As politics returns to normal as this year’s conference season approaches, distance from the 2019 general election begins to allow us to take a step back and re-evaluate both the achievements and failures of the past five years. The rise in prominence of antisemitism on the left unquestionably is one of the biggest examples of the latter.
This makes Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists a timely intervention. Made more so by the fact that the author, Daniel Randall saw and still sees the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as having been an opportunity for a left revival in general.
At this point it is worth mentioning the elephant in the room. Randall is a supporter of the Trotskyist group, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty(AWL). For some on the left that will make him and his work something to ignore entirely. This in my view is a mistake. Make all the criticisms of the AWL you wish (some are unquestionably justified), refusing to countenance any arguments because of AWL membership strikes me as cowardly and apolitical. Especially when the arguments made in Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists are so critically important.
Quite rightly, Randall rejects two arguments pertaining to left antisemitism out of hand. The first is that of complete denial; the idea that the allegations are no more than a smear. This is not a difficult case to make, it must be said, but is hugely important not to lose sight of. A particularly egregious example Randall cites is of a Momentum organiser who suggested that Tony Blair was “Jewish to the core” and under the protection of the Rothschild’s, who “own all the money in the world.” Anyone who denies that any antisemitism exists on the left has at best went out of their way not to notice it.
The other argument, perhaps controversially for some, is a rejection of the idea that antisemitism was never used cynically or weaponised by some. The examples of this are by their nature much more contentious than examples of denials of antisemitism’s existence. One can perhaps give Siobhain McDonagh the benefit of the doubt and assume she does actually believe that any and all opposition to capitalism is antisemitic. But I see no explanation for Owen Smith claiming that the AWL are antisemitic – an argument not even made by their harshest critics.
However, as socialist author David Renton points out “You can’t weaponise something that isn’t there.” Enter Randall’s suggested third camp. A recognition that antisemitism on the left exists but that from socialists, it is a distortion of left wing ideas rather than a natural byproduct or continuation of left wing ideas. And that while it is right to call out cynical usage of the issue by our opponents that does not make the issue less serious. Nor do accusations of hypocrisy and double standards, no matter how accurate. The only way to stop the attacks is to resolve the issue.
This is a solid third position and one would hope that most people on the left can share it. But what of those that don’t? I’m less convinced than Randall that they can be redeemed at all, as I will return to.
Randall spends a lot of time on the historical background of antisemitism, which is good, but it takes up too much of the book’s time. I’m not convinced that it’s that relevant to the current problem.
Randall outlines three types of antisemitism. “Primitive antisemitism” is conspiracy theories that target Jews for being Jews. This does seem to have become more prominent on the left, as 9/11 and Rothschild conspiracy theories have more of a presence than you found on the left a decade ago. This definition would also include attacks on Israel that are obviously motivated by traditional conspiracy theories. For example, Chris Williamson’s claim that “Zionist teachers” are violating children’s rights quite obviously isn’t any kind of criticism of Israel, even a skewed one.
The second strand in Randall’s view is that of Stalinist conspiracy theory (the Doctor’s Plot, the Slánský Trial etc.) These are the propaganda produced by Stalinist states. While Stalinism unquestionably does have a strong strand of antisemitism, I question its relevance here (aside from as a “family dispute” between Trots and Tankies). Conspiracism in the Occupy movement was a serious issue and I think Randall is right to highlight it. It’s no coincidence that it’s the background of many of those who run today’s alternative left media outlets. What the connection between this and Stalinism is remains unclear however.
Randall’s third strand will be the most controversial on the left. Randall describes it as “Stalinist Anti-Zionism”. While again I’d quibble with “Stalinist”, preferring an alternative term of Randall’s: “absolute Anti-Zionism”. The core of the argument is that Zionism is treated as an imperialist monolith without complexities. This leads, Randall argues, to a position that by necessity treats the vast majority of living Jews as an enemy.
In my view there are both strengths and weaknesses in this particular model. There is an issue where Jews participating in left campaigns are expected to ritually denounce Israel. It is hard to see how this double standard is not antisemitic. More subtly, too many will write off any allegations of antisemitism from any Jew not seen as anti Israel enough. A simple comparison will show why this is unacceptable; we do not ask for loyalty tests from Muslims before offering solidarity on Islamophobia.
Where I think Randall falls down here is on the subject of “national rights”. It’s a nice slogan to be sure, but it felt vague in practice. In particular, what do you do if two sets of people have mutually exclusive national rights? More time spent explaining this would’ve been beneficial as the third definition is most relevant to modern arguments about antisemitism on the left.
Finally, we get to Randall’s proposed solutions and I’m afraid this is the weakest part of the book in my view. Randall is almost entirely against expulsions and suspensions for antisemites within the Labour party. While this is not really my business as a non-member, I simply don’t see how education, reading groups and debates are going to solve the issue on their own. This doesn’t make them a bad thing and I can see a definite role for that with people where the main issue is a lack of understanding. But in terms of how the Labour party should deal with those who are unapologetic in their antisemitism, or for those who style themselves as anti-racists and cannot countenance the idea of not being so, these solutions seem woefully inadequate given the scale of the problem.
There is an obvious issue even if you can “convert” the occasional antisemite. For how long are Jewish members of the Labour party expected to listen to a specific member bang on about the Rothschild’s while waiting for them to stop being antisemitic? I’d suggest that a certain level of making it socially unacceptable to be antisemitic on the left is necessary along with any educational work.
Overall, Confronting Antisemitism on the Left has both strengths and weaknesses. Where it shines is in its overview of the history of left antisemitism. It’s historical context is well detailed and useful for anyone wanting a historical context for the current arguments.
I’m less convinced by whether it provides the kind of arguments needed to fight antisemitism on the left. A large part of the issue is that the arguments it does provide feel on the theoretical side of the issue, where the enemy we’re fighting is frequently couched in visceral terms. While I sympathise with Randall’s aversion to bureaucratic mechanisms as a way of resolving political issues, I’m less convinced that education is the most effective step forward either.
Largely, I find the book’s illustration of the problem and some of the reasons behind it far more convincing than I find it as a blueprint for a way forward. However, the importance of the book in many ways is that it’s been written before. On this issue, for too long too many of the left seem to have deserted their critical faculties all together. Worse, what were previously solid anti-racist principles have been repeatedly abandoned, whether for reasons of expediency or ignorance.
That will hopefully be the legacy of the book, much like That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic before it. A conversation starter that allows us to seriously discuss how we get out of this current mess, where Icke proteges and 9/11 deniers are being allowed to run around the left seemingly without challenge. And on that latter point, if the book upsets those people (and I suspect it will in some cases) that alone is enough to justify its publication.