Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Why the left has a problem with antisemitism

Jeremy Corbyn, who described Hamas as “friends”, with Azhar Ali, who was suspended as Labour’s Rochdale candidate
Jeremy Corbyn, who described Hamas as “friends”, with Azhar Ali, who was suspended as Labour’s Rochdale candidate
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Early on Monday evening I was having a conversation with a friend and he asked me what I thought I would write about this week in my column. I am going to write about Labour and Rochdale, I replied, and I’m going to tell Sir Keir Starmer that he should drop his candidate after his conspiracist comments about Israel.

My friend is Jewish and Labour and politically very sophisticated. I always listen to him respectfully. So I did exactly that when he answered: “Danny, it’s not as simple as that.”

If Labour doesn’t have a candidate, my friend said, then it’s very possible that George Galloway will win the seat. Is that an outcome we really want? By “we” I think he meant Jews, but he may just as well have meant Labour, or the country. I maintained my position but I saw his point. Galloway, one of the most disturbing figures in modern politics, would be a disaster.

And then, as we were discussing it, a message came through. Labour had dropped Azhar Ali after all. There had been more comments, apparently. Accusations about Jewish influence on the media.

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As a result of this conversation, and maybe a surfeit of generosity, I am not so inclined to criticise Starmer for the time it took him to act. His dilemma was a real one. I would have preferred him to act immediately, and it was naive not to realise there would be more where the first tape came from, but his hesitation was understandable. The prospect now in Rochdale is not a good one.

I’m less interested in what Starmer did, and when he did it, than I am in this — why? Why is there so much paranoid conspiracist hatred of Israel and Jews on the left?

I don’t mean — and it is important to emphasise this — why is there criticism of Israel’s actions on the left. This criticism is sometimes (certainly not always) unfair and sometimes (again not always) ignorant, but it most certainly has its place in mainstream debate. This includes even sharp or outraged attacks on Israel’s actions in Gaza. I don’t have to agree with these to acknowledge their place in legitimate discourse.

What I mean is why do Labour candidates, councillors and MPs, and people to the left of them, so often advance obsessive and cranky views on Israel? Such as believing it deliberately allowed the Hamas massacre to provide permission to murder Palestinians, or that it uses Jewish media control to attack Labour MPs?

The right place to start, I think, is with Lenin. More precisely, with Lenin’s theory of imperialism. At around the time of the Russian revolution, the Bolshevik leader advanced his idea of the final stage of capitalism. His view was that the survival of capitalism was dependent on the profits of imperial adventure. End these profits and you could end capitalism.

From this derived the left’s idea that it should ally with anti-colonial resistance movements, whatever their broader politics. These groups — in the modern era, Castro’s Cuba, Chávez’s Venezuela, Khomeini’s Iran — were at the front line of the battle against global capital. And this is the only battle that really matters, the one from which all freedoms derive.

So it doesn’t matter if a group jails opponents or rapes women or throws gay people from buildings. As long as they help bring down capitalism — which, as anti-imperialists, they do — they are liberating forces and their other faults will dissolve once capitalism dissolves. Even the murderous, oppressive Houthis are “heroes” according to this calculation.

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And Hamas are “friends”, to use the word employed by Jeremy Corbyn. Because all international problems must be squeezed into the battle against imperialism and colonialism, Israel is an imperialist power. There is no apparent discomfort on the left at describing the last refuge for Jews driven out of every other country as a conquering power sustained by wealthy financiers to advance international capitalist control.

As Jake Wallis Simons notes in his recent book Israelophobia, most of the common left-wing attacks on Zionism derive from a deliberate Soviet propaganda effort. The story of that effort is well told by Gal Beckerman in his history of Soviet Jewry When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone.

Partly as a defence mechanism against Jews seeking to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, the Soviets developed in the 1960s and 1970s what the central committee called “The Plan for Basic Organisational and Propaganda Measures Connected with the Situation in the Middle East and the Intensifying Struggle with Zionism”. They often used communist Jews to deliver their message so that they could deny antisemitism, even though their general antisemitism was undeniable.

The Soviets said that every day brought “new reports of the Israeli military, reviving memories of Hitlerites”. The (now common on the left) comparison with the Nazis, and the use of terms such as genocide, is thus decades old and a communist invention. “Zionism,” they argued in a televised press conference, “expressed the chauvinistic views and racist ravings of the Jewish bourgeoisie.”

To this they added: “Zionists supply imperialism with cannon fodder in the struggle against the Arab people.” For in addition to the ideological reasons for their opposition to Israel, there were political and strategic ones. The Soviets wanted to recruit Arab governments and the Arab street to their side in the Cold War struggle with America. And virulent opposition to Israel helped them to do that.

Similar forces are at work on the modern left. The adoption of obsessive anti-Zionism and the entertainment of wild anti-Israel and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories partly derives from theories about capitalism, but partly from political convenience.

Passionate opposition to Israel has become, sadly, part of the basic political identity of otherwise not particularly political Muslims. Not all of them, of course, but many of them. And this isn’t simply a feature of geography, since Pakistani Muslims are among those most vehement on the issue.

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This allows the creation of an alliance between the left and those many Muslims in this country with a strong interest in Israel and Palestine. What would otherwise be a tiny faction — the far left — is brought into the mainstream and provided with heft by this relationship. Galloway has ridden it into parliament more than once. He will now try it again.

But it is not only him. When Azhar Ali made grotesque antisemitic comments about Jewish power and advanced cranky conspiracy theories about Israel, it is quite plain that he did so because he thought that was what his audience wanted to hear.

He was speaking at a meeting of Lancashire Labour Party members and he wasn’t challenged. His selection as a candidate came after this meeting and doubtless some of those selecting him were in the room when he spoke.

There will be more than 600 Labour candidates at the election, so the Ali scandal will not be the last. Starmer’s fight to change his party is still a work in progress.

daniel.finkelstein@thetimes.co.uk 

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