5 March 2019 — Jonathan Cook
The moral panic generated by journalists and politicians over a supposed Labour ‘anti-semitism crisis’ is rooted in a perverse kind of reality – unconscious dread at the prospect of their inner narrative and worldview breaking apart
John Harris, a columnist who by the Guardian’s current dismal standards is considered on the newspaper’s left, has added his voice to the paper’s endless contributions on Labour’s supposed “anti-semitism crisis”. Sadly, his is typical of the paper’s misrepresentations of the issue.
It is easy – and lazy – to accuse those who peddle these distortions of acting solely in bad faith. But speaking as someone who was himself once deeply immersed as a journalist in the corporate culture of the Guardian, I know how simple it is from within that culture to fail to scrutinise one’s most fundamental and cherished assumptions. In fact, it’s often a requirement for remaining employed.
Nonetheless, Harris is such a good journalist by conventional standards and his work here is so lamentable, so lacking in awareness of even basic human psychology, that it cries out for some deeper analysis.
A lot has been written about how we now live in information silos. But that was true even before the arrival of social media for those like Harris whose job in the corporate media is to shore up a largely consensual view of the world, if only out of fear of the consequences should that consensus break down. In the wake of Brexit, we have heard liberal journalists grow louder in their suggestions that there is now “too much democracy”. As the consensus crumbles, their authoritarian instincts are becoming ever clearer.
No one from the Daily Mail to the Guardian departs from the “Labour is institutionally anti-semitic” narrative. That in itself is quite extraordinary. But the dearth of evidence for this narrative offers an opportunity to shake us out of our complacent belief that a state-corporate media, one reliant on profits from advertising corporations, can ever represent more than a narrow spectrum of thought – thought that helps those in power to maintain their power.
Moral panics and self-delusions
Harris begins his article by noting a Jewish woman’s experience of what she sees as an increasingly “abusive relationship” with the Labour party after 40 years as a member. Reporting her concerns, Harris lists a few recent incidents witnessed by this woman that she cites as proof of a rising tide of anti-semitism in Labour.
Absolutely no details are provided beyond her interpretations of what took place. (One should note that this lack of evidence is a staple of the media’s narrative about “institutional anti-semitism” in Labour.) So let us weigh as best we can the interpretations put forward by Harris’s anonymous interviewee as our gateway into examining the “institutional anti-semitism” narrative itself.
First some background. Most liberal journalists are aware of the problem of what are called “moral panics”. Harris’s Guardian colleague Nick Davies wrote an influential book, Flat Earth News, whose first chapter was dedicated to the way the media and public can end up in a narrative tailspin, entering a world of mutually reinforcing self-delusions.
When such delusions serve an establishment agenda, they can be particularly pernicious and difficult to root out. And beating Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into submission – or into the dust – before he can reach No 10 is definitely high on the political and media establishments’ agenda.
Moral panics work this way: Journalists stoke up emotions or fears over an issue that then runs rampant through public discourse to the point at which it no longer bears any resemblance to the real problem.
A famous example cited by Davies is the outpouring of concern, as the millennium approached, with a supposed Year 2000 computer bug. Through 1999, the media stoked an apocalyptic mood about the imminent meltdown of our newly computerised world, leaving us without basic goods, medicines and transport because computers would not be able to cope with a numerical change in the date. (For those too young to remember those events, the doomsday scenarios around Brexit pale in comparison.) The bug, of course, never materialised.
Once you are persuaded that something is true, however implausible it is, everything is likely to be filtered through that lens. And when everyone says Labour is institutionally anti-semitic, everything – from real hatred of Jews to vague or clumsy phrasing about anti-semitism, or criticism of Israel – will seem anti-semitic to you.
Two sides to every story
So when Harris’s interviewee says she was “jeered” by her Labour constituency general committee for raising the issue of anti-semitism, we cannot be sure that she actually was “jeered” rather than that she faced objections from committee members, possibly valid ones, about what she was claiming.
Similarly, we cannot know – beyond her claim – that she raised the issue of anti-semitism rather than that she labelled members of her constituency anti-semites for matters that had nothing to do with anti-semitism, such as their being highly critical of Israel or disagreeing with the claim that the Labour party is institutionally anti-semitic.
All of this is necessarily speculative on my part because Harris has allowed his interviewee to pass on her (possibly self-serving) interpretation of these events as the only one. And as we all know, life tends not to work like that. There are usually two sides to any story.
If it sounds like I’m being unfair to Harris’s interviewee, let’s remember that she would be very far from alone in perpetrating such misrepresentations, consciously or otherwise.
‘Too apologetic’ on anti-semitism?
In fact, Harris himself, a well-trained journalist of impeccable liberal credentials, makes precisely this kind of misrepresentation a few paragraphs later on in his article, when he discusses the case of MP Chris Williamson.
Williamson, an ally of Corbyn’s, was suspended by Labour last week after the media reported that he had told a group of Labour members that the party had been “too apologetic” about anti-semitism. The media, as well as “moderate” Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn, were outraged that Williamson thought it was possible to be “too apologetic” about bigotry towards Jews.
For them, the incident also usefully proved the “institutional anti-semitism” narrative they are so invested in because Williamson’s racism was warmly applauded by all those present.
Except none of that is true. You don’t even need to take my word for it. It is all recorded on video. You can listen to what Williamson said yourself and see why the audience cheered.
What Williamson actually said makes no sense to the corporate media or the Labour rightwing because it conflicts with their narrative, with a worldview that presupposes Labour is “institutionally anti-semitic”. They cannot conceive of any interpretation of his speech that might undermine that narrative.
Defending Labour from smears
Williamson wasn’t telling Labour members to stop apologising about anti-semitism in Labour, and that wasn’t why they applauded him. He was telling them that there is no evidence to justify calling Labour institutionally anti-semitic, or even especially anti-semitic.
He was also saying that the endless focus on anti-semitism in Labour, and the apologies for incidents that were misunderstandings or smears rather than examples of Jew hatred, had painted a false picture of the Labour party. He was calling for Labour to stop being in default apologetic mode and start defending Labour’s reputation for anti-racism.
The members applauded because it was the the first time a Labour leader had stood up for them. Every day they hear the Guardian and Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, who is angling for Corbyn’s job, conducting a conversation over their heads that assumes they are either racists or that they turn a blind eye to racism. They are fed up with it. They know the narrative is nonsense and they are angry. When Williamson defended them, rather than those who smear them, they were delighted.
So how did Harris manage to cite this clip as further proof of Labour “institutional anti-semitism”, as he does here:
Just watch the video that eventually led to Derby North MP Chris Williamson being suspended from the party, and consider not what he said about Labour’s approach to antisemitism (“We’ve given too much ground – we’ve been too apologetic”), but the loud applause that followed.
How is it possible that everything I’ve just summarised of Williamson’s speech, and the audience’s response, passed so far above Harris’s head that he failed even to acknowledge it? He doesn’t have to agree with Williamson or those applauding him, but he has to be fair to them about how they viewed the meeting. To simply erase from the record what Williamson meant and what his audience’s applause meant is to perpetrate a deception. It’s to assist in promoting a moral panic.
Unlike many of those commenting, Harris is supposed to be a close observer of the Labour rank and file. He spends a lot of time, it appears, travelling the UK meeting ordinary people. How could he have missed this groundswell of anger among party members at being endlessly defamed – and not only missed it, but joined in the defamation himself?
Blind to other narratives
This isn’t just about Labour and anti-semitism. The Guardian, the paper of the liberal-left, has missed or misunderstood all the major political shifts of the last five years. It couldn’t imagine Corbyn being elected leader or understand the significance of the membership’s vote after it had happened. The Guardian also didn’t foresee the massive surge in support for a Corbyn-led Labour party at the last election. Instead it has led the media pack trying to undermine Corbyn, typically by promoting gross misrepresentations like this latest one echoed by Harris.
The Guardian’s incomprehension at Brexit is starkly on show too. Its commentaries rarely rise above denunciations of anti-immigrant racism. Its singleminded cheerleading of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders was as boneheaded as its continuing bafflement at the victory of Donald Trump.
The Guardian is a huge media outfit, employing many hundreds of journalists. And yet online pundits have regularly produced much more insightful analyses than the paper.
Harris’s article is yet more confirmation that even the best corporate journalists end up being blinded by media groupthink, leaving them unable to make sense of the world around them. They literally can’t see or hear what is staring them in the face. Harris is so immersed in a “consensus” anti-semitism narrative that he interprets the blinding dazzle of the sun as darkness, he perceives white as a diabolical black.
Filming an anti-semitism smear
This problem isn’t restricted to the media, of course. Politicians are equally blinkered about events that cannot be fitted into their worldview.
Take the case of Joan Ryan, a non-Jewish Labour MP who chairs Labour Friends of Israel and recently defected to the Independent Group over the anti-semitism issue. Perhaps not surprisingly given her emotional investment in defending Israel, apparently at all costs and whatever the evidence of its oppression of Palestinians, she is deeply opposed to Labour being led by Corbyn, a champion of the Palestinian cause.
To what terrible misdeeds that might lead her was laid bare when she made up an accusation of anti-semitism out of whole cloth against a Labour party member. Remember that accusing someone falsely of anti-semitism is as bad as making an anti-semitic statement. It has the same power to do terrible emotional damage to its victim, it can isolate them from friends and family, and it can result in them losing their job.
In 2016, Jean Fitzpatrick privately challenged Ryan on the margins of the party conference over the MP’s lack of support for the Palestinians. Ryan immediately accused Fitzpatrick of using anti-semitic tropes about Jews and bankers.
Fitzpatrick would have found herself one of those “anti-semites” hounded out of the party had she not been very lucky. Al Jazeera was making an undercover documentary about the collusion between the Israeli embassy and groups like Labour Friends of Israel, both of them intent on ousting Corbyn from the leadership. Unknown to Ryan, the exchange with Fitzpatrick was caught on film and shows that there was nothing about Jews or bankers, or anything anti-semitic, in what she said.
Ignoring the statistics
Unlike those smearing the Labour party as institutionally anti-semitic, I’m happy to put the most charitable interpretation possible on Ryan’s behaviour.
The fact is that, once people are invested strongly in a worldview, evidence that threatens to undermine it is usually ignored. Such evidence, if it dangerously challenges their inner narrative, can even be reinterpreted and distorted by the proponent to shore up their crumbling perception of right and wrong. The truth of the evidence simply doesn’t register, or it is turned upside down.
And that is an important part of what is happening in the crafting of the Labour anti-semitism narrative.
The statistics simply don’t bear out the accusation that Labour is “institutionally anti-semitic”, or even that it has what might loosely be termed an “anti-semitism problem” – beyond a problem of racism on its margins of the kind that can be found in all organisations and communities, including the Jewish community.
Labour has found 0.08% of its members responsible either for unthinking prejudice towards Jews or conscious bigotry. The evidence suggests this is much, much lower than in the general population.
What has been happening in Labour under Corbyn, however, is that for the first time party members have been able to articulate critical views of Israel, as well as their support for Palestinians suffering under Israeli oppression. That is a new and important freedom and to ignore the part it is playing in the anti-semitism narrative is to be wilfully blind – to cling on to a narrative that refuses to deal with the world as it really is.
Berger and her constituency
Harris quotes another colleague, Rachel Shabi, to bolster his argument. Referring to Luciana Berger, a Jewish Labour MP who also recently defected to the Independent Group, Shabi writes:
A Jewish MP left Labour because of the tide of antisemitism directed at her and I don’t think the terrible significance of this has sunk in for chunks of the left.
There are all sorts of assumptions in this short statement that need unpacking. True, Berger claims that anti-semitism is the reason she left the party. It may well be that she really believes that she is facing a tide of anti-semitism from Labour members. But the evidence needs to be produced, not simply taken for granted.
The examples of anti-semitism invariably cited in Berger’s case refer to undoubtedly anti-semitic attacks from the far-right, not from Labour members; or to online abuse whose provenance is rarely identifiable; or to the opposition she faced from her local constituency party in Liverpool.
There are lots of reasons why Berger is disliked by a significant section of her constituency party, and the wider Labour membership, that have nothing to do with anti-semitism. One is that she was parachuted into the constituency by Tony Blair (she once dated his son Euan), even though her Blairite politics do not fit with many of the people she supposedly represents. Another is that her constant and generalised complaints about anti-semitism in Labour are seen as an insult to party members. They have taken against her because she openly defames Corbyn – and them for supporting him. Yet others are unhappy that she emphasises her support for Israel over the rights of Palestinians.
A battle of political values
Some British Jews like Berger (as well as non-Jews like Ryan) identify strongly with Israel, even as it swings ever further to the ultra-nationalist right. Some, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland among them, appear to believe that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-semitism. Some make this conflation wilfully and maliciously, some do it out of ignorance. Either way, those making this conflation do so to prevent Israel being criticised because they genuinely cannot bear to hear such criticism. They feel it as a personal attack.
That is regrettable. In an ideal world where politics did not involve having to make tough choices, it might even be avoidable. But politics in the real world isn’t actually like that.
And so allowing hardline Zionist Jews in Labour the right to make support for Israel a priority is one political value that must compete with the right of other Jews in Labour and the right of non-Jewish members to oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. For most of Labour’s history, Zionist Jews had the upper hand in this struggle between political values. Now, under Corbyn, they don’t.
That may make hardline Zionist Jews in Labour like Berger, and hardline Zionist non-Jews like Ryan, angry and upset, but it very obviously doesn’t make their opponents in the party anti-semites.
The reality is that those who adopt a Zionist identity – one enmeshed in a belligerent, highly militarised state oppressing Palestinians for many decades – should not deserve any kind of special protection for their political views, least of all in the Labour party.
These supporters of Israel are asking for the impossible: demanding silence from everyone else as they defend a state whose policies require not just racism but daily structural violence towards Palestinians. Whatever the anti-semitism narrative hopes to achieve, there isn’t an exemption for anti-Palestinian racism just because it is being promoted by a section of the Jewish community.
It is deeply immoral of Israel’s supporters – Jews and non-Jews alike – to try to win a political argument, about Israel, by silencing their opponents with a deceit about racism: that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-semitism. The fact that harsh criticism of Israel wounds Zionist Jews does not give Zionist Jews a right to wound others by conflating their criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.
Low point in public discourse
These points ought to be so obvious that they do not need stating. And yet we have reached such a low point in public discourse – made far worse by the “institutional anti-semitism” narrative – that just saying this makes one vulnerable to accusations of anti-semitism.
Here is Harris again privileging a Zionist Jewish narrative:
A few days ago I spoke to another Jewish Labour member, who talked about a sundered bond between the party and British Jews, and how Labour had once nurtured a precious Jewish political tradition that was now close to breathing its last.
For Harris, it seems, it is inconceivable that any other Jewish narrative might exist. Insultingly, he erases non-Zionist Jews. And, of course, he makes no allowance at all for other Labour political traditions in which an anti-racism struggle, on behalf of Palestinians, might conflict with Zionism.
That Harris, like all his colleagues, has bought unquestioningly into the “institutionally anti-semitic” Labour narrative and the equally ridiculous “anti-Zionism equals anti-semitism” narrative is highlighted by this passage about Corbyn:
He has talked in the past about ‘the hand of Israel’ subtly and secretly acting from a distance. And from there it is only a short hop to two ideas which seem to have spread from a small hard core rooted in the anti-imperialist far left out into the wider party. First, that Israel – and by extension Jewish people – must have something do with many of the “smears”. And second, that accusations of antisemitism usually have a concealed agenda.
No, only Harris and those talking of a supposed “institutional anti-semitism” crisis in Labour are generalising about Jews and claiming that they all speak with one voice.
On the other hand, those highlighting the “anti-semitism smears” recognise that we are talking only about Zionists, Jews and non-Jews alike, who have a self-confessed emotional investment in shielding Israel from criticism, as I have outlined above. Many Labour members concerned about these smears are themselves Jewish. They even have their own organisation, Jewish Voice for Labour, a group the Guardian largely ignores because it undermines the “institutional anti-semitism” narrative.
Further, the idea that only the tinfoil brigade could believe Israel has had any hand in framing this debate, or in reshaping the definition of anti-semitism to include Israel, is rich indeed coming from a newspaper that has dedicated acres of newsprint to impute a supposedly secret campaign by the Kremlin to undermine the west and its electoral processes.
Unlike many of the claims made against Russia, there is very well documented evidence that Israel, or more specifically Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs, has been working behind the scenes both to bolster the “anti-semitism problem under Corbyn” narrative (that was precisely what the Al-Jazeera documentary proved) and to change the definition of anti-semitism to conflate it with anti-Zionism (I’ve written about that here).
That Harris doesn’t know about this evidence is the mark both of his failure to understand the larger picture and of the lack of coverage of these issues in the corporate media – not proof of conspiracy theories or anti-semitism.
Driving to the edge of the cliff
Finally, let me note yet again (I’ve been doing this for the past year) that the anti-semitism narrative is readily morphing into an attack on all leftwing politics. Harris is no exception in this regard:
At the heart of the various strands of populism that have taken root in many countries over the past five years, you will find not just a supposed divide between ‘the people’ and an elite, but a deep conviction that the latter is mired in corruption and globe-spanning skulduggery that is never made public. …
It [the Labour party] now tends to present the very real failings of modern capitalism not as a matter of anything systemic, but the work of a small group of people who are ruining things for the rest: what Corbyn calls a ‘self-serving elite’, who ‘monopolise the wealth that should be shared by each and every one of us’. …
Here is where the anti-semitism smears ultimately lead. The “moderate” left degrades political discourse, as it has since the Blair era, by refusing to countenance any criticism of capitalism that is prepared to get down and dirty with it, that descends from the lofty heights of the abstract to grapple with why ordinary people have been failed by the political and economic system.
Harris and so many other “moderates” want to treat neoliberalism as though it is some kind of immutable, if unfortunate, force of nature. As if those people forced to use food banks, those being deported, those suffering under an asymmetrical austerity forced on us by the bankers who played the economy as though it were a giant Ponzi scheme are simply victims of a natural disaster, needing only humanitarian aid.
But this is political evasion. The problems of capitalism may be systemic, but the people who rule our lives are flesh and blood. Those politicians devising austerity policies and bailing out the banks are people. Those well-paid journalists manipulating the way we see the world to benefit the 1% are people. Those CEOs despoiling the planet as they plunder its riches and heat up our climate are people. They are an elite and they need to be exposed and fought as a tiny group looking out only for their own interests, not ours.
In the guise of slaying a conspiracy theory, Harris promotes the biggest one imaginable: that the left doesn’t really care about the poor when it speaks of elites and a lack of accountability for the powerful, but is instead trying to revive the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the modern age.
Only in the imagination of Harris and purveyors of the Labour “anti-semitism crisis” narrative are the elites Jews. The reality is that this elite are not united by a religion or an ethnicity but by two things: their greed for wealth and power, and their indifference to the future.
While we waste our political energies flaying each other over marginal examples of anti-semitism in Labour, that elite will get on with the business of driving us all over the edge of an economic and environmental cliff.
I had just pressed the “Publish” button when I was sent another example from within Labour of the argument that being anti-capitalism is the same as being anti-semitic. This one is from “moderate” Labour MP Siobhain McDonough, who made these remarks during an interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4:
McDonough: It’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people.
Humphrys: In other words, to be anti-capitalist you have to be antisemitic?
McDonough: Yes. Not everybody, but there is a certain… there’s a certain strand of it. These people are not Labour, have never been Labour, but we now find them in our party.