The Labour party continues to face difficulties in responding to accusations of antisemitism against its members, officials and elected representatives. As a social scientist who has been studying online antisemitism intensively since 2016, I am unsurprised. Again and again, I have found evidence of people on the left who are unable or unwilling to recognise Jew-hate if it comes accompanied by expressions of opposition to Israel, racism, banking or the West – or to something called “Zionism” that in certain circles seems to imply all four.
For a recent article, I looked at three relatively high-profile left-wing Facebook sites. They comprised the official Facebook pages of Free Speech on Israel and Hope Not Hate, as well as the largest unofficial Labour Party group on Facebook: The Labour Party Forum, which has more than 40,000 members.
In particular, I looked at how commenters dismissed 2017 research from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) on attitudes to Jews and Israel. I expected the JPR study to touch a nerve because it found a strong correlation between anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish beliefs, both on the left and throughout wider society.
Through thematic analysis – a form of qualitative analysis in which statements are read and reread in order to identify general patterns – I identified three conversational means or “interpretive repertoires” by which the racism the JPR found was denied.
The first was the claim that the survey had been carried out in order to deflect criticism of Israel. This repertoire was familiar from David Hirsh’s work on the “Livingstone Formulation”: the insinuation that accusations of antisemitism are part of a conspiracy. The second was the claim that the survey had used “leading questions” to trick its respondents.
The third was the claim that the anti-Jewish statements with which survey respondents had agreed were objectively true of “some Jews” and therefore not antisemitic. I call this the “some Jews” repertoire. It relies on the idea that racism can only take the form of prejudice against all members of a group. But modern antisemitism works differently. For example, Hitler’s Wonderland – a 1934 book by British journalist Michael Fry – blames “a small number of Jews” for having provoked Adolf Hitler by gaining control of Germany’s “industrial, commercial and intellectual resources”.
When discussion of the JPR’s research turned into a discussion of Ken Livingstone, one member of The Labour Party Forum used the “some Jews” repertoire in a strikingly similar way. According to him, Hitler was a misunderstood figure with “a valid argument against some Jews” (his emphasis). When a fellow group member asserted that Jews were scapegoated by the Nazis, he replied as follows:
In the same way that it’s wrong to blame the Jews on mass [sic] for what Jewish Bankers did, you’re basically letting Jewish Bankers off the hook by saying all Jews were scapegoats. You’re over generalising in the opposite direction. Some of them genuinely were guilty of screwing over the general population of Germany.
This forum member’s statements suggest that Hitler’s hatred of Jews was understandable and had a Jewish cause. And he went on to suggest that the Jewish religion was ultimately at fault for permitting the lending of money at interest. His comments were not deleted, and he appeared to “win” the argument, his sole antagonist quickly giving up.
The Labour Party Forum’s rules (uploaded on April 6 2016) state that “no racist, anti-semiti[c], sexist, homophobic, or intolerant behaviour/language” is permitted. But it took three more months – and an escalation in his rhetoric – for the user who made the above statements to be banned. Even then, one moderator spoke up to say that she “didn’t see [him] make any antisemitic comments”, and another group member lamented the ejection of a “brilliant debater”.
Right and left
The classic statement of modern antisemitism is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), which alleges a secretive “Zionist” elite to be engaged in a conspiracy to control the world through covert dominance of politics, banking, and the media. The Protocols helped to inspire, facilitate, and justify the crimes of the Nazis, and continue to influence public discussion about Jews and Israel today.
For example, when Nick Griffin, the then leader of the British National Party, alleged the presence of a hidden hand behind his rivals at the English Defence League in 2013, it was “Zionist billionaires” whom he accused of being secretly in charge – and he used a version of the “some Jews” repertoire to distance his conspiracy theories from more blatant forms of racism. Acknowledgement of such tendencies informs the non-exhaustive list of examples in the international definition of antisemitism.
Griffin and the Nazis belong to the far right. But fundamentally identical beliefs about “Zionists” were promoted by the Soviet Union and its supporters. Today, they circulate on both sides of the political spectrum – as is clear from the views being expressed on social media forums. The dangers of such a situation could not be more obvious.