The failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to deal with the issue of anti-Semitism should raise alarm bells for those concerned about the potential growth of radical-right extremism in the UK.
British politics is in a bad place at the moment, and not just on account of Brexit. Recent weeks have seen both major parties embroiled in scandals over anti-minority prejudice. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s willingness to flirt with Islamophobia in the immediate aftermath of a meeting with Steve Bannon has raised concerns about the possibility of the American radical right gaining influence over the Conservative Party.
However, the failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to adequately deal with the issue of anti-Semitism should also raise alarm bells for those concerned about the potential growth of pernicious radical-right extremism in the UK.
Accusations of anti-Semitism have dogged the Labour Party ever since Corbyn came into the leadership. It is, however, Labour’s failure to adopt, in full, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism that has prevented the issue going away. Labour has failed to adopt the full list of examples associated with the IHRA definition on the basis that it does not want to prevent legitimate criticism of the Israeli state.
This reasoning is undermined by the fact that the IHRA definition clearly allows for flexible judgements on the anti-Semitic (or otherwise) nature of statements. Even the most trenchant forms of anti-Zionist sentiment are not necessarily rendered beyond the pale by the definition, with allowances still possible depending on the context of the remarks.
One of the more distasteful examples given by the IHRA is the practice of “Holocaust inversion” — the comparison of Israeli policies against Palestinians to Nazi policies against the Jews. Not only are such comparisons historically illiterate, but they can also act, in effect, as a form of Holocaust revisionism. Holocaust inversion undermines the central role the Nazi genocide against Jews (but also other groups) plays in our understanding of the 20th century.
By extension, it delegitimizes the role that Jewish desires for a secure homeland played in the foundation of Israel. At worst, it can even be used to make the disgusting claim that the Jews deserved to be punished by the Nazis, using Israeli treatment of Palestinians to legitimize Nazi anti-Semitic prejudice and Israel’s subsequent continued acceptance by the West as evidence of “Zionist” global power. Remarkably, this is one of the IHRA examples that Labour has thus far shown itself unwilling to include in its code of conduct on anti-Semitism.
Holocaust inversion has a history almost as long as Holocaust denial itself, but it gained a particular foothold amongst British anti-Zionist politics in the 1980s. Anti-Zionist activists such as Tony Greenstein (himself expelled from Labour earlier this year) were amongst those who dabbled with Israel-Nazi Germany comparisons. Another keen adoptee of Holocaust inversion, however, was the radical-right National Front (NF), whose leaders saw vocal Holocaust inversion and anti-Zionism as a potentially fruitful way of engaging with anti-establishment radicals from other parts of the political spectrum and, potentially, even of infiltrating and disrupting the left.
The NF attempted to involve itself in the anti-Zionist movement at various junctures across the decade, consistently using Holocaust inversion to argue that Israel should be wiped off the map. In 1988, under the cover of a fake external organization called the Campaign for Palestinian Rights (CPR), the NF even led a campaign against the decision by the Association for British Travel Agents (ABTA) to hold its annual convention in Jerusalem.
This variant of the contemporary anti-Israel boycott movements — such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) — was not completely unsuccessful. Numerous companies elected against sending representatives to Jerusalem, in part due to the frequent presence of CPR protestors outside their shops in the run-up to the convention. These protesters often brandished leaflets that featured an interlocking swastika and a Star of David, making the angle of attack fairly clear. Although the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) consistently distanced themselves from the NF, the CPR’s campaign still demonstrated the potential for the radical right to deploy anti-Zionism as a way to further its agenda.
Given the prominence of anti-Zionism in the Labour Party today, the NF may well have had more success using this tactic now. At the time of writing it looks as if the Labour leadership may finally relent and adopt the full IHRA definition, after weeks of sustained pressure. The damage, however, has largely been done. Sections of Corbyn’s support base have vocally used hostile reactions to Labour’s indecision over the situation to cast critics of the party leadership’s stance as Zionist conspiracy.
In some cases direct echoes of Nazi propaganda have been used, with the likes of Margaret Hodge (herself born in 1944 to Jewish refugees) being described as an “enemy within,” including the cover of a pro-Corbyn Labour magazine, The Word. Direct forms of Holocaust inversion have also been shown to be relatively commonplace in certain arenas, such as in some pro-Corbyn Facebook groups. This is without even mentioning the terrible record of Labour stalwarts such as Ken Livingston, who suggested that the Third Reich supported Zionist aims in the 1930s.
Thankfully, the British radical right is in an even weaker position that the NF was in the 1980s. It is therefore in no position to take advantage of this situation. Yet there are still several significant dangers here. On the one hand, if large sections of the left become beholden to extreme variants of anti-Zionism, there is clear potential for aspects of long-term radical-right conspiracy theories to gain widespread credence. The Islamophobia — and, in some cases, even pro-Zionism — of today’s radical right does not mean that this mentality has gone away.
Equally, it is important to recognize that a central pillar of the radical right’s mission is to disrupt mainstream politics and to foment tensions between different political — especially minority — groups. This, as National Front leaders in the 1980s believed, creates the conditions for the radical right to gain increased influence and relevance. Were this not concerning enough, Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis has the potential to delegitimize the (entirely valid) concerns of many Palestinian solidarity activists. If the pro-Palestine movement is allowed to become firmly associated with anti-Semitism in the public imagination, then this could also contribute to growing popular Islamophobia in Britain. Labour itself suffers in this way too, in the process damaging the credibility of the entire anti-fascist and anti-racist left.
From whatever angle one looks, Labour’s failure to swiftly and comprehensively deal with anti-Semitism in its own ranks offers deeply worrying encouragement for radical-right extremists lurking in British society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.