Over the last week we have written an article each on Owen Jones. Although Owen and us are “of the left”, it’s fair to say that Owen occupies a different section to us two most of the time. We are variously described as Red Tories, Blue Labour, Blairites, liberal interventionists and neocons. Owen is none of those things. However Owen wrote an article on 15 March where he stated “anti-Semitism is a menace”. Condemnation of anti-Semitism is a binary choice and you either do or you don’t. So Owen’s condemnation was to be welcomed and here was something that we thought would unite Owen and us..
But when we read his article we, independently of each other, found things that made us nervous. One week on and we have decided to write this conclusion to the discussion jointly.
In 2004/5 Owen Jones was a student at Oxford. Although he describes his time at Oxford as a period where he didn’t really get involved in party politics he did take the time to edit Wikipedia entries on Israel, Hamas & Palestine. He has written today about those entries and sought to provide context, the main one being that he was very young (19) at the time.
In these entries Owen did some of the following:
- He identified other contributors as Zionists and used this as the basis to refute the value of their contributions on the subject of Israel.
- He proclaimed that Jews were not an ethnic group, referring to “the notion of Jewish ethnicity” as “a lie” and used this as a device to undermine the case for Israel as the Jewish state, representing Jewish self-determination.
- He dismissed reference to Hamas suicide bombings as “West-centric”.
- He removed reference to Hamas war crimes as “unnecessary and out of place”.
- He stated that the main reason Israel’s boundaries are disputed is down to the occupation of the West Bank & (as it was then) Gaza, with no reference to other more structural causes from neighbouring states.
- He stated that “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.”
In these posts, edits and commentaries, we think Owen exhibited just about every one of the views and behaviours associated with the anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic Left. You can read Owen’s version of events and decide for yourself though it is unclear from his piece today whether he does or does not hold these views any more.
However it seems that Owen’s general view, as expressed today, of these Wikipedia entries is that, because they were over ten years ago, they have no relevance today and discussion of them is a sign of “grudge”. Now at face value that might be a reasonable (if dismissive) approach.
So let us get closer to the present day. Owen claims to have impeccable credentials and points to his articles and writings since his Oxford days as evidence of him having put clear blue water between himself and the elements of the UK Left that propagate an anti-Israel agenda. An agenda that has helped land us where we are today – a UK Left riven by anti-Semitism.
There are some problems with his claims. Owen says he has never campaigned for BDS but in March 2015 he is billed on a panel to deliver “workshops on building powerful BDS campaigns”. His recent article on the government’s’ proposed ban on boycotts specifically mentioned BDS. He made the effort to denounce anti-Semitism but then rather spoiled it all by quoting Barnaby Raine, an issue addressed in more detail here.
Owen has also contributed articles for, and shared stages with, the Stop the War Coalition, who have a sickeningly long and very current history of publishing anti-Semitic articles and, on occasion, bad poetry. These recently deleted gems can be found at http://therealstopthewar.wordpress.com
He has also published a condemnation of Israel for killing a child and then refused to retract it when independent evidence proved his mistake.
And he has indulged in the modern version of the blood libel with an obsessive reference to Palestinian children injured or killed by Israel during the 2014 conflict with Hamas yet makes no reference to the thousands of Jewish Israelis (many, of course children) targeted by Hamas rockets during the same period.
We worry that such behaviour looks like tolerance of anti-Semitism. Yet if Owen understands anything about the nature of current Left wing anti-Semitism he will appreciate that his student Wikipedia posts are almost a textbook example of how we have got here. Owen’s place in the cycle is clear. At Oxford Owen was also a member of the Oxford University Labour Club, currently the subject of an investigation by the Labour Party into allegations of systemic anti-Semitic bullying and abuse. He is neither the root cause of nor to blame for OULC’s descent into the anti-Semitic pit. But if Owen cares about eliminating Left wing anti-Semitism he could use a public disavowal and forensic demolition of his “former” views as a once in a lifetime opportunity to lay bare the roots of this left-wing disease, and try to break the cycle.
The alternative is that, in ten years’ time, the “new Owen Jones” will write an article condemning anti-Semitism on the left without being able to locate it, and will dismiss evidence of their previous anti-Semitism as “naïve ramblings” while simultaneously sharing platforms with anti-Semites.
Let us be clear. This is not about extracting an apology from Owen. It’s about grasping this opportunity to break the seemingly endless loop of left-wing antisemitism. Not about using smoke and mirrors to deflect criticism away from Jeremy Corbyn. Not about introducing false equivalence with Islamophobia, as Corbyn himself also did today. The anti-Semitic left have denounced Owen leaving him with a clear choice to make. Either he follows through on his denunciation of anti-Semitism and refuses to have anything to do with those who indulge in it, or he provides cover for them. We hope he will choose the former and we will support him for it, whatever our differences on other issues.