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Ugly and Dangerous: Labour’s extremism and its anti-Semitism

The Labour Party has a problem over anti-Semitism: no one doubts that – from Jeremy Corbyn himself to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It believes the party may have broken the law by discriminating against Jews and has launched an investigation. Is Labour doing, as it claims, all it can to remove the anti-Semites from its ranks? Or, rather, is it obstinately refusing anything more than minimal, cosmetic measures? After the readmission this week of Chris Williamson to the party, with merely a formal warning, it is hard to answer anything but ‘No’ to the first, and ‘Yes’ to the second.

Williamson, MP for Derby North and a close political ally of Jeremy Corbyn’s, had the whip suspended four months ago, after he told a meeting of the Sheffield Momentum group that, in his view, Labour had ‘backed off far too much, we have given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic’ about anti-Semitism. This was by no means an isolated incident. According to one of Williamson’s colleagues, the MP Ruth Smeeth, ‘he has demonstrated a pattern of behaviour over a period of many months seemingly seeking to intentionally undermine, marginalise and harass the British Jewish community and Jewish Labour party members’. Williamson has rounded on those who criticized an activist suspended for anti-Semitism, and he tried to have a documentary screened in the House of Commons about Jackie Walker, a political activist expelled from the Labour Party for anti-Semitism.

Now Jeremy Corbyn has denied having anything to do with the decision about Williamson, reached against the advice of party staff. His comment raises more questions than it answers about how far Labour’s extremist wing control the party’s ruling and advisory bodies.

Take the membership of the tribunal of MPs that judged him, which was, to say the least, surprising. Along with Sir George Howarth, a doyen of the Commons select committees and former home office minister, who voted against readmission, the other two MPs were Keith Vaz and Huda Elmi. A Google search on Vaz does not give an impression of the sort of squeaky clean politician who might be expected to sit in judgement over complaints about misconduct. As a Catholic, Vaz might at least have seemed nicely removed from any Jewish-Muslim tensions – but back in 1989, he led the march of several thousand Muslims in Leicester calling for the banning of Salman Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses. For her part, Huda Elmi seems as convinced an opponent of the Labour Party’s attempts to tackle anti-Semitism as Williamson himself. When, after repeated attempts by Jeremy Corbyn to avoid doing so, the Labour Party finally agreed to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, she described the decision as ‘incredibly disappointing’. In her view, Israel is a ‘settler-colonial state’. And, when the EHRC set up its enquiry into anti-Semitism in the party, she called for the commission’s abolition –calling it ‘a failed experiment’.

Williamson, however, is indignant. He considers himself a lifelong anti-racist, and in his Sheffield speech went on to boast that Labour has ‘done more to actually address the scourge of anti-Semitism than any other political party’. The position sounds paradoxical, and yet, within the terms of their own ideology, there is a reason why he, like many others on the far left (including Corbyn himself) defends what most people see clearly as anti-Semitism and yet believes he opposes every sort of racism.

Conservatives in Britain find racism repugnant because it goes against the values that have developed slowly in our society and help it to cohere in such a way that people can live together, respecting each other’s differences. Liberals (who include both Old and Blairite Labour) see racism as an affront to the intrinsic dignity of each human being. For the far left, however, racism is part of a story of oppression and imperialism, by landowners, bosses, and whites of peasants, workers and people of colour. Its militants oppose racism as part of a wider attack against the whole framework of capitalism, and the international political order based on it, which attack for prolonging this story of exploitation. The Jews, however, do not fit into their picture of things, because, although undoubtedly oppressed themselves, they are often linked with those who are seen as the oppressors. In the Middle Ages, they were the money-lenders to kings, by turns protected and persecuted by them. They have been, and remain, leaders in international capitalism, and the Jewish state has responded to threats to its existence by becoming the regional military super-power. Those on the far left cannot, therefore, resist the urge to qualify and minimize even the most horrific instances of anti-Semitism, such as the Nazi extermination. The case of Jackie Walker, so admired by Williamson is particularly telling, because her ancestry is part-Jewish, part West Indian. An advocate of the Palestinian cause, she is eager to explain how her ancestors (on the Jewish side) ‘were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade’ and to compare the (Nazi) Holocaust with the ‘African holocaust’, in which ‘millions more’ were killed.

Anti-Semitism is an ugly and dangerous thing, and it is hardly surprising that over a hundred Labour MPs and Peers have written to protest against Williamson’s readmission to their party. But the anti-Semitism of Williamson and the far left is a sign of something even uglier and more dangerous: the grip on Labour’s leadership and its Momentum supporters of an extreme ideology, which threatens not just British Jews, but the very fabric of British political culture and society.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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