The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party provoked a crisis in the party, which goes beyond a simple leadership contest. The party has several feuding factions, and might split up in the near future. In this crisis, antisemitism in the party became a major issue. It is prominently covered in the British media, which see it as a hallmark of Corbyn supporters. In reality, it’s about much more than Corbyn: this is a European issue. Political and social changes have confronted centre-left and social-democratic parties with antisemitism, which they thought had disappeared form inside their parties. At the same time, Europe’s Jewish minorities have abandoned their traditional political orientation, in which social-democratic parties played a major role.
The previous post defended the legitimacy of left antisemitism and considered the political values of Jews in Europe. This post will look at the position of Jews within the centre-left and social-democratic parties in western Europe. The issues are unavoidably related, because Jewish disillusion with political parties reflects their disillusion with European societies in general: see the longer post on the new Jewish question in western Europe.
It is perhaps irritating if you just read the previous post, but I must repeat the disclaimer on the definition of Jews. In this post, ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ refer to individuals who define themselves as Jewish, and who consider themselves to belong to the Jewish people. The terms exclude those who might have some Jewish ancestors, but do not regard themselves as Jewish, and do not identify as members of any Jewish collectivity. They do not refer to the category of adherents of Judaism as a religion, although obviously there will be some overlap between categories. Another necessary disclaimer: this post is written from a western European perspective, and for legal reasons, any proposals are intended to apply solely inside the European Union.
The background to the tensions
Centre-left and social-democratic parties in western Europe traditionally have Jewish members, some of them prominent in the history of these parties. Most of these parties are affiliated to the Party of European Socialists, PES, although not all use the name ‘socialist’.
While it was never true that all Jews were left-wing, Jewish minorities often avoided right-wing parties due to pervasive antisemitism. Some national-conservative parties were extremely antisemitic, and in fact the more nationalist a party was, the more antisemitic it was likely to be. In western Europe, such parties modified their open antisemitism after the Second World War, but the centre-left and social-democratic parties were still seen as more welcoming to Jews. Jews also voted disproportionally for these parties, although in most cases the Jewish minority was too small to influence electoral outcomes.
In the last few decades, there has been a fundamental realignment of these traditional political loyalties. The twin triggers were the mass immigration of Muslims, and the emergence of a specific left antisemitism related to the Israel – Palestine conflict. The Muslim immigrants brought with them antisemitic attitudes and beliefs which are standard in their countries of origin. This is an essentially religious antisemitism, originating in real or imagined conflicts with Jews, in the early period of Islam.
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.
Sahih Muslim, Book 041, Number 6985.
The second and third generation migrant communities, better educated and familiar with western European norms, have abandoned regular expression of such views, but often retain antisemitic attitudes. When these younger Muslims joined political parties, mainly the centre-left and social-democratic parties, they came into conflict with Jewish members.
Left antisemitism in Europe has grown slowly since the 1960’s, as European societies abandoned the once common sympathy for Israel. Originally confined to smaller leftist groups, it eventually reached the established centre-left and social-democratic parties.
The tensions in parties reflect the tensions in wider society. Jews in western Europe feel increasingly isolated, threatened, and fearful of the future. That has driven a fundamental realignment: Jews are turning increasingly to anti-Islamic, nationalist, xenophobic-populist parties, as the best representative of their interests as a community. At the same time, the right is abandoning anti-semitism, as it perceives Islam to be the essential threat to Europe, and to the individual nations. (The emphatically pro-Israel and rigorously anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders, is the best example of the transition). These twin processes are more advanced in some countries, than in others.
The tensions within centre-left and social-democratic parties are an indicator of this process, and a precursor of the inevitable break between Europe’s Jews and those parties. In perhaps 5-10 years, these parties will have no self-identified Jewish members, and that will be seen as normal and logical.
Parties such as the UK Labour Party have not reached that stage yet. The party still has Jewish members, and there are still supporters of Israel in the party. Unlike most of its sister parties in the PES, the UK Labour party recently adopted a policy of cheap and easy membership, which was promoted online. Predictably, for anyone familiar with social media, that attracted new members who are more overtly antisemitic than the university-educated party elite, and more sympathetic to conspiracy theories. Although the party is now monitoring their social media accounts and expelling these people, the episode had a lasting impact on the climate in the party, and led many Jewish members to question the logic of their membership.
The ethics of the membership transition
Media commentary on this issue typically deplores the loss of the traditional Jewish membership, in the centre-left parties. That judgement is primarily based on nostalgia. Europe has changed, and we must assess the ethics of party membership in terms of the current situation, and current trends. Is it a bad thing that Jews leave western Europe’s centre-left and social-democratic parties? The answer depends on who is affected, and inevitably a political party has an impact on non-members, certainly if it is in government.
There is however, no point in trying to specify the membership of political parties. By their nature, parties originally represented the views of one group, and not another. Although there has been substantial political convergence in western Europe, resulting in the emergence of a single political class with near-identical value and attitudes, that does not mean that there ought to be a single party for that political class. (It means instead, that the party system is obsolete). The logic of political parties implies that each party sets its own programme, and recruits on that basis.
So the idea here is not to say who ought to be a member of the UK Labour Party, or any other centre-left / social-democratic party. It is to look at the impact of its membership structure on others, on people who may not even live in the countries concerned. Specifically, what is the impact of a significant Jewish membership, in times of tensions caused by Islamic and left antisemitism?
True, there are many other identifiable groups inside political parties, with significant impact on those parties. The Oxbridge graduates in Britain, the École Normale graduates in France, the 1968 generation in Germany, small business owners, the traditionalist Catholics, they all make identifiable impacts on political parties, and thus on state policy in multi-party democracies.
Mostly their impact is negative, and others suffer as a result. It is legitimate to say that, and it is legitimate to ask if the Jewish members of centre-left and social-democratic parties in western Europe, have a similar negative impact.
Within a centre-left and social-democratic party in western Europe, we can assume certain statistical preferences among Jewish members, again with the proviso that this means self-identified Jews.
In such a party…
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to oppose mass settlement of refugees from muslim-majority countries;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to support vetting of refugees for antisemitism, and therefore a general policy of ideologically vetting refugees and/or migrants;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to support more restrictive citizenship criteria;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to support a requirement that migrants espouse western values;
- for any given critical proposition on Israel, Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to say it is antisemitic;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to demand the expulsion of another member for antisemitism;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to demand that their party reject left antisemitism, in addition to classical or historical antisemitism;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to believe that a claim to social justice is invalidated if made by an anti-semite, or on behalf of anti-semites, or if it is accompanied by anti-semitic rhetoric;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to accept social and economic inequalities, if the disadvantaged individuals are all, or predominantly, antisemitic;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to find harm to an anti-semite morally acceptable;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to sympathise with violence or threats against antisemitic Muslims, by non-Jewish right wing activists;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to find that antisemitic Muslims and left antisemites do not deserve police protection, if they are threatened;
- Jewish members are more likely than non-Jewish members, to oppose the banning of those right-wing anti-Islam movements, which are non-Jewish but do oppose Islamic antisemitism.
So if a centre-left or social-democratic party has a significant Jewish membership, that will tend to shift the party to the right on several issues, even if some individual Jewish members oppose such a shift. The party will be less welcoming to migrants and refugees, more likely to support repressive assimilation policies, and less likely to campaign for social justice (although most PES affiliates stopped doing that long ago). The internal climate within the party will inhibit discussion on antisemitism and Israel, and members will think twice about commenting on such issues. It would be more likely that party members views on such issues will be policed by third parties, and that members risk harassment.
What to do?
As indicated already, it is pointless for outsiders to specify the membership and policies of political parties. They set their own membership norms, and write their own manifestos. That said, a centre-left party such as the UK Labour Party could mitigate negative impact on outsiders, by a policy of transparency. It could formally recognise that there is a conflict between Jews and Muslims with antisemitic religious beliefs, and equally between Jews and left antisemites. It could acknowledge the resulting tensions in the party, and the near-impossibility of resolution.
The party could also publicly recognise that Muslim migration to Europe has meant that there are more individuals with antisemitic attitudes. In theory the party could also recognise left antisemitism, as defined in the previous post, as legitimate. In practice, there is no prospect of any mainstream party doing that.
Finally, all political parties in Europe would do well to abandon the idea that governments can make antisemitism disappear, and that all will be well, that no Jews will live in fear of violence, that the synagogues and Jewish schools can remove the blast-resistant glass and the surveillance cameras, and that everyone will live happily and harmoniously. That is not going to happen, and political parties should not feed the illusion that there is a magic formula to create this Europe. Antisemitism will continue to be a feature of Europe, in the short and medium term, and governments should proceed on that basis. That requires that the political parties accept this inevitability, and preferably cease to issue pointless condemnations of things which they cannot alter.