Last night’s Newsnight gave top billing to the suspension of Labour MP Naz Shah for allegedly antisemitic comments.
Presenter Evan Davis opened proceedings as follows:
‘Labour is struggling to deal with the charge that it has an “antisemitic streak”. Does it?
This is a good question. As I showed in a recent openDemocracy piece on Labour’s alleged ‘antisemitism problem’, it is one that virtually no mainstream journalist who has reported on the issue has considered worthy of investigation.
In order to find out the answer to this question, Newsnight ran a short introductory film quoting five individuals all of whom agreed that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and that the Corbyn leadership has failed to adequately deal with it. This was followed by a ‘debate’ between two individuals who also agreed that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and that the Corbyn leadership has failed to adequately deal with it.
Both film and ‘debate’ were largely comprised of sweeping and/or vague assertions unaccompanied by any supporting evidence:
- ‘there is a sadly a problem, and too many instances, through to former parliamentary candidates, chairs of parties, all the way through now, where people think it is acceptable to say these things’ (Richard Angell, director of Blairite grouping Progress)
- ‘the response hasn’t been what we should have expected’ (Angell)
- ‘a large proportion of both OULC [Oxford University Labour Club] and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews’ (Alex Chalmers, former co-chair of the OULC)
- ‘Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the party has not adequately dealt with these problems’ (Danny Cohen, former BBC Director of Television)
- ‘At this moment in time’ antisemitism ‘seems more prominent within the Labour Party’ (Lord Michael Levy)
- Labour antisemitism is ‘an issue with the hard left’, which has a ‘particular criticism of Israel’ (Rabbi and Baroness Julia Neuberger)
- ‘Quite a lot of criticism of Israel . . . is also antisemitic’ (Neuberger)
or else statements about the participants’ feelings:
- ‘The Labour Party is increasingly feeling like somewhere that isn’t a natural home for Jewish people in the UK (Danny Cohen)
- ‘One backbench Labour MP has told this programme they’re worried that a tsunami of antisemites has joined up, emboldened by Mr Corbyn’s past associations with critics of Israel who are antisemitic’ (Anonymous backbench MP)
- ‘I think Labour does have a problem with antisemitism . . . Labour has a very particular problem, and a particular problem at the moment’ (Neuberger)
- ‘I was brought up in the Labour Party. My parents would be turning in their graves’ (Neuberger)
- ‘I do think’ Labour has ‘a serious problem’ with antisemitism. (Levy)
Enthralling as these confessionals may—or may not—be, they brought the viewer no closer to answering the question Davis set up at the start of the programme: are the allegations true? Does Labour, in fact, have an antisemitism problem?
Several specific allegations were made on the programme; all were either false or misleading.
Let’s go through them.
- ‘[M]ore than anything else’, what illustrates Labour’s ‘antisemitism problem’ are the allegations against the ‘Oxford University Labour Club’ (OULC) (Neuberger)
Most of the allegations against the OULC were levelled anonymously; none were presented with supporting evidence. There are additional grounds for scepticism about them: in particular, there appear to be ulterior (pro-Israel; Labour factional) motives involved, while the only verifiable allegation—that an OULC member had been ‘formally disciplined by their college for organising a group of students to harass a Jewish student and shout “filthy Zionist” whenever they saw her’—is a sheer fabrication. (Full details here.)
Alex Chalmers, the former OULC co-chair whose allegation of antisemitism against the OULC was quoted without challenge by Newsnight, is a former intern at Israel lobby group BICOM. Newsnight properly introduced Richard Angell as director of a ‘Blairite’ Labour grouping; isn’t Chalmers’s connection with an Israel lobby group that has urged a redefinition of antisemitism to encompass criticism of Israel also relevant in assessing his credibility?
- ‘I suspect that people whose views would not have been acceptable in the Labour Party have rejoined or joined’ (Neuberger)
Virtually all of the allegations of antisemitism levelled against individual Labour members in recent weeks implicate people who joined the party prior to Corbyn’s leadership.
- ‘This awful use of . . . “Zio, Zio” as a kind of term of abuse to Jewish students, particularly at Oxford, but that’s been true elsewhere’ (Neuberger)
The pejorative ‘Zio’ is used by some anti-Zionists, including Jewish anti-Zionists, to refer to Zionists. This is not antisemitic. It was alleged—anonymously, without evidence—to have been deployed by ‘[s]everal individuals’ in reference to Jewish students. But it was not alleged, still less proven, that ‘Zio’ was used as a term of abuse against Jews qua Jews.
- ‘I think I ought to lay on the line, that this is the first time that I have gone seriously public saying that there is a real problem of antisemitism. I’ve quite often said, when people in the Jewish community have cried antisemitism, “you know what? I’m not sure”. But this time, I’m absolutely sure, because it’s a concerted thing: it’s happening in lots of different places at the same time’ (Neuberger)
First, several of the antisemitic incidents raised in recent weeks date back to before Corbyn became leader. For instance, Naz Shah’s allegedly antisemitic Facebook posts were made in 2014.
Second, the frequency with which new cases of antisemitism have been uncovered in recent weeks more plausibly reflects, not rising antisemitism within the Labour Party, but a—to use Rabbi Neuberger’s word—‘concerted’ effort to uncover and publicise such evidence. As Lord Levy observed on the same programme, Labour is ‘coming very much under the microscope at the moment’; a high-powered microscope at that, able to detect isolated tweets by low-level party members published as far back as 2011. Is it really cause for wonder that, when examined through a microscope, one discovers cases of antisemitism that were previously overlooked?
The reality is, the political and media storm around Labour antisemitism no more proves a spike in Labour party antisemitism, than the recent political and media frenzy over the prime minister’s tax affairs proved an April spike in tax avoidance.
- The Labour leadership ‘dithered at the beginning’ of the Shah scandal; ‘there has been talk of a statement being changed…’ (Levy)
Reports that the party leadership altered Shah’s apology have been denied by Shah, and retracted by the journalist who broke the story.
None of these falsehoods and misrepresentations were challenged on the show.*
Evan Davis introduced the discussion of alleged Labour Party antisemitism by observing that, ‘there is a debate among those in the Jewish community as to how serious the problem is’.
You wouldn’t know it from watching Newsnight. Davis’s two guests, Lord Levy and Rabbi Neuberger, differed on precisely one point: Neuberger argued that Labour has an antisemitism problem, while Levy argued that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and other parties do too. The common premise—that Labour has antisemitism problem—passed as uncontested fact: of the seven individuals quoted in the segment, not one dissented from it.
But this premise has been seriously contested, including within the Jewish community. When Labour member Tony Greenstein was suspended for alleged antisemitism, more than 50 Jewish Labour members reportedly signed a letter in his defence. The Jewish Socialists’ Group, meanwhile, ‘sees the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party’ as an unjustified extrapolation from a ‘very small number of cases’, and part of ‘a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn’, who has a ‘longstanding record of actively opposing fascism and all forms of racism’.
These perspectives were completely excluded from the Newsnight ‘debate’.
The deeper problem with the Newsnight segment was not its exclusion of useful perspectives, however, but its abject indifference to Truth.
In the endless media coverage of this phony scandal to date, it is remarkable that virtually no one has bothered to investigate whether any of these allegations, still less the broad conclusions that have been drawn from them, are actually true. Instead, reporters string together a series of quotes from an array of rent-a-gobs and consider their job done.
And so misrepresentations mount, inventions harden into common sense, lies gain purchase, and the moral legacy of Jewish suffering is trivialised and debased to the point where its invocation arouses only dismissal and contempt.
* I have ignored inconsequential errors, e.g., presenter Hannah Barnes claimed that the ‘chair’ of the Oxford University Labour Club had resigned alleging pervasive antisemitism; in fact, it was the co-chair.