Britain’s Labor Party is going through a crisis as successive low-level and, more recently, senior members of the party express antisemitic attitudes.
Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a Laborite familiarly known as “Red Ken,” told television audiences last week that Hitler was a Zionist, repeating a common and despicable theory usually limited to musty corners of the internet, implying that the Holocaust was all a ploy to engender sympathy that would lead to the creation of the state of Israel. Livingstone apologized if people had taken offence to his words but did not apologize for what he said.
Around the same time as Livingstone – a stalwart of the party’s left for decades – was getting in hot water, so was Naz Shah, a party rising star. The MP accused Israel of behaving like Nazis and suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States, an explicit call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the last refuge of the Middle East where they have not yet been eliminated.
The conflict broke into the open, at least in the international media, in February, when one of the co-chairs of the Labor club at Oxford University resigned, declaring that a large proportion of club members have “some kind of problem with Jews.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Party leader whose own record of allegiances leans more toward Hamas and Hezbollah than it does toward democratic, Jewish Israel, has called an inquiry into antisemitism in his party. Yet, this did not stop one of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet members and closest allies from dismissing allegations that the Labor Party has a problem with Jews as a “smear.” And some have declared the condemnations of antisemitism in the party a “new McCarthyism.”
While all of this sounds like bad news – and it’s hard to argue that the presence of antisemitism in one of the Western world’s major political parties is anything but – there is a silver lining.
The fact is that ideas like these have been percolating on the left and elsewhere for years. They are expressed daily in certain forums on the internet and pop up in private conversation even among people who are respected and trusted on other topics.
In recent years, we have seen individual eruptions of outlandish accusations against Israel – indeed, “apartheid,” “genocide” and accusations of Nazism and the perpetration of a holocaust are accusations thrown routinely at the tiny outpost of democracy. That antisemitic outbursts in Britain’s Labor Party have reached a critical mass that could no longer be dismissed as the unrelated rantings of misguided individuals has led to a much-needed confrontation over the topic. Now, the party must confront and address the problems in its ranks.
From a Canadian perspective, this has particular interest, because our New Democratic Party, in some ways a child of the British parent party, is entering into a period of reflection and reinvention. Its last two leaders, the late Jack Layton and the recently defenestrated Thomas Mulcair, tried to eradicate from their party not-uncommon expressions of anti-Zionism that sometimes relied on anti-Jewish prejudice as an accelerant. The spectacular failure of the Mulcair-led NDP in the last election is leading some to say that a turn to the more extreme left is, if not an electorally advantageous move, at least an ideologically pure way forward. Such recidivism would almost certainly involve some rehabilitation of old anti-Israel fixations.
Yet, it is always better to shine light under these rocks than to allow these ideas to mutate. In Britain right now, we are seeing the predictable illogical extremes to which unchecked anti-Zionism can lead. It will be informative to watch the public discussion that transpires. Though differences are vast, the political cultures of Canada and Britain still have some strong parallels. Perhaps, if Britain confronts in this matter now, Canada will not need to later.