Anti-Semitism and bad faith

I don't have the personal experience or the historical knowledge of British politics to say anything especially insightful about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But I'm going to tell a very limited story from my Facebook feed.

Among my Facebook friends, people have been talking about the relationship between criticism of Israel (or 'Zionism', if we must) and anti-Semitism for several years. Everyone recognised that criticism of Israel could take anti-Semitic form. But people, largely, only saw this connection playing out in really extreme cases. I have a very clear memory of a friend posting a status arguing against the idea that criticism of Israel could never be anti-Semitic, by citing actual attacks on Jewish people and vandalism of synagogues in London. Pretty soft conclusion, from the most strong and incontrovertible evidence anyone could ask for.

The only people who drew a broader connection, between strident anti-Israel politics generally and anti-Semitism, were - to be honest - pretty awful people, and very right wing. Occasionally an argument would break out about whether BDS or anti-Zionism or something along those lines is inherently anti-Semitic, and the guys (usually guys) arguing that they are were also people who clearly wanted to throw mud of any sort at people on the left, and who were racist - I was so baffled the first time I heard the Obama/Kenya/bust-of-Churchill thing - and it was just a bit hard to take them seriously.


Things are not like that now. The Facebook friends denouncing figures on the anti-Israel left are, for the most part, people who are current or former - or on the way from current to former - members of the Labour Party.  The criticism of Labour MPs for putting their critique of Israel using incredibly insensitive language and old-fashioned anti-Semitic tropes is coming from people who don't have nearly the same generalised disdain for the left as the old guard.

I don't want to say that's because things have really changed. If Ken Livingstone is anti-Semitic today, he was probably anti-Semitic three years ago. I'm not going to say that left-wing Jewish people are more reliable detectors of anti-Semitism than those on the right. But if you're on the left, and you're being told by people who already regard you with contempt that you're anti-Semitic, it's easy to see those accusations as being made in bad faith. Not just easy - kind of reasonable. When someone who's verifiably a racist and an anti-Semite calls your anti-Israel activism anti-Semitic, why take them seriously?

If that was ever a good response - I have my sympathies with it, but there are obvious reasons to worry - it's not any more. When concerns are raised about a candidate for NUS President by (almost?) every university Jewish Society in the country, that's not something that you can explain away as the ulterior-motives attack of conservatives. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that says if so many Jewish people sincerely identify something as anti-Semitic, it must be so - but god, it should give you pause for thought. Likewise Ken Livingstone's inexplicably awful comments on the radio yesterday. It's no longer good enough to denounce the critics as right-wingers, insist you're against Israel not Jews, and shut the book. As Henry Zeffman puts it:
"many Labour MPs and Labour members and Labour supporters ... give the impression they could walk into a room daubed with swastikas and say: "Well, that's a bit far, but let's be clear - it's not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel"."
Almost the worst part: I don't think there are that many anti-Israel political stances which can't be expressed without resort to the tropes and phrases of old-style anti-Semitism. If you think that Western governments are vastly oversympathetic to the tactics of the Israeli government, and that Western media outlets are mostly deaf to the voices of Palestinian victims, you can say that without the nonsensical and racist accompanying claim that newspapers and governments are doing the bidding of a Zionist lobby. There's no reason to react to people who point out that you're being nonsensical and racist by shouting 'reactionary!' and turning away.

That's still the instinct of many people in this section of the left. The time when it made sense to suspect bad faith is well and truly past. The instinct needs to go. The good news is that most of these people - particularly the ones who aren't old and pathologically unapologetic - are decent people. Accusations of bad faith didn't come from nowhere as a defence mechanism; they came from the fact that there was a lot of bad faith floating around. Now that this anti-Semitism is being called out by people who are clearly on the left, with a bit of time and a bit of luck, it should subside, and people should start to take this seriously. Fingers crossed.

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