The revelations contained within Al Jazeera’s recent series The Labour Files were an important watershed moment in UK politics.
The documentaries confirmed that the “anti-Semitism crisis” in Labour while Jeremy Corbyn was its leader was largely exaggerated by forces hostile to the left within the party.
However the revelations, important though they are, have been used to construct another false narrative.
This is the idea that some leaders of the pro-Corbyn Labour left were forced to accept the manufactured outrage of the party’s so-called “anti-Semitism crisis” unwillingly, because there was no other choice.
In fact, many were willing participants in the campaign, promoting the principles of the “new anti-Semitism,” via the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.
Some of Corbyn’s advisers promoted these principles even before the IHRA definition was formally adopted by Labour in 2018.
These were the conclusions I reached as an insider.
Between summer 2018 and April 2020, I worked in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office under Jeremy Corbyn. It was by no means a senior role, but it did give me certain insights.
The new anti-Semitism
The clearest outline of the character of the supposed “new form of anti-Semitism” is provided by the Hasbara Handbook. This guide to promoting Israel was published in 2002 by the World Union of Jewish Students, an affiliate of the World Zionist Organization.
The WZO was established in 1897 by Theodor Herzl and originated the plan for a settler-colonial Jewish state in the land of Palestine.
The handbook explains: “the new form of anti-Semitism puts the state of Israel, the haven and sanctuary of the Jewish people, at the front line of the attack.” To this conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, the Hasbara Handbook adds: “we have to look behind the words to get to their hidden agenda.”
In other words, the new definition of anti-Semitism assumes that, when identifying instances of anti-Jewish prejudice, words should be interpreted in ways other than their literal meaning. This increases subjectivity in the debate around what is and isn’t anti-Semitic.
It blurs into the notion of “possible anti-Semitism,” which the Hasbara Handbook defines as “where an act might have been motivated by anti-Semitism, but this is unclear, it is often worth expressing some form of disapproval, but refraining from leveling public charges of anti-Semitism.”
The handbook instead advises pro-Israel activists that, “it is often worth expressing personal upset, saying that one was ‘hurt, as a Jew,’ by the controversial act.”
Through “possible anti-Semitism,” and the linkage of legitimate statements that individuals may find personally upsetting with actual prejudice against Jews for being Jews, the debate around the matter within Labour has devolved into a free-for-all of identity politics premised upon personal feelings rather than shared understanding.
The handbook’s proscriptions closely follow the decades-old Israeli government misinformation campaign that left-wing opposition to Israeli colonialism represents a “new anti-Semitism.”
The approach to understanding anti-Semitism taken by Jon Lansman and James Schneider – co-founders of the influential pro-Corbyn group Momentum – is rooted in this identity politics-style conception of the term.
Momentum leaders share significant responsibility for this with the Labour right.
The road to IHRA
In an article published on his Left Futures blog in 2016, Lansman had already claimed that the left should “stop talking about Zionism,” Israel’s state ideology. He engaged in a common rhetorical sleight of hand to reposition the debate so that it occurs on terrain more to his liking.
Historical fact makes defending Zionism as a concept challenging.
Always a racist endeavor, modern political Zionism was originally conceived as an imperialist, colonialist venture.
But Lansman did not try to defend Zionism itself. Instead, he shifted the discussion on to the feelings of individuals, categorizing Israel supporters essentially into “good” Zionists and “bad” Zionists arguing in the 2016 blog post that: “Zionism takes many forms, and British Zionists (at least those who are Jewish) are a world apart from Israeli Zionists.”
Accordingly, and in line with both the new definition of anti-Semitism and the related concept of “possible anti-Semitism,” criticism of Israel as an apartheid state can be reframed as “bad” or even anti-Semitic, if it is judged offensive to Zionist Jews in Britain.
In September 2018, Labour adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which, as many predicted, soon proved disastrous for the party’s anti-imperialist left.
The IHRA definition essentially codifies the theory of “the new anti-Semitism” and the methodology for identifying it for organizations to adapt as internal practice. “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” it begins.
As a definition of anti-Semitism – literally prejudice against Jews for being Jews – the definition is too vague. Although its lack of specificity renders it essentially useless in combating genuine anti-Semitism, its vagueness is actually helpful to those wishing to expand the concept of anti-Semitism into including expressions that are not anti-Semitic as traditionally defined.
To those so inclined, it lends a helping hand in the form of 11 examples, which, among other conceits, suggest that criticism of Israel may be anti-Semitic.
One example is clear that anti-Semitism may be expressed by “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
The IHRA definition therefore incorporates both the Israeli government idea of the “new anti-Semitism,” as well as the concept of “possible anti-Semitism,” making the scope for identifying examples of “anti-Semitism” almost limitless.
It also ensures that, for the organizations adopting it, criticism of Israel will always be seen through the lens of “possible anti-Semitism” and critics of Israel’s apartheid system as guilty until proven innocent.
The impact of the IHRA definition was devastating for the Labour left. Nevertheless, even before its adoption by the party, the principles underpinning the new definition of anti-Semitism and the concept of “possible anti-Semitism” were already being put into practice by the leaders of the Momentum-aligned left.
Such practices led to Labour’s adoption of the IHRA definition, which, in turn, led to many Jewish critics of Israel being sanctioned or expelled from the Labour Party.
Although Lansman’s support for the IHRA definition made him a controversial figure for many on the anti-war left, this has distracted attention from the problematic role of others.
James Schneider, a senior aide to Corbyn when he was Labour’s leader, continues to shape the debate around Labour’s largely manufactured anti-Semitism crisis.
Back in 2016, Schneider approvingly shared an article by Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay, encouraging “everyone who has any interest in Labour, anti-Semitism, and attacks on Corbyn” to read.
The article claimed that “sometimes, criticism of the state of Israel, by using terms like ‘Zionist’ as a dog-whistle proxy for ‘Jew,’ can be anti-Semitic or perpetuate anti-Semitic ideas.”This seems to be an application of the idea of the “new anti-Semitism,” as well as being a very clear example of the “possible anti-Semitism” nonsense.
Ramsay tellingly cited no evidence of the left using the word “Zionist” as a dog whistle for “Jew.”
He could not, so instead he cast aspersions about critics of Israel. Whether Ramsay was aware of the fact or not, his claims were very similar to those of Israel and its lobbyists.
In 2019, Labour published an online pamphlet titled “No Place for Antisemitism,” primarily authored by Schneider. It was deleted by Labour after Keir Starmer took over as party leader, but can still be read on the Internet Archive
The pamphlet argued that, “in response to 19th century European anti-Semitism, some Jews became advocates for Zionism, Jewish national self-determination in a Jewish state. Since the state of Israel was founded in 1948, following the horrors of the Holocaust, Zionism means maintaining that state.”
But as Colombia University professor Joseph Massad has shown, such conceptions are ahistorical. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Zionist movement openly described itself as a European colonial movement.
It was not until the mid-1960s – the post-colonial era – that some Zionists began rebranding the movement as one for “self-determination” of Jews.
While Schneider’s pamphlet graciously conceded that “arguing for one state with rights for all Israelis and Palestinians is not anti-Semitic,” and that “anti-Zionism is not in itself anti-Semitic,” such false conceptions are, in fact, implicit in the idea that Israel represents Jewish self-determination.
It is this key concept which underpins the discourse around the new definition of anti-Semitism.
More recently, in “How We Win: The Party,” a 2021 article for Novara Media, Schneider recognized that the IHRA definition incorporates belief in the “new anti-Semitism,” and that that is a problem.
“Some argue that anti-Zionism is ‘the new anti-Semitism,’” he wrote, describing it as “a notion anti- and non-Zionist Jews, as well as some Zionist Jews, forcefully reject.”
Although this apparent development in Schneider’s position is to be welcomed, it is notable that his rejection of the “new anti-Semitism” concept is centred wholly around the views of European Jews rather than the primary victims of Zionism’s settler-colonial violence: Palestinians.
Nonetheless, Schneider does now seem to recognize a central problem with the “new anti-Semitism” idea: “Following this logic could render much activism by or in support of Palestinians anti-Semitic by definition.”
While he now recognizes the dangers of accepting the new definition of anti-Semitism, he seems to validate the concept anyway, by stating that Israel is “for many, symbolic of national liberation.” In a “he-said-she-said” style equivocation, Schneider concedes that “to many Palestinians, Zionism represents their eviction and occupation, and the denial of their rights.”
Why does Zionism only “represent” eviction and the denial of their rights to Palestinians? Read Schneider and this seems to be a mystery.
In the same vein as the arguments put forward within the Hasbara Handbook, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and Lansman’s 2016 article for Left Futures, the net effect of Schneider’s arguments here are to link anti-Semitism to criticism of Israel.
In a reply to a previous article of mine, in which I stated that Schneider supported the “new anti-Semitism,” he issued a stark denial.
I believe Schneider’s own various writings and interventions demonstrate the inaccuracy of this statement.
Moreover, his claim that I base my analysis of his position on my recollection that he advised the Rebecca Long-Bailey campaign team when she was contesting the Labour leadership election in 2020 is also incorrect.
In addition to my reading of Schneider’s own statements and work on the subject, my understanding of his position is partially based on a conversation I had with him in the workplace after Long-Bailey’s decision to support the 10 demands made by pro-Israel lobby group the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
These demands included a commitment to the IHRA definition.
In our discussion – of which others in the office were aware – Schneider made the case that the decision was the correct one, an opinion with which I strongly disagreed and still do. It was this conversation that led me to believe that he was involved in formally advising the campaign – which, I concede, may have been a misunderstanding on my part.
Nevertheless, whether he advised Long-Bailey to adopt the Board of Deputies’ 10 pledges or not, the fact remains: Schneider certainly supported her decision to endorse the IHRA definition.
This is a fact Schneider still has not denied.
Responding to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment on the issues raised in this piece, Schneider said: “I do not recall any such conversation with Phil Bevin and did not advise Rebecca Long-Bailey to adopt the Board of Deputies’ 10 pledges” (which included the IHRA definition).
He said he did not join Long-Bailey’s campaign until a month after the decision had already been made to adopt the pledges.
He also stated that he “was pleased Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler both decided not to adopt them [the Board of Deputies’ demands] in their deputy leadership campaigns.”
Asked if he agreed with this author that it was a mistake for Long-Bailey to endorse the IHRA definition, he declined to comment on the record.
Schneider, therefore, effectively supported Labour’s adoption of the new definition of anti-Semitism – although it’s possible he has since changed his position. As he pointed out in response to my previous article, his new book Our Bloc, does make it clear that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel.
Nonetheless, in his book Schneider continues to support the false idea that there is a unique problem of “left anti-Semitism,” which he describes as a “gorilla” that “must be tackled.”
Despite his previous support for the IHRA definition, the new definition of anti-Semitism, the principle of “possible anti-Semitism” and his apparent failure to understand his own role in supporting it, Schneider was treated as an authoritative voice helping to shape the debate surrounding Labour’s “anti-Semitism crisis” in Al Jazeera’s series The Labour Files.
He also contributed to a panel discussion at this year’s The World Transformed fringe festival at the Labour Party’s annual conference.
Asked to comment on the issues raised in this piece, Schneider said: “I am satisfied with my role in and analysis of the so-called ‘Labour anti-Semitism scandal.’ If people are interested in my views on the matter, I hope they read or listen to them directly from me, such as in my book.”
Lansman may have taken a step back from frontline politics, and I understand that he and Schneider fell out some time ago.
Nevertheless, they share similar misconceptions regarding “left wing anti-Semitism.” Schneider’s continued prominence and influence therefore makes it more likely that these damaging ideas will remain influential on the Labour left.
Asa Winstanley contributed research.
Phil Bevin is an author, scholar and researcher. He served in Jeremy Corbyn’s office between 2018 and 2020.