‘Anti-Semitism’ and culture wars

Derek James links the press attacks on the mass demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians to a wider Tory offensive

For anyone who has been paying even the most cursory attention to British politics over the last few years, some recent headlines on ‘the rising tide of anti-Semitism’ will have an all too familiar ring. Thus, on May 25 The Sunday Times - ostensibly reporting on the huge demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people - chose to focus on “placards with anti-Jewish hatred”, which “mar” the “protest by tens of thousands”.1

In support of its claims, the newspaper cited four home-made placards which described “Israel, the new Nazi state”, defined the attacks on Gaza as “Holocaust part 2”, called on the Israeli state to “Stop doing what Hitler did to you” and argued that “Netanyahu surpasses Hitler in barbarism”.2 To back up its claims that these rather inept slogans were anti-Semitic, The Sunday Times called on the independent expertise of the Johnson government’s anti-Semitism tsar, Lord Mann, the former rightwing Labour MP, who declared: “The disgusting racist abuse against Jewish people on the streets of London requires an effective and strong response by all politicians and will be treated with contempt by all decent citizens.”3

To give added weight to the accusations and heighten further the sense of menace, the article also quoted the pro-Israel lobby group, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which described the 200,000-strong demonstration in London as “yet another anti-Semitism-infested rally” and referred to the threats to “rape and murder” made to British Jews in recent weeks.4 Similar articles appeared in the following days in The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, along with follow-up pieces linking protests against the Israeli attacks on Gaza and repression of the Palestinian people with anti-Semitism and threats to Jewish students at British universities.5 Along with the ritual condemnations and sly party point-scoring by Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer in the House of Commons, this had all the hallmarks of a choreographed manoeuvre by the political class and their chums in the Tory-supporting media.6

Agreed, the attacks were well-rehearsed and coordinated in an attempt to undermine the growing movement in support of Palestinian rights, but a statement by the secretary of state for education, the hapless Gavin Williamson, added a new dimension to the tired and now discredited mantra that ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’. He launched a direct attack on the very successful mobilisation of young people in the pro-Palestinian protests, which struck at the legitimacy of both the protests themselves along with the right to protest in general. After a ritual condemnation of what he described as a “concerning increase” in the expression of anti-Semitic views and the bullying of Jewish students and teachers in schools, he argued that such incidents should be treated by headteachers with “due seriousness”.7

Reminding heads of their “legal duties regarding political impartiality”, Williamson said: “... school leaders and staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately, particularly in the political views they express.” Linking political expression and support for the Palestinian cause by school students with the creation of “an atmosphere of intimidation or fear”, the secretary of state made a direct attempt to control what is being taught and discussed in classrooms by demanding what he called a

balanced presentation of opposing views … Schools should not present materials in a politically biased or one-sided way and should always avoid working with organisations that promote anti-Semitic or discriminatory views.8

Above all, they should not work with, or use materials from, organisations that publicly reject Israel’s right to exist. Well, so much for “political impartiality”.

Then came the media follow-up and political response, with reports of school protests in solidarity with Palestine, school restrictions on students’ political expression and warnings about extremists on social media stoking up tensions and anti-Semitic protests against Israel in schools.9 The usual conservative voices piled in to warn about the dangers of the politicisation and radicalisation of school students and remind us that “schools are for education, not activism. And teachers are in charge: they should not have to apologise for exercising authority.”10 So, in just a few short interventions, we seem to have moved far away from what seemed to be simply a phase in the long-standing witch-hunt against the left into a new battlefield in the right’s culture wars.

New attacks

Despite this apparent shift, there is, in fact, a very clear connection between the Conservative-supporting media’s attack on the pro-Palestinian protests and the evolving politics of Boris Johnson’s government. Let us go back to the specific attacks made by The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph on the alleged anti-Semitism of the protests. The slogans highlighted by these newspapers were politically maladroit rather than anti-Semitic: that is, an expression of hatred of Jews as Jews. They were specifically directed against the state of Israel and its actions against Gaza, not a generalised attack on ‘Jews’ in general.

To conflate this opposition to the Israeli state with anti-Semitism is a deliberate distortion and quite conscious lie on the part of the editors of these Conservative papers. This is, of course, nothing new and no-one on the left will be surprised at this latest example to discredit support for Palestinian rights - we have seen it too many times before and experienced the political and personal impact such libels have had on thousands of individual socialists. The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour right and their friends in the media are just the tip of the iceberg here.

But why these attacks now? Haven’t the ruling class got their man into place as leader of the opposition? Isn’t Sir Keir Starmer just the ‘safe pair of hands’ that bourgeois politics requires as the leader of the party of the working class? Just so, but this new phase in the campaign to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is directed at undermining the wider protest movement in solidarity with the Palestinians. It is a clear attack on the legitimacy of the protests and seeks to deflect attention from events in the Middle East by labelling opposition to the Israeli state as racist and anti-Semitic.

The assault on Gaza has been a propaganda disaster internationally for Israel: the large demonstrations and protests throughout the world, and the pathetic attempts by Israeli spokespeople and diplomats to defend their state’s policies and actions, have only compounded their problems.11 Given Israel’s role as a key client of US imperialism, it is inevitable that parties and media outlets committed to the current international order will leap to Israel’s defence, and attempt to smear opposition to the attacks on Gaza and the repression of Palestinians, both within Israel’s 1967 border and the occupied territories.

If this is the proximate cause of the media campaign, there is also a wider political context in Britain, which explains this new phase of press libels and distortions. Alongside the campaign to define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, there have been increasing attempts to undermine challenges to the capitalist political and economic status quo by identifying them as extremist, as anti-Semitic and, most importantly, as illegitimate.12 Thus former Blairite strategist John McTernan, writing in 2019, could argue that the Labour left “had fallen prey to the oldest of prejudices [viz anti-Semitism]” and suggested that now “anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism”.13

In a similar vein, Gavin Williamson and other members of Johnson’s government have increasingly framed protest and opposition that falls outside the narrowly defined boundaries of acceptable bourgeois politics as illegitimate and extremist. This recent ‘reminder’ to school heads about ‘political neutrality’ is just the latest in a series of statements that are designed to curtail free debate and critical opposition within schools, universities and wider public life. In October 2020 Williamson threatened that universities that failed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of anti-Semitism could face cuts in government funding: in the queen’s speech last month the government proposed legislation to ‘protect freedom of speech in universities’, while speculation continues that the Tories will outlaw public bodies from adopting boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) policies towards Israel.14

These attacks need to be understood in the context of the developing ideology of Johnson’s Toryism. His populist phrase-mongering around Brexit has proven to be politically and electorally successful and is the basis for a new iteration of ‘One-nation Conservatism’, which rallies society around a seemingly strong interventionist state in defence of ‘the nation’. Patriotic politics and the defence of tradition, combined with a culture war against ‘woke’ extremism, could all have their place in this eclectic new mix that seeks to consolidate the Tories electoral base and move the government to the right.15 Describing this as ‘English Gaullism’ is perhaps rather flattering to Johnson’s record of political inconsistency and intellectual coherence, but the possible outlines of such a trend can be discerned in his rhetoric and policies.16

As this project unfolds, the Tory press will undoubtedly get behind it as just one of the many fruits of the new post-Brexit dispensation and intensify their framing of all forms of protest and opposition as unacceptable extremism, which threatens our way of life. The smears and the lies thrown recently at the pro-Palestinian protests are just the beginning of what will become a dominant strand in the politics of the Conservative Party over the next few years: going by the foul historical precedents and political pedigree of Toryism, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

  1. thetimes.co.uk/article/placards-with-anti-jewish-hatred-mar-protests-by-tens-of-thousands-hvnqg5njm.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎

  4. Ibid.↩︎

  5. telegraph.co.uk/education-and-careers/2021/05/25/terrifying-time-jew-campus-rise-antisemitism-british-universities; standard.co.uk/news/uk/pro-palestine-rally-anti-semitic-protesters-b936719.html.↩︎

  6. standard.co.uk/news/uk/pro-palestine-rally-anti-semitic-protesters-b936719.html.↩︎

  7. belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/williamson-sounds-warning-over-anti-semitism-in-schools-40481101.html.↩︎

  8. Ibid. See also dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9631403/Schools-stay-neutral-Palestine-warns-Education-Secretary-Gavin-Williamson.html.↩︎

  9. theguardian.com/education/2021/may/26/anger-over-british-teachers-response-to-pro-palestine-protests; telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/05/27/pro-palestinian-protests-schools-stoked-social-media; leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/student-teacher-clash-over-palestine-5453387; examinerlive.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/bradford-school-accused-quashing-students-20674749.↩︎

  10. spectator.co.uk/article/school-playgrounds-are-no-place-for-free-palestine-protests.↩︎

  11. For just one example of this strategic and political failure see the Israeli ambassador’s appearance on BBC at the height of the crisis in May: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p09h821t.↩︎

  12. J Harvey, ‘New round of lies’ Weekly Worker October 29 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1321/new-round-of-lies.↩︎

  13. Quoted in J Harvey op cit.↩︎

  14. independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/antisemitism-universities-gavin-williamson-funding-cuts-b911500.html; independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/queen-university-freedom-speech-b1845455.html; independent.co.uk/voices/bds-boris-johnson-israel-palestine-boycott-occupation-netanyahu-a9268721.html.↩︎

  15. express.co.uk/news/politics/1433519/common-sense-book-wokeism-members-of-parliament.↩︎

  16. newstatesman.com/politics/2021/05/rise-new-toryism.↩︎