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Does the Left have an antisemitism problem? A response to Stephen Law

This is a guest post by Eve Garrard

(Law: Is the Left’s alleged critical focus on Israel good grounds for thinking it has an ‘antisemitism problem’?)

1. First things first: Law’s post is beautifully clear and organised. The reader never has to scratch her head trying to tease out just what it is the writer is arguing for.  Law does all that kind of work for her, so she can concentrate on the soundness or otherwise of his arguments. (Spoiler alert: Law thinks that the answer to the question in his title is ‘No’, and I’m going to disagree with almost everything he says.)

2. Law’s first claim is that although there is some antisemitism everywhere, there is no evidence that there is any more of it in the Labour Party than there is anywhere else.  Myself, I doubt he’s correct on this – the most recent CAA research suggests that there are approximately eight times as many cases of antisemitism among Labour Party office holders than there are within the second-placed party.  (see https://antisemitism.uk/new-caa-research-shows-antisemitism-amongst-officials-in-labour-is-eight-times-worse-than-any-other-party/)  However, let’s not squabble about the empirical facts – let’s give Law the benefit of the doubt here, and ask what would follow if his claim is true.  Would its truth tell against the view that Labour has a special antisemitism problem?  It’s not clear that it would.  Labour claims to be an anti-racist party, it prides itself on this, and it certainly complains if other organisations tolerate racism against, for example, persons of colour.  So if it can only manage the same level of racism against Jews as other organisations are displaying, then it’s doing badly, and is at the very least being notably hypocritical.  Presumably it tries more than other organisations to avoid being racist, so why are its efforts so ineffective – why is its level of racism against Jews no better than anyone else’s?  Perhaps it does have an antisemitism problem after all, at the level of motivation and effort, even if (which I doubt) it has only the same incidence of antisemitism that other parties do.

3. Law cites the Chakrabarti Report in support of his claim that there’s no evidence that Labour has an antisemitism problem.  But that report is, to put it mildly, a very contentious one, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that having called for submissions from interested parties, Chakrabarti ignored a large number of them which came from people who did think that the Labour Party has a problem with antisemitism.  (for more on this, see David Hirsh’s Contemporary Left Antisemitism, ch 3). The report is widely regarded as a whitewash by those who are worried about antisemitism in the Labour Party. (See also the video Whitewashed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te684rBHzOA&app=desktop.) These reservations about the Report are for reasons that aren’t really connected with Chakrabarti’s elevation to the peerage at the behest of Jeremy Corbyn immediately after her completion of the report, but that fast-track ennoblement didn’t help.

4. Law thinks that the Left’s special focus on Israel’s alleged wrongdoings, as compared to other countries’ misdemeanours, does not count as strong evidence of the presence of any special antisemitism problem.  This is because he thinks that there are other, more plausible, explanations of that special focus.  He thinks that Israel gets a free pass from Western governments even though it has nuclear weapons; it illegally abducts people from Western countries; it occupies territories that don’t belong to it; and Western governments stand idly by, indeed they pour money into Israel, while all this is going on. All this, says Law, is objectionable to Leftists; and in any case Leftists are more biased in favour of the Left, and hence they’re less likely to criticise the misdeeds of Cuba or China than those of Israel.  What’s more, the extensive media coverage of Israel makes Westerners much more aware of its actions than those of other errant countries, hence their concentration on Israeli misdeeds. Law also thinks that so huge is Israel’s influence through its lobbying that no U.S. Congressman dares to criticise Israel for fear of being ‘targeted and removed’.  (Law’s choice of words here would repay literary analysis.)  He doesn’t say exactly how this power-of-the-Lobby claim is supposed to explain the Left focus on Israel; perhaps we can assume that he thinks that the Left is bravely taking up the cudgels to remedy the US government’s inaction against the pervasive influence of the Israel Lobby. Taken all together, claims Law, these considerations provide a more persuasive explanation for the Left’s exceptional focus on Israel than the appeal to antisemitism.

Law thinks that the successful rebutting of any one of these points wouldn’t undermine his general claim, since he’s only saying that these points are jointly sufficient to explain the special focus on Israel, not that any single one of them is enough on its own. However, effective criticism of all of them is another matter, as Law no doubt realises; and they are all of them very open to criticism indeed, so much so that they’re unlikely to be even jointly sufficient to explain anything at all. Here are some of the weaknesses:

a) True, Israel doesn’t get greatly criticised by Western governments for its possession of nukes.  But then neither does nuke-possessing Pakistan, or India for that matter, so this free pass is not peculiar to Israel.  So why doesn’t the Left criticise for example Pakistan as loudly as it criticises Israel? Or for that matter North Korea?  But famously it’s the right that criticises NK, not the left. (In any case there’s a pressing and obvious reason why Israel needs to be well-armed, a reason about which Law is completely silent. Since its inception Israel has been engaged in several wars where its opponents have explicitly professed the aim of destroying it totally. Iran still asserts this aim.  Israel takes these professions seriously.)

b) Then there’s the money. Israel does get a lot of financial support from the West.  But then, so does Egypt – it’s second only to Israel in the amount of military support it gets.  And it’s all taxpayers’ money, which Dr Law seems to think the Left is seriously troubled about when it considers Western support for Israel.  Now Egypt’s current regime is not noted for its support for democracy or human rights.  But I see no perennial and passionate, not to say vitriolic, campaigns against Egypt emanating from the Left.

c) The supposed hostility of the Left to occupation: Israel is an occupying power. But so are Turkey, China, Morocco, and Russia.  However I see no passionate, perennial and vitriolic campaigns emanating from the Left against any of these states. The asymmetry of the Left’s treatment of Israel on the one hand, and these other cases of occupation on the other, doesn’t help explain the Left’s special focus on Israel: it merely provides another example of it.

d) The Leftist bias in favour of left-wing countries might perhaps explain the free pass it gives to Cuba and China, though the extent to which China is a left-wing country is not very clear.  But there are plenty of non-Left targets for the Left to focus on, such as Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia – all countries committing violations, sometimes appalling ones, of human rights.  Once again, I see no vociferously hostile campaigns, for example boycott proposals, emanating from the Left of the Labour Party.

e) The explanation in terms of the extensive media coverage of Israel’s doings: this argument takes for granted that that coverage is a neutral element in the explanation.  But it isn’t – we need to explain why the media (particularly the liberal-left media) is so very interested in the supposed misdeeds of a very small Middle Eastern country before we can see whether media coverage can stand as an independent explanation, or part of an explanation, of why the Left is so interested in those misdeeds.  Law is simply assuming, taking for granted, that that level of media interest isn’t itself part of a prejudicial focus on Israel rather than on other countries.  But of course we can’t take that for granted.  Law’s silence on this issue makes his argument question-begging.

f) Which takes us to his final point: the power of the pro-Israel lobby.  Law could, and to some extent does, appeal to the (allegedly) extraordinary power of pro-Israel, usually Jewish, pressure groups which protect Israel from criticism, and he implies that this is so objectionable that it helps explain why the Left focuses disproportionately on Israel’s misdeeds. The appeal to the shadowy but supposedly overwhelming power of Jewish pressure groups is a standard antisemitic trope, much used (and not only by the Nazis) in the long history of hostility to Jews.  There are indeed strong pro-Israel groups lobbying the government of the USA.  But there are also strong pro-Arab groups seeking to exercise power and influence in the States, and indeed in this country too. For that matter there are pro-Japan pressure groups, and pro-Armenian ones, and for all I know pro-Fijian ones too.  Lobbying is in fact an essential feature of democracy, so we shouldn’t be surprised by lobbying activities, pro-Israel or pro-Arab or pro-anyone else. Indeed the power of the petrodollar in terms of lobbying influence is considerable, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, but even though it’s certainly not Left-wing, somehow it doesn’t seem to spark off the same kind of feverish hostility as the supposedly sinister dealings of the pro-Israel pressure groups.  So once again we have an asymmetry in response to Israel and its supporters which itself needs to be explained before we can see whether it can explain, as opposed to merely exemplifying, the general asymmetrical focus on Israel.

g) In general, Law thinks that rather than adverting to antisemitism when trying to explain the Left’s special and hostile focus on Israel, we should accept his own alternative explanation that, as he says, ‘Western governments are particularly in thrall to Israel’.  (Again, his choice of words is very revealing.)  But this alternative explanation of the special focus of the Left on Israel isn’t persuasive, for the reasons I’ve sketched out above.  And Law says nothing at all about why it would count as being more persuasive than explanations which make reference, among other considerations, to the very long-standing and memorable prejudice against Jews and their doings which has disfigured all of European history, including that of Britain, and which seems to be on the rise again.

h) Law thinks there are yet further considerations which are more plausible than antisemitism to explain the Left focus on Israel – perhaps, he suggests, it’s simply easier for people to focus on Israel than on other countries, or perhaps they’re just conforming to current fashion.  But these alternative explanations raise once again issues which we’ve already addressed.  I doubt if it can be shown that campaigning against Israel is easier than campaigning against any other country, except in ways that involve the very selectivity we’re trying to explain.  And though anti-Israel activity right now is indeed fashionable among significant parts of the Left, this doesn’t explain the special focus, it’s merely a further exemplification of it.  Law’s proposed explanations either fail to explain the special focus, since they also apply to countries other than Israel which aren’t the focus of special left-wing hostility, or they’re simply question-begging – they appeal to considerations which are themselves examples of the special focus we’re examining, and hence can’t explain it.  It seems likely that the most plausible explanation of the Left’s antagonistic interest in Israel’s doings is going to have to appeal, at least in part, to the long tradition of singling out Jews and their concerns for hostile treatment, and the consequent psychological ease and sociological simplicity of doing so.

i) Law closes his post with two extra points.  First, he wants to complain that people who charge critics of Israel with antisemitism are evading the content of the criticism they’re objecting to – they go straight to the alleged motive of the critics, in an obnoxiously ad hominem way.  The example he gives is the view that Israel is an apartheid state – he thinks that people who claim that this is an antisemitic view hardly ever actually address the charge of apartheid.  They hardly ever address the charge of apartheid? Where has Dr Law been looking?  See, for example, David Hirsh Contemporary Left Antisemitism, pp.124-33;  R.Fine and P.Spencer Antisemitism and the Left, pp.116-118;  Dave Rich The Left’s Jewish Problem, ch 2; and many, many others.  Perhaps Law should get out a bit more.

j) The second point worth noting is really a minor one, but it’s illuminating, all the same.  With one exception, throughout the whole post Law maintains a tone of calm, urbane detachment in what he has to say, and avoids the hurling of abuse and insults. This is entirely commendable, especially on such an inflammatory topic (though why it’s so inflammatory is of course the subject in hand.) But right at the end the strain gets a bit too much for him, and he can’t resist telling us that people who make false accusations of antisemitism for partisan political purposes are moral scumbags.  He doesn’t tell us anything about how likely this activity is – for all we know, and for all he knows, and certainly for all the evidence he provides (which is zero) it might happen only quite rarely – it all depends on how much antisemitism there actually is about the place, a topic on which Law is once again silent. But it’s true that if people do knowingly make false accusations of racism, that’s morally obnoxious, and will often amount to scumbaggery.  That we can agree about.  But Law doesn’t think that those who falsely charge Israel with being an apartheid state are moral scumbags, and he doesn’t think that those who falsely charge Israel with committing genocide are moral scumbags, and he doesn’t think that those who appeal to the old, old trope of sinister Jewish power over law and government are moral scumbags.  He doesn’t think that those who falsely say that Zionists make lying accusations of antisemitism against critics of Israel, just to smear them, are moral scumbags either.  At least, if he does think these things, he certainly doesn’t tell us about it.

What really annoys Law are false allegations of antisemitism being made against the Left. Somehow false allegations against Zionists, saying that that they lie and smear for political purposes, leave him unmoved. Perhaps he thinks that such allegations, which are commonly made against Zionists by parts of the Left, are always likely to be true.  If that’s so, then genuine and accurate charges of antisemitism against the Left are likely to slide invisibly under Law’s somewhat selective radar.

Eve Garrard

September 2017