Greens, pay attention: antisemitism is not just Labour’s problem
Hundreds of Jewish people gathered in Parliament Square on 26 March protesting against antisemitism, not from far-right hate-spewers, but from the Labour Party, traditional resisters of racism and reaction. The online response to the protests from the party’s supporters was largely not, as might reasonably have been expected, shock and dismay (although many individuals were suitably sickened) but in fact flat denial and dismissal.
‘Corbyn is a life-long ant-racist’ they called and attached pictures of him being arrested at an anti-apartheid march. ‘It’s the Tories that are racists not us’ they pointed out, adding pictures of former MP Aidan Burley attending a stag do where the groom wore a mock Nazi outfit. ‘It’s not racist to call out Zionism’ they cried and illustrated the point with photos of placard carrying rabbis.
Most egregiously offensive of all were claims that the protest and accusations of Labour Party antisemitism were faked as part of a rightist attempt to harm the prospects of a Corbyn premiership. Or as Mike Katz, Vice Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement described the idea, “the ready assumption that Jews would so readily sell short millennia of persecution for an easy political hit.” Some went further yet and suggested that the ‘smears’ were part of a grand organised conspiracy against the left playing into the old antisemitic tropes of shadowy hegemonic orders.
These denials and deflections are not what we should expect form progressive parties when facing accusations of bad behaviour. We know that being anti-racist is not a tick box exercise, something one can decide to be one afternoon or demonstrate simply by having been to a march, it is constant activity of listening, reflecting and challenging oneself and others. We know that the existence of other, perhaps more obvious, forms of racism in other groups does not excuse any infraction in ours. And we know, or at least damn well ought to know, that accusing our accusers of ulterior motives or of fabrication rather than presuming good faith and actually looking for substance in what is said is just wrong. All in all, we know better than this.
It would be easy to imagine that I write all this to score political points off the Labour party or to simply take pleasure in their misfortune safe in the knowledge that our Green movement is free of the problem. It is not. A study by the Campaign against Antisemitism shows 48% of Jewish people surveyed (891 out of 1857) feel that the Green party is too tolerant of antisemitism. This is the second highest of the British political parties and higher than both the Conservatives and UKIP. It would be easy to see this and claim ‘the Greens worse than the Tories and UKIP? Impossible!’ but that would be to behave just the same as those Labour supporters online, denying and deflecting, ignoring or presuming bad faith in hundreds of Jewish people.
The truth is there is a problem with antisemitism on the left in general not just in the Labour Party. In most cases it is an antisemitism that manifests itself differently to that which we see on the right but the underlying hatred is just the same. On the left antisemitism tends to get attached to anti-zionism but it is in no way synonymous with fair criticism of the Israeli state. It oversteps legitimate critique of Israel and strays into ideas of global conspiracy, it makes comparisons to Nazism, it conflates the state of Israel with all Jewish people and it rubs shoulders with Holocaust deniers. Turn to the internet and you see many reports, most of which have resulted in no disciplinary action or even investigation, of Green Party candidates in this offensive vein.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism website, for example, lists cases of Green Party antisemitism. Here we see Green Party candidates accused of publicly saying that the idea Jewish money controls British politics is ‘probably right’, suggesting a link between antisemitism and the patriarchal attitudes among orthodox Jews in ‘their rich families’ and multiple postings of links from conspiracy theory websites including a far-right one claiming Israel is developing a ‘SARS-like race-specific bio-weapon.’
The most common accusation on the Campaign Against Antisemitism website and elsewhere is of comparing Israel or Zionism to Nazism. For example, Pippa Bartolotti, previously* Deputy Leader of the Green Party in Wales, recently said that Israel was seeking a ‘final solution’ for Palestinians and that Gaza was ‘an open air concentration camp’ (Jewish Chronicle, 11 December 17). Perhaps to some this will seem to be simply overblown and overwrought rhetoric and not in fact antisemitic. As Howard Jacobson explains however, to pick the Holocaust as point of comparison for Israel out of the innumerate examples of human suffering ‘is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief… cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow’.
We might be tempted to say charitably that these incidents are unfortunate and inadvertent mistakes, or perhaps showings of an ignorance of what constitutes antisemitism rather than active Jew-hating. That the same individuals are accused repeatedly over years would seem to cast some considerably doubt on this though. There can, however, be no charity shown to a party organisation that, aware of these accusations, has failed to investigate them to even consider the question of disciplinary action or that actively allows ignorance to flourish by making no attempt at educating those accused.
We are blighted with the same problem as the Labour party but we do not have to make the same mistakes as them in addressing it. Marcus Dysch (Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 17) investigating how the Green Party handled complaints of antisemitism, wrote that ‘In approaching the Greens I had hoped to find a party which had learnt from Labour’s trauma.’ Unfortunately he goes on to say his search did not yield to these hopes but in this line he shows us the way to proceed. We must learn from Labour’s trauma, knowing that we will never be immune to antisemitism, realising that complacency and defensiveness are the enemies of anti-racist work and committing ourselves to the ongoing battle to rid our movement of intolerant hatred.
The first, and most vital step, in dealing with this problem is to refuse to ignore it, to genuinely listen to Jewish voices and concerns both within the party and those coming from outside and be guiding in action based on what is said. The rest of us in the party, however, cannot stand idly by and wait for antisemitism to be ended for us by Jewish people who suffer it. We need to get educated in what antisemitism means in the modern world and we need develop more rigorous disciplinary systems to swiftly and firmly deal with incidents. This is a struggle we must all actively engage with and it is only by that active and ongoing engagement that will actually make sure our movement is genuinely no home to antisemitism but its enemy.
- This article was changed on 16 April to remove the false statement that there are “pictures of disgraced former MP Aidan Burley in nazi uniform” on the internet. Mr. Burley attended a stag do where the groom wore a mock Nazi outfit.
- A further edit was made to this article on 25/04/2018 to state that Pippa Bartolloti is the previous deputy leader of the Wales Green Party – Mirka Johanna is now the Deputy Leader. Bright Green apologises for this error.