Owen Jones’ 3 problems


By Saul Freeman

I’ll keep this brief. Partly – actually almost completely – because I’m tired. Tired of having to explain and justify. Tired of having to confront. Tired of having to witness.  

Tired of being a canary.

And I’m not the only one who’s tired. When Soupy tells you he/she is tired of the toxic brew of hate, you know we’re in trouble.

Those of you who – like me – spend too much time existing in one little corner of Twitter may have noticed that in the current climate of (welcome) interest in the long-standing phenomena of (very unwelcome) Left wing anti-Semitism, I have been an insistent voice calling out Owen Jones.

I’m not alone in this, but I am in a very small minority. Many other campaigners and voices from the anti-totalitarian Left accept Owen at his word. And Owen is good with words and has many of them to spare. After all, he is a writer.

I am not a writer; I’m just a father deeply concerned about his Jewish son.

So when Owen Jones writes (another) article on the evils of contemporary Left wing anti-Semitism, why exactly do I heckle (probably muted on Owen’s timeline) from the side-lines? Why do I not have the good grace to be thankful and to commend Owen on his well-crafted words? I don’t owe Owen an explanation, but perhaps I owe others some clarity.

Well, it’s about this thing called “responsibility”. And about another thing called “honesty”. These are not complex categories of political philosophy or post-structuralist discourse. But I do believe they are fundamental to what most of us (despite all the evidence) desire from our political agents. And Owen is a political agent.

When Owen declares that anti-Semitism has no place on the Left and should be hunted down and cast out, isn’t it a bit odd that he can’t actually locate its existence anywhere or in any person, other than those seemingly random and hapless individuals who (each week it seems) go too far and actually use the J word?

And the word “random” is important here. For Owen, there is no complex and long history of anti-Semitism on the Left, going back to the days of Kautsky and reaching on to the Workers Revolutionary Party and then the SWP and the many other factions, splinter groups and lone wolf operators of the organised hard Left. No setting out of the Jew hate of seminal Labour Party figures like Bevin. Even if we put aside Owen’s lack of historical knowledge of a subject he professes to understand and abhor, isn’t it more than a little odd that he can’t actually locate where it lives today? Right now. Here. Right in front of him.

In very close proximity to him, in fact. Up close and personal.  Because Owen was one of the prime cheerleaders of a campaign that handed over the keys of the Labour Party to the Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and his associates. And if you cannot locate the phenomena of contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism in some of the individuals, groups and actions of those that make up this loose coalition of the politically mad and the morally bad, then really – what contribution can you possibly have to make on the subject?

Stop the War has of course deleted from its website many of its more toxic statements and contributions. But you can find some of them out there at  therealstopthewar.wordpress.com

And you’ll find that this is an organisation that published a commentary on the 1973 massacre of Jewish Israelis at Munich by Alison Weir – a well documented full frontal Jew hater with links to both the racist Right in America and the European hard left.

You’ll also find at least 2 (very poor) poems by Heathcote Williams that both invoke the blood-libel. That’s the thing about Jews killing gentiles (children if at all possible).

But what you’ll also find is that as an organisation Stop the War is committed to the elimination of Israel as the world’s only Jewish State. It makes no secret of this. Indeed, it has been the secret of its success as the key nexus in the alignment of the hard Left and Islamist revolutionary cadres. It works. I’ve lost track of the number of articles and comments, demos and meetings in which Stop the War sets out this stall very, very clearly.

Now, here is not the place for a detailed exploration of the relationship between Jews and the State of Israel. Like I said – I’m tired of having to explain, to justify. But it won’t have to use up too much of my depleted reserves to point out that by any (and I mean ANY) survey, poll, analysis etc. there’s a simple equation at play. Here’s the thing:

The overwhelming majority of UK Jews are Zionists.

And Zionism is nothing more – and certainly nothing less – than the expression of the Jewish people’s right to political self-determination. You know, like everyone else.

That means (and it only means) that to (most) Jews, Israel is a part of what it means to be Jewish. We want it to be there. It’ s important that Israel is there. Those of us who go to shul (synagogue) will open a siddur (prayer book) and find reference to the land of Israel all over it. You’ll not get a detailed theology from me, but even I can grasp the meaning. And I’m half Cornish.

We want, we need Israel to exist. Right now, Jews across Europe need Israel to exist more than ever. Even if you dispense with the theology (and I do) it’s easily understood. It’s our history. It’s a lifeboat.  A “get out of jail” card. A pass to a future when some wish otherwise on Jews.  That’s why it’s there, folks.

We don’t want Stop the War’s “solution” thank you very much.  We want Israel. And most of us by the way also want a democratic and peaceable (no, not pacified) Palestinian State living alongside. In mutual peace and prosperity.

How complicated is any of this really? I’m a simple bloke and I get it.

So Owen has at least 3 problems on his hands when he wants Jews like me to be grateful for his words on the subject of Left wing anti-Semitism and to accept that they have real meaning.

Firstly, he refuses to locate the thing. And as we see above, it ain’t hard to do.  Look to your own house Owen and own your part in enabling those who propagate it to thrive. And don’t think I’m going to waste any energy on the “J word” versus the “Z word” thing. See above re Israel & Jews.

And on Corbyn – aside from his erstwhile role as Chair of the Stop the War Coalition – I’m only going on the evidence. There is of course NO evidence that Corbyn is an anti-Semite. There is a mountain of evidence that Corbyn has a lot of tolerance for those who are, or cannot see them when they are in front of him. Sometimes when they are chanting about a free Palestine “from the River to the Sea.” For those who are not clear, the State of Israel is the bit in-between.

Secondly, Owen has long campaigned for BDS against Israel. As in supporting a (extraordinarily successful and long sighted) political project to de-legitimise and penalise the State of the Jewish people. Not in Israel – but here. In the West. In Europe. In the US. Here in the UK.

Ask Owen what the (very clearly) stated objectives of BDS are and he’ll know. He may not tell you, but he’ll know. Put it this way – they are very closely related to the river and the sea thing above. Sure, there are different versions of the BDS “narrative” used at different times for different audiences. And that is of course part of its recipe for success. But 3 minutes with Google and the name Omar Barghouti will tell you what you need to know. How many of the core BDS campaign objectives Owen shares I can’t really say.

Owen Jones decries left-wing anti-Semitism yet publicly endorses a campaign whose objectives strike right at the heart of what it means to be a Jew in the UK in 2016. Not an Israeli Jew – a British Jew. BDS does not affect Jewish Israelis. It’s not designed to. No one but a madman would believe that BDS could bring the Israeli economy clattering to a halt. It’s a political, cultural and discursive tool designed to operate outside Israel and to reduce the ability of governments and civil society to align with Israel. It actually represents the type of far horizon, patient, incremental political action that few are capable of sustaining these days. It’s something to study and learn from.

But what it isn’t is something to endorse, support (even only in part) and then present back to UK Jews clutched in a hand extended in apparent understanding and empathy. It doesn’t work like that Owen.

And here we come to problem number three facing Owen.

Owen simply will not accept what I and a majority of UK Jews tell him on this. When Jews tell him that a climate of hostility (obsessive, exceptional) hostility to the Jewish State as manifested in the BDS campaign makes us feel isolated and threatened he simply will not listen. He will not allow a minority of 0.3% of the UK population (hey, I love my quant these days) to set out the nature, scope and scale of the racism that they experience. We apparently need it to be defined for them by Owen and other non-Jews. And that’s a whole other piece to write when I have more appetite for explaining myself.

But Owen has an ace up his sleeve. He’s got me stumped. I’m beat. Game over.

For Owen has found an anti-Zionist Jew who supports BDS. Who is disgusted by the very existence of Israel as it represents an aberration. An aberration from the path to Universalist emancipation through the mechanism of historical materialism for all workers of the world. An aberration of nationalist exceptionalism that denies the opportunity of Jews to rise above their category of capitalist agents and to assimilate into the great revolutionary movement.

Yep, Owen has found a teenage Trot, clutching a copy of What is to Be Done and the collected works of  Yigael Gluckstein – that’s SWP founder Tony Cliff to most of you.

In his Guardian piece last month defending the BDS campaign against the outrageous slander that it might be an intrinsic element of contemporary Left wing anti-Semitism, Owen tells it as it is and puts our minds at rest:

“The government argues such boycotts promote anti-Semitism. If that were true, we would all be gravely concerned.…..

Here it is also worth listening to Barnaby Raine from Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine. “We have to be so, so clear about Israel and Jews being separate,” he says, decrying those who suggest otherwise, ranging from Islamist fundamentalists to the far right to hardline defenders of Israeli government policies.”

Now young Barnaby (hey, I was a teenage member of the CPGB – I’m empathising) is a signatory/member of a grouping (Jews for Justice in Palestine) that represents a gathering of a massive proportion of British Jews. “How many Jews?” you ask. “Tell us the answer,” you cry. I’m a nice man so I’ll tell you:


Yep – that’s 0.75% of the 0.3% of the UK population that are Jews. Seems like a pretty firm foundation on which to base the ethics of your argument if you are trying to persuade both UK Jews and the wider populace of the justness of your political position to support a campaign that seeks to eliminate the State of Israel as the Jewish State. I’ll buy that. Who wouldn’t?

Ok – let’s scale the figure up to allow for those UK Jews who, whilst not actually having signed up to it, may actually support the likes of Barnaby & his friends. Let’s be wildly generous, scale it up by a factor of 10 (hell, let’s go mad and multiply it by 20) and you end up with around 15%. Go crazy and then double it and you might reach 30%. Not founded in any reality but hey – I’m here to be the helpful canary, apparently.

So Owen finds a Jewish voice that represents somewhere between 0-30% of UK Jews (in reality less than 10% at most) and bases his position on that and uses it to tell Jews that he is not part of a problem? (By the way, here you might want to look up the “good Jew/bad Jew” trope).

On what moral, ethical and evidential planet are we now living on Owen? I may be a canary but I’m not a birdbrain.

So if you seek to be a credible voice in the zeitgiesty discourse around contemporary Left wing anti-Semitism, don’t come out with at least 3 glaring, huge, stinking problems around your position and expect me to take you at face value.

Responsibility and honesty, Owen.

This canary won’t settle for less.


22 thoughts on “Owen Jones’ 3 problems

  1. Owen Jones blames Israel for a lot of the world’s problems. He wrote this in 2004 back when he used to obsessively edit the Wikipedia article on Israel:
    “The Israeli occupation is one of THE most important issues of this period. Historians in the future will simply not understand the modern era without referring to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Arab nationalism, Muslim-West hostility, Islamophobia, September 11th, Islamic terrorism, the “war on terror”, both Gulf Wars, the Afghan war – all of these issues which dominate our time cannot be understood without reference to the occupation of Palestine. It is a travesty for an article on Wikipedia, in defiance of what anyone else is writing on this matter, to not include a reference to something as important as the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.”


    • If Owen’s observation is correct, then the conclusion also has to be that one of the great tragedies of the 21st century that historians will point to was the Arab rejection of the 1948 partition plan, especially if there is an eventual two state solution. Then historians will naturally have to question, what was accomplished and what was lost due to that decision.


  2. Thank you, Saul. Everything you say is absolutely right and absolutely necessary. It is egregious hypocrisy for Jones to be posing as an opponent of anti-Semitism. It is dangerous and alarming that so many people, particularly on the left, applaud him for writing pieces like this. Some of those people should know better. It is frightening that they do not. I share all your concerns about the atmosphere in this country for people who are Jewish. It is increasingly difficult and unpleasant, and seems like it will only get worse. It is extraordinary in the twenty-first century to be having to say this. Extraordinary and frightening. I, too, have been considering the future. It is almost impossible to get the reality of what is happening across to people. It is toxic. And, unfortunately, people like Owen Jones have played a significant part in making it so. And are continuing to do so. After he has been given plaudits for writing this latest piece, he will go on with all the things you mention. Thereby ensuring that anti-Jewish feeling in the UK will increase and also become more and more normalised. It is normal now; from the Labour party, to much of the media, to our universities. In our schools, in our pubs, on our streets.
    The Left has never confronted its history of anti-Semitism, it has believed itself to be immune from racism. It isn’t. And we are seeing the effects of that racism in this country.
    Please continue doing what you do. It is much appreciated. From one canary to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well-written Saul, but my problem is with your conflation of BDS with anti-Semitism. I’m a Zionist Jew (spent last year as director of a Zionist Jewish youth movement) and actively opposed to BDS. When I was at university I campaigned against it and everything.

    But I campaigned against it because it’s a bad idea, not because it’s anti-Semitic. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was unsuccessful. And when I was unsuccessful, I didn’t find it affected me as a Jew. I didn’t like it, any more than I like living in a society with any policy I disagree with. But that’s life. Stifling others’ views and campaigns, however misguided we think they are, is not the way I want to live my life or express my Judaism.


    • If you take BDS to its logical conclusion, it is clearly an anti-Semitic movement. BDS is meant to isolate Israel economically, politically, and socially. If BDS had its way, no Israeli products would be permitted to enter the US and no funds, whether from the US government, corporations or private enterprise including financial support by means of commerce or philanthropy would be permitted. That means that donations to organizations that support Israeli institutions would be prohibited and visiting Israel, supporting organizations that support Israeli institutions, e.g. bought a JNF tree, would be considered criminal offenses. Likewise, those i.e. Jews who either have or are likely to have committed such acts in the past should be scrutinized. Examples of this are already taking place on college campuses where Jewish students are being questioned whether they should be allowed to serve in student government or are encouraged to abstain from voting as they approach issues with a “Jewish” bias. Jews are being singled out due to BDS. Stores have been picketed for carrying Israeli products. This impacts people’s livelihoods. It is only a matter of time when colleges and employers may start asking applicants whether they have ever been to Israel or have donated to Israeli/Jewish causes. Anyone who has given to a Jewish Federation campaign, who may have family in Israel, bought a JNF tree, may be subject to discriminatory practices and since it is supposedly based on “anti-Zionism” and not “anti-Semitism” nothing will be able to be done about it..


      • “BDS is meant to isolate Israel economically, politically, and socially. If BDS had its way, no Israeli products would be permitted to enter the US and no funds, whether from the US government, corporations or private enterprise including financial support by means of commerce or philanthropy would be permitted.”

        I agree that those are the aims of the BDS movement. But what you’ve described are effects on Israel, not on Jews more widely. What you’ve gone on to describe (non-Israeli Jewish students having their loyalty questioned) is outrageous and undoubtedly anti-Semitic. But that’s not BDS, that’s just racist nutjobs. BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and those three things are all aimed at Israel.


  4. @ Gabriel

    I disagree.
    The BDS movement is deeply anti-Semitic. Its goal is for Israel not to exist at all.
    As for wanting boycotts: There is probably a clue when only one country in the world – and its people – is picked out for such things. And with such venom and obsession. The aim of the BDS movement is to completely de-legitimise Israel and to bring it to an end. Only then will they have achieved what they want.


  5. Gabriel

    Perhaps you need to read Saul’s post to understand what the BDS movement is really about. Perhaps you need to properly research it. It is staggeringly naive to imagine that its target is simply to economically disable Israel. There have just been BDS activists “protesting” outside the Washington Holocaust museum. I suppose that is intended to harm only Israelis?
    Since its inception, BDS has had a far greater impact on Diaspora Jews than on Israel and Israeli Jews. That’s the point of it. More and more Jews outside Israel are being made to feel deeply uncomfortable by this movement, and understand that they are its main targets. As Saul points out, it is an extremely savvy and committed movement which is fully prepared to play a very long game. Please don’t be so naive as to fail to understand what that is supposed to achieve. BDS is affecting people in America and Europe and beyond. It is designed to do just that. And in that, it is being very successful.


    • Romy, are you suggesting that I haven’t read Saul’s post? Because I fairly obviously did.

      Those protesting outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum are obviously either grossly ignorant or (more likely) anti-Semitic.

      But to try to tar the entire BDS movement with the same brush, just because it has a small number of extreme nutters amongst its ranks, is exactly what *they* do with Israel (“Oh look, a small number of Israelis went on a racist demo against Arabs, so Israel’s an apartheid state”) and plainly inaccurate.

      BDS is, as Helen Suzman said, ‘the side of the idiots’. Nothing more, nothing less.


  6. Gabriel


    If you’ve read Saul’s post, you obviously disagree with him about the BDS movement. Would it be possible for you to lay out why you disagree with
    his views?That would be really useful.
    It’s interesting that you quote Helen Suzman, that suggests you see a direct analogy between BDS and boycotting the South African regime. I would disagree that there is one. It is, however, a much- pushed idea by the BDS movement.
    You say that there is a small number of extremists amongst the ranks of the BDS movement but that should not affect how the entirety of the movement is judged. That the mainstream of the movement should not be tarred with the brush of extremism. Mr Barghouti, whose views are outlined in the above link, is the *founder*’of the movement. He drives it. His views are at the core of it. And he is extremely vocal in putting them across. He is in no way on the margins.
    The extremism in the BDS movement comes right from the top, and sits right at its heart.


  7. Sorry, link is not working.


    Yes, I do agree with him and not you. But you haven’t addressed the fact that the extremism in the movement comes from the very top. Unless you don’t find Mr. Barghouti’s views exreme and anti-Semitic…


    • Obviously Mr Barghouti’s views are anti-Semitic. But you seem to be mistaking the BDS movement – a loose coalescence of disparate, unregimented masses – with a tightly organised, top-down political organisation.


  8. No. I’m not confusing it with anything.
    I do, however,think that any movement of the present-day is, by definition, driven by the original ideas and aims laid out by the person who founded it. And who continues to be its vocal frontman and to provide leadership. To be interviewed in major newspapers, online, and on broadcast media. To suggest that people joining the movement are ignorant about his views or find him irrelevant is disingenuous. They are not. The movement is headed by an extremely anti-Semitic man whose leadership gets him a great deal of press and airtime. Suggesting that anyone can tag along so it’s irrelevant what the founder’s aims and views are is pushing the limits of credibility. Huge organizations listen to Mr. Barghouti and take their lead from him. His views inform the whole movement. And his views are deeply anti-Semitic.


    • “I do, however,think that any movement of the present-day is, by definition, driven by the original ideas and aims laid out by the person who founded it.”

      Well, that’s where we disagree then, Romy.


  9. Yes. Indeed.
    A movement led and founded by someone whose views and goals are racist and who travels around the world to recruit people to his movement – having heavy influence over enormous institutions, media and political actors – can, apparently, be thought to be separate from its leadership. And from the leadership’s stated goals. Indeed we do disagree.


  10. Pingback: Owen Jones’ choice | The Gerasites

  11. It seems very odd to want to survey British Jews on their thoughts before assessing the Israel-Palestine conflict. I take it that we are to survey the thoughts of British Arabs as well?

    Is it proper to ask someone to renounce their views on Israel-Palestine before they are to be taken seriously on questions of anti-semitism? Is it proper to ask someone to renounce their views on Israel-Palestine before they are taken seriously on questions of bigotry towards Muslims or Arabs? Are we to expect Saul to pronounce on the Palestinian refugee question in order to decide whether he can be taken seriously as an anti-racist?

    I think this over-egged anti-racism which is more a plea to not to offend and pandering to various communalist pressures has a lot to answer for. Let’s not forget that young Jews have to live with this stifling secular religion of Israel. Their thoughts are spoken for before they have even opened their mouths.


  12. Pingback: On Owen Jones and his “all out war” on antisemitism | Large Blue Footballs

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