‘Institutionally anti-Semitic’: The British Labour Party’s cautionary tale

Professor Alan Johnson lays out in excruciating detail the story of how an ostensibly enlightened, pro-European social democratic party became a home for activists trafficking in three distinct types of anti-Semitism.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, with Parliament member Andrew Gwynne. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, with Parliament member Andrew Gwynne. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

There is, in Britain, a long tradition of holding public inquiries to establish the facts and learn the appropriate lessons from a host of social and political challenges. The range of inquiry subjects have included, among others, child abuse, the use of nuclear power and the 2003 Iraq war. Some of these inquiries have had such a powerful impact that they continue to be talked about decades later (which, incidentally, is why many Brits are expecting that the present Brexit debacle will one day enthrall them with the inquiry of inquiries.)

In 1999, the distinguished British judge Sir William Macpherson chaired an inquiry into the U.K. authorities’ handling of the brutal murder of a black Londoner, Stephen Lawrence. In April 1993, the 19-year-old was racially abused and then fatally stabbed by a gang of white racists at a bus stop. Six years later, the case against his murderers collapsed largely because of—as Macpherson’s report put it—a “a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.”

That concept of “institutional racism” became firmly planted in British public policy and has since emerged in other contexts. The most unlikely of these, given its political traditions and its historic links with the Jewish community, has been the British Labour Party, which now stands accused of “institutional racism” in its approach to the anti-Semitism within its ranks.

Perhaps the most thorough and damning account of Labour’s transformation, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, into an enemy of Jewish concerns, sensitivities and aspirations was published last week. Its author, Professor Alan Johnson, has been an important figure on the British left for many years, advocating for a radical socialism shorn of the uglier characteristics, such as the equal embrace of anti-Semitic beliefs and authoritarian regimes that have come to define much of the left today.

Many of Corbyn’s critics argue that anti-Semitism has always been a vocal presence in the socialist movement. The antecedents of those left-wing activists who today campaign for the elimination of Israel as a sovereign state depicted Jews as an exploiting merchant class, the authors of both poverty in the cities and irreversible decline in the countryside. But while Johnson is well-aware of these malign traditions, his affront at their prominence under Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is rooted in his conviction that anti-Semitism is utterly inimical to socialism.

It is from that perspective that Johnson offers the following observation. “Antisemitism isn’t just a prejudice against Jews,” he writes. “It is also a fear of their supposedly tremendous (but always hidden) power to shape the world. In that sense, antisemitism sometimes functions in some different ways to other prejudices, other racisms.” There are very few people on the left these days who grasp this critical point; ironically, that perhaps explains why progressives and socialists continue to be attracted by explanations of global injustice and inequality that are grounded on precisely this “fear” of Jewish power and influence.

In the pages that follow, Johnson lays out in excruciating detail the story of how an ostensibly enlightened, pro-European social democratic party became a home for activists trafficking in three distinct types of anti-Semitism. First is the “socialism of fools” that equates Jews with exploitation. The statement of one Labour activist cited by Johnson—to wit that the “Jewish Zionist bourgeoisie, from Milton Friedman to Henry Kissinger” have played a “vanguard role for the capitalist offensive against the workers”—is a particularly pungent example of what this involves.

Secondly, there is the penetration of “classic” or racial anti-Semitism. Again, Johnson provides numerous examples of Labour supporters praising Hitler, invoking the figure of Judas from the Christian Bible as an illustration of Jewish financial machinations or defaming Jews in Nazi fashion as “parasites.” And thirdly, there is anti-Semitism presented as opposition to Zionism and capitalism. “It’s the super-rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world,” one Labour activist tweeted. “Our world leaders sell their souls for greed to do the bidding of Israel.”

How does this garbage become institutionalized? The Macpherson Report defined institutional racism as the “collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin”—a failure manifested in the thoughtless, prejudiced and hostile behavior that Stephen Lawrence’s parents experienced from the police officers investigating their son’s murder, and perpetuated by the refusal of individuals in key leadership positions to recognize the problem of racism in the first place.

Johnson applies this same reasoning to the dismissive, inherently suspicious response of Corbyn and his allies to the numerous instances of anti-Semitism that have stretched from Labour’s rank and file all the way to certain members of parliament and, many would argue, Corbyn himself. “To define the Labour Party as institutionally antisemitic,” Johnson writes, “is to say that it is not currently offering ‘an appropriate and professional service’ to a particular group, Jews; that this failure can be detected in the ‘processes’, ‘attitudes’ and ‘behaviors’ found in the party; that the party has not ‘openly and adequately addressed’ antisemitism in the party; and that these multiple failures are common enough to adversely impact the experience of Jews, so that they are in various ways disadvantaged (as those Jews currently leaving the party keep making clear to the leader in their eloquent resignation letters).”

As grim as it is to say, we now at least have an example against which other institutions where anti-Semitism is a problem can be measured. Some American campus administrations might be said to be denying a professional service to those Jewish students assailed by anti-Zionism masquerading as anti-Semitism; the same could certainly be said of the police and judiciary in France or Germany, both of whom too often fail the victims of anti-Semitic hate crimes in those countries. For those of us outside of the United Kingdom, if there is a lesson to be gleaned from Johnson’s analysis, it’s that any political party, or civic association, or educational institution that confidently believes itself to be immune from outbursts of crude Jew-hatred should regard Labour’s wretched experience with anti-Semitism as a cautionary tale.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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