Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thoughts on the UK Labour Chakrabarti Inquiry into Anti-Semitism (and Aftermath)

UK Labour today released the text of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into anti-Semitism (and other forms of racism). I'm trying to think about how to describe it. "Bad" would not be fair -- it's not bad. "Milquetoast" is perhaps the best word for it. Shami Chakrabarti was put in an extraordinarily difficult situation when she was commissioned to lead this inquiry, and did her best not to offend anyone. And I'm not offended, so in that I guess she was successful.

But I am to some degree annoyed at myself that I'm not more annoyed at how small-ball it went. The non-procedural recommendations -- "Zio" is a racist epithet, "resist" comparing Israel to the Nazis (is the temptation really that overwhelming?), don't engage in stereotyping -- would be insultingly banal if they did not in fact need to be said. But banality is the order of the day.

Chakrabarti thankfully doesn't engage in any significant victim-blaming or lecture Jews on how we need to stop making anti-Semitism claims up for our own nefarious ends, so thank God for that. Yet everything in her report is calculated to be assure everyone that this problem is not much of a problem at all.  David Hirsh's reaction is here (his characteristically excellent submission to the inquiry is here), and I think it strikes some important chords. This is a superficial report to a problem with much deeper roots. One does not, upon reading the inquiry, get the sense that there is any true danger to Labour anti-Semitism. Nobody is really that bad, we just sometimes use some overwrought rhetoric in the heat of the moment that we should probably "resist". Ultimately, I doubt these recommendations will hurt, but I likewise doubt they will do much to help either. The report condemns stereotypes but gives no guidance on how to root them out; it discusses bias but doesn't even raise the issue that they might be implicit. It speaks broadly about the significant wrong anti-Semitism represents, but it shies away from directly considering anything to be anti-Semitic.

Perhaps most frustratingly, it does not address what to me is the most important issue of all -- the epistemic marginalization of Jews and Jewish voices when we complain about anti-Semitism. Any effort to combat anti-Semitism will fail if it is not coupled with a commitment to take seriously allegations of anti-Semitism. The persistent drumbeat that anti-Semitism is a bad faith charge that serious people should not waste their time with is the single greatest barrier to Jewish inclusion in communal conversations. It suggests that we are unreliable narrators of our own experience -- delusional at best, liars at worst. If that understanding is accepted, then Jews will never be able to be equal participants in dialogue because everything we say will be preemptively discounted -- at least, if it doesn't accord with the preexisting beliefs of our partners.

The Chakrabarti Inquiry should ideally represent the beginning of the conversation on combatting anti-Semitism, not its end. And judging by how the inquiry was received, well, there is more to be had in this conversation. The unveiling was yet another Corbyn catastrophe -- a Jewish Labour MP was chased out the room after being accused of organizing a media conspiracy to get at Corbyn, and Corbyn himself possibly compared Israel to the Islamic State (reports vary on whether he said "Islamic State" or "Islamic states" -- his written text suggests he meant the latter, but many people reported hearing the former). Corbyn certainly did nothing to protect his colleague who -- in a press conference about anti-Semitism, no less -- was victimized by an anti-Semitic trope of the precise sort Chakrabarti identified as being intolerable.

People who don't take anti-Semitism seriously won't fight anti-Semitism seriously. I do think Chakrabarti tried and delivered a seriously flawed but nonetheless sincere effort in her report. Jeremy Corbyn has no interest in fighting anti-Semitism, and so we can expect even the meager gains Chakrabarti gave to use to amount to virtually nothing.


Andy Dowland said...

Sorry, I'm very late to this post but I've been meaning to reply to it because I think you've been misinformed about the incident involving Mark Wadsworth and Ruth Smeeth MP.

If you look at the media report of the incident (example here from the UK's Channel Five news ) then it doesn't look great, but note that you don't hear what Channel Five describe as verbal abuse and you characterise as an anti-Semitic trope. So what did Mark Wadsworth say? This youtube clip appears to show the whole thing, I admit that Mark Wadsworth is speaking at the start of the clip so he may have said something anti-Semitic before the start but he only seems to mention Ruth Smeeth for the first time.

Mark Wadworth: "I saw the Telegraph [journalist] handing a copy of the press release to Ruth Smeeth MP so you can see who's working hand in hand [inaudible as there's heckling] in Jeremy Corbyn. The question is this; if you look around this room, how many African, Caribbean and Asian people are there. We really need to get our house in order in terms of representation, including Spads [Special Advisors], not just having the right [inaudible]

Jeremy Corbyn: "Let me make it absolutely clear, this report is about changing the party, is about greater diversity, is about a larger representation of all communities, including the Afro-Caribbean community, in staff, in appointments and in elected positions."

Now obviously saying the Jews are involved in a media conspiracy is anti-Semitic. Saying that a particular Jewish MP is involved in a media conspiracy is very dodgy ground. Saying that a particular Jewish MP is working with a specific media organisation to promote a particular cause - in this case removing Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party doesn't seem to be outside the bounds of common decency. Which appears to be why Ruth Smeeth made the incident appear a lot worse than it seemed.

Here's her comment from her blog
"This morning, at the launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism, I was verbally attacked by a Momentum activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter who used traditional antisemitic slurs to attack me for being part of a 'media conspiracy'. It is beyond belief that someone could come to the launch of a report on antisemitism in the Labour Party and espouse such vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people, which were ironically highlighted as such in Ms Chakrabarti's report, while the leader of my own party stood by and did absolutely nothing."

I really don't see a verbal attack on the clip, I don't think I would have used the launch of a report into anti-Semitism to ask questions on other BAME representation but it is true that Labour do very badly on getting black people into elected office. Incidentally Mark Wadsworth denies knowing that Ruth Smeeth was Jewish at the time he said it. I've got no idea if that's true, I didn't know she was, but then I could have walked past her on the street and not recognise her so Mark clearly knows her better than me to have recognised her at the event.

Maybe I'm so horribly anti-Semitic that I can't see it but I didn't see any vile conspiracy theory in Mark Wadsworth's words. If I am, I really don't mean to be and would genuinely appreciate you calling me out on it. But please look at the clips and make your own mind up rather than rely on something second or third hand.

David Schraub said...

Thanks for sending this along -- though regarding your transcript, I heard the very end differently from how you've jotted it down: "not just having white boys surrounding [inaudible]....".

I think there are a couple of things going on here, but the main one is the assumption that anyone who is promoting the anti-Semitism issue within Labour is part of a nefarious anti-Corbyn conspiracy -- in Wadsworth's words, they're "working hand in hand" together (Which, I take it, is the language that evokes the Jewish media conspiracy -- and in context I can't say that was an unreasonable inference for Smeeth to make). After all, my understanding is that Smeeth had not publicly come out pro- or anti- Corbyn prior to this incident. Consequently, it was being seen with a media source that had been pumping the anti-Semitism issue that sufficed to prove the conspiracy in Wadsworth's eyes. Recall the line from my post, that I categorized as part of the most serious issue with respect to anti-Semitism: "Any effort to combat anti-Semitism will fail if it is not coupled with a commitment to take seriously allegations of anti-Semitism." Wadsworth, it seems clear to me, certainly did not display a commitment to taking seriously allegations of anti-Semitism. His default was to assume that it was all ginned up by those in the party and in the media who want to take Corbyn down. This, of course, is unsurprising given that half of Labour voters think that "the Labour party does not have a problem with anti-Semitism and it has been created by the press and [party leader] Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents to attack him."

In short, Wadsworth was effectively playing on the very common belief in Labour circles that this whole anti-Semitism affair is a media- and politically-driven plot. When he saw someone who, if he didn't know she was Jewish, at least knew she was someone aligned with the "anti-Semitism is a real problem in Labour" camp, he put 2 and 2 together and said "look, here it is again -- the 'hand in hand' collaboration to make it all up". In the end, it really doesn't matter that much if Wadsworth knew Smeeth was Jewish or just viewed her as our handmaiden helping run the con. Either way, he was pushing the line that this whole issue isn't real and should be dismissed, and his evidentiary basis for linking Smeeth to the ruse was little more than "Smeeth cares about anti-Semitism and I saw her with a opposition journalist."

Andy Dowland said...

Thanks for the reply David,

I supported Andy Burnham initially in the last leadership election, only moving to Corbyn after Burnham had run such a poor campaign that I doubted his ability to win any kind of election as Labour leader, note also his poor 4th place in 2010 and probable loss in the Mayor of Manchester primary. However I have come to support Corbyn more whole-heartedly as the last ten months has progressed, I don't think he's been given a fair chance by his colleagues, some of whom seem eager to undermine him at every turn. So I think this will come over as too Corbyn-defending but please hear me out.

Anti-Semitism is a problem in the Labour Party. As you've pointed out in many posts attacking 'the rich' can easily slide over into attacking 'the Jews'. I think there's a greater tendency for Labour Party members to believe in a global conspiracy, an illuminati of the sort that David Icke talks about. So there is a problem, or at least a potential problem and the leadership is right to address it. However I do believe that the anti-Semitism issue *at this point of time* is being used by the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and their media allies (I don't think there's a conspiracy, but there is a case of having an enemy in common) as they used the not singing the national anthem, the not bowing his head sufficiently at the Poppy Day Service and many other issues. When one-time leadership challenger Angela Eagle got a brick put through her campaign offices window many Labour members posted that it was a false flag on Facebook. We're not really in a position where anyone cares about the truth any more, hopefully that will settle down when this leadership election is over. Widely shared among Corbyn activists is this report from two academics at LSE on the coverage Jeremy Corbyn gets in the media. Whether you agree with the findings, it has strengthened the view of Corbyn activists that their champion has been unfairly treated (this came out the day after the Wadsworth/Smeeth incident however)

In 2005 Ken Livingstone said some clearly anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish reporter that he knew was Jewish. It was bad enough that he got suspended for one month from his post as Mayor of London. This was widely reported, but mainly in the Guardian, Telegraph and Mail, barely got mentioned in the tabloids, barely got mentioned in the Times. At no point during that saga (which ended in eighteen months later with Livingstone getting the ban overturned by the High Court) was Livingstone suspended or censured by the Tony Blair run Labour Party. In 2005 the Labour Party did not turn to a highly respected human rights barrister to write a report, indeed the Labour Party did absolutely nothing. Since Corbyn has been leader, the Labour Party have suspended over 50 members for alleged anti-Semitism. Corbyn is doing the right thing, or at least trying to do the right thing, but it just gives him more abuse.

[Post too long, this will be 1 of 2]

Andy Dowland said...

[Post 2 of 2]
If we go back to that poll you quoted from, here's the two questions that are about the anti-Semitism issue in general (there's another batch of questions on Livingstone's Hitler comment for which he's currently suspended)

Thinking about anti-Semitism in political parties, which of these statements comes closer to your view?
Anti-Semitism is a bigger problem in the Labour party than other political parties 5
Anti-Semitism is a problem in the Labour party but it is no worse than in other political parties 47
Anti-Semitism is not a problem in the Labour party but is a problem in other political parties 16
Anti-Semitism is not a problem in the Labour party or any other party 22
Don’t know 9

Thinking about the stories in the press over the last few weeks about Labour and anti-Semitism, which of these statements comes closer to your view?
The Labour Party has a problem with anti-Semitism and it is right that the media report on it 10
The Labour Party has a problem with anti-Semitism but it is being used by the press and Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents to
attack him 35
The Labour party does not have a problem with anti-Semitism and it has been created by the press and Jeremy Corbyn’s
opponents to attack him 49
None of these 3
Don’t know 3

I thought that was interesting, similar questions, one coming up with 52-38 in support of the idea that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism and the other rejecting the same idea by 49-45, but of course, which finding got reported? Anti-Semitism is a big enough problem for the Labour Party that the way the press have used it actually makes it less possible for the Labour Party to do anything serious about it. I did get annoyed by your comment in the original post "Jeremy Corbyn has no interest in fighting anti-Semitism" I genuinely think that he does and if he has no interest in fighting anti-Semitism he could have done nothing like Tony Blair. Corbyn really does act like he believes every conflict in the world can be solved by sitting down, having a cup of tea and talking it over.

One little pick in your comments. Ruth Smeeth had publicly resigned from Jeremy Corbyn's front bench three days previous to the incident, I didn't know that but presumably Mark Wadsworth did. She's also on the centre-right of the party (though of course that's about the same as being slightly to the left of Bernie Sanders)

Despite my view too close to the matter to focus, really thanks for the response, you have helped me look at the situation a little more objectively.

David Schraub said...

Thanks for these replies, which provide a useful "inside" perspective (being across the pond, my vantage may be clearer in some respects and blurrier in others). I will, however, stand by my assessment that Corbyn does not, in his bones, care about "fighting anti-Semitism" at least insofar as it requires an inward rather than an outward look (it's easy to attack anti-Semitism amongst one's enemies after all). The investigations seem less proof of Corbyn taking the problem seriously (all the information I've seen says that he really didn't want to suspend Livngstone but was effectively forced into it) and more demonstrative of the depth of anti-Semitism ushered in by the wing of supporters Corbyn rode in on being so significant that it could no longer be credibly ignored. The Chakrabarti report isn't bad, but it isn't particularly good either (for the reasons mentioned). The Royall report didn't even get released. Jackie Walker was cleared of all wrongdoing. Corbyn is approaching this as political damage control -- it's a fight he's being forced to wage, not one that he wants to take on on his own.

By way of analogy, I've probably seen more explicit denunciations of racism by Republican leaders in the past year and a half than any time in the past 20 years. That's not because a Donald Trump led GOP takes racism seriously, it's because the racism unleashed by the Trump wave has made the problem so overt that pure denialism became untenable. I haven't seen Corbyn's poll numbers among Jews in awhile, but the numbers I have seen put him at "Trump among Latinos" levels. Most Jews don't see Corbyn as "trying to do the right thing" but being sandbagged by a hostile media. They don't see him as an ally who's caught in a tough situation. They see Corbyn as a terrifying figure; the vanguard of a deeply exclusionary and threatening politics who doesn't get it and has marshalled support among those who find the idea that there is something to get outrageous. The difference between how the Jewish community has reacted to Corbyn vs Naz Shah -- who was implicated in anti-Semitism in a far more direct way than Corbyn ever was, but also has done far more to actually try and rectify her mistakes and learn about the issue -- I think is very illustrative. Jews are perfectly capable of recognizing a politician who has made mistakes in the past, has disagreements, but genuinely wants to "do the right thing". They just don't think Corbyn is one of them.