Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.
Since our discussion last month with Anton Pelinka about creeping authoritarianism in Hungary, Viktor Orbán has stepped up his campaign against philanthropist George Soros. The governing party, Fidesz, has taken out billboards and full-page newspaper ads that read, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Donald Trump, meanwhile, made a public address in the Polish capital, Warsaw, that was music to the ears of the present ultra-nationalist government. “Let us all fight like the Poles,” Trump said, “for family, for freedom, for country and for God.”
Undoubtedly, though, June’s biggest story occurred in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party achieved what could best be called a victory-in-defeat, outperforming expectations to deny the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons. In doing so, Jeremy Corbyn—who has been involved in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel politics his entire career—has secured his position as Labour leader for the foreseeable future, troubling not only the British Jewish community but those who have long observed a calcification of anti-Semitism on the political left in Britain.
The principal charge against Corbyn is he has failed to take anti-Semitism on the left seriously since he became Labour leader in September 2015—and a botched 2016 report into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party did nothing to change that perception. After “failing to go far enough on contemporary anti-Semitism,” the report’s author, human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, was given a seat in the House of Lords by Corbyn. The Board of Deputies of British Jews called the report a “whitewash for peerages.” At the report’s launch, Corbyn compared Israel to ISIS saying, “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”
That report is now the subject of a short movie, Whitewashed, written and narrated by this month’s interviewee, David Hirsh. He is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and one of the founders of Engage, a group formed to counter anti-Semitism and boycotts of Israel in British academia. His new book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, will be published in the fall.
How would you assess the health of Europe today?
There are problems for the European Union. It is still not entirely stable. I suspect long term either they have to dump the Euro or banking and fiscal unity. But the big picture is that the EU has, for the moment, decided not to go down the [populist] route—and they’re doing well. Pro-EU forces in Europe are a bit bolstered by Brexit.
What is the biggest problem facing Europe right now?
Brexit was a threat to the EU and looked likely to trigger populist-nationalist movements across Europe, each promising to raise barriers. The only way Brexit could have made sense was if the EU collapsed. The Brexiters could have said, “We got out before the roof fell in,” but the roof didn’t fall in. Britain will be locked out of its markets and talent pool and alienated from its friends and allies. As things get worse and worse in Britain, foreigners will be blamed more and more.
Let’s turn to the British election. Is it fair to conclude from the result that a great many people simply don’t care about anti-Semitism?
I’m not sure. Lots of people voted Labour with Corbyn as leader; therefore, logically, they voted for Corbyn to be in Number 10. I think most people don’t know about Corbyn’s connections with anti-Semitic politics, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t understand or might deny those connections quite vociferously. Those people you could say don’t want to know.
But if you assume lots and lots of people who voted Labour didn’t understand the significance of anti-Semitism, then the question becomes, how should people know? The way people know things is through journalist, intellectuals, activists and other kinds of cultural producers. So, why didn’t those people tell them?
And what is the problem in that artistic class?
Within that milieu, there’s this centrality to the discussion about Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has become the symbol of oppression, of everything that’s wrong with the world, in the struggle between imperialism and anti-imperialism. It is the keystone in the brick arch. [Anti-Israel politics] have become a badge of belonging to that community. You have to sign up to certain common notions about Israel, Zionism and people who raise the issue of anti-Semitism.
Are you surprised by the speed with which opponents of Jeremy Corbyn have come around to his leadership on the back of one better-than-expected result?
I don’t know, I keep telling myself not to be surprised by anything anymore, but it’s happened very quickly. At first they said because Corbyn has this anti-democratic politics, he’s unelectable, and now they’ve decided that principled opposition to anti-democratic politics is less important to them. Corbyn, for the moment, seems to have become normal.
Really, it’s crazy that the Labour Party would put forward someone with a history of anti-Semitic politics as their candidate. They allowed that to happen, and you can be sure that Labour would not have allowed somebody to become its leader with a history of anti-black or misogynist politics, for example.
Does that normalization mean the Labour Party has missed its opportunity to deal with the anti-Semitism within?
Yes, I think it does. The Labour Party is not yet institutionally anti-Semitic but people don’t want to hear about [anti-Semitism]. What Corbyn has done is he has allowed the whole thing to be treated as if it’s just a few bad apples in the barrel, and if you find the bad apple, just kick it out, when you should ask what is it about the barrel that makes the apples go bad.
Your movie Whitewashed deals with the Chakrabarti inquiry. Can you crystallize exactly what was wrong with that process and her report?
The first thing to say is when her name was mentioned, the question came up as to whether she was someone to be trusted and look at these issues seriously. An interview she did with the Jewish Chronicle in 2011 showed that she did understand and that she was someone who could make a proper judgment. But as it turns out, actually, she was on Team Corbyn all along. There was a select committee hearing a few days after her report was published where she was sitting at his right hand, passing him notes, acting as his lawyer.
They were doing a job together. Corbyn was beginning to look bad and he had to do something so he called an inquiry, which kicked the issue into the long grass. It was basically a whitewash. Three or four months later, people forgot about it.
Do you take the view that the Chakrabarti report was a quid pro quo? [Editor’s note: Shortly after the report was published, Corbyn nominated Chakrabarti to the House of Lords, in what the Board of Deputies of British Jews called a “whitewash for peerages” scandal.]
No, you don’t need a story of corruption to explain what happened—she was on board with the project. In the report, she did a few good things around the edges. She prohibited the word “Zio,” said we shouldn’t be anti-Semitic towards one another and modernized the machinery [for dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism].
But she didn’t go through the examples given and explain why they were anti-Semitic, why what Ken Livingstone said was anti-Semitic. She didn’t look at the whole set of incidents together and say that they were related to a kind of politics that sees Israel as evil, as an exception. She didn’t write a political report and didn’t address the issues.
A lot of people explained it to her. The whole consensus in the Jewish community said that we are not against criticism of Israel but what we’re saying is that there is a distinction between that and anti-Semitism. [Chakrabarti] refused to relate to that consensus. Nothing in her report really lays out what the problem is.