As I’ve read about the furor over anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour Party, I’ve thought of my grandfather and wondered what he would have made of it.
In his youth, in czarist Russia, he had been a revolutionary activist, a member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund. By the time the Bolsheviks seized power, he had fled to England to make a new life in North London. The Labour Party was his natural constituency, as it was my father’s. Can the party that welcomed my family have changed so much?
To read the recent headlines, one would think so. Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, has been under attack for months. If Britain’s news media are to be believed, anti-Semitism is rife within Labour, Mr. Corbyn has willfully turned a blind eye to it, and successive internal inquiries have been mishandled. A wave of protest in the past few weeks has put his leadership under pressure.
Yet a survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in Britain, published last September by the respected Institute for Jewish Policy Research — an organization with no ties to any political party — contains several findings that are worth considering amid this uproar. First: Levels of anti-Semitism in Britain are among the lowest in the world. Second: Supporters across the political spectrum manifest anti-Semitic ideas. Third: Far from this being an issue for the left, the prejudice gets worse the farther right you look. And yet, at the same time, British Jews now generally believe anti-Semitism to be a large and growing problem and have come to associate it with Labour in particular.
The left has had an awkward relationship with what was once called “the Jewish question” going back to Proudhon, Bakunin and Marx. And in Socialist parties across the world, workers (and, for that matter, peasants) have historically been just as prone to xenophobia of all kinds as the middle and upper classes.
Today it would be stupid to deny that there is anti-Semitism on the left, including in Britain, extending in some quarters to Holocaust denial. But for all the shopworn stereotypes and the repulsive social media postings, the scale of anti-Semitism inside the Labour Party is insufficient to warrant the kind of reaction we have seen recently. So what explains the furor?
To answer that it is simply the work of Mr. Corbyn’s enemies inside and outside the party is tempting. Indeed, that position has been adopted by some of his supporters. But it misses the mark. If people think there is a problem, we need to understand why.
A key factor is that it is on the left that criticism of Israel is most likely to be found. This explains a good deal, because in recent times the boundaries between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become hopelessly muddled. To be sure, the two are sometimes found together. But a lot of people simply equate them, as Britain’s chief rabbi himself did in May 2016, and regard the very idea of anti-Zionism with suspicion.
The widespread use of what started out as a European Union attempt to define anti-Semitism has done nothing to help. The so-called Working Definition of Antisemitism, internationally adopted since its formulation in 2005 (including by the British government), lumps together Holocaust denial with hostility to Israel. Muddled, catchall definitions such as these lend themselves to the sort of surreal politicking that we now see in Britain.
The result is a confusion that turned the past week into a theater of the absurd after Mr. Corbyn was slammed in the British press for attending a Seder hosted by a far-left, but unmistakably Jewish, group called Jewdas. Jewdas calls itself non-Zionist, and it revels in the history of the radical Jewish diaspora; during the Seder, participants sang Yiddish songs cursing the police (in addition to observing more traditional Passover rituals).
This group was then denounced by the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, as “a source of virulent anti-Semitism.” The board, which has claimed to speak for British Jewry since the 18th century, usually keeps its head down and avoids the headlines. In the 1930s, it held back as other Jewish groups, mostly on the left, led the struggle against a nascent fascist movement on the streets of London. An inglorious role, perhaps, but one that has allowed the Board of Deputies to appear nonpartisan and impartial.
Not this time. Interviewed on TV, Mr. Arkush opined that Jewdas’s members “are not all Jewish,” as if he were in a position to make authoritative pronouncements on the subject.
We are back in the usual arena of communal politics in which notables bandy writs of excommunication as a means of confirming their own authority. What happened to keeping shtum? Is fighting Jewdas really a priority in the struggle against anti-Semitism?
In this business no one comes out well — neither Mr. Corbyn nor his critics. But the lack of perspective and insight that both sides have demonstrated ultimately have less to tell us about anti-Semitism than they do about the diminished state of British politics. Is anti-Semitism a real issue in Britain? Yes. Is it worse for the Labour Party than for others? The evidence suggests not. Is it the most serious manifestation of racial prejudice facing the country? By no means. Muslims have it much worse than Jews, and Eastern European and other immigrants have also been the targets of far-right violence, especially since the referendum to leave the European Union.
In Brexit, Britain faces the most consequential foreign policy decision of the past half-century, one that will transform the country’s position in the world. So far, the government has handled the negotiations like amateurs. Faced with a hostile use of deadly nerve agents on its own territory, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has responded with his characteristic lack of professionalism. If this is how the country’s political elite tackles issues of such gravity, can we be surprised at how Mr. Corbyn, no less parochial in his way than his Conservative opponents, has fumbled his own internal crisis — and how the news media have fanned the flames?
I am not sure that my grandfather would have seen much change in the Labour Party. The ongoing clash within its ranks between moderates and radicals would have been familiar to him. Nor would he have been very surprised to find prejudice extending left as well as right: This would not have affected his preference for the party of social justice. And since, as a Bundist, he had grown up in opposition to Zionism (Bundists and Zionists were locked in ideological combat from their birth onward), he would have regarded pretty searching criticism of Israel as a far more normal part of the political landscape than most people do today.
But he could only have been disappointed at the immense change in the country that took him in, in Britain itself, losing its way in a hall of mirrors, distracted by secondary issues while the country’s fate hangs in the balance.
Mark Mazower is a historian at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of the memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home.