Concerns over antisemitism in the UK Labour Party began to surface very quickly after MP Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran far-left ideologue and pro-Palestinian campaigner, was elected its leader in 2015.
The following three and a half years have witnessed innumerable incidents of antisemitic sentiments being expressed by Labour Party members, which the party leadership has done little to curb.
It has culminated with the resignation of eight Labour MPs citing their revulsion at the antisemitism that has taken root in the party, which includes a Labour party member posting on Facebook about a Jewish ritual of Jews drinking blood, another member who tweeted that there were still “plenty shekels to be wrung out of the memory of the Holocaust,” and a Labour councilwoman saying that Jewish newspapers might be working for the Mossad.
How has one of the two mainstream parties in the United Kingdom – a party which used to be the home for Jewish voters – become so infested by antisemitism and anti-Zionism that its own MPs can no longer stomach being called members of the Labour Party?
Perhaps the single largest factor in the mushrooming of radical, extremist sentiment with Labour is Corbyn himself. For decades a marginal and fringe figure, seen as something of a crank within his own party, Corbyn held – and still holds – a hard-left anti-Western, anti-globalist perspective of the world, including extreme antipathy for the State of Israel as well as sympathy for Israel’s violent Islamist enemies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who he famously called his friends.
When Corbyn became a candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2015, and when his leadership was challenged in 2016, membership of the party shot up, in part due to a heavy reduction in membership fees, with hundreds of thousands of Corbyn’s fellow ideologues who had, like him, been confined to the margins of political discourse seeing an opportunity to seize control of the party and put their agenda center stage.
One of the critical elements in the ideology of Corbyn’s acolytes and allies is a deep-seated antagonism towards Israel as part of a hostility to the West, the US and capitalism that is a central principle of the broader Stalinist dogma they adhere to.David Hirsh, a senior lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of the book “Contemporary Left Antisemitism,” says this ideology begins with a one-sided critique of Israel and Zionism. Hostility to Israel then has a tendency to become a defining symbol of a person’s political identity, and of their membership of the radical left, and this often manifests as a culture of “outright, moral hostility which sees Israel as guilty of apartheid and Nazism, and which paints Israel as uniquely evil on the planet.”And because hostility to Israel became a defining symbol of left-wing identity, “those who pointed out how demonization of the Jewish state was bringing antisemitism with it were often defined as being outside the community of the good, they were exiled from it,” says Hirsh. These enemies, who appeared to be blocking the socialist utopia envisioned by the hard-left, were Jews.“The underlying assumption that Zionists, and therefore most Jews and Jewish institutions, stand between us and a Corbyn-led government, is eerily similar in structure to the ways in which Christian currents of antisemitism have portrayed Jews as not only rejecting Jesus for themselves, but by so doing, constituted a block to the redemption of everybody else too,” says Hirsh.There is conspiracy theory about Israel being behind allegations of antisemitism against Labour, and bankrolling those who raise the issue; there is blood libel which portrays Israel as a blood-thirsty child-killing evil; there is Holocaust minimisation and inversion, where Jews get accused of exaggerating the Holocaust or of being the same as Nazis. And there is also an openness to associating Jews with finance capital, globalism, imperialism, the slave trade and capitalism. While the dominant antisemitic culture in the party is still not explicit, it does create a situation in which explicit antisemitic tropes of conspiracy and blood libel are not considered very important and are not dealt with by the Labor leadership with any sense of urgency.All this has led Jews in their tens of thousands to abandon support for Labour.
Richard Ferrer, the editor of the Jewish News newspaper, says that the Labour Party has now become “an untamed degenerate, immoral cult” which is “driven by McCarthyist witch hunts where every person who speaks out against the Dear Leader is hounded and heckled.”
Those witch hunts are the necessary reaction to claims from within the Labour Party itself that it has become infected by antisemitism, since they demonstrate a betrayal of the utopian vision, and predictably the defection of the eight MPs who left the party this week has been welcomed by some party members as a welcome step which rids Labour of such obstructionists.
Although much of the antisemitic invective is confined to social media, it is nevertheless a worrying reflection of the beliefs and perspectives of significant numbers of citizens in the UK.
Ferrer described the phenomenon as “terrifying” for British Jews, while antisemitic incidents spiked by 16% in 2018, in particular during periods in which debate over allegations within the UK Labour Party was at its most intense.
Corbyn has done little, if anything, to curb the rise of antisemitism in his party, largely due to the fact that it stems from his very own world view and from people who are his supporters, allies and comrades.
So for example, despite the intense antisemitic vitriol that has been directed at MP Luciana Berger in recent months – one of the eight MPs to quit Labour and who is Jewish – Corbyn has not spoken to her since 2017, Ferrer points out.
Ferrer says that relations between the Jewish community and the Labour Party have gone “from bad to worse to desperate,” and are now “over” to all intents and purposes.
What the future holds for Labour is hard to say. The eight departed MPs appear to believe that the party is now irredeemable. If they had hope that it could be salvaged they would have likely stayed on, since the political odds of survival outside of the two main parties are very low and breaking with Labour has an act of finality about it.
The party is trailing badly in opinion polls despite the civil war currently raging in the ruling Conservative party, and so if Labour is defeated at the next election, whenever that may be, he may eventually be forced out and perhaps with him his fellow ideologues.
Until then, it seems certain that the Labour Party will remain mired in swamps of radicalism and antisemitism it has cast itself into.