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Anti-Semitism, George Orwell, and the U.K.’s Labour Party

Pictured in the center is Naz Shah, who was suspended from the United Kingdom's Labour Party over a Facebook post in which she suggested the "relocation" of Israel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Pictured in the center is Naz Shah, who was suspended from the United Kingdom's Labour Party over a Facebook post in which she suggested the "relocation" of Israel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/

“It is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough, and in favourable circumstances it could have political results.”

So wrote George Orwell in a 1945 article for the Contemporary Jewish Record journal titled, “Antisemitism in Britain.” In that short essay, Orwell related a series of personal encounters that demonstrated how seemingly rational people afflicted with the “neurosis” of anti-Semitism suddenly discovered “an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.” For example, one of the dark rumors that spread around wartime London held that a ghastly incident on the Underground in 1942, in which around 100 people fleeing a German bombing raid were crushed during a panic-stricken dash into the entrance of a train station, was the responsibility of “the Jews.”

As Orwell pointed out, such beliefs were anchored in emotions that, in the context of the fight against Hitler, found fewer opportunities for public expression, but were articulated privately. And significantly, many of those who confessed to anti-Semitic tendencies belonged to the left politically. There was, Orwell wrote, the “young intellectual, Communist or near-Communist: ‘No, I do not like Jews. I’ve never made any secret of that. I can’t stick them. Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course.’” There was also the “very eminent figure in the Labour Party—I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England—[who] said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.’”

Sadly, not much has changed in the Labour Party of today; if anything, the habit of denying that anti-Semitism exists in the first place, or that its manifestations are somehow understandable in the light of the ongoing Palestinian conflict with Israel, has gotten more pronounced and much worse. That’s why, in examining the latest scandal involving Labour and the Jews, which resulted in the suspension from the party of one of its own members of parliament, Naz Shah, I found myself wondering whether there is a direct link between what Orwell witnessed at the war’s end and what we are seeing now.

Shah’s suspension followed the discovery of a post on her Facebook page two years ago in which she endorsed a proposal to “relocate Israel into United States” (sic) dreamed up by two pro-Palestinian activists. Responding to their claim that doing so would save American taxpayers $3 billion in annual aid to Israel, Shah gushed, “Problem solved and save u bank charges for £ 3BILLION you transfer yearly!” (Note well that 3 billion American dollars became 3 billion British pounds in her translation.)

In isolation, Shah’s offense would not have been the huge story that it has become in the British press. It has been correctly presented, however, as belonging to a systemic pattern of anti-Semitism within a political party that has governed the U.K. for long periods of the postwar era. Just a day after Shah’s suspension, fellow Labour member Ken Livingstone (the former mayor of London) was also suspended by the party for telling BBC Radio in Shah’s defense, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”

Since the far-left MP Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the party leadership last year, it seems that some new revelation of Labour anti-Semitism, in all cases packaged as detestation of Israel’s sovereign existence, is perpetually out there lurking. Before Shah, there was the furore over the new president of the National Union of Students, a stalwart Corbyn supporter, describing one university as a “Zionist outpost in British higher education” and ranting about “Zionist-led media outlets.” Before that, there was the resignation of the head of Oxford University’s Labour Club in order to highlight the fact that many of his ostensible comrades “have some kind of problem with Jews.” All within the last few weeks!

But rather than admitting that there is a problem, Corbyn’s Labour Party is actively denying it down instead. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Naz Shah episode was that she had the courage to apologize—and that her apology was then censored by the unreconstructed Stalinists in the party’s publicity department. As the U.K. newspaper The Jewish News reported, Shah’s admission that there is a genuine problem on the left when it comes to spreading “toxic conspiracy theories, group-blame and stereotyping” about Jews was deliberately removed from the final version of her statement.

As long as Corbyn, a committed anti-Zionist, remains leader of the Labour Party, the problem of anti-Semitism will continue to fester. (Some observers might be tempted to quip that the biggest problem of all is Corbyn’s unelectability, but let’s not tempt fate.) As the political commentator Alan Johnson argued in Prospect magazine, “It’s hard to imagine a worse person to sort all this out than Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2012 said to the Palestinian radical Islamist Raed Saleh: ‘I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace because you deserve it!’ Many people pointed out that Salah incites violent anti-Semitism…But the problem is not that Corbyn agrees with what these people say. It is that he agrees with who they are: the resistance to empire. The apologies and the contortions begin there.”

Here we come back to George Orwell. Towards the end of the essay I quoted above, Orwell suggested that anti-Semitism was part of the wider sin of “nationalism” that affects even its victims. His exact words were, “Many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely anti-Semites turned upside-down, just as many Indians and Negroes display the normal colour prejudices in an inverted form.” Yet since 1945, British society has changed dramatically. Those who occupy the “nationalist” end of its political spectrum—particularly those urging withdrawal from the European Union—do not, by and large, succumb to the temptations of Jew-baiting, though there are exceptions.

Rather, it is those who describe themselves as “internationalists” who are the most vulnerable. This is the direct consequence of a doctrinaire “anti-imperialism” that begins and ends with solidarity with one (and only one) people—the Palestinians—and which regards Jews as an integral component of the superstructure of white, colonial privilege.

Consider, therefore, the following irony. By being cast as the ultimate insiders, controlling everything from the global economy to U.S. foreign policy, Jews end up as the ultimate outsiders in the public imagination—too suspect to benefit even from the niceties of the Britain’s generally anti-racist political culture, especially once their emotional, familial, or other ties with the State of Israel are brought into play.

This is a problem that goes much deeper than just Jeremy Corbyn, and is certainly not restricted to the U.K. That’s why, even if his observations on the causes of anti-Semitism were sometimes wide of the mark, Orwell was absolutely correct when he counseled that “antisemitism should be investigated—and I will not say by antisemites, but at any rate by people who know that they are not immune to that kind of emotion.” (My emphasis.)

For the time being, the Labour Party’s apparatchiks have made clear that this is the last thing they want—hence their rewrite of Naz Shah’s apology. Even so, and whether they like it or not, the investigation recommended by Orwell at the midpoint of the last century has now begun.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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