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The UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis, explained

How a mural became a flashpoint for a long-simmering debate over left-wing anti-Semitism.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Monday evening, more than a dozen British legislators from the left-wing Labour Party attended a protest in London against anti-Semitism — more specifically, a protest accusing their own boss, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, of being insensitive to an ongoing issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. It’s as if 12 Republican members of Congress went to a demonstration against President Trump’s connections to the alt-right.

The protest was a reaction to recent revelations that Corbyn, in a Facebook comment, had defended a blatantly anti-Semitic mural in London back in 2012 that the local government wanted removed. Here’s a photo of the mural, tweeted out by the artist, LA-based painter Mear One:

Mear One

The discovery of Corbyn’s 2012 Facebook post revived a longstanding line of attack against the Labour leader: that he frequently turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism, including within his own party. It’s also prompted calls for a reckoning with the deeply ingrained anti-Semitic views in British society — including in the Labour Party and on the socialist left.

Why the Facebook post has become such a flashpoint

Until Corbyn’s rise to power, the Labour Party has been a solidly center-left party, occupying a space roughly akin to the Democrats under Bill Clinton. Corbyn, by contrast, is an old-school socialist — way to the left of Bernie Sanders — who has proposed nationalizing major parts of the British economy.

When he won the Labour Party’s 2015 primary election and became Labour’s new leader, there was a major rift within the party between Corbyn and his supporters on one side and the party’s far more centrist old guard on the other.

One of the biggest points of tension was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Corbyn, like many on the socialist left, is staunchly pro-Palestinian — which is of course in no way anti-Semitic. But his advocacy on the issue has gone in a direction that many in Labour are uncomfortable with, most infamously inviting members of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah to speak at Parliament in 2009 and referring to them as his “friends.”

The old-school Labour leadership — along with a majority of the roughly 263,000 Jews living in Britain — worried that this kind of comment didn’t just reflect Corbyn’s politics on Israel, but rather an overall lack of concern for anti-Semitism and the welfare of Jews.

In the years since Corbyn’s victory, these fears proved sadly prescient. Since 2015, the pro-Corbyn faction of Labour has been dogged by example after example of anti-Semitic conduct in its ranks. In April 2016, a prominent UK political blog dug up Facebook posts by Labour MP Naseem “Naz” Shah in which she compared Israel to Nazi Germany and darkly suggested that “the Jews were rallying” in defense of Israel. Shah was suspended from the party but was reinstated three months later after apologizing.

Also in April 2016, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone — known as “Red Ken” for his left-leaning politics — said during a BBC interview that Hitler had originally been a Zionist who supported moving all Jews to Israel, “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”

Livingstone was also suspended from his formal position in the party in response to those comments and later reinstated — but unlike Shah, he didn’t apologize, and asserted several months later that theree was “real collaboration” between the Nazis and Jews. Livingstone is currently in the midst of an extended suspension from Labour; Jewish groups have called for his suspension to be turned into a permanent ban.

These two incidents with Shah and Livingstone in April 2016 led to a massive public outcry — with the British press, Jewish organizations, and Labour members critical of Corbyn all calling for some kind of reckoning.

So at the end of that month, Corbyn commissioned a prominent UK lawyer named Shami Chakrabarti to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism inside the Labour Party. Chakrabarti published her conclusions two months later. She found that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism” but does suffer from an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “too much clear evidence [of] ignorant attitudes.”

She offered 20 recommendations to the party, including that Labour appoint a general counsel tasked with managing the party’s inquiries into accusations of racial and religious bias within the party.

However, Chakrabarti’s recommendations have not been fully implemented — and allegations of anti-Semitism have continued to roil Labour for the past two years. Jack Mendel, a web editor at the UK’s Jewish News, put together a list of about 25 such examples — including Labour members engaging in Holocaust denial and alleging that it’s “superrich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world.”

So when Corbyn’s 2012 Facebook post defending the anti-Semitic mural was uncovered at the end of last week, it set off the debate all over again.

The broader question of left-wing anti-Semitism

Jeremy Corbyn.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

After offering a lukewarm apology in which he said there were merely “pockets” of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in a Sunday statement, Corbyn penned a letter to major UK Jewish organizations on Monday more forcefully apologizing for his 2012 comment and vowing a stronger response down the line.

“I recognise that anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour Party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples,” Corbyn wrote (without mentioning that he had done exactly that just one day before). “I acknowledge that anti-Semitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years and that the Party has been too slow in processing some of the cases that have emerged.”

On Tuesday, the day after the rally, he convened a meeting of his top allies in Parliament to discuss the issue. They agreed to fully implement the Chakrabarti report recommendations — many of which, like creating a formal, streamlined process for investigating allegations of anti-Semitism, had somehow been languishing since June 2016.

Not everyone was on the same page, however. On Thursday, the UK’s Jewish Chronicle reported that Diane Abbott, one of Corbyn’s top allies in Parliament, had dismissed the entire debate over anti-Semitism as a “smear campaign against Jeremy” on the part of his enemies inside Labour and on the UK right.

The whole episode raises a deeper question, and one with significance not just in the UK but around the Western world: whether rising anti-Semitism can be entirely disentangled from anti-Zionist politics common on the left.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is, without a doubt, one of the most important issues to the international left. The typical socialist stance apportions most of the blame to Israel as the more powerful party in the conflict, and argues that the very idea of a Jewish state — rather than a binational secular democracy for both Israelis and Palestinians — is ethically questionable at best, and a kind of apartheid at worst.

Most Jews, in both the UK and the broader Jewish diaspora, do not agree with this view. They argue that Jews need a refuge from international anti-Semitism, meaning a Jewish state, and that Israel has taken tremendous amounts of risk to promote a peaceful solution to the conflict. Jewish activism on the issue, with a small but growing number of exceptions, ranges from hardline pro-Israel positions to a kind of liberal Zionism that criticizes the occupation but still supports the idea of a Jewish state.

The result is frequent tension between left-wing anti-Zionists and mainstream Jewish communities. The problem is that this tension creates a tendency on the left to indulge in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes — like blaming a Jewish conspiracy for Western governments’ support of Israel or equating Jews who support Israel with Nazi collaborationists.

Richard Seymour, a UK-based socialist writer, argues that this problem has long been downplayed by the left out of a kind of defensiveness about their position on Israel.

“In a context in which we have not seen organised antisemitism of any significant scale for a long time, and in which those with democratic and internationalist objections to Zionism have often been stigmatised as antisemitic, it has been easy for some people to become dismissive of the whole issue,” Seymour writes. “But that complacency was wrong then, and it is a liability now.”

The mural controversy offers a sort of acid test for whether this “complacency,” as Seymour puts it, can be overcome. If Corbyn and his allies take things seriously this time and take concrete steps to stop the steady drumbeat of anti-Semitic incidents in their party, they could prove that left-wing criticism of Israel really can be detached from anti-Semitism. If they don’t, they will show that their entanglement may be worse than it seems.

Correction: This piece originally described Ken Livingstone as a member in good standing of Labour, when in fact his suspension from the party was recently renewed.

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