First of all, I have to lay some cards on the table. I do have a vested interest, as my father is Jewish. This makes me Jewish enough from a Nazi perspective to have been persecuted in Germany in the late 30s and early 40s. I would have been charmingly classed as a ‘Mischling of the Second Degree’ under the terms of Hitler’s race laws. My abhorrence of anti-Semitism is therefore quite visceral.
Labour has done exactly the right thing in suspending Naz Shah MP and Ken Livingstone for their recent comments. Unfortunately, there will be plenty of people now in the Party – or affiliated via the £3 sign-up scheme last year – who silently support their offensive views. That’s because the election campaign and subsequent elevation of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 opened the floodgates to cranks, extremists and a whole variety of people with far-left affiliations.
The argument of these people is that whenever they condemn Israel, they are accused of anti-Semitism. This is not true. I’m absolutely fine with people criticising the actions of the Israeli governments over the years. I would criticise many of them myself. You cross the line into anti-Semitism, however, when you confuse the Israeli government with the state of Israel as a whole or with Jewish people in general.
There are many who would prefer the state of Israel not to exist at all. These range from extremists on the far right to extremists on the far left and Islamic fundamentalists. For them, the term ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’ are often interchangeable. Privately, they wouldn’t distinguish between them, but they are usually canny enough to use ‘Zionist’ when publishing their opinions online or speaking in public. It becomes a kind of defensive shield for them. When they say ‘Zionist’ they think they are magically protected by a cloaking device against charges of anti-Semitism. But the Jewish community isn’t that stupid.
And so the debate goes on. It was much the same when I was involved in student politics in the 1980s. Now of course, under Corbyn, the whole of the Labour Party is reminiscent of 1980s student politics.
What’s interesting is that this furore could be a turning point in the battle to reverse the result of the disastrous leadership election of 2015.
There is little hope of changing the minds of the three-quid fly-by-nights who signed up last year specifically to vote for their hero Jez. These are his loyalists and he has their votes in the bag. I’m interested though in how other Labour Party members are feeling.
A good proportion of Corbyn’s votes came from well-meaning people who’d been members of Labour for years and felt uninspired by the rhetoric of the other candidates. These are folk who are left-leaning, often working in the public sector and opposed to austerity introduced in the UK after 2010. Many were disillusioned by Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq back in 2003.
There has, I’m sure, been a growing sense of unease within this part of the Labour electorate. They liked Corbyn’s politics, but many will have despaired over his gaffes and general incompetence since he assumed office. They will also be troubled by the fact that the Tories still lead in the most recent polls, despite a catalogue of catastrophic stories and splits in recent months. After the Budget, IDS, Tata Steel, the doctors’ dispute and so on, Labour is still behind. In their heart of hearts, they know Jez to be a loser, but they have a residual loyalty to him.
I feel the anti-Semitism row might just be a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment. Most decent people know that Hitler was no Zionist and that there wasn’t any period before he ‘went mad’. They will know that Livingstone has previous on this issue and that he has been a big pal of Corbyn over the years. They will look at Bradford MP Naz Shah and feel distinctly uncomfortable. Is it really true, as MP Rupa Huq suggested, her behaviour was simply an example of someone sharing ‘silly pictures’ online?
They will think about two characters who’ve been suspended from the Labour Party and they’ll recall the embarrassment regarding Oxford University Labour Club and the other examples of anti-Semitic behaviour that have been documented recently. Will they conclude these are all isolated incidents that have been overblown? Stories about nothing which have been whipped up by the ‘pro-Israeli’ lobby?
I suspect – honest and sincere people that most of them are – that they will start to rethink their political stance just a little. The Labour moderates may be sensing some light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.