Philip Spencer : “Jewish community in the UK is experiencing an unprecedented wave of hostility.”

Philip Spencer, author of numerous texts on modern anti-Semitism and the Shoah – and more particularly on the problems raised by their treatment on the left – is now a member of the new London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, founded by David Hirsh. In his interview with K., in which he discusses his own political career, he looks back at the reactions to 7 October in England, going through the history of the undigested legacy of the British mandate over Palestine and the history of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.


Philip Spencer
You come from leftist activism. You came back from that. Can you tell us about this conversion? It took place before Corbyn’s era, didn’t it?

Philip Spencer : I do indeed come from a radical leftist background. Like one of your other recent contributors (Mitchell Abidor) I was radicalised by living in Paris in 1968 during the May events, in which the revolutionary left (many of whose leaders were Jewish like me) played such an important role. I was very drawn to their universalist aspirations for radical change. I then joined the most anti-Stalinist Trotskyist organisation back in the UK (the International Socialists which became the Socialist Workers Party). It saw the Soviet Union as a form of state capitalism and was critical of the movements that the rest of the radical left fantasised about – in China, in Cuba, in Algeria and so on. I no longer think that is an adequate way of understanding those regimes, not least because it cannot explain why they are so repeatedly and viciously violent against their own peoples.  

Especially after the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, I became preoccupied with the need for solidarity with victims of genocide. Of course, thinking about genocide means you have to think about the Holocaust, to which both the concept of genocide and the Genocide Convention were responses.  And if you think about the Holocaust, you have to think about antisemitism which was absolutely central to it. I came to realise that antisemitism  hadn’t been taken seriously enough even then by a significant section of the radical left. I also came to see the Holocaust (as in their different ways Hannah Arendt and the leaders of the Frankfurt School did) as at one and the same time both particular (committed against Jews) and universal (as an assault on humanity, whose inherent diversity has to be protected).

What have you learnt from your time with the radical left?

What I retain above all (it is not the only thing) from my prolonged involvement with the radical left is the universalism, a commitment to solidarity across national borders with all the victims of violence at the hands not just of imperialist states (increasingly non-Western ones) but also their own (often post-colonial) rulers. But that universalism should never exclude Jews and has to take antisemitism seriously, including where and when it arises on the left. When it excludes Jews and refuses to take antisemitism seriously (or worse), it is not universalist at all but antisemitic. The distinction between a universalism that seeks to include Jews and a universalism which sees Jews as its “other”, as its enemy,  was central to the book I wrote with Robert Fine on antisemitism on the left and the return of the so-called “Jewish  Question”, where we identified two very different traditions on the left, going back to the Enlightenment.

And one of them has apparently been adopted by Jeremy Corbyn…

What Corbyn represented on the radical left was deeply shocking to me. I see it as a total degeneration, ethically and politically. I had always assumed that the radical left would be the most active of all in defending Jews. I have lived through at least three waves of antisemitism in the UK.  One in the 1960s from neo- Nazis; another in the 1970s; and now. In both of the first two the radical left did mobilise, especially in the 1970s in the form of the Anti-Nazi League which was an initiative actually of the SWP, and got a lot of support from the Jewish community (about which it is now in denial).  But the idea that the radical left would not defend Jews, that it would excuse antisemitism, that it would collude with it, even participate in it, was unthinkable. That has all changed. Some people say the left has “left me”. I think myself that a large element on the radical left is no longer on the left at all. In its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, it is now actually pro-fascist.

Those who pretend that this is antizionism and not antisemitism are, in my view, wilfully dishonest. There were forms of antizionism before the Holocaust but everything changed after that. The Holocaust made it obvious that it is an existential necessity for Jews to have their own state in a world of nation states, a world which had failed to protect them. An obvious question to ask me is why I was a member for so long of an organisation which remained antizionist in denial of this obvious reality. I was certainly aware (Mitchell Abidor talks of moral idiocy, and it applies to me too in this respect) that a section of the revolutionary left after 1967 and then 1973 was antizionist but I let it pass for three (not good) reasons. The first is that I assumed it was just rhetoric and no one really knew what they were talking about, as all our efforts (rightly in my view) were concentrated on building a socialist movement here in the UK. Secondly, it was not actually a condition of being in the SWP that you had to be antizionist. And thirdly, I assumed we were all anti-Stalinists to the core and Stalinism was so obviously antisemitic.  So surely we couldn’t be.

I was completely wrong about this.  What happened was that almost all the radical left, completely abandoned its anti-Stalinism and embraced Stalinist antisemitic antizionism, especially after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

For years, Labour has been swallowed up by these trends. What are the intellectual sources of this phagocytage? Is there also a link with criticism of the management of the British Empire? Or, more specifically, the question of Palestine?

The Labour Party is of course not the radical left and was never a Marxist party at any point in its history. Until recently, the radical left had only a marginal presence inside the Labour Party, despite various unsuccessful efforts to enter and push it in what it thought of as a genuinely socialist direction openly or covertly (as with the Lambertistes in France). As revolutionary hopes in the West were repeatedly disappointed in the 1970s, and even more so after 1989 when the former communist states embraced capitalism, the West and especially the United States came to be seen as the source of all that was wrong in the world. This was a global phenomenon but one element for the UK radical left was certainly a sustained critique of Britain’s imperial past and its continuing legacy. And the radical left was of course quite right to highlight the racism that accompanied and justified Empire, how Britain had profited from slavery for so long, and how that racism continued to operate against immigrants who came to the UK in the wake especially of decolonisation. But that view of the world could not begin to explain how and why the state of Israel came into being after the Holocaust, nor could it take antisemitism seriously unless it appeared in Nazi clothing. It was a reductionist and very partial view of the world which could only work by suppressing inconvenient evidence and twisting history to force it to fit its preconceptions.

How does the British left view the birth of the State of Israel?

The assumption was that what Britain did in relation to Israel and Palestine was exactly the same as what it did in other parts of the Empire, so that “we” must feel as guilty about the fate of the Palestinians as we do about slavery and so forth. (I leave aside here the question of who exactly the “we” is in this formulation). But leaving aside that what happened elsewhere was not always exactly the same, it makes no sense to apply this schema to this case. Few on the radical left today (and this ignorance is now widespread) seem at all aware for example that Britain did not vote for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 or that it was communist Czechoslovakia that supplied crucial weapons to the Haganah during the war of independence.  But even that wilful ignorance does not fully explain how Israel came to be seen increasingly as the worst state in the world. It is not enough to point (though it is significant of course) to the way in which after 1967 Israel no longer appeared weak and was automatically therefore no longer deserving of sympathy. This shift in position was accompanied by a general refusal to treat the Palestinians as having any agency at all, or to take at all seriously the violently antisemitic ideas about Jews (some though not all of which had been promulgated successfully in the Middle East by Nazi propaganda from the 1930s onwards) that were common currency in the region, even before the rise of Islamism. For this, you need to understand the recurring presence and appeal of antisemitism to that part of the radical left which has often been tempted to embrace a superficial radicalism in which individual and collective Jews are seen to be responsible for all that is wrong with the world.

How is this rhetoric being updated today?

The contemporary version of this superficial radicalism focuses on the support that the United States (the arch Western imperialist power) gives to Israel. All good anti-imperialists must then believe that Israel was either a tool of Western imperialism in the region or (better) vice versa. Conversely, any force standing up to America and Israel must “objectively” be on the side of progress, seeking to overturn an unjust global order in which the British state (as an ally of the wicked Americans and Israel and with its own longstanding racist imperialist history) had also to be fought. 

Corbyn himself had imbibed these ideas long ago. In the eyes of his supporters, this made him appear a man of deep conviction and principle. So, when the opportunity came up for him to be put forward as the leader of the Labour Party, he drew on his record as a committed opponent of the deeply unpopular Iraq War which the previous Labour government under Tony Blair had  supported and on the frustration felt by many at the failure of the Labour Party in opposition  under Blair’s successors to offer an effective challenge to the Conservatives who had returned to power in the wake of the 2008 crash and were now embarked on a harsh austerity programme which was manifestly exacerbating inequality. Corbyn appeared to offer a highly principled opposition to the Conservatives but at the heart of his view of the world was a crude anti-Americanism and a consistent antizionism which had led him without any shame or remorse to associate himself repeatedly with overt antisemites. When he became leader in 2015 (to many people’s surprise), antisemitic antizionism was given full rein inside the Party. This made life extremely hard for Jews inside the Labour Party (it had always been the historic political home for Jews in Britain) and anyone who refused to subscribe to the new orthodoxy, forcing many to leave in despair. Thankfully, the electorate rejected him unambiguously in 2019 as the Labour Party fell to its most humiliating defeat since the 1930s.

What were the reasons for this rejection?

There were many reasons for this, especially the prolonged debate about Brexit with which many people were fed up (which is not to underestimate the chauvinism and xenophobia that had ensured victory for the Brexiteers in the first place). It is not clear how significant a factor Corbyn’s obvious antisemitism was in Labour’s defeat but what then ensued has come as a considerable relief to Britain’s Jews and anyone who cares about antisemitism. The new leader Keir Starmer made a fundamental change of position a central issue from the beginning, openly apologising to the Jewish community for all that had happened under his predecessor. As important, a major finding by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which had only ever previously investigated the far right for racism, found unequivocally that Labour under Corbyn had been guilty of institutional antisemitism. Corbyn characteristically dismissed these findings as exaggerated and many of his supporters blamed Jews for ensuring Labour’s defeat. These are of course both classic antisemitic tropes on the left, attacking Jews for exaggerating their misfortunes for selfish and malign purposes and engaging in conspiracies to block the forces of progress. 

Melenchon is similar, I think, to Corbyn in many ways, although he seems to me to be a more virulent antisemite. After all he criticised Corbyn for making too many concessions to the Jews! An important difference is that the Socialist Party collapsed in France when Melenchon was no longer in it (let alone its leader) so he can pose from without as the man who will restore the French left both to its principles and to power. Corbyn presided over the Labour Party’s debacle. So Starmer is in a much stronger position than critics of Melenchon on the left in France. He can show quite clearly that it was Corbyn who led the Labour Party to a catastrophic defeat. But beyond this situational difference, the stance that Starmer has taken is to restore what ought to be a cherished principle to the Labour Party, that antisemitism is something that has to be rejected not just for tactical reasons but for principled ones, that a party of the left which colludes with and even participates in antisemitism is not of the left at all.

What is Labour’s position on the conflict between Israel and Hamas and on the wave of antisemitism in the UK?

At present in the UK, while there still remain a significant number of antisemites in the Party, several have either been expelled or left. Corbyn himself is no longer a member of the Labour Party in Parliament and at the next election will not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate. In response to the appalling events of October 7th, Starmer adopted a clear and unambiguous position of support for Israel. He understood clearly how vile and reactionary Hamas is and the brutality of its attacks. He has however come under considerable pressure from a significant section of the Party, at local level especially from those who immediately came out in support of Hamas before Israel had done anything. He has not bowed before this, to his considerable credit but the pressure on him is growing, as each week large mobilisations have been taking place attacking Israel and anyone who supports it. 

Opposing Starmer’s position, one can (roughly) identify three positions on the left on this issue. The first, which is held by a significant group who are the driving force behind the demonstrations, unequivocally supports Hamas for the reasons outlined above. A second formally recognises that what Hamas did was bad. However this concession (often expressed as “it goes without saying” which it absolutely does not) is immediately followed by a “but” –  that the Israeli response is far worse and that Israel is fundamentally the guilty party in this conflict (deliberately ignoring the fact that Hamas attacked Israel).  This group goes along with the slogan “from the river to the sea” (which quite obviously implies the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews in large numbers) and with mounting claims that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. There is a third position which sees both Hamas and Israel as violent and calls for a ceasefire, refusing to recognise that Hamas will obviously use this to rearm and mount further attacks.

So the rhetoric of the spectre of genocide is also being heard in the UK…

As far as I am concerned, the charge of genocide against Israel is particularly shocking. It betrays a wilful refusal to recognise that Hamas has openly stated its genocidal aims, and has perpetrated acts which fall quite clearly within the definition of genocidal acts according to the Convention, and were also deliberately carried out to remind Jews of the extreme violence used by the Einsatzgruppen.  But this charge is also antisemitic, accusing Jews of the crime that was committed against them. This is not an accident. It has its roots in a partial and limited understanding (at best) of the Holocaust as only having universal significance which supposedly only the Jews have not learnt from. It turns Israel into the new Nazi Germany. There is something exciting, I think,  about what might best be understood as a kind of perversion, a making of something good into something bad. Sartre of course long ago pointed out that antisemitism is not a reasoned position but a passion and you can see this quite clearly in the demonstrations.  As the great French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch once noted drily “So the Jews are the new nazis. How delightful!” It is certainly hard to avoid sensing an excitement in the way the demonstrators hurl slogans which give such offense to Jews and make them feel anxious in a way they have not done in this country for a very long time.

We’ve seen some impressive images of these demonstrations in the UK. Do you have any idea of the numbers, or who is mobilising?

Those who attack Starmer’s position see it as a disgraceful betrayal and accuse him of having blood on his hands.  Claims of betrayal and complicity in mass killing have figured prominently in the large demonstrations that have taken place. There have also been mobilisations at local level against Starmer himself and against members of parliament who have backed the line he has taken hitherto. (A large majority have continued to support him, however, and not all of them by any means have been targeted).  It is hard to put exact figures on the numbers on the demonstrations but they are probably well in excess of 100,000 each week (there have now been at least 4). We don’t know enough at the moment to make too many generalisations about who is going on these demonstrations and what their motivations are. Some journalists have suggested that some of it is fashion among young people, in which case some of the energy may dissipate soon. There was something of a fashion after all only a few years ago for some young people to be enthusiastic about Corbyn, as when he was feted at the Glastonbury music festival. But there are clearly many who are committed to the Palestinian cause from a variety of backgrounds. An important constituency is a section of the radical left but it is not that large even if it had a bigger audience than ever before inside Corbyn’s Labour Party. There is some suggestion that where there is a large Muslim population in a particular constituency there is more opposition to Starmer’s position than elsewhere, and this may be reflected in the mobilisations for the demonstrations. There are certainly in the UK, as elsewhere, fundamentalist Islamists who cast the conflict between Israel and Palestine as a religious one, where Jews are seen to have no right to be in Palestine at all. But of course antisemitic antizionism promoted by fundamentalist Islamists is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon.

One argument put forward on the radical left may also have some resonance in the UK, given the history of racism here to which I referred earlier. It is that all victims of racism should automatically be antizionist but that no longer includes victims of antisemitism. This is because, we are told, Jews have (since the Holocaust) somehow managed to become “white” and are therefore now an integral part of the inherently oppressive local and global power structure.   But it is hard to see that many in the very diverse communities of people with Afro-Caribbean or Indian sub-continent backgrounds would be or are attracted by what is essentially another instance of a refusal by a section of the radical left to take antisemitism seriously. This line of argument is in any case really an import from the US, as was Black Lives Matters, which did for a while have considerable resonance here even though conditions for those experiencing anti-Black racism in the UK differ significantly in some important ways from the US both historically and in the present.

Where these arguments are important is in British universities, which have alarmingly become hotbeds for spreading antisemitic antizionism. This again is a global phenomenon but there was a particularly significant development in the UK in the early 2000s, when the academics’ union (the UCU) voted to boycott Israeli universities. Much of the antisemitism that so disfigured the Labour Party in the Corbyn years was first articulated in this boycott campaign. Although Corbyn has now gone, these ideas have actually gained even more support in universities, where some of Corbyn’s most enthusiastic supporters have regrouped. Many universities have seen both lecturers and students advocating victory for Hamas, attacking Israel for war crimes and for committing genocide, and asserting with great confidence that it is a wholly illegitimate settler-colonial and apartheid state. The level of ignorance on display here ought to be a matter of considerable concern, since this is where the next generation of political activists, journalists, politicians and policy makers are having their ideas shaped and consolidated. A glimmer of light can be found in a new effort to set up a Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism to provide support for the often isolated academics and vulnerable students who seek to challenge this “common sense”. (I should say that I am myself involved closely in this project, which is being led by the prominent sociologist David Hirsh, who played a central role in the campaign against the academic boycott and whose writings on contemporary antisemitism in the UK are an indispensable guide to how we got to this point.

How are the Jews reacting?

Students are only one group in the Jewish community in the UK which is experiencing this unprecedented wave of hostility. The sense of isolation and of being beleaguered which it feels is clearly shared with the French Jewish community but it is much smaller.  It also never benefited from the overt support that at times the French Republic has given Jews since the Revolution, when they were first given full rights (albeit only as individuals). Britain has no such republican tradition but rather one in which liberal tolerance is the key motif. The Jewish community’s traditional stance in the UK has been characterised by a general sense of grateful acceptance, accompanied by a certain reluctance to take an overt lead in combatting antisemitism. It has generally sought to find allies who can take the lead, including (as in the case of Cable Street and the ANL) on the left. That response has for some time been felt to be less than adequate and many Jews have become more assertive, partly in line with a wider acceptance in the UK of the importance of group identification, something which is arguably rather more problematic in France. Nevertheless, there remains a deep sense of gratitude to the UK for standing firm against Nazi Germany and relief that there was no equivalent here of the Vichy betrayal. 

In the immediate response to October 7th there were vigils and memorials, largely but not exclusively attended by Jews but also, interestingly, a marked spike in attendance at synagogues. This clearly did not signify any kind of reconversion to faith as such but rather a desire of many Jews for a safe space. Very recently there has been a demonstration in London, by far the largest mobilisation (between 60,000 and 100,000 according to different estimates) directly against antisemitism since the celebrated events at Cable Street in the 1930s when Jews largely on the left and in alliance with the Communist Party in particular barred the fascists from marching through the East End. Ironically Corbyn himself used to boast that his mother was at Cable Street and claimed that this meant he had not an antisemitic bone in his body (though where such a bone might be found was never made clear). The demonstration against antisemitism too had echoes for some of the mobilisations of the Anti-Nazi League protests of the 70s. Even if the majority on this demonstration were probably Jews, it is clear that there were people who are not Jews there and it is quite clear that many in the UK do not approve of the hatred now being expressed openly against them. It is extremely important that Jews see that they are not alone, and that it is not only the Conservative government and the Labour Party under Starmer which supports them. It is nevertheless tragic that a significant section of the radical left whose predecessors had been centrally involved in Cable Street and then the ANL is now to be found at the heart of antisemitic mobilisation.

Interview by Elie Petit and Danny Trom

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