Davina Cooper and Didi Herman
Yet another episode in the story of Jeremy Corbyn’s antisemitism. This time from 2012, in expressed support for a graffiti artist’s free speech rights after the artist’s painting of white bankers playing monopoly on the backs of the globe’s dispossessed was declared offensive for its racist caricatures of Jews. And as others have said, this time follows earlier times; Corbyn as a member of a facebook group where anti-Jewish statements were posted; Corbyn’s friends and allies posting antisemitic stuff on their own facebook pages; Corbyn hosting antisemitic visitors, appearing on platforms with spokespeople from antisemitic organisations.
And each time these stories come to light, Corbyn apologises, affirming he was unaware of what was being said and done. He did not know about the antisemitism, he didn’t read it, hear it, or recognise it. And Corbyn’s response is not unusual. As twitter comments on this most recent incident reveal, many people don’t see why a depiction of bankers around a table, bankers based on real figures, including Rothschild and Warburg, is antisemitic. Rather, what they see are centrist and right-wing Labour Party members (and mainstream figures in the Jewish community) “weaponising” antisemitism to attack a left-wing leader.
The repeat instances of anti-Jewish animus disturb us. As such, we were moved by Hadley Freeman’s recent commentary expressing anger at the stream of incidents, anger also at the inability of progressive people, including Corbyn, to properly understand why the images are wrong. But we are also disturbed by the repeated performance of apology, the assumption that sanctions are the answer, and the depiction of mainstream Jewish community leaders as representing us all, including in their claim (increasingly commonplace) that there is something necessarily antithetical between Jewish people and the radical left.
Each time this drama plays out, protagonists repeat their claims, and nothing – about racism anyway – appears to be learned. In our view, anti-Jewish sentiment in Britain, including on the Labour left, is a conjunction of many complex forces and factors, including diverse and competing nationalisms, legacies of English culture, and currently not helped by right-wing Israeli policies. Introducing tighter disciplinary procedures in the Labour Party, as the Chakrabarti Report recommends, can only do so much. It’s a short-term solution that does not sufficiently address these deeper, far more challenging issues.
Hadley Freeman writes that a “little antisemitism” is far from being “a price worth paying to achieve Corbyn’s socialist society”. We agree. But unpacking what this “little” means – a little animus, a little intent, a little effect? – begs a more general question about how useful the term antisemitism in fact is as a catch-all phrase for the range of knowledges, values, beliefs and violences relating to things Jewish. Aside from the question of who counts as a Semite, accusations of antisemitism set up a threshold – are you above or below the line; in or out of the category – is what you said bad enough or with enough intent or culpability to count? These are the terms of juridical discourse (or law); they are about finding someone guilty and punishing them – or at least suspending them from the Labour Party.
In the latest incident, mainstream Jewish “leaders” have also argued for a “rooting out”, as if antisemitism consisted of some scary weeds in an otherwise pleasant garden. But England – and we mean England not the Labour Party – is not that rosy. As has been recognised in other contexts of racism, the problem isn’t simply weeds or bad apples, but something more systemic. And in this context, the historic continuities (and discontinuities) in anti-Jewish sentiment seem to us particularly pernicious when individual intent seems lowest; when nobody thinks twice about circulating a particular image, “fact” or belief.
If we want to blame something, here, might we blame English culture and history – most overtly in its Fagins and Shylocks, but not just there? Lovers of English literature may argue these aversions are far from straight-forward, that there is nuance and complexity, and that unlikable Jewish figures are created for other (aesthetic, cultural, social, and critical) ends. Still, like veins running through rock, staples of the English canon, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, and TS Elliot, for example, contain heavy doses of distaste and dislike for Jews.
Mainstream Jewish leaders focus their anger on the Labour left, and especially now Corbyn, for having antisemitic allies and friends. But attachment to people (alive and dead) who express vividly anti-Jewish sentiments is far more pervasive. What should a left-wing Party do with this? How do we talk about these attachments or the heritage English culture has given us, with its regular antipathy, among other dislikes, for Jews and things Jewish, and with its discourses of Englishness, belonging, of what’s natural and what is foreign? Celebrating English culture, including by the left, places a veneer across this history, making it harder to dig down. Thus, we witnessed, under the Blair/ Brown Labour leadership, a political advertising campaign depicting Tory Jewish leader Michael Howard (and the Jewish shadow chancellor) as the heads of pigs, reminding us (if we need it) that legacies of anti-Jewish distaste are not the exclusive preserve of Labour’s left.
The production of meaning is complex and plural – what is done, what is understood, and the contexts that shape both. When people deny that anti-Jewish or other racisms are present, they treat meaning as a far simpler process of transmission – what she intended you received; where the environment or cultural context is just a passive backdrop for the conveyance of deliberate views. But as well as recognising the power of cultural echoes (particularly for those whose experiences have led them to develop well-tuned hearing), opponents of racism (who have never experienced it) need to realise one of the effects of racism is doubt, of not-knowing what was intended. Those who experience racism are told they are being over-sensitive, seeing racism when none was meant. But this seeing is one of the things racism does. And so when some Jewish people see an image of bankers, including ones who look Jewish, sitting on the backs of oppressed people, they see the reiteration of similar images and claims going back centuries, tropes that have worked particularly to alienate working-class gentiles by depicting Jews as rich, powerful, and exploitative.
And what also happens is that signifiers, such as bankers, long noses, claw-like hands, or in other contexts Israel (or in earlier times Communism or Marxism) – being repeatedly associated with Jewishness – come to stand in for Jews. They become the proxies, so that it is no longer necessary to make the proxies explicitly Jewish. Distaste for long noses, for instance, becomes enough to be experienced, even if it wasn’t meant, as distaste for Jews. And just as the depiction of black police in television dramas does not necessarily undermine the violence of casting black men constantly as criminals, so including non-Jewish bankers in an image of grotesque exploitation does not stop people seeing global Jewish power in such an image. (It is striking too that Dickens more sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend remains unknown compared to his earlier far more influential Fagin).
Anti-Jewish racism troubles many accounts of racism because it does not appear to adopt the proletarianised form associated with many (although not all) racisms in the global north. This is not to say there aren’t working-class Jews, nor that Jews, in countries such as Britain, haven’t faced economic restrictions and, of course, early expulsion. But unlike many forms of racism, which visibly involve the exploitative creation of low-paid racialized workers, anti-Jewish sentiment in Britain has historically taken other (exploitative) forms. As a result, we think, many left activists, including Corbyn, find it hard to recognise. Or they recognise it less as racism than as religious prejudice encountered by a “faith community”. Such prejudice can lead to burned or vandalised synagogues, temples, and graveyards, and to insults and attacks in public space on people who appear visibly religious. But the position of non-religious Jews is harder to understand.
This current controversy, interestingly, is not on its face about Israel. But Israel remains a central figure in longstanding Labour Party dramas over antisemitism in conditions where criticism, and demands of anti-Israel movements, are seen by some as challenging Israel’s very right to exist (or to exist as Jewish (and not post-Jewish), which some read as the same thing). For others, criticising Israel is about criticising a right-wing foreign government, pursuing right-wing policies and, as such, it can only be a difficult (if not impossible) “ally” right now for the left. One of the hardest issues for the Labour Party may be how to create a shared progressive space as an internationally-tuned party in which to critically address Israeli policies (alongside those of other countries) – policies relating to Occupation but not only that – in ways that also recognise what establishing and having a Jewish nation means to some (although far from all) Jewish people.
Jewishness, Israel, and Zionism – these sit in the full glare of daylight; but there remains a phantom haunting this drama – unnamed and untackled. It is impossible to come to terms with England’s anti-Jewish heritage without casting a critical gaze over Christianity and its legacy, particularly in its Anglican form. It has helped shape England’s history of antisemitism, been significant to Israel’s formation and defence, and has led to the pervasive depiction of Jewishness as a religion (rather than as something else – even as what Jewishness is remains contested and uncertain – a people, culture, ethnicity or maybe a demand for equality in the name of something that troubles these categories in the Christian global north of belonging).
We are currently witnessing a recurrent drama which shows no fruitful sign of moving forward. This isn’t because of intransigence on any one side. Rather the terms of the drama, we fear, make progress difficult. Resolution does not lie in endless (or ever deeper) apologies, when these leave (as they so often do) conditions unchanged until the next incident; nor does it lie in endless demands for further sanctions and rooting-outs. While apologies and sanctions can sometimes help, they can also deflect attention from more complex, long-term forms of action, producing instead irritation (at best), but often, unfortunately, hostility from indifferent or unsympathetic others.
In discussing this episode, we felt we needed to talk about nationalisms, patriotisms, Christianity and English culture – issues the Labour Party tends to avoid except when it feels bound to characterise or defer to them as positive features (witnessed, for instance, in Blue Labour or Corbyn’s promise to sing the National Anthem). Friend/ enemy distinctions also seem important, as people take sides, expressing loyalty to Israel, Palestine, or Jeremy Corbyn, in ways that make tentative, open-ended or curious forms of connection far harder to broach. In such conditions, it becomes difficult to identify, let alone address, the wide kaleidoscope of issues raised. These also get quickly closed down practically by the turn to short-term conclusive-sounding (if far from easy to implement) remedies.
We also worry the relentless focus on the Labour left can diminish our understanding of the relationship between the mural (at the centre of this controversy), and the artist’s words defending it, and right-wing, alt-right, and antiglobalist conspiracy politics. Economics and nationalisms: can a party like the Labour Party take on the complex knottedness of these wider issues? Fundamentally, can it afford not to?