Labour’s antisemitism crisis: false lessons for the left

Issue: 173

Rob Ferguson

A review of Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, David Renton (Routledge, 2021), £19.99

Under the rather haughty title Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, David Renton lays the primary blame for the antisemitism crisis at the door of the left. Renton’s central theme is that the left failed to acknowledge how antisemitism had penetrated Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, then downplayed or denied the problem, allowing factional concerns to take precedence over principle. He contends the campaign against the left would have dissipated if there had not been repeated “instances of behaviour that was antisemitic or within touching distance of being so”.1 Renton’s conclusion is that, had the Labour left confronted antisemitism in the party and “listened more attentively” to Jewish opinion, the crisis may have been mitigated or avoided.2

There are vital lessons to be drawn from Labour’s antisemitism crisis. How was it that Corbyn and the Labour left foundered on this issue? How should the left address antisemitism and its contemporary manifestations? How do we understand the influence of Zionism, and how should the anti-Zionist case be made?

The answers will not be found in this book. Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis fails as an analysis and draws fundamentally mistaken conclusions. Despite this, Renton’s arguments do require a considered response for two reasons. First, the left’s defeat must be explained, and the Labour left has often tended to provide only partial answers. Second, Renton’s arguments have wider traction on the left and within academia.3 For instance, Renton criticises those who defended Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker and others whose expulsions were also supported by a significant layer of Corbyn’s support.4

Rather than a detailed refutation of specific charges that have been well rehearsed elsewhere, this review seeks to address the core premises of Renton’s argument.5 Three central faultlines run through Renton’s analysis. First, there is no serious recognition of the political motivations that impelled the attacks on Corbyn and the left, nor their context. Second, Renton obscures the core of the political and ideological attack against the left: the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel. Third, Renton relies on a framework for conceptualising antisemitism that is fundamentally flawed and departs from an understanding of modern antisemitism as a reactionary ideology, rooted in the systemic crises of capitalism.

The “new antisemitism” and the attack on Corbyn

The attacks on Corbyn were both a reaction to his victory in the 2015 Labour leadership election and part of a wider ideological offensive that had begun in the early 2000s. The narrative of the “new antisemitism” had its origins in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but spread on a far wider scale in the context of the “War on Terror”, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Second Intifada in Palestine. Antisemitism, it was argued, acted as common ground for a “red-green” alliance of Islamists and the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist left, bound in common hostility to liberal democracy.6 From 2001, the pro-Israel camp began to lobby for an inter-governmental “definition” of antisemitism that would give quasi-legal status to its conflation with opposition to Israel.7 Terror attacks on Jews and Jewish targets in Europe, particularly France, gave these efforts a further opening. Israel’s tribunes were particularly concerned at the international mobilisations against Israeli military attacks on Gaza and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Thus, the terrain for the assault on Corbyn’s leadership had been laid before 2015 with the development of the “new antisemitism” narrative. In 2015, for the first time in its history, the British Labour Party, one of the oldest pillars of social democracy, elected a leader identified with mass anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. He was also an avowed opponent of the neoliberal consensus. This context is important because it is here that Renton’s analysis falls at the first hurdle. Renton repeatedly insists that the central issue at stake in the crisis was the perceived hurt to Jews. From this flows the inexorable logic that, if only Labour responded immediately to the fears of the “Jewish community” and taken action, the crisis may have been avoided.

Of course, there were examples of outright antisemitism and conspiracism and of slippage into anti-Jewish stereotypes. However, the attacks’ core objectives were to delegitimise opposition to Zionism and Israel, defend Britain’s role as an imperialist power allied with the United States, and undermine the radical left as a whole. Renton ignores the context and misrepresents the attacks on Labour. He also fails to address the central role played by the Labour right, the media and the Tories. In their absence, the attacks by the Zionists would not have left the starting blocks.

This brings us to the second faultline in the analysis. Early on, Renton asserts his purpose is “to refocus away from what often seemed most important during the controversy within Labour”: “whether one group of people were correct when they argued that antisemitism and anti-Zionism overlapped or another group of people were right when they argued that antisemitism and anti-Zionism were usually distinct”.8 Yet, it was precisely this conflation that drove the charges of antisemitism against the left. Accusations of antisemitism had to be exaggerated beyond recognition and laced with distortion, abuse and slander.9 Antisemitism had to be presented as endemic and rooted in the left’s anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist politics. Thus, any attempt to genuinely address instances of antisemitism would not do. This was why the report into Labour Party antisemitism by Shami Chakrabarti was traduced and sabotaged; it was not the report’s deficiencies in addressing antisemitism that was the problem, but its inadequacy as a tool for hammering Corbyn and the left.10

It was also the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel that made the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism a key battlefield for the right and a test for the left.11 At the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting that adopted the IHRA definition, Corbyn attempted to move a 500-word statement that included a sentence that would protect pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist positions on Israel: “Nor should it be regarded as antisemitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict”.12 This was met with a torrent of abuse by the pro-Zionist camp and the Labour right, who made clear that no such allowance for free expression would be tolerated. However, it was Corbyn’s allies on the NEC who blocked the statement. Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum, who is repeatedly praised by Renton, strongly advocated against Corbyn’s addition, and Corbyn ultimately withdrew it.

The fact is that the case for the left was never argued politically in the public arena by Corbyn and his leadership team. There were denials of endemic antisemitism and an insistence that issues were being addressed, but the false conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism was not confronted. On this Renton is silent, and his prescriptions for avoiding and escaping the crisis defy political realities.

The final blow against the left was dealt by the report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into antisemitism in the Labour Party.13 Renton’s approach to the EHRC inquiry is mired in a legalistic formalism that obscures the role of what has become a highly political (and discredited) state institution.14 As the left-wing Jewish historian David Rosenberg astutely observes, the EHRC, bound within its legalistic framework, had to prove something more than “the occasional use of offensive, provocative, hateful words across a range of incidents over years.” Instead, “It had to prove unlawful prejudicial conduct that necessarily had an adverse effect on Jews throughout the party”.15

At the core of the EHRC judgement lay the conflation of Jewish ethnicity with Zionism, made explicit in the two cases of “unlawful conduct” cited in the report.16 Without this politicised conflation, the entire EHRC edifice falls. Thus, any mining of “positives” in the report is beside the point. The political reality is that once the EHRC announced its investigation in May 2019, the result was a foregone conclusion.17 Renton, however, refuses “to assume the worst of the EHRC”.18 The entire political trajectory of Labour’s antisemitism crisis, from the onset of the campaign against Corbyn to its grim finale, is obscured by Renton throughout the book.

Antisemitism as reactionary ideology

The third and fundamental faultline of Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis is the framework Renton draws on for conceptualising antisemitism as ideology. Renton references an influential article by Ben Gidley, Brendan McGeever, and David Feldman, three academics associated with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism who have authored a body of important work.19 Feldman and McGeever are signatories to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, drafted as an alternative to the IHRA definition.20 In “Labour and Antisemitism: a Crisis Misunderstood”, Gidley, McGeever and Feldman seek to provide an explanation of antisemitism on the left that avoids the reductive conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. They are critical of the Labour Party’s use of punitive sanctions and expulsions, instead arguing for an emphasis on education (as does Renton). They reject notions of antisemitism as an incurable “virus”, asserting that it is best understood as “a deep reservoir of stereotypes and narratives, which is replenished over time and from which people can draw with ease”.21

The problem with this type of formulation is that antisemitism becomes detached from its roots as an ideology of reaction. Shulamit Volkov advanced the notion of antisemitism as a “cultural code” in the 1970s.22 Criticisms made of Volkov’s theory as “undeveloped and thin”, and inadequate as a conception of ideology, apply equally to the formulation favoured by Renton.23

Antisemitism is not a politically neutral “reservoir” of cultural prejudices tapped by unwitting subjects. It does not “free float” as a “virus” or as a trope in a “reservoir”. The conclusion from Gidley, McGeever and Feldman has the sense of an arbitrary formulation “read back” from a desired political outcome rather than a developed analysis. At its core is a view of antisemitism consisting of stereotypes and narratives that the left, as much as the right, can “draw upon with ease”. This is given explicit expression by the non-Zionist, Jewish academic Brian Klug, who also cites Gidley, McGeever and Feldman:

Antisemitism has always had a natural home on both the left and the right. Roughly: in the right-wing version, the Jew is the racial enemy of the nation; in the left-wing version, the Jew is the class enemy of the proletariat. Either way, the Jew is cast as the enemy.24

The notion of antisemitism finding a “natural home” on both the left and right echoes a prevalent theme in the liberal mainstream and on the conservative right—that socialist critiques of capitalism, anti-colonialism, and even the notion of a society “for the many, not the few” (also criticised by Renton), form a seedbed for antisemitic ideas.25

It is difficult to discern a significant difference between antisemitism as a “reservoir of stereotypes and narratives” and a mutating virus that infects both right and left, manifesting itself as biological racism or anti-Zionism. Despite their different starting points, Gidley, McGeever and Feldman seem to land on much the same terrain as arch-conservative Zionist Jonathan Sacks. The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism creeps back in under the covers.26

None of this is to argue that antisemitism, or any form of racism or prejudice, cannot penetrate into the left. It can and it does. Like all forms of prejudice, it poses a serious threat that must be challenged. However, we need clarity on how reactionary ideas and prejudices can find purchase on the left in the first instance.

Modern antisemitism has material and historical roots in the systemic crises of the capitalist system. Its origins lie in the reactionary backlash against the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the European revolutionary wave of 1848-9. As an ideology, it emerged in its fully developed “racial” form in the period of crisis that followed the Great Depression of the mid-1870s, an era that was marked by the rise of nation-states, colonial rivalry and the growth of working-class, socialist and radical movements.

Antisemitism, like all forms of racism, serves to undermine international working-class solidarity. It is not only a matter of “scapegoating”; antisemitic ideology provides an alternative, reactionary, pseudo-explanation of systemic crisis, seeking to locate society’s woes in a malign “Jewish” power. It is an ideology that offers a means of making sense of events that appear beyond explanation. I have written elsewhere:

Antisemitism…speaks to the despair and rage at the ruin brought by incomprehensible, blind forces. It is an ideology that explains nothing and explains everything.27

This draws attention to a fundamental point. Antisemitism reflects a break from socialist politics. It makes no more sense to speak of “left-wing antisemitism” than to speak of “left-wing racism”. Antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia and transphobia have gained purchase and influence on the left in both the past and present—there is no automatic immunity to the prejudices of society. However, this does not make such prejudices “left wing”; rather, they are all forms of reactionary ideology. Thus, socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics are not part of the problem: they are the necessary antidote. Yet, it is precisely this antidote that was the principal target of the onslaught in Labour. Renton’s “lessons” thus only serve to disarm the left.

Lessons for the left

Renton’s Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis is a developed rationale for political retreat and accommodation. Renton does declare his support for the Palestinian cause, criticises the failure of Labour’s critics to direct fire against the Conservative Party, and takes issue with the IHRA definition and the EHRC inquiry report; there is much finessing of argument, page after page. However, when it comes to mounting a defence of the left, he is absent under fire.

Renton gives unwarranted credence to the claims of endemic antisemitism and plays down the scale of false accusations and outright slander.28 This itself is a symptom. A witch hunt, by its nature, targets individuals. However, the witch hunt is not about the individual; it is an attack on the movement. How a witch hunt is resisted and fought is important—but fight it we must. In this respect Renton’s entire book is an evasion: an evasion symptomatic of wider sections of the Labour left, including those held up by Renton as examples to follow.

Ken Livingstone was not attacked for his poor framing of history. He expressed a reductive approach to Zionism and to the role of Zionists in the 1930s, but he is not an antisemite.29 The failure to defend him laid the ground for escalating attacks and further retreat. The same holds for Chris Williamson, Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, David Miller and others. A witch hunt cannot be stopped by abandoning the accused. There may be important political differences that are subject to legitimate contention and hostages to fortune that should be challenged. Nevertheless, none of this is a reason to throw the target of an attack to the lions.

Since publication of Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis, the attacks on the left have been in plain sight. The party machine has rolled out mass expulsions of members, including many well known and principled left-wing activists with decades of activism in the movement. Any semblance of democratic discussion about the IHRA definition, the EHRC report, and the suspension of Corbyn and others has been ruled as “not competent business” by Labour’s general secretary.

It is therefore distasteful—to say the least—that Renton reserves some of his most bitter ire for those on the anti-Zionist, Jewish left who opposed the witch hunt, including Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). JVL fought a principled and unrelenting defence of the left, and its leadership helped articulate the case against the IHRA definition.30 It highlighted the implications of the attack on Corbyn for the wider left and for freedom of expression in universities. Renton’s passages about JVL are among the most disgraceful and disingenuous parts of the book. At the time of writing, 11 JVL officers have effectively been accused of antisemitism. This is slander against lifelong opponents, and victims, of antisemitism. Furthermore, this is just the sharp end of a wider, targeted assault against left-wing, anti-Zionist Jewish voices, who are even more likely to be subject to false charges of antisemitism than non-Jewish Labour members.31 A consequence of conflating Jewish identity with Zionism is that Jews are no longer defended as Jews—acceptance is conditional.32 There are past precedents for this antipathy to the radical internationalist Jewish tradition in the workers’ movement and the Labour Party; nonetheless, one would struggle to find the levels of hostility now pervading Labour.

Renton does criticise pro-Zionist Jewish organisations for their failure to pay attention towards antisemitism on the right. However, these criticisms of the right are cast as a form of even-handed “whataboutery”, and an equivalence is drawn between the left’s supposed downplaying of antisemitism inside Labour and Corbyn’s critics’ downplaying of antisemitism outside the party. This ignores the direct relationship between the free pass given to the right and the weaponising of antisemitism against the left. The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism provides a weapon against the left and anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements, while offering a shield to the antisemitic right, who proclaim support for Israel and opposition to BDS. More fundamentally, the narrative of the “new antisemitism” and the rise of the far right are both, in their own ways, responses to systemic crisis; they are both attempts to defend the system against challenge from below. Therefore, it is no coincidence that they share common targets.

The attack on Corbyn and the Labour left inevitably extended into wider society. Students at the London School of Economics were slandered as antisemites by both Tory and Labour leaders for protesting against the Israeli ambassador in November 2021; academics face the sack for their criticism of Zionism; school students face discipline and sanctions for expressing support for the Palestinians.33

Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis never seriously addresses the motives behind the unrelenting determination to destroy the Corbyn project. The systematic attempt to delegitimise anti-Zionism, free expression and criticism of Israel across academia and in the public space is barely touched on. These silences serve to obscure a shifting of blame onto the left’s shoulders. Nonetheless, these criticisms of Renton’s book still leaves us with an important question. How do we explain the Labour left’s defeat in facing this crisis?

The charges of antisemitism served to polarise the battle between the left and right in Labour into a zero sum game, and the crisis acted as a proxy for the wider battle over political leadership. The outcome was thus never determined by the integrity of the argument but by where the political weight of the party lay. Corbyn was faced with a stark choice: confront the parliamentary party, the party machine and majority of local councillors, which were backed by the media and the institutions of state, or seek ways of evading confrontation. The problem for the left was the inherent dominance of the right in Labour’s structures, and the Labour right were never going to allow Corbyn an escape route.

Labour’s antisemitism crisis exposed the Achilles’ heel of the Labour left. Despite an important distinction, both the Labour right and the Labour left share a common project: getting a Labour government elected. The entire party is structured around elections and parliament. The political weight of the party rests with the MPs, not the membership, and the dominant role of the Parliamentary Labour Party is underpinned by a trade union leadership, whose interests Labour represents in parliament. The trade union leaders may seek to exert pressure on the Parliamentary Labour Party and sometimes even back left-wing challengers in order to do so, but party unity is a line in the sand. Neither the trade union leaders, nor the centre, nor the soft left, nor the Socialist Campaign Group were going to countenance a split in Labour over the antisemitism crisis. In this, the right understood their own strength and pursued it relentlessly.

Many on the labour left played a highly principled role in resisting the witch hunt inside the party, opposing the IHRA definition on the campuses and defending free expression on Palestine and Israel. However, the succession of retreats exposed political weaknesses and opened up traps. The basic premise of the Labour left was that the Labour Party could be subjected to democratic direction by the membership and thus bring a radical, socialist government to power. This was the prospect that inspired the Corbyn wave. Rightly it commanded the support of the entire left, including those who warned that those aspirations could not be fulfilled by voting in a left-led government. In the event, it did not even come to that. Corbyn’s leadership, even with mass support of members, could not overcome the realities of Labourism and the historic and structural dominance of the right. However, here the Labour left finds itself in difficulty—to explain the left’s defeat in such terms runs counter to the entire logic of the Labour left project. It is not an explanation open to those who wish to hold onto that project under such slogans as “Don’t Leave, Organise!” and “Stay and Fight!”. The result is that other explanations begin to fill the vacuum.

In this context, explanations that rely on the power of a “Zionist Lobby” have become more prevalent. Given the prominent role of the leaders of pro-Zionist Jewish community organisations, the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Labour Movement in the attacks on Corbyn, this is understandable on one level. However, it is mistaken. The problem is how do we then account for the influence of this “lobby”, let alone its success? It is impossible to explain in terms of the numbers of Jews in the party or the population. Financial donations? Donations from Zionist proponents are far outweighed by non-Jewish donors. “Infiltration” of supporters of a foreign state? Apart from the implicit conspiracism, this begs the question of how such a group can exert such control.

The truth is that the Labour Party has always been a pro-Zionist party.34 This is not due to the malign influence of a foreign power or its supporters, but because defending the interests of the British state is hard-wired into Labourism. Labour has supported every imperialist war and colonial enterprise since the First World War, and it has been a pillar of the Atlantic alliance. Although individual Labour politicians are not above financial gain, this cannot explain support for Israel or the attack on the left. The problem for Corbyn and the left was not a “Zionist lobby”, but the Labour Party itself, and behind that, the media, the British state and its ruling class. Of course, the fact that the charge of antisemitism has become a political weapon gives pro-Zionist Jews and their organisations a central role, which they use to maximum advantage, brooking no concessions. Yet, their ability to exercise such influence rests on the vital strategic importance of Israel to the British state, whose interests in turn the Labour Party exists to manage and defend.35

Mistaken approaches to this question can often reflect a deeper misunderstanding of Zionism as a political ideology. The tradition in which this journal stands has always insisted that the state of Israel must be understood as a racist, settler-colonial state.36 However, outside Israel’s borders, the legitimacy of a Jewish state is still widely viewed through the prism of historic antisemitism, with Israel presented as a refuge of last resort for Jews. Corbyn himself is a supporter of a two-state solution, as are most of the wider left and the majority of trade union members.

It may be contradictory to be anti-racist, march in defence of refugees, oppose Tory asylum laws and to support Israel, but it is a contradiction we face in real life. Zionism emerged as a response to antisemitism and was transformed from a minority current to hegemonic dominance among Jews as a result of the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. It is true that Zionism can only be realised in the form of a racist ideology; however, this does not dispense with the contradiction of Zionism as a movement. This was the problem (though not the only one) with Livingstone’s formulation of Zionists’ historic role during the Nazi era.37 In part, it was this perception of Israel’s historical legitimacy that the pro-Zionist camp exploited so successfully, among British Jews in particular.

The tension between opposition to antisemitism and racism and support for a Jewish state is one socialists have to address in the concrete and in practice. Building the Palestine solidarity movement and a wider understanding of the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians is central in undermining Israel’s legitimacy. There is also, however, another important weapon in our armoury: our ability to engage with Jews and non-Jews who, despite identification with the Jewish state, recognise the real threat of antisemitism and racism from the rising forces of the far right. This is most apparent in the US, where mobilisations against Donald Trump, fascists and white supremacists have opened up fractures within the Jewish community, particularly among young US Jews.38

This brings us back to the question of antisemitism. The conditions of crisis, militarism and racism from which the antisemite crawls have returned with a vengeance. Presidents and prime ministers evoke the threat from “globalists” and “special interests” intent on undermining the nation and the family. The antisemitic conspiracy theories of the “Great Replacement” and “white genocide” permeate the “manifestos” of the fascist killers at Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, El Paso and Poway in the US, Halle in Germany, Christchurch in New Zealand, and Utoya in Noway.

We should not be complacent. There has been a tendency to react to the witch hunt by downplaying the significance of antisemitism today. Claims are made that antisemitism is not a threat comparable to anti-black racism and Islamophobia, that Jews can no longer be seen as victims of institutional racism, and that Jews are privileged socially and economically. There is only space to make some concise points about these ideas here. First, antisemitism weaponises every form of racism and reactionary prejudice. It is an ideology that casts the Jew as the hidden hand behind every threat to the nation and social order: socialism and revolution; Islamist “takeovers” of “our” cities; migrant “invasions”; Black Lives Matter; “Antifa”; “gender ideology”, feminism and campaigns for LGBT+ rights. It is an ideology that justifies authoritarian measures by governments and mobilises force and violence by the far-right.

Second, antisemitism has never been contingent on the real social position of Jews. The assimilated Jewish communities of Berlin, Vienna and Budapest were not on the whole impoverished. The first antisemitic quotas introduced in Hungary, Vienna and Italy targeted the professions and university entrants. Indeed, antisemitism does not even require the presence of Jews to acquire ideological force; the Jewish population of Germany in 1933 was less than 0.75 percent.

A tendency to relativise antisemitism and detach different forms of racism from their common roots in capitalism can even extend to how the Holocaust is framed. Zionists often elevate the Holocaust to a special status to deflect criticism of Israel, but it is important that we do not define a socialist view of the Holocaust negatively in response to the pro-Zionist camp. Examples of other genocides and of the slave trade are sometimes mistakenly counterposed to the “Final Solution”. Moreover, some have characterised the prominence given to Holocaust memorialisation as a Holocaust “industry” or as a manifestation of “white privilege”.39

The Holocaust had both a unique and a universal character. As a modern genocide, it was rooted in the legacy of biological racism, slavery and colonialism. It was also rooted in imperialist war and rivalry. Nonetheless, the Holocaust was a unique manifestation of capitalism’s barbarism. The Holocaust was not driven by profit, economic gain, colonisation or the suppression of a national minority. It was driven by a racial ideology, and the ferocity and scale of “the Final Solution” reflected this ideological character. The issue is not to counterpose the Holocaust to other historic or contemporary atrocities, but rather locate all these horrors as rooted in the capitalist system, in which the Holocaust was, in so many ways, the ultimate horror.

In the course of the witch hunt, some on the left did make, or evade, judgements in reaction to weaponised charges of antisemitism. Problems can then arise when the left’s opponents seize on a real example. One important instance was the historic case of a mural by Kalen Ockerman (know by his pseudonym, “Mear One”), in East London. The antisemitic character of the mural, invoking Jewish bankers and masonic symbolism, was identified in 2012 and the pro-Palestinian mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, demanded its removal. Corbyn made a fleeting response at the time to a post written by Ockerman, which claimed his street art was being “buffed” without any reference as to why it was being removed. Corbyn’s comment referred to the destruction of a Diego Rivera mural by Nelson Rockefeller. This passing response was then cynically resurrected to attack Corbyn six years later. Corbyn apologised for failing to interrogate the mural.

However, some on the left attempted to equivocate, or re-interpret the imagery, rather than taking opposition to antisemitism as their starting point. This mistook a defence of Mear One for a defence of Corbyn. In fact, Ockerman had peddled conspiracy theories about the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty and was a follower of antisemitic conspiracist David Icke. In a post linked to an Icke videocast on “Rothschild Zionism”, Ockerman urges followers, “Give Mr Icke a chance to blow your mind”.40 Ockerman dismissed local “older white Jewish folk” who took issue with his portrayal of “their beloved Rothschild and Warburg as the demons they are”.41

The meaning of antisemitism has been degraded and hollowed out by the attacks on the left and by the narrative of the “new antisemitism”. This has dangerous consequences. It sows divisions between the victims of racism, and it provides cover for the far right and the fascist to claim that the left and Muslims are the real antisemites. It has made it more difficult to challenge antisemitism when it does raise its head in the movement. If support for the cause of Palestinian freedom is “antisemitic”, and if slander and misrepresentation become legitimate discourse, and antisemitism becomes weaponised, then real examples of antisemitism can be dismissed.

The importance of drawing lessons from the last six years is to buttress a defence of the left against the witch hunt, to defend Palestine solidarity, to reinforce the anti-Zionist case and to oppose the false conflations of the “new antisemitism” narrative. Above all we need to recover the real meaning of antisemitism as a reactionary ideology. In all these respects David Renton steers in the opposite direction.

Rob Ferguson is a long-standing anti-racist activist who has been actively involved in the campaign to protect free expression on Palestine and in defence of the left. He is the author of Antisemitism: The Far Right, Zionism and the Left (Bookmarks, 2018).


1 Renton, 2021, p5.

2 Renton, 2021, pp211-216.

3 See Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, 2020; Klug, 2020; Jones, 2020, pp210-256; and Brown, 2019. Also see two positive reviews of Renton from Corbyn supporters: Phipps, 2021, and Saville, 2021.

4 See Segalov, 2016 and 2019; Harpin, 2017; and Press Association, 2019. Corbyn supporters who backed expulsions included former chair of Momentum Jon Lansman, Young Labour chair Jess Barnard, and Novara Media commentators Aaron Bastani, Ash Sarkar and Rivkah Brown. Left-wing National Executive Committee members also sanctioned suspensions and expulsions.

5 See Paul Field’s review of Renton­—Field, 2021. For a wide range of responses to charges against individuals and against the Labour left see the Jewish Voice for Labour website at For responses to Livingstone’s suspension, see Rosenhead, 2017; Rose, 2016; and Rosenberg, 2017.

6 See Ferguson, 2018, pp12-16.

7 This initiative has often been attributed to quite modest (and unsuccessful) efforts to refer to the racist treatment of Palestinians by Israel in the final declaration of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 and a furore over the NGO Forum Declaration. In fact, the key drivers were the Second Intifada, and the attacks of 9/11 which took place three days after the Durban Conference ended.

8 Renton, 2021, p5.

9 Philo, Berry and others, 2019.

10 Chakrabarti, 2016. For an account of the sabotaged press launch, see Rosenberg, 2018.

11 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, 2016.

12 See Zeffman, 2018. For an earlier argument over a code of conduct, see Klug, 2018.

13 Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2020.

14 Shabi, 2020; Siddique, 2020.

16 Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2020, p107.

17 Ferguson, 2020.

18 Renton, 2021, pvii.

19 Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, 2020.

21 Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, 2020.

22 Volkov, 1978.

23 Eley, 2008. For a critique of Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, see Kuper, 2020.

24 Klug, 2020.

25 Renton, 2021, p151.

27 Ferguson, 2018, p23.

28 Field undertakes an admirably thorough demolition of Renton’s distortion of the data. See Field, 2021.

29 Renton follows Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, 2020, arguing that whether or not an individual is an antisemite is not the issue; rather, the focus should be on antisemitism as a “a reservoir of readily available images and ideas that subsist in our political culture.” However, in the context of a political witch hunt, whether or not an individual is an antisemite is of prime importance.

30 They did so more substantively than any of Renton’s legalistic unpicking. See Stern-Weiner, 2019; Jewish Voice for Labour, 2021a.

31 Jewish Voice for Labour, 2021b. Renton himself acknowledges the disproportionate targeting of anti-Zionist Jews—Renton, 2021, p128.

32 The IHRA definition likewise undermines the meaning of antisemitism as hatred of Jews as Jews, which conflicts with its conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli apartheid.

33 Abdeen, 2021; Hall, 2021; Ullah, 2021.

34 Newsinger, 2017.

35 See Chris Harman’s criticism of an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that preceded their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy—Harman, 2006. There are elaborations to be made on Harman’s argument in explaining Israel’s rising importance to Western imperialism and its own degree of autonomy, but there is insufficient space for them here. Unlike Field’s own review of Renton’s book, I would argue Harman’s criticism of Mearsheimer and Walt’s article applies equally to their later book—see Mearsheimer and Walt, 2007, and Field, 2021.

36 Cliff, 1967; Rose, 1986; Ferguson, 2021.

37 Rosenhead, 2017; Rose, 2016.

38 Waxman, 2016. One of the first acts of the new Israeli administration under Naftali Bennett was to close the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which was responsible for leading the campaign against BDS. This was not out of any progressive motive but out of fear that the orientation on Trump, evangelicals and the racist right was driving a wedge between Israel and US Jews. See Lis, 2021, and Shaffir, 2021.

39 There is not space for a full discussion of Holocaust memorialisation here, but for problems with this approach, see Simons, 2000, and Callinicos, 2000.

41 For a thorough account of the attack on Corbyn over Mear One, see Pitt, 2018.


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