Comrades, do not underestimate what the JVL has achieved in less than two years. We have made a difference.
We are now in a very dangerous place. The rise of the right in the US, in Brazil, in Eastern Europe, in India too. And in Britain the Brexit meltdown that has exacerbated the rise of the far right – with the dangerous prospect of Boris Johnson ahead. All in the context of an apocalyptic climate change crisis. The future of the world is in the balance. In this country our best defence against these dangers – in the short run our only defence – is a Corbyn-led Labour government.
Just remember where we were – less than four years ago. When Jeremy won the Labour leadership it was a shifting of the tectonic plates.
It wasn’t just a historical accident that won it for JC – the decision to open up the election to an all members’ vote. Something was happening in the world outside. In Greece, the rise of Syriza, in Spain, Podemos, and in the United States, Bernie Sanders. The years of relative stability – at least for some – had been broken by the economic crisis of 2008.
It is conditions that determine consciousness. Just as the First World War was the precondition for the Russian Revolution, the 1929 Crash the precursor for Hitler’s rise to power, so too – at a lower level no doubt, at least for the moment – the 2008 crash undermined the stability that sustained New Labour and moderate bourgeois governments and brought in its wake the radical movements of the left and populist movements of the right.
Why Jeremy Corbyn poses a threat
When Jeremy won the Labour leadership the odds were always massively against us. We were fighting: the state, with veiled threats by generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government; the media, with relentless attacks and ridicule; the Tories; the undemocratic structures and rules of the Party, with the right wing dominated Compliance Unit being used to suspend hundreds, if not thousands, of Corbyn supporters All of this in the context of a vote on Brexit that put Labour between a rock and a hard place and the near death of Labour Scotland that would take years to recover from, whoever was Labour leader.
Not forgetting the Parliamentary Labour Party shamefully refusing to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, acting as a party within a party and fearing a Corbyn government more than another Tory government.
The only possible way to fight against such powerful opposition forces was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below. But this was not the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when the working class in Britain was powerful. We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. Although Jeremy’s victory reflected in part a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neo-liberalism – part of an international movement, such as in Spain, Greece and the US – at the same time our movement was at a low ebb. This contradiction – between the rise of the most left-wing leadership in Labour’s history and the low ebb of class struggle, remains the key to understanding the political context.
Jeremy became leader and it all started. He was a threat – a threat of course to the right wing of the party because he was a socialist, and – because of his pro-Palestinian credentials – a threat to supporters of the state of Israel. JC becomes leader and – all of a sudden – the party has a major problem with antisemitism.
The Labour Party is part of society – the best part of society in my opinion – but part of society nonetheless. Of course, there are examples of antisemitism in the party but from my experience it is under-represented in the party – just as you would expect, just as the data from Jennie Formby’s office reveals.
What we have seen is a pincer attack with sections of the right wing joining up with pro-Israel supporters and manufacturing a crisis that largely does not exist – and is grossly exaggerated. And they do it by conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. And a lot of this has been done with the full support of the Jewish Labour Movement – an affiliated organisation of the party which is Zionist in its constitution and supports Israel, and openly hostile to the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy.
And this is where the JVL comes in – by countering that narrative and providing an alternative voice for Jewish members of the Labour Party. Just imagine what it would have looked like if we had not been fighting for the last two years.
We are told: Let’s get into government first, keep a low profile and then we can start changing our world. If only – if only that were possible we would not have endured derision, abuse, threats and yes – even the loss of family and friends. We speak up because we understand what is at risk.
Have no doubt. We have been forced on the defensive. There have been a number of high-profile victims of what has become a witch-hunt: Ken Livingstone, one of the best anti-racists our movement has produced, Marc Wadsworth, Chris Williamson – and attempts to expel Glyn Secker (our secretary), Jo Bird, Moshe Machover and too many others. And Jackie Walker too – my very brave partner. I have seen first-hand, through her eyes the effects of structural race discrimination – what it is like both to be abused and made invisible.
And it gets worse. Just this week the launch of the EHRC investigation into Labour’s so-called antisemitism and now the suspension of Pete Willsman for referring to the Israeli Embassy’s interference in the Labour Party. In case anyone doubts what this is about, remember how The Lobby exposed the role of the Israeli Embassy, and Emily Thornberry’s call for an inquiry.
This will not stop unless and until the target of this campaign – Jeremy Corbyn – is overthrown.
Of course, we fight all forms of racism, including antisemitism, within the party and without. It should go without saying but – for the avoidance of any doubt – I say it again. This is core to our values as an organisation – we are full of lifetime active anti-racists.
Why does this witch-hunt matter?
Because it is used to undermine the best leader our party has ever had.Because it is a diversion from the fight against the Tories and their austerity programme.Because it is used to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and silence criticism of the state of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights and close down discussion on key historical issues.Because it separates antisemitism from all other forms of racism and obscures Islamophobia and the racism against black and Asians, which structurally excludes them from power in society and within our party.
Above all, I believe, as someone who has experienced antisemitism, it hinders the fight against antisemitism itself. This is particularly odious – the way false allegations of antisemitism are being used for factional interest. It is an abuse of the memory of all victims of racism – Jews and non- Jews – and if we do not put an end to this it will come back to haunt us.
JVL’s tasks are threefold
So, against this background what is our role? In my opinion our tasks are threefold.
First, and above all, it is to tell the truth. It is to fight the restrictions on our vocabulary and to challenge those who try to make crucial historical issues off limits. Let me give some examples.
Recently, the Labour Representation Committee, LRC, was asked to remove a title to an article on the TIGers. ‘A stab in the back’ was said to be antisemitic. Ditto the JVL for using the term “Fifth column”. I think this trend is dangerous.
We on the left have been asked to stop using the word “Zionist”, even though the World Zionist Organisation calls itself Zionist, the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland calls itself Zionist, the State of Israel calls itself Zionist – but we can’t use the term.
It gets worse. This is not a joke. Last year a good comrade of mine in the LRC counselled me against attacking the role of bankers. “It may be construed as antisemitic”, he said. Let me be clear: the reference was to bankers, not Jewish bankers. I told him that his response was itself antisemitic. And I told him if he seriously argued that socialists cannot attack the role of banks, he would be putting us out of business! This attempted restriction of our language is a form of cultural appropriation that we must resist.
So too with historical issues – however controversial, We must be free to examine our history – Jewish history or any other – on the basis that no peoples – including the Jewish people – have a monopoly of truth or right. All peoples in time have been both oppressed and oppressors. Victims in time become perpetrators of oppression. That is the dialectic of history, that is the inter-connectedness of all peoples. That is the internationalist response against all forms of exceptionalism, including Jewish exceptionalism.
So we must be free to examine and explain the role of some Jews in the slave trade – or else let’s the burn the books of the many academics, often Jewish, who have examined this question.
Then let’s burn The Havaara Agreement by the Zionist Edwin Black who examined the agreement reached by some Zionists in Germany and in the US which led to the breaking of the anti-Hitler economic boycott. Let’s have that debate – perhaps we will all learn from it. As we will from reading Hannah Arendt’s great book Eichmann in Jerusalem – a report on the banality of evil – or should we burn that too along with the writings of Ilan Pappé and so many others?
But if we decide to silence our own voices on our own history – remember we are silencing other voices too – the narratives of oppression – the voices of the African slaves and their descendants, the voices of the Palestinian people today.
Our second task is to recognise that the balance of forces is against us and that we cannot always go on the offensive. We can tell the truth without gratuitously attacking our opponents, without even ascribing to them bad motives. We are in a war – and loose talk costs lives.
This does not mean we are silent when Margaret Hodge has the temerity to attack Jeremy as a “fucking antisemite” and then trivialises the Holocaust by daring to compare her treatment in the Labour Party with those Jews in Nazi Germany who feared that knock on the door. And then she calls for a vote against Labour in the Euro elections! We call these people out them out by repeating against them their words and their actions. Let their deeds speak for themselves.
As we do with that self-appointed overseer of complaints of antisemitism in the Labour Party Tom Watson – he who is so unconcerned about racism against black people and Muslims that he went along with all New Labour’s anti-terrorism and Prevent measures and abstained on Theresa May’s 2014 Immigration Act which cemented the ‘hostile environment policy’ which had led, and continues to lead, to the deportation of hundreds of black people and the shameful treatment of the Windrush generation.
We need self-discipline and a sense of tactics. Remember, our task is to try to isolate our political opponents, not ourselves. As I was taught those many years ago, we have to patiently explain.
So our second task recognises how important it is to remain in the Labour Party, to use tactical nous, and build alliances to maximise the impact of our message.
But there are limits to this. Let me give an example. Here I speak for myself, not necessarily for the JVL. I am sometimes asked if I support the destruction of the state of Israel. I always answer no, provided the Israeli state – like almost every other state – becomes a state of its citizens, rather than a Jewish state that gives me, a British Jew who has been to Israel once, over 50 years ago, a greater right to live in Israel/ Palestine than a dispossessed, ethnically cleansed Palestinian. As a socialist I say I will never accept that and will never be silent on this.
It is vitally important for socialists to be in the Labour Party – I’ve been a party member for 50 years – and we are needed to build that rank and file movement without which a Corbyn government cannot succeed. But if I was told to remain silent on something as fundamental as this as the price for remaining in the party – and that’s the way it is going – I would say no.
I would say no, because of what is our third task, and in some respects the most important of all. And that is something many of us have been promoting for some time – to rebuild the universalist and internationalist tradition of radical secular Jewish thought.
It is a tradition represented in this country by a number of organisations – above all, I think, by the JVL of which I am so proud to be a member.
I started a speech at the Scottish Labour conference fringe about three months ago by saying that my task was to control my anger, and that I wasn’t sure I would succeed. That was wrong. A number of us here are very angry. We should be. But we need to control and channel that anger – and use it to help build the movement that will sustain and strengthen a Jeremy Corbyn-led government, help turn the tide against the right in Britain and internationally – and rebuild the very best traditions of Jewish socialist internationalism.