But Owen, but…

By Jake Wilde

Owen Jones has today written a largely commendable article on what he correctly describes as the “menace” of antisemitism. As a prominent writer on the left he is also right to focus on what ‘the left’ should be doing about it. His condemnation of antisemitism, and those who espouse it, or tolerate it, is to be welcomed.

I had a mild row with Owen recently over his use of the word “but”. The thread can be found here. I say that up front as, having just praised Owen, I am about to use the word “but”.

There can be no doubt that Owen has two things in his mind at the moment. Firstly his utter horror at a genuinely left wing Labour Party being consumed by daily discussions around the deplorable behaviour and attitudes of its members, rather than talking about policies. Secondly that these behaviours and attitudes are threatening to engulf a leadership that Owen has personally endorsed and committed to. His column today is then both necessary and brave.

But (there it is) I have a number of problems with what Owen has written.

Firstly it is simply not true to say “The issue of antisemitism arises because of revelations centred on a Labour Party activist named Vicki Kirby.” To assert this is about as disingenuous as it’s possible to be. The charge of antisemitism, or at best the tolerance of it, has dogged the Corbyn leadership from day one. Indeed Corbyn’s relationships with known antisemites was the subject of regular discussion during the leadership election. The Vicki Kirby case is simply the latest in a long and regular stream of antisemitism scandals afflicting the Labour Party, and especially so since Corbyn’s election. If you think otherwise then there’s probably little point in reading on.

It is this false premise that allows Owen to excuse Corbyn from any involvement in the Vicki Kirby case:

“For those making it all about Jeremy Corbyn, it should be noted that both the suspension and its lifting took place under the old regime.”

Fine, Jeremy Corbyn was certainly a long way from having personal involvement in the “old regime”. Yet this attempt to place the blame onto Ed Miliband and ‘the moderates’ ignores the role of the NEC and our old friend Ken Livingstone, amongst others, in the “old regime”. Let’s not pretend that Ken is in blissful ignorance of the Vicki Kirby case and let’s not pretend that somehow Ken has no role in the ‘new regime’.

Nobody is making it all about Jeremy Corbyn as an individual. What people are making it about is Jeremy Corbyn as a leader of the ‘new regime’ and what message Corbyn, John McDonnell and Livingstone have sent, over many decades, to those members of society looking for a left wing home for their antisemitism.

The second problem I have is the equivalence that Owen chooses to give to the problem of antisemitism and what he calls “Islamophobia”. “Both forms of bigotry…exist within progressive circles and within the Labour Party.” There is no evidence at all that members of the Labour Party are expressing anti-Jewish views and anti-Muslim views in similar numbers. However there is clear evidence of sexism within the Muslim community with male Muslim Labour Party members intimidating and bullying female Muslim Labour Party members, forcing them to give up being activists and candidates. That, however, is not “Islamophobia” – that is sexism. An enquiry into sexism in the Labour Party would yield interesting results, with the starting point being the Shadow Cabinet. And that is before you get to the misogynistic abuse that the likes of Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Gloria Del Piero regularly receive from Labour Party members and their “affiliated supporters”. Yes, you know who I mean.

Finally I am always disappointed when I read phrases like this:

“It is possible to passionately oppose antisemitism one the one hand, and on the other oppose the policies of Israel’s government and support Palestinian national self-determination.”

That disappointment is not because of what is said (though a writer of Owen’s skill should surely be able to come up with a new way to say it) but what is omitted. Since Owen brought up the issue of Islamophobia it is surely not beyond his imagination to also say this:

“It is possible to passionately oppose Islamophobia on the one hand, and on the other oppose the policies of Hamas and support Israel’s right to existence.”

Just for once I would like to see a socialist make the argument for Israel’s right to national self-determination in the same breath as Palestine’s. Only then might we start to see some progress in forcing the antisemites out of the Labour Party and back under their stones where they belong.

 

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9 thoughts on “But Owen, but…

  1. Excellent. I likewise noticed the reference to Palestinian national self determination and my reaction was similar to yours. He should be asked what that means. Two states or what? And the Kirby woman wasn’t just an activist, she was a PPC up to 2014. What does that say about the Labour party? Finally it is a small world on the London Labour far left and it is hard to believe her ideas (sic) weren’t known about

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  2. Would love to see Owen reply to this. Suspect he’ll take issue with saying segregated meetings are sexist, because like culture or something, but I wonder if he’ll send a clear message to the left on Israel. No Labour figure should deny Israel’s existence or right to exist, including a leader who refuses to name Israel at Labour friends of Israel events. The far left anti-Semites, no matter how wrong they may be, clearly think this makes Labour their natural home, and that their views are reflected in Labour’s new guard’s murky relationship with anti-Semitism, Israel and Islamism

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  3. Hoo-effin-ray Jake. I have been yelping about Owen getting called ‘brave’ – Nick Cohen did it! – like saying The Right Thing means you get a lollipop and a gold star.

    On the Muslim women issue – that too. But I noticed from a survey of my Twitter this afternoon that almost none of the usual suspects paid any attention to the recent events, including the two Newsnight stories. This is as much on the Owen critics as anyone else. Nobody looks good.

    There was also a racism issue at the Young Labour Conference that has got swept under the carpet, as well as a dismissal of the needs of disabled activists. So Owen missed all that as well.

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  4. Hi Jake, first time reader. I agree with everything you have said, especially the point about the apparent need to talk about Israel/Palestine when talking about antisemitism and the reluctance to talk about Israel’s right to self-determination.

    I think by now all right-thinking (i.e. not racist or insane) people realise that the term “anti-Zionist” is not helpful. If it means anything it means an opposition to the existence of the State of Israel which is simply antisemitic. If it means only an opposition to the occupation and other Israeli government policies then it is a misnomer. None of the members of the Labour Party who vehemently opposed Britain invasion and occupation of Iraq would declare themselves opposed to the existence of Britain as a country.

    In fact, the UK Labour Part is a Zionist party in the sense that it’s official policy is to support the two-state solution and the continued existence of the State of Israel. If the Labour Party is serious about combating antisemitism it (by which I mean its leadership) should proudly declare itself to be a Zionist party.

    I think the very fact that its inconceivable for the Labour Party to make such a declaration shows just how deep the problem is.

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  5. I’ve only recently become interested in Politics and the Labour party, the more I learn, the more I’m bemused.

    I’m indifferent to Israel or Palestine, but can understand that decades of two sides killing each other can lead to a maelstrom of anger.

    Yet it seems that being indifferent itself can be seen as anti-semitic. Criticism of Israel is anti-zionist and then like the poster above, if you’re anti-zionist you’re then also anti-semitic, what are you supposed to think, are there any objective people left ?

    What if I simply want Jews and Muslims to live peacefully together in Britain ?

    I mean I search twitter, I get links to articles and then I realise what a cesspool Social Media is.

    I don’t think it’s that hard to find holes in your arguments, I came across Gerald Kaufman, only last November I think he made some rather lurid insinuations and Corbyn denounced him, yet he’s father of the house ? whatever that is, and has been Knighted.

    This received barely any coverage, maybe I’m wrong and I missed it, how do I react to Kaufman if Corbyn is dubious ?

    Then there’s the quote about Owen and the Islamophobia comparison, surely that isn’t equivalent, this may not completely fit, but Islamophobia isn’t confined in relation to Palestinians, no-one wants to recognise a Caliphate ? I guess I’d just like a place where I can learn about both side, it’s ok if this isn’t it.

    Lastly Jess Phillips. Stella Creasy and so on, do you have no consideration that this generation who’ve embraced instant messaging and Social Media, without, literally, any thought to how the immediacy of it all may not always be a good thing.

    I don’t think twitter abuse is a preserve of the left, also in both cases, Jess Phillips has decided that her thoughts must not have any filter, while Stella Creasy recently talked of a ‘mob’ outside her constituency office, which later turned out to be a peaceful vigil where faith leaders, families, kid, from her constituency decided to put post it notes on her windows with their opinions.

    While I think hate as a whole has increased, I worry that people with an agenda should also be criticised.

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  6. Hi Keyser,

    I think some of your confusion stems from the following mistake:

    “Criticism of Israel is anti-zionist”

    Zionism was the movement to establish a Jewish-majority state, one where Jews could exercise their right to self-determination. Outside of Israel, there is no country in which Jews register more than 2% of the population. Zionism now is the belief that the State of Israel should continue to exist.

    Zionism is not linked to the occupation. One of the largest Israeli parties (well, alliance because of their PR system) is literally called “The Zionist Union” and is a centre-left party that wants to freeze settlement building and push for negotiations. Indeed, the vast majority of Israelis want an end to the occupation (they argue about how to get that done).

    Criticism of Israel is therefore not “anti-Zionist”. People who say they are anti-Zionist are either mistaken – they are simply critics of Israeli policy – or are antisemitic. Because to be opposed to the right of the Jewish people to self-determination (alone among all peoples on the planet and in opposition to International Law) can be nothing other than antisemitic.

    Ordinarily, there would be nothing wrong with people using a misnomer to describe their positions. The problem here, though, is that the term “anti-Zionism” is being used as a cover for antisemitism. This is especially true when you read what self-proclaimed anti-Zionists write. In almost everything they write – about conspiracies, banks, lobbies, attitudes etc – you could replace the word “Zionist” with “Jew” and you would be left in no doubt that what is being written is classic antisemitism.

    So, I’m suggesting that if we’re serious about combating antisemitism on the Left (at least the mainstream Left), the way to start is to pull out the rug from under the antisemites and declare that “anti-Zionism” is not a legitimate position. If the Labour Party declared that it was a Zionist Party (which it is) then that would make it nigh on impossible for Labour Party members who harbour antisemitism to hide behind false or misleading claims of being simply “anti-Zionist”.

    I hope that helps clear up my earlier comment 🙂

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