The Tragedy Of Ideology Over Insight: Transforming Anti-Semitism On the Left
A look at how anti-semitism is arising in progressive politics and the opportunity it gives those on the Left to transform themselves and our politics
Until recently I was agnostic, and a little bit ignorant, about anti-semitism on the Left. I had heard that many had experienced it but I hadn’t; partly as I tend to avoid conversations about Israel. I noted the occasional snide comment about Israel’s greatest cultural ambassador (Ottolenghi of course!) or about enjoying doing a keynote in Israel… but I ignored it. I should add, I have only ever voted Labour. The Left has always been my political home… as well as my father’s, my mother’s, and my grandfather’s (since he arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport from Berlin in 1939). And, before any loses their rag, I have again voted for Labour. But, that said, I want Labour to transform into a more expansive, broader tent – that acknowledges and transforms all forms of racism equally – that can animate those across the centre not just those on the far Left.
In the last few weeks, scores of “weak tie” connections on Facebook, who are clearly animated by their “fight” against Trump and BoJo (Boris Johnson), have posted, on my feed, scathing criticisms of both me and my growing unease about memes posted by pro-Corbyn people that feel to me anti-semitic. I have never felt anti-semitism in the UK public space before. But I sure am now. For a reality check: The Labour Party is being investigated by the UK’s independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, with over 70 Labour Party staffers testifying to issues in the party. At the same time, this heart-wrenching essay written by a Labour party member and activist sums up the issues – for those that what provable details.
Yet even now, with this news posted on Facebook, I have seen scores of comments from Corbyn supporters disparaging it and dismissing it. Over twenty people, who barely know me (my own learning about the issues of an undiscerning Facebook network), have made it clear to me that any critique of Jeremy Corbyn or any other hard-left figure will not be tolerated on the “hard” Left. By posting what they seem to think is a definitive essay or a video denying anti-semitism on the Left, they seem to want to convince me, and my fellow left-wing Jews – both religious and secular – that it does not exist and that our very real and painful experiences are not true.This gaslighting, often done in a “witty” British way, is very much a key part of the anti-semitism problem. As one (new) and very smart friend wrote to me last week:
Thanks for being the voice of reason in the anti-semitism debate, I have been really shocked at the level of denial, gaslighting and out and out anti-semitism in most threads on the subject.
Many well-meaning folk flat out deny there are any issues at all, dismissing the prestigious BBC Panorama TV expose as “biased” (presumably because of the shadowy Jewish elite who must have concocted the story); and any other evidence as Right-Wing propaganda. When Corbyn refused to apologize for his party’s handing of the issue – when given the opportunity to four times on a major BBC interview – multiple supporters of him stated on my feed “he has nothing to apologise for”, dismissing Corbyn’s own apologies in the past for the issues. This is especially ironic, given that he did make a very public apology a few days later – but only after a huge uproar ensued.
This was a massive fail of leadership. I am not that interested as to whether Corbyn himself is antisemitic, or more simply anti-Zionist. Probably both. What I am far more worried about is how antisemitism has spiked under his leadership of Labour. The culture of any organization, whether company or party, is always the responsibility of the leadership. Not that this means they are to blame, in some kind of low-frequency religious morality way. But if they don’t own the culture and its problems, they have no power to change any of them. Whatever we don’t own, owns us, as Labour’s unowned antisemitism fiasco brilliantly shows.
Corbyn was given many opportunities to do what conscious, transformational leaders do: listen, mirror back people’s feelings and then validate them – without necessarily agreeing with everything. This is the only way people feel seen, heard and respected. By Corbyn not owning it (and so many of my Facebook feed mirroring his modeling), he said in effect: it won’t change. And whatever he believes about the issue in his party – my party, our party – he must realise something needs to change otherwise there wouldn’t be so many left-wing Jews upset about it.
For one, the Jewish Labour Movement has backed every Labour Party leader for a 100 years… aside from this one. More anecdotally, the outpouring of support from many of my fellow left-wing Jews – from LA to NYC to LDN – over this time period on my Facebook feed, sharing their own deep unease about their own political home, has convinced me that these Corbynites and Sandernistas doth protest too much. By not acknowledging, let alone apologising for, antisemitism, we feel politically homeless. The tragedy is that it opens the door to Republicans and Tories that want to erect walls not build bridge.
The growing scourge of anti-semitism in the world today has found fertile ground in a new cohort of left-wingers (as it has, of course, in the White supremacist under-tones and over-tones of Trumplandia and Faragistia). But let’s leave the Right to their own devices. We expect them to be racist. That’s what (white, older, male) fascism is. On the other hand, we expect the Left to be honest about, and conscious of, its racial bias. The intersectional turn on the Left has made any form of bigotry anathema… except, it seems, anti-Jewish bigotry.
Part of the issue is, of course, the actions of the Israeli state in the West Bank and Gaza (and in Israel too). But this is not where the story ends. Many on the Left, whether conscious or through ignorance, conflate anti-semitism (memes like a global Illuminati or shadowy financial elite; outsized media industry power; that Jews are a bit too clever by half / tight / always moaning etc. etc.); anti-Zionism (fighting the very existence of the state of Israel no matter what, which seems to be the position of most of the hard Left, but most aren’t honest enough to be clear about it); and vital and honorable activism against the ongoing and heartbreaking Occupation.
Most also have a rather shoddy understanding of the history that led up to and followed the UN Partition. For example, the razing of Jewish villages and massacre of Jews in the 1920s. I don’t think many on the Left realize that the West Bank was occupied as a direct result of Isreal’s neighbors attacking it all at the same time in 1967, intent on its destruction. I am not agreeing or condoning anything by mentioning these. I am simply honoring the very nuanced history of this contested land.
None of this makes any of the treatment of Palestinians and refugees any better. Yet before pronouncing judgement in a fiercely-contested, unbelievably complex, and profoundly emotive situation, the wise wise-up and study the history and story from all sides: at least to try to understand the conflict. So, after I exited my first company, I spend some time on a personally-created “fact-finding” tour of Israel and the West Bank. I visited Jewish-Arab youth centres; a peace village actively engaging both sides; I chatted to Israeli entrepreneurs in coffee shops; I sat with Arab Israel’s in East Jerusalem over tea; and visited places on the West Bank with a friend who worked for an aid agency. I listened to everyone. I asked deepening questions. And I reflected a lot.
A decade later, I am clear that Zionism itself is not a thought crime. It was a world-historical development in a time and place where it made sense to a lot of people; including many, possibly most, on the Left. However, the extremely violent, land-appropriating, actions of the Israeli government over the last few decades – bulldozing Palestinian homes, building settlements and large walls, suppressing dissent, shooting protestors – are not Zionism per se. They are extreme Right-wing nationalism. The same is true in the US: Trump’s building of a wall on the Mexican border and rounding up immigrants to send them away is not American patriotism. The anti-immigrant Brexiteering of the UK in recent years is not Britishness. All three are quasi-fascist and racist perversions of nationalism supported by some, but by no means even a majority, of the three country’s citizens.
Therefore, to believe in Israel’s existence is eminently understandable. I have rarely met a Jew, of any persuasion, that does not see Israel as the only place they really know that the Holocaust will not occur again. You could call this irrational. I see it as very rational, especially with the rebirth of major White supremacy cults in Germany (AfD), France (National Rally), UK (NF/UKIP/Brexit Party) and a good chunk of the GOP (USA). Us left-wing Jews do not agree with much of what the Israeli government does; but most of us have friends and family in Israel and know that it will have us if things get ugly (and given what a threat to life systems can do, it may well do in ecological collapse).
Irrational or not, the fact of Israel’s initial creation cannot be changed. It’s not going anywhere. Which means to be a blanket Anti-Zionist means supporting the position of Hamas, which is to “obliterate”. To be Anti-Zionist on the Left essentially means supporting the violent destruction of a country with 9 million citizens. Whilst never being an apologist for the lack of democracy or human rights in the Occupied Territories, I will remind us that Israel, within the boundaries of its 1967 borders, is the only country in the Middle East classified as “free”. All its non-Jewish citizens get a vote. The Freedom House index, a reference point for measuring democratic levels of governance, gives Israel a score of 79. This is better than India or Brazil. The USA, a bastion of democracy (?), only gets 7 more points on 86.
To be clear: I know many right-wing, anti-equality Jews make the narrative of anti-semitism on the Left far worse than it may be. I know many cynically leverage it for their own gain (pace the Chief Rabbi of the UK’s public intervention; a Rabbi who only represents one branch of Judaism and certainly not me). But there wouldn’t be a narrative to lose if Labour leadership knew how to lead elegantly, consciously and effectively. I also know it’s far, far, far, worse for anyone in Gaza and the West Bank. My heart goes out to every Palestinian and has done since I was old enough to read the Amnesty International newsletters on my Father’s table; and write letters with him. I also know racism is far, far worse for most, if not all, other ethnic minorities in both the US and UK.
But none of this excuses the arrogance of hard-left supporters – some Jewish – who deny and dismiss the feelings of many thousands with a single blog link or derogatory comment. These speech acts, intended to diminish what I and others experience, are quintessentially racist. Invalidating others experiences based on a dominative hierarchy of truth – my beliefs are right and superior to your feelings – is what people on the Left always complain about people on the Right doing. It is fascistic. It is also real evidence that there is indeed anti-semitic racism on the Left.
None of this should be a surprise: for to err like this is human. But to acknowledge it, and apologize for it, is truly divine. Science has indicated that almost every human has racist “implicit biases”. Surely on the Left it is our job to surface our biases – and crucially the passions, mostly angst and anger, that lock them in place? Surely it is us progressives who must explore them openly – even if that means the uncomfortable awareness that we might be anti-semitic even though some of our best friends are Jewish – rather than deny, dismiss and diminish the experiences of others who can feel them?
The return of the “Jewish Problem – which seems unlikely to ever go away as we lurk in the most surprising of places, like the True Blue Tory village I live in in Sussex – is a blessing of course. Because Jews hide away in white(ish) bodies, it looked like anti-semitism had disappeared in polite company. It is only a few decades ago that my grandfather was not allowed in British country clubs because of his race; and his London school had a quota for Jews.
Now, fueled by the Israeli government’s actions, often unconscious hidden anti-semitic biases and tropes are fully out in the open. This is good news: here they can hopefully be transformed with wisdom rather than festering within. But only if leaders on the Left, at every level, really want to own them.
But when I and many others have suggested to many ardent supporters of the Left that they might have hidden racial biases against Jews – i..e. they are showing anti-semitic traits – it causes huge cognitive dissonance most often relieved by anger and rejection. It seems to cause a lot more anger than if a more obvious ethnic minority were to say to the same person: “Um it feels like what you are saying is racist…”. It is this double-standard that grates most.
This is not a surprise. If one has built up a personality structure around being a left-wing anti-racist – an identity formed around a strong ideology – then when this is challenged an individual has a major bifurcation choice:
Either the left-winger acknowledges their that anti-racism may not cover Jews (or any other ethnicity) as well as they thought; they reflect and look deep; they own it; they surface the narratives / tropes within and identify why they are there; they heal and emotional pain locking them in. Then they apologize and commit to dissolving away any further racial biases in their work and in their party’s culture. Not what many have done in the Labour leadership.
Or they deny, denigrate, dismiss, disown and become derogatory. For example: by claiming its just a media conspiracy (those media Jews again). Or just a right-wing propaganda campaign. Or as someone said to me: “you have been co-opted by Right to further their aims”. Noch, what as schmuck I have been. Or, as someone posted on a Jewish friends Facebook feed: “The Labour Party has been infiltrated by Tories, many of them Jewish.” Gulp.
All ideology kills insight. It blocks the intuition and ideas arising within that we need to grow, transform, and become ever-more whole. It blocks us transcending our limitations to step up as transformational leaders. And we need, now more than ever, transformational leaders who can process their own patterning in realtime and transform in front of our eyes to become ever-more empowering and authentic servants of a common purpose.
The alternative to this self-transformation is more of what we have seen: otherwise well-meaning people denying essays like this have any truth at all; dismissing the multitude of social-ish people who have witnessed anti-semitism on the Left; and generally being offensive to anyone who calls it out.
Jonathan Haidt ably demonstrated the power of ideology in shaping our supposedly rational beliefs. Give Democrats policies and say they are Republican and they criticize them and dismiss them. Say they are Democratic and they love them. Same swapped around when showing Republicans. As Haidt says: morality binds and blinds; especially when it is based on culturally-encoded ideologies.
A man tested this out very recently by telling anti-semitic statements to Corbynites and claiming they were from Boris Johnson. The Labour zealots were horrified. When the truth was revealed… please watch the whole video!
Ultimately, I want a political home. I want to support a progressive but broad-tent party without a qualm: to hold the Israeli government to account yes… but also Hamas, the PLO, the Saudis, the US and every other oppressive regime. The sooner we leave the legacy ideologies of Left and Right behind – and instead come from purpose – the sooner we get on with the urgent task ahead: transforming our economies and societies to be regenerative for all people and the entire planet. And that must happen across society, led by transformational leaders who can bring people together; in the center.
To find out how this specific issue can unlock a far more wide-ranging and powerful transformation politics, please the second essay: The Triumph of Insight Over Ideology.
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