Foreign Affairs: Some of their best friends

Allegations of anti-Semitism bedevil Britain’s Labor just when economic trends should play into its hands.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone
(photo credit: REUTERS)
News of Winston Churchill’s electoral defeat caught David Ben-Gurion between New York and London aboard an ocean liner, where fellow Zionist leaders were now toasting the victorious Labor, recalling its staunch backing of the Zionist cause.
The jubilation made sense. It had been a mere eight months since Labor adopted its leader Clement Attlee’s call for the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in an expanded Palestine.
All were therefore elated – except Ben-Gurion.
“There is no confidence that, once in power, Labor will demand of itself what it demanded of others,” he warned.
Vindication arrived within weeks, when Attlee turned his back on Labor’s stated policy, saying he would not lift restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Worse, with displaced persons’ camps overflowing with skeletal survivors, foreign minister Ernest Bevin warned that if the Jews “push to the head of the queue,” anti-Semitism might resurge.
Seeking Labor’s lost soul, Ben-Gurion went to its Jewish chairman Harold Laski, an unabashed Zionist.
“I am saying this only to you and to my wife,” said a shaken Laski about his meeting the previous day with Bevin, who rejected him and his demands and also accused him of being a Zionist agent, before Laski retorted: “I knew you hated me – because I am a Jew.”
It was the beginning of a tragic relationship between Labor and anti-Semitism, a trauma that animated the struggle for Israel’s establishment, before making way for harmony between successive Labor governments and the Jewish state.
Now the trauma is back. While inhabiting an entirely different social ecosystem, Labor is grappling with revelations, accusations and protestations of anti-Semitism in its ranks.
THE CRISIS, which had been simmering since the election last year of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, boiled over following the airing of a 2014 Facebook share by MP Naz Shah and follow-up comments by former London mayor Ken Livingstone.
Shah, a British-born representative for West Bradford who spent her teens in Pakistan while her mother was in jail for killing her husband, shared a post that displayed a map of the US with Israel stamped on it alongside the statement “Problem solved.”
Responding the following day to the row this caused, Livingstone told BBC that Hitler’s original policy was “that Jews should be moved to Israel” (which did not yet exist). Hitler, he insisted, “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
The row was then multiplied by Prime Minister David Cameron’s call on Labor to suspend Shah.
With Thursday’s local elections of 125 city councils at stake, including the mayoralties of London, Liverpool and Bristol, Cameron’s statement placed anti-Semitism at the heart of political discourse.
Calling in Parliament on the opposition leader to renounce his remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah being Corbyn’s “friends,” Cameron said that as long as such a statement is not made, “combating anti-Semitism in the Labor Party will mean nothing.”
The crisis transcended party politics when British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote this week in The Telegraph that “comments from senior and long-standing members of the Labor Party” show “how severe the problem has now become.”
The stakes might not have risen this high had Labor not been led by the controversial Corbyn, who among other things seeks Britain’s nuclear disarmament, opposes its war on Islamic State and blames the Ukraine crisis on the US. Such positions make Corbyn disagreeable not only outside his party but also deep within it.
The fire kindled by Shah, Livingstone and Cameron was young when the flames about Corbyn were fanned by John Mann, a Labor member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism.
“If Labor could not fight anti-Semitism, it had no right to exist,” he said.
Shadow Education Minister Lucy Powell concurred.
“There clearly is an issue with anti-Semitism in the Labor Party,” she said, “otherwise we wouldn’t have spent the best part of the last six or seven days talking about it.”
Corbyn, who initially tried to belittle the problem, now changed course. Shah and Livingston were both suspended from Labor, and the party leader said Labor was setting up an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism within its ranks. But then it turned out that the effort to find and remove the anti-Semites in Labor’s midst was actually older and broader.
The party had reportedly suspended 50 of its members since March, including Burnley Councilman Shah Hussein, who tweeted that Israeli soccer star Yossi Benayoun and his country were “doing the same thing that Hitler did to your race”; former Blackburn mayor Salim Mullah, who backed a post to relocate Israel; and Nottingham Councilman Ilyas Aziz, who posted a call to “stop drinking Gaza blood” next to beverage bottles containing a red liquid.
Expectedly, Corbyn’s circle is trying to frame the allegations as part of a political conspiracy led by Tories out to defeat Corbyn, and Laborites out to succeed him. It is an escapist reading of what evidently runs much deeper.
THE BIG CHANGE since the days of Attlee and Bevin is demographic. In 1950 there were 100,000 Muslims in the United Kingdom. Last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, their number crossed three million, over half of them born abroad. This population’s growth has been so rapid that over thelast decade alone it has doubled.
This electorate is British politics’ new frontier.
The politicians this immigration produces are prone to be products of the virulent anti-Semitism that has been circulating in the Muslim world since the 1950s. At the same time, this new electorate tempts non-Muslim politicians to grandstand with anti-Israeli broadsides.
That is clearly what happened with Livingstone, whose mayoralty of London last decade was scandalized by public appearances alongside Islamist extremists including Egypt’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who says the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the Jews’ “corruption.”
Livingstone, who backed Corbyn’s bid for party leader and is considered his ally, embodies the bridge that has emerged in recent years between anti-Israel Laborites and anti-Semitic Muslims. The extent to which this encounter is premeditated, organic and durable remains to be seen. In its narrow context, this association provided the Conservatives with a potent weapon at an opportune political moment.
With high-profile Labor supporters like actress Emma Thompson saying she might not vote in this London mayoral election, Labor is clearly on the defensive. In fact, Labor is in for an internal war, where centrists who follow the legacies of former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown feel that the rise of Corbyn represents a hostile takeover of a party they no longer recognize.
Corbyn’s supporters claim the bigots are only on their party’s margins.
It is an impression too many people have now come to doubt.
To rehabilitate its anti-racist image, Labor will from here on have to openly and convincingly confront the anti-Semitic agitation to which its Muslim voters are exposed, and with which some of its members are infested.
Ironically, Labor arrives at this crucible just when the social zeitgeist from which it suffered for nearly 40 years is drawing to a close.
Though it has been in power for 13 years since 1997, Labor mostly left intact Margaret Thatcher’s market reforms, effectively conceding the socialist legacy she undid had become anachronistic.
Thatcherism in fact conquered most of the world, where the privatizations and deregulation she pioneered inspired economic overhauls from post-communist Eastern Europe and post-fascist Latin America to post-socialist Israel.
Now the pendulum is swinging back.
Unbridled capitalism has disenfranchised millions worldwide, depriving the millennial middle class of its parents’ social confidence while imbuing it with economic fear.
Britain is no exception in this regard, and its Labor Party might in due course benefit from this disenchantment; provided, of course, that it does not antagonize that same middle class by appearing to tolerate bigotry, whether out of conviction or cowardice.
Back in the days of Attlee, British Labor was an inspiration to a resurging social-democratic movement worldwide.
One of its admirers, India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, eulogized in 1954 a major British Labor thinker and teacher who died of influenza at 56. His name was Harold Laski. “At no time,” said Nehru, “did he falter or compromise on the principles he held dear.”
One of the principles Laski held dear was Zionism, which figured prominently in the legacy he willed to the party he once chaired. It is a legacy Labor had better dust off, for its own sake as well as Britain’s, whether with its current leadership, or without it.