Keir Starmer is Finally Learning That Rightwing Groups Aren’t Interested in Jewish Safety
Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend.
by Em Hilton
21 July 2022
It’s been a bad week for Keir Starmer, who found himself accused of antisemitism. On 17 July, Starmer uploaded a new campaign video promoting Labour’s readiness for (hypothetical) election victory, featuring him walking around Berlin. At one point, footage showed Starmer strolling through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
It was to prove poor judgement. Within hours, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, a charity “dedicated to exposing and countering antisemitism through education and zero-tolerance enforcement of the law”, had condemned the clip. In a statement, CAA called the stunt an “insult” and wrote that Starmer’s supposed efforts to stamp out antisemitism – partly via a “purge” of leftwingers, including Jewish members – amounted to a “public relations effort, rather than anything of substance”.
This was a blow to both Starmer and Labour for two reasons. Firstly, because Starmer had pledged to stamp out all forms of antisemitism upon assuming the Labour leadership. To be accused of perpetrating it undermines Starmer’s pitch as the man who can supposedly save Labour from a bigotry crisis.
Secondly, during the public and political debates focused on Labour and antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the CAA was elevated into an antisemitism expert and arbitrator. It went from a fringe group to a trusted voice, instrumental in building the case for the antisemitism crisis and submitting complaints to the ECHR inquiry, which investigated the extent and impact of antisemitism inside Labour. To challenge the CAA would violate one of Starmer’s own declarations: that he would discipline anyone who labelled allegations of antisemitism as factional.
Yet that is exactly what his allies did. Staunch Corbyn critic Margaret Hodge – a former patron of the CAA – said she was “fed up of the CAA using antisemitism as a front to attack Labour”. The CAA, Hodge wrote, was “more concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism”. Former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth called the CAA’s statement “completely disingenuous and deeply unfair,” adding that it was “an attempt to politicise something that simply shouldn’t be [politicised]”. Despite Starmer’s earlier promises that his Labour party “will [not] tolerate the argument that denies or minimises antisemitism in the Labour party on the basis that it’s exaggerated or a factional row,” action has yet to be taken against either.
Days later, the long-awaited report by Martin Forde QC, the product of an investigation into allegations of racism, sexism and bullying in the party, dropped. Forde found that the apparent value of antisemitism as a factional tool likely resulted in a “hierarchy of racism” operating within the party, “with other forms of racism and discrimination being ignored” – as evidenced by the extensive anti-Black racism exposed in the report.
A monopoly on understanding antisemitism.
This speaks to a broader problem: how rightwing groups like the CAA have astroturfed their way into monopolising public understanding of antisemitism. In doing so, they have not only undermined our collective ability to address antisemitism, but have also struck near fatal blows to progressive political projects. Embraced by the Labour right when it was politically expedient, groups such as the CAA, the Board of Deputies and Labour Against Antisemitism were given significant moral authority in political and public circles to arbitrate both the definition of and remedy for antisemitism.
In the post-Corbyn-era, these organisations have sought to affirm their credentials as the leading voices in this space, whilst all but ignoring the accelerated rise of rightwing nationalism and the authoritarian ideology which has come to dominate mainstream political discourse in Britain and been enthusiastically picked up by the governing Conservative party.
It’s important to note that many of the folks leading this charge are not in fact Jewish themselves, such as Labour MP Lord John Mann, described as ‘the UK’s loudest critic of antisemitism’. As the independent government advisor on antisemitism, Mann is using his position to push for the widespread adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which has faced significant criticism from Jewish and non-Jewish progressive groups for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism (including by its own author, Kenneth Stern).
It is vital to understand that the CAA’s ultimate foe is not antisemitism, but the left in its entirety. For organisations like the CAA and their enablers, nothing will ever prove the left is able to address antisemitism, because they have no interest in building an anti-racist left. Rather, one of their motivations is to undermine public confidence in progressive political projects and misuse real concerns about antisemitism to do so. The aim is to create the impression that the left, as a whole, will not ever be able to comprehensively tackle antisemitism, because antisemitism is somehow inherent in a leftist political project.
These tactics create the space for the right, especially the Tories, to reframe themselves as the ‘anti-racist party’, resulting in Tory politicians gloating about the ‘diversity’ of the cabinet and Nahdim Zahawi praising Boris Johnson for “keeping a dangerous antisemite out of number 10”. The idea that the political safety of Jews and other marginalised groups lies to the right is a deeply dangerous notion that requires urgent redress.
Jews are given conditional safety by the right, dividing us from our natural allies: other groups marginalised and oppressed by white supremacy and Christian hegemony. The actions of groups like the CAA, as well as other more mainstream political actors and organisations, feed into this dynamic. We see, at times, alignment between these groups and people who have expressed racist or bigoted views about other minorities for the sake of ‘tackling antisemitism’. For example, Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who has been widely criticised for amplifying transphobic views, positioned herself as a close ally to Jewish Labour members during the Corbyn years, including the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement.
There are clear parallels to be drawn between organisations like the CAA, which uses antisemitism as a front to push rightwing politics, and the likes of transphobic ‘feminist’ groups, who spread bigotry under the guise of ‘women’s rights’. Both groups are notably silent on very real threats to their supposed area of concern. Transphobic feminist groups have had little say on the erosion of women’s reproductive rights and the most active ‘antisemitism warriors’ conspicuously fail to speak up about instances of rightwing antisemitism, such as Tory peer Lord Wharton’s recent appearance at Hungary’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with talk show host Zsolt Bayer, who has previously described Jews as “stinking excrement”.
This approach is reflective of wider societal failures and the liberalisation of anti-racism. Viewing this struggle as the need to root out individual racists – in this case, individual antisemites – prevents the public from tackling antisemitism as structural oppression. It’s the same blueprint used to deny anti-Black racism via the Sewell report. Figures across the political spectrum have little interest in a structural approach; it threatens their own moral authority and power within our political class. Those who cause racist harm should be held accountable, of course. But relying solely on an individualistic, liberal approach has, and will continue, to fail.
There will be many who argue that the likes of Hodge and Starmer are getting their just deserts at the hands of the CAA – it turns out after all, that your enemy’s enemy is indeed not your friend. But this focus solely on Labour’s internal politics is myopic. It’s crucial that our response to the CAA’s instrumentalisation of antisemitism is seen within the bigger picture of how these tactics impact our politics and public discourse.
This also doesn’t mean that antisemitism doesn’t exist on the left. Rather the instrumentalisation of antisemitism by these groups, and the willingness of political figures – some of them Jewish – to acquiesce to their position has caused untold damage to the struggle against antisemitism, as well as progressive politics more generally. It is embarrassing that so many have deferred to their ‘expertise’ for so long.
In this moment of frustration there lies opportunity. Ultimately, it’s a step forwards for the likes of Hodge to call this out for what it is. We must utilise political education to highlight the shallowness and futility of the centre trying to build tacit alliances with these groups for the sake of political expediency. A clear understanding of antisemitism rooted in white supremacy and Christian hegemony allows us to seek solutions to anti-Jewish bigotry in our relationships with others also oppressed and dehumanised by these systems. It’s hopeful and transformative and positions the right where it should be: as our opposition, rather than our saviour.
Em Hilton is a Jewish activist and writer.