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April 28, 2016 12:45 pm

Antisemitism, George Orwell and the Labour Party

avatar by Ben Cohen /

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Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn's leadership is being called into question over allegations of antisemitism within his party. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is being called into question over allegations of antisemitism within his party. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – “It is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough, and in favourable circumstances it could have political results.”

So wrote George Orwell in a 1945 article for the Contemporary Jewish Record journal titled, “Antisemitism in Britain.” In that short essay, Orwell related a series of personal encounters that demonstrated how seemingly rational people afflicted with the “neurosis” of antisemitism suddenly discovered “an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.” For example, one of the dark rumors that spread around wartime London held that a ghastly incident on the Underground in 1942, in which around 100 people fleeing a German bombing raid were crushed during a panic-stricken dash into the entrance of a train station, was the responsibility of “the Jews.”

As Orwell pointed out, such beliefs were anchored in emotions that, in the context of the fight against Hitler, found fewer opportunities for public expression, but were articulated privately. And significantly, many of those who confessed to antisemitic tendencies belonged to the left politically. There was, Orwell wrote, the “young intellectual, Communist or near-Communist: ‘No, I do not like Jews. I’ve never made any secret of that. I can’t stick them. Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course.’” There was also the “very eminent figure in the Labour Party — I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England — [who] said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.’”

Sadly, not much has changed in the Labour Party of today; if anything, the habit of denying that antisemitism exists in the first place, or that its manifestations are somehow understandable in the light of the ongoing Palestinian conflict with Israel, has gotten more pronounced and much worse. That’s why, in examining the latest scandal involving Labour and the Jews, which resulted in the suspension from the party of one of its own members of parliament, Naz Shah, I found myself wondering whether there is a direct link between what Orwell witnessed at the war’s end and what we are seeing now.

Shah’s suspension followed the discovery of a post on her Facebook page two years ago in which she endorsed a proposal to “relocate Israel into United States” (sic) dreamed up by two pro-Palestinian activists. Responding to their claim that doing so would save American taxpayers $3 billion in annual aid to Israel, Shah gushed, “Problem solved and save u bank charges for £ 3BILLION you transfer yearly!” (Note well that 3 billion American dollars became 3 billion British pounds in her translation.)

In isolation, Shah’s offense would not have been the huge story that it has become in the British press. It has been correctly presented, however, as belonging to a systemic pattern of antisemitism within a political party that has governed the UK for long periods of the postwar era.

Since the far-left MP Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the party leadership last year, it seems that some new revelation of Labour antisemitism, in all cases packaged as detestation of Israel’s sovereign existence, is perpetually out there lurking. Before Shah, there was the furore over the new president of the National Union of Students, a stalwart Corbyn supporter, describing one university as a “Zionist outpost in British higher education” and ranting about “Zionist-led media outlets.” Before that, there was the resignation of the head of Oxford University’s Labour Club in order to highlight the fact that many of his ostensible comrades “have some kind of problem with Jews.” All within the last few weeks!

But rather than admitting that there is a problem, Corbyn’s Labour Party is actively denying it down instead. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Naz Shah episode was that she had the courage to apologize — and that her apology was then censored by the unreconstructed Stalinists in the party’s publicity department. As the UK newspaper The Jewish News reported, Shah’s admission that there is a genuine problem on the left when it comes to spreading “toxic conspiracy theories, group-blame and stereotyping” about Jews was deliberately removed from the final version of her statement.

As long as Corbyn, a committed anti-Zionist, remains leader of the Labour Party, the problem of antisemitism will continue to fester. (Some observers might be tempted to quip that the biggest problem of all is Corbyn’s unelectability, but let’s not tempt fate.) As the political commentator Alan Johnson argued in Prospect magazine, “It’s hard to imagine a worse person to sort all this out than Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2012 said to the Palestinian radical Islamist Raed Saleh: ‘I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace because you deserve it!’ Many people pointed out that Salah incites violent anti-Semitism…But the problem is not that Corbyn agrees with what these people say. It is that he agrees with who they are: the resistance to empire. The apologies and the contortions begin there.”

Here we come back to George Orwell. Towards the end of the essay I quoted above, Orwell suggested that antisemitism was part of the wider sin of “nationalism” that affects even its victims. His exact words were, “Many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely anti-Semites turned upside-down, just as many Indians and Negroes display the normal colour prejudices in an inverted form.” Yet since 1945, British society has changed dramatically. Those who occupy the “nationalist” end of its political spectrum — particularly those urging withdrawal from the European Union — do not, by and large, succumb to the temptations of Jew-baiting, though there are exceptions.

Rather, it is those who describe themselves as “internationalists” who are the most vulnerable. This is the direct consequence of a doctrinaire “anti-imperialism” that begins and ends with solidarity with one (and only one) people — the Palestinians — and which regards Jews as an integral component of the superstructure of white, colonial privilege.

Consider, therefore, the following irony. By being cast as the ultimate insiders, controlling everything from the global economy to US foreign policy, Jews end up as the ultimate outsiders in the public imagination — too suspect to benefit even from the niceties of the Britain’s generally anti-racist political culture, especially once their emotional, familial, or other ties with the State of Israel are brought into play.

This is a problem that goes much deeper than just Jeremy Corbyn, and is certainly not restricted to the UK. That’s why, even if his observations on the causes of antisemitism were sometimes wide of the mark, Orwell was absolutely correct when he counseled that “antisemitism should be investigated — and I will not say by antisemites, but at any rate by people who know that they are not immune to that kind of emotion.” (My emphasis.)

For the time being, the Labour Party’s apparatchiks have made clear that this is the last thing they want — hence their rewrite of Naz Shah’s apology. Even so, and whether they like it or not, the investigation recommended by Orwell at the midpoint of the last century has now begun.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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  • Ian

    If the source of anti-Semitism is the inevitable jealousy that failures have for the successful, then we should expect that anti-Semitism in Labour will grow as its electoral prospects diminish. They need to blame someone, and the most available victim has traditionally been the Jews. To admit that their policy ideas have done them in would be heresy; it would require that Labour rethink its positions, and abandon the Marxist paradigm. Curiously, that paradigm was anti-Semitic as well, and it failed spectacularly when the Soviet Union became enmeshed in its own anti-Semitic problems.

    Might there be a pattern here that serious leaders should ponder?

  • Perry Mason

    The full extent of British antisemitism is generally underestimated. However I recently read a book, ‘The Nuclear Option’, by David Goldenstein, where he details the extent to which the British government was responsible for the Holocaust as well as Israel’s current predicament. No British government, Conservative or Labour, has ever supported Israel in the UN. Those who refuse to study history are bound to repeat it.
    Read the book, it is available from Amazon and on Kindle.

  • I am surprised that no-one has mentioned that the Labour Party member, Shah’s comments extend far beyond anti-semitism. It was a call for wholesale ethnic cleansing, a crime for which people are usually tried at the Hague. In the UK however, is able to continue to be an MP and have a say in the governance of Britain.

  • stevenl

    The Labour: a window on British anti-Semitism.

  • Ephraim

    Extremely well put. If only those in power listened to reason.

  • Julian Clovelley

    The London I grew up in after the war was one in which nobody really noticed who was Jewish and who wasn’t. At primary school my two best friends were Jewish and I sat next to a delightful Jewish girl. I defended Jewish friends in the same way as I defended any other friend in the occasional playground scraps, which only once took an antisemitic turn – which to this day I cannot understand

    The complete integration of Jewish people with non Jewish people worked well – and I would argue that it works well most of the time here in Australia. No-one in their right mind cares if a person has whatever religion – we are increasingly secular here anyway, and far better off with it.

    But many of us do have problems with the present trends in the Middle East – and the continuing Settlements and Occupation are a major one that can set Jew against non Jew. It is for that reason it is essential that a separation remain in consciousness between Jew and Israeli/ The Israeli dissidents help maintain that realisation by helping us realise that there is diversity even in the Israeli Jewish community

    The potentially apparently anti-semitoc accusations that are made are often sourced in a largely misunderstood complex Jewish History. It took a long time when I recently more closely examined the late nineteenth century and twentieth century trends that led to the State of Israel, to even begin to understand the history of the period – and for me it was not until I better comprehended the role of Zionism, and its internally controversial nature within Judaism that anything began to make sense

    Only with a reasonable degree of comprehension of the internal Jewish disputes over Zionism from the time of its appearance, and only by recognising the role it has had in shaping the concept of Jewish we now use, can anything be made to make sense

    I rather sympathise with an old fear that the tying Judaism to territory was potentially, and is to this day, disastrous. In particular it creates a nationalist aspect to how Jewishness is viewed that Jews would, to my mind, be better off without

    As a secular person I don’t believe in what I see as unfounded religious notions such as unique ancestry – I see Judaism as a religion with a myth of common origin for its adherents. But within Judaism I see much that is universally good. I see people like those that assimilated into my own family by marriage, over 150 years ago, and I view the victims of the Holocaust as no different to myself – Nazism was an attack on Humanity itself

    But – there has to be a but – there was a complexity to the relationships between Jews – and especially Zionists – the Nazis, and the Third Reich that still wants some unravelling. The complexities of rescue tactics and procedures viewed from the 21st century can lead to confusion.

    To me it is an aspect of history still in need of clarification. I do not think it would be amiss to look a little deeper there in the interests of truth. It is a history that can only really be clarified by the secular Jewish community working with others from differing cultures.

    It is an important matter of history. What matters most for the present is that even in disagreement we remain like those children in my class after the war – friends. I only hope that outside the middle east the friendships between children of all cultures can help bring peace to their parents and their relatives in the home territories.

    The defence of Jewish people today is those innocent childish friendships of yesteryear, the joys of playing together.

  • Lia

    Thank you, Messrs Cohen and Orwell! You are pointing a bright light into a very murky corner.