that once you compromise in this way, you open up the floodgates to accusations of anti-Semitism against almost the entire left - except for the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, no group on the left seriously thinks the Zionist project is legitimate. The bogus nature of the IHRA examples is highlighted in particular by one, which Jeremy Corbyn has unfortunately accepted, of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” - apparently this is anti-Semitic. But what on earth does it mean? Now, it might be different if the passage talked about the Israeli-Jewish people, or nation, but it does not. Are we meant to believe that Jewish people in New York, London, Paris or Amsterdam all have the right to “self-determination”?
Anyhow, suffice to say that Jeremy Corbyn - as alluded to by the president of the Board of Deputies - falls foul of these various examples, as would John McDonnell and most people reading this publication. The idea that if you fold on this issue the Board, Jewish Chronicle, Tories, and all the rest of them will end their slurs is plainly absurd.
The ‘anti-Semitism’ controversy, however, helps to expose the sad illusions of the left who think that Labour is more or less a shoo-in for the next election - even though there is no evidence for such a belief. The latest opinion polls show that Labour is only marginally ahead of the Tories, rather than roaring past them, whilst a few actually show a slight Conservative lead (ie, YouGov).2
The whole ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ slander campaign gives the perfect excuse for the rightwing PLP - if Labour emerges as the biggest party or with a majority of some sort - to say that, in all good conscience, they could not back an anti-Semite to become prime minister. How on earth could you accuse someone - to use the words of Margaret Hodge - of being “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist” and then vote for them for them to become prime minister in the House of Commons?
But the British constitution requires any potential prime minister to demonstrate to the monarch that they can command a majority in the House of Commons. Of course, the monarch will be advised by the 600-strong privy council (a job for life) consisting of the John Majors, Tony Blairs and Peter Mandelsons of this world. Needless to say, they will be insisting that Corbyn does not command such a majority - and they will be right. Remember the 172 Labour ‘rebels’ who signed a no-confidence motion in their leader?
We all know about the fake scandal around Peter Willsman’s recent comments on the NEC about how in 50 years he had “never seen any anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” and claiming that some of the people posting “duff information”, like some senior rabbis and writers for the Jewish Chronicle, were “Trump fanatics” - which is undoubtedly true. For what in a sane world would be regarded as fairly innocuous comments, Willsman has been cast into the outer darkness by the cherubic Owen Jones of The Guardian for undermining “the struggle against the disgusting disease of anti-Semitism”.3
The problem is that former leftwingers like Jones have come to believe such irrational nonsense because they have internalised the politics of offence so deeply that it now motivates them on an ideological level: thus the tiresome phenomenon of auto-outrage. You wait to be offended, then display your righteousness as loudly as possible. Peter Willsman has offended the Jewish Labour Movement, therefore his behaviour must be unacceptable - regardless of the truth or facts.
However, I think it is appropriate to end on a slightly more optimistic note. Over recent days there has been a concerted effort, spearheaded by none other than the Daily Mail, to trash Corbyn’s reputation concerning his 2014 visit to the Palestinian cemetery in Tunis - where he laid a wreath, along with others, for the many victims (including civilians) of an Israeli air attack on the Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in October 1985. Afterwards Corbyn attended a conference on Palestine in Tunis at the invitation of the Tunisian president along with other European parliamentarians, including a Conservative and Liberal Democrat from the UK. But, committed to journalistic integrity as always, the Mail has photoshopped and spun the story of the visit in such a way as to give the impression that Corbyn was laying a wreath at the grave of Salah Khalaf (also known as Abu Iyad) - the PLO’s second-in-command who was assassinated in Tunis in 1981, and alleged to be one of the masterminds behind Black September, responsible for the Munich Olympics attack of 1972. Binyamin Netanyahu instantly joined the character-assassination posse, saying the Corbyn visit “deserves unequivocal condemnation from everyone - left, right and everything in between.”
Encouragingly, Corbyn has refused to apologise. Not turning the other cheek this time, he hit back at Netanyahu and the rest by saying that what really “deserves unequivocal condemnation” is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protestors in Gaza by Israeli forces since March and the new, overtly racist nation-state law. This makes Israel not the state of all its citizens, but rather “the nation-state of the Jewish people” - in the process downgrading Arabic from an official language to merely one with an ill-defined “special status”.
Is Jeremy Corbyn at last developing a backbone? We shall see.