There is no contradiction between recognising that antisemitism exists in Labour, and understanding that Corbyn is being smeared, argues Des Freedman
I thought I had finally lost all touch with reality when I heard the actress Maureen Lipman argue on the BBC’s Pienaar’s Politics that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a “coup”. Yes, up there alongside Idi Amin’s seizure of power in Uganda in 1971 and Pinochet’s bloody crushing of the Allende government in Chile in 1973, Corbyn’s victories in 2015 and 2016 – marked by overwhelming majorities in wholly democratic contests – were authoritarian putsches typical of the antisemites on the Marxist left.
Lipman wasn’t done, however. Barely challenged by Pienaar in any of her assertions, she went on to insist that Corbyn “doesn’t think antisemitism is racist. He doesn't think we're a race... he is much more interested in the plight of the Palestinians than he is in the plight of anyone in this country." This must have come as quite a shock for the 40,000 people in Islington North who, presumably, voted for Corbyn simply because of his solidarity for Palestinians rather than his more banal opposition to austerity or his commitment to improving the lives of his constituents.
This “exchange” took place just after Tom Watson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show where Labour’s deputy leader claimed that the Party had failed adequately to deal with antisemitism and that this was due to Corbyn’s lack of effective leadership: “The test for him as leader is to eradicate antisemitism. It is not Labour that will be the judge of that, it is the British Jewish community.” This sets quite a high bar – for a single individual to eradicate antisemitism in a society riven by racism and discrimination – but also essentialises Britain’s Jewish population into a singular phenomenon when, quite clearly, there are a wide range of views about the politics of the Labour leader.
This was just a typical Sunday morning when the responsibility of challenging antisemitism is laid at the door of a single individual and a single party despite polling showing that the problem may be more widespread elsewhere and that there is “no sound evidence” to back up the claims that Labour is “institutionally anti-Semitic” as Luciana Berger claimed in her resignation speech.
This isn’t ‘whataboutery’. Labour does have to root out antisemitism wherever it occurs in the Party but the identification of the problem as an exclusively Labour issue, suggests to many on the left that this is an issue that is being weaponised by the media and centrist voices. Corbyn, they argue, is being ‘smeared’ by people who may have very different political affiliations but who share a specific political objective: to destroy his reputation and to wreck his chances of becoming prime minister.
Now, arguing that antisemitism has been weaponised is not the same thing as saying that it does not exist or that it is irrelevant. Antisemitism’s history is too long and too terrible for us to ignore it.
And precisely because of this pernicious history, there are some other voices on the left who are arguing we should avoid the language of ‘smearing’ and ‘weaponising’ because it suggests that there is no problem to address or to ‘weaponise’ in the first place. So as one Labour activist argued in a Facebook post that was then shared by Momentum as raising an “interesting point”: “Please stop referring to AS [antisemitism] in Labour as a smear, if one incident exists, it’s not a smear.”
Actually, this misunderstands what a smear is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a smear relates to a “false accusation intended to damage someone’s reputation”. It’s not the number of incidents of antisemitism but the context in which they are being discussed that makes it a smear. As I have already argued, antisemitism should be challenged (and there should be appropriate and effective policies governing this challenge) no matter how many or how few occurrences there are. But what makes something a “smear” is the question of intent.
This is what has so enraged many on the left who can both call out antisemitism where it exists and figure out that the media onslaught against Corbyn for having failed to “eradicate” antisemitism may not have the purest motives. There is no contradiction between recognising that anti-semitism exists in Labour, as it does throughout pockets of society, and understanding that it is a very convenient stick with which to beat a leader who has long been associated with support for Palestinians, who has long been a firm critic of the state of Israel and who may soon become prime minister.
The fact is that smears do exist. They are not simply the product of over-excited imaginations or Walter Mitty-type characters. MI6 did seek to smear the first Labour government in 1924 when it forged a letter from the president of the Comintern, Grigori Zinoviev, talking of Communist infiltration into Labour; and the Daily Mail did smear Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, for his “hatred of Britain” when the former was Labour leader back in 2013. Is it that far-fetched to think that there is now a concerted attempt on the part of Corbyn’s enemies to use the very real fact of antisemitism to achieve quite different objectives?
Elites do act in concerted ways to achieve their objectives, though it seems that when they do it today, anyone who draws attention to this is dismissed as a fantasist or as a supporter of conspiracies. The launch of “The Independent Group” last week may have seemed shambolic but it followed a series of meetings, including at a Sussex farmhouse last summer where 12 Labour MPs convened “to discuss how to ‘take back control’ of the party”. At a much bigger level, all states have extensive machinery through which to massage public opinion, shape narratives and defend what they claim to be “in the national interest”. On university courses, it’s called “strategic communications”, but you might just want to call it propaganda.
To suggest that the attacks on Corbyn in the media and by his political enemies for an alleged failure to deal with antisemitism might be propagandistic shouldn’t imply that anti-Jewish racism is insignificant, but simply that it is in the strategic interests of his opponents to misrepresent how Labour have responded to the issue. That’s why refusing to see this as a ‘smear’ or apologising in an effort to defuse the situation and to placate the critics is bound to end in failure.
Antisemitism is a cancer and we should deal with it. But smears happen and we should deal with them too.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.