With the regularity of the seasons we are once again plunged into a discussion about antisemitism on the left. The catalyst this time is Jackie Walker, now ex-vice chair of Momentum.
As is now so often the case in Labour, the debate is polarised. On one side are those who see her comments as yet more evidence that the left harbours a hatred of Jews; on the other are those who see the whole affair as an invention of right-wing Zionists committed to undermining Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The truth is somewhere in the vast gulf between the two.
The debate has largely rested on the question of whether Jackie Walker’s comments are antisemitic. Most recently she was secretly recorded questioning the need for additional security in Jewish schools and inaccurately criticising Holocaust Memorial Day for not recognising other genocides. This is on top of the previous controversy regarding her suggestion that Jews were “chief financiers” of the transatlantic slave trade.
She also suggested she has not come across a definition of antisemitism that she “can work with.” In a sense this is not unreasonable given the huge controversy over the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) ‘working definition’. But perhaps we could settle on a relatively straightforward one: antisemitism is hostility to or prejudice against Jews.
Under this definition there is little reason to suspect that Jackie Walker’s intentions are antisemitic. I do not believe her politics are driven by a hostility towards Jews, and I have no reason to think she is prejudiced against them. However, this does not mean her actions do not result in an atmosphere of hostility against Jewish people: an antisemitic outcome.
Take the slavery comments. These are plainly untrue. The American Historical Association released a statement in 1995 condemning “any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave trade.” Consequently, Walker’s comments perpetuated an historical inaccuracy where Jews are the villains. The comments also lend themselves to antisemitic stereotypes of unscrupulous Jewish money-lenders, and wrongly place the blame for one of the greatest injustices in human history on the Jewish community.
If Walker repeated this claim in the knowledge that it is untrue then her intention would undoubtedly have been antisemitic, but presumably she did not know. Regardless of her intention, her actions wrongly promote a hugely negative portrayal of Jewish people, and have forced Jews into the position of having to defend their community’s history against spurious allegations. Knowingly or not, she repeated an antisemitic conspiracy. Comments like these create an atmosphere that is hostile to Jews.
The argument concerning her Holocaust Memorial Day comments is similar. I doubt she was intentionally spreading falsehoods about the commemoration but that doesn’t alter its impact. Her comments support the antisemitic idea that Jews like to play the victim, and they force Jews to justify the existence of a commemoration of the most traumatic period in their history.
The debate has largely centred on what should happen to Jackie Walker now. Some feel she is a proven antisemite and consequently cannot be allowed in either the Labour party or Momentum. Others argue that any mistakes she made were honest ones, borne of ignorance, so she should not be sanctioned. Momentum’s position is that she is not antisemitic but her behaviour is irresponsible and unfitting for someone in a leadership role in the organisation, hence she has been stripped of her vice-chairship.
Whatever happens next, little will change. Walker’s removal as vice chair of Momentum does not mark the decline of the Corbyn project. Likewise her expulsion from the Labour party would not end its antisemitism woes. This is not about Jackie Walker.
This is about our movement. Jackie Walker is a life-long left-winger and anti-racist campaigner. Despite this (or perhaps, more worryingly, because of it) she nonetheless believed a conspiracy theory about Jewish participation in the slave trade which has no support amongst mainstream historians, and has been derived from a book described as the ‘Bible of new antisemitism’. Similarly, she has a totally inaccurate understanding of the biggest commemoration of genocide in the world: Holocaust Memorial Day. What does it say about our movement that someone can spend so long in it – and become so prominent – without these basic misunderstandings being challenged? It is not as though vigorous debate and intellectual rigour is absent on the left. Why are we less self-critical when it comes to antisemitism?
How can it be that when an oppressed group raises genuine concerns sections of our movement dismiss them as smears led by alien forces? When Manuel Cortes (the left-wing general secretary of the TSSA union) criticised Walker’s behaviour, one reaction was to speculate that he might have been influenced by the Jewish Labour Movement, or specific Jews around him. Is that our attitude to internal criticism?
Jackie Walker’s comments are not driven by a hatred of Jews – but they are the consequence of a political environment that does not take antisemitism seriously. Her most ardent defenders are not driven by hostility to Jews, but the ease with which allegations of antisemitism are reduced to claims of a ‘Zionist agenda’ should ring alarm bells. The left does not hate Jews, but we do nothing like enough to engage with their concerns.
For those of us on the left, the next few years will be the battle of our lives. And throughout that, we will be held to higher standards than everyone else. Every suggestion that a left-winger might have behaved badly will be reported with glee. Every ambiguous comment will be interpreted as uncharitably as possible. Every mistake will be amplified. These double standards are unfair but we can do little to change that. We need to be self-critical and conscious of the results of our actions. Good intentions are not enough.
This is especially the case with antisemitism. The left has a terrible reputation amongst the majority of the Jewish community. This is not without reason. Our job now is to turn outwards, and win people over to the ideas we know can transform society. And that has to involve making our movement a space which is open to all.