The Future of the Left and the Battle Against Antisemitism

On Friday 3 June, Danielle Simonnet, a figure from French political party La France Insoumise, welcomed the support of Jeremy Corbyn, who came from London to beat the pavement in the fifteenth constituency of Paris where she is running for the NUPES (the alliance of the left parties) in the upcoming legislative elections. There was an immediate and legitimate indignation from those who do not have a short memory: they remember Labour’s complacency towards antisemitism when Corbyn was its boss. Danielle Simonnet spoke out: for her, Corbyn is only the “victim of a crude manipulation“. Milo Lévy-Bruhl – who with Adrien Zirah had already analysed in K. the EHRC report on anti-Semitism within the English left-wing party – returns to it this week for Danielle Simonnet’s good information. He takes the opportunity to reflect on the fate of a union of the left, which is undoubtedly desirable today, provided that some of those who lead it no longer deny the reality of the resurgence of anti-Semitism, including on the left.

 

“A Jew is worth a Breton”. Poster of the Far-Right nationlistic group ‘Action Française’ attacking the Popular Front socialist deputy Marx Dormoy, guilty of having spoken out against the antisemitic insults directed at Léon Blum

 

In France, the long weekend before the first round of parliamentary elections was marked by a visit from Jeremy Corbyn to the Parisian district where a major figure of France Insoumise in the capital, Danielle Simonnet, is running. After an event with activists, Danielle Simonnet shared on social networks photos alongside the former leader of Labour, while saying she felt loved “[b]ecause of the emotion and pride of receiving tonight Jeremy Corbyn, MP for London, who came with Danielle Obono in support of the vibrant dynamic of the Nupes.”[1] and our united campaign.” Seeking the patronage of the man who led Labour to the worst defeat in its history likely did not scare off the Insoumis, who are the dominant pole of the new electoral union of the left and Greens in France. Nor did the controversies surrounding Corbyn and his handling of antisemitism within Labour. Let us briefly recall some facts: Corbyn has personally had some questionable associations and some unfortunate behaviors – which he himself has sometimes acknowledged before apologizing for them (such as his support for the famous mural depicting Jewish bankers controlling the world, which he had not initially considered antisemitic). But Corbyn has been criticized above all for neglecting the problems of antisemitism within Labour. He has occasionally acknowledged that Labour does have a problem with antisemitism. But the occasional acknowledgement has been intermingled with minimization, and a distinct lack of commitment to addressing the problem that was finally documented by the report of the EHRC, an independent British human rights body. This report, which focused on only part of the antisemitism cases within Labour, gave an idea of the extent of the problem and especially of Corbyn’s culpable laxity in its management; we already published, several months ago, a synthesis of this report, in French and in English. When the report was released, Corbyn reacted by saying that its conclusions were exaggerated. This was the umpteenth time that he downplayed the report, which led to his suspension from the party, which was finally overturned, and to his exclusion from his parliamentary group, which is still pending. So much for the facts. There is a lot of literature on this subject, obviously difficult to handle. What is not in doubt, however, and what Corbyn himself has acknowledged on several occasions, is that there were indeed problems of antisemitism within Labour. However, in the French echo they gave to this affair, Jeremy Corbyn’s Insoumis defenders never stuck to this fact. This is notably the case of the most important among them, Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself.

A Little Insoumise Music

In September 2018, Mélenchon was quick to dismiss the antisemitism business within Labour: the Jewish members of Labour who spoke out anonymously to express their discomfort could only be, he wrote on his blog, “alleged Jews” relaying propaganda orchestrated by Netanyahu and intended to act as a “stun ray.” But, Mélenchon reassured, this “stale old horror film” would have no effect outside of “constituencies where the Jewish community may have a role.” A year later, in December 2019, after Corbyn’s historic debacle, the accusations of antisemitism within Labour figured in Melenchon’s post-mortem: “Corbyn had to endure without help the crude accusation of antisemitism propagated by the Chief Rabbi of England and the various networks of influence of the Likud. Instead of retaliating, he spent his time apologizing and making concessions. (…) I for one will never give in. Retirement on the basis of points, German and neo-liberal Europe, green capitalism, genuflection before the arrogant decrees of the CRIF communitarians: it is no. And no means no. And no means no.”

It is a safe bet that Mélenchon himself does not see the problem with using rhetoric that plays to the most hackneyed antisemitism stereotypes. “Genuflecting before the arrogant decrees of the CRIF’s communitarians” refers to the imaginary power of arrogant Jews (people who believe themselves to be superior) giving orders (this is the meaning of oukases) to kneeling politicians (this is the meaning of genuflecting). We will not come back to it here, but we will just note Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s talent in deploying, certainly inadvertently, almost all the antisemitic stereotypes (“superior people”; Christ placed on the cross by his co-religionists; “the language of international finance”; cultural scenarios of Judaism seeing in “creolization” a horror, etc.). Each of these outbursts has generated its share of controversy, feeding accusations about Mélenchon’s supposed anti-Semitism or at least his indifference to the issue (traces of indifference were again evident recently when Mélenchon placed the terrorist murder of three Jewish children in Toulouse on the same level – that of a “serious incident” – as the beating of “Papy Voise”). This liability of Mélenchon’s is an important point to bear in mind: if Corbyn’s appearance – and the question of France Insoumise’s relationship to Corbyn – is generating so many reactions, it is because it is part of a larger problem that concerns France Insoumise, of which the readiness to support Corbyn (and to hide problems that he himself has recognized) is only one element.

What form does the problem of antisemitism take within France Insoumise? On the one hand, there are Mélenchon’s ambiguous outbursts, which are particularly disturbing because of their frequency. But there are, above all, the reactions of the Insoumis to the polemics that these statements generate. The argumentative register of the Insoumis in general, and of Mélenchon in particular, is always the same; it is the one that Mélenchon already marshaled in his defense of Corbyn. It is based on three axioms. First axiom: antisemitism on the left does not exist. It does not exist in Labour, nor in France Insoumise, nor in Corbyn, nor in Mélenchon. Second axiom: accusations of antisemitism are manipulations orchestrated to hinder the progression of a left that is approaching power or to prohibit criticism of Israel. Third axiom: Mélenchon and France Insoumise are at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism and the greatest defenders of the Jews. This is the music that Mélenchon plays and that the Insoumis repeat in unison every time their leader slips up. These axioms form a system: since the Insoumis are the (self-proclaimed) champions of the fight against antisemitism, they cannot be antisemitic and therefore any criticism is a machination/manipulation. Since all criticism is a manipulation and the Insoumis are the champions of the fight against antisemitism, it is also up to them to say who is antisemitic and who is not; to say where there is really antisemitism (on the right and the far right) and where antisemitism is invented (in the France Insoumise, on the left in general and in social movements). Thus, they will vehemently oppose the republication of Céline’s pamphlets in the name of the fight against an antisemitism that will nevertheless only be considered as a shameful political manipulation when it will be denounced by others as penetrating the margins of certain social movements such as the Gilets Jaunes.

However, it happens that the conductor of the Insoumis botches the tune. Mélenchon has, of course, long since identified the institutions that he believes are behind the manipulations: the Chief Rabbi of England, the Likud and, in France, the “aggressively communitarian” CRIF (Mélenchon, 2017). Now, it turns out that the CRIF recently attacked another political figure: Éric Zemmour. An attack that confounded the leader of France Insoumise. The logic of the confusion is very simple: since the CRIF accuses Mélenchon of being antisemitic when Mélenchon is not, Zemmour cannot be antisemitic since he is accused by the CRIF of being so (if it turned out that Zemmour was antisemitic, it would mean that Mélenchon could be too). Mélenchon, who, as another consequence of his logic, is the only one who can say who is antisemitic or who is not, therefore commented on the CRIF’s attacks against the far-right leader, and gave his verdict: they are mistaken, Zemmour is not antisemitic. And then he took an additional step. The one to which the need to justify a sentence that has no foundation, since it can only be founded in the logic in which he has locked himself, should lead him. This additional step consisted in saying that Zemmour was not antisemitic and that, on the contrary, what the CRIF reproached Zemmour for being the source of his antisemitic was, in fact, in conformity with the “cultural scenarios” of Judaism. Obviously, a new polemic resulted, and new denials. And, for once, timid apologies. Perhaps in listening to himself again, Melenchon, who is an intelligent man, heard the implicit part of his statement, the point at which his logic collapses, or becomes diabolical, the point, which he is close to, and which will soon leave him no choice but to say that the real antisemites are the Jews.

The Cleavages of the Nupes

It is in this context of the contradictions of Melenchonist rhetoric that the great political event of the last few months – the union of the left and the Greens in the Nupes – and the small event of this weekend take place. Let us take up the thread. The tweet of Danielle Simonnet immediately triggered its share of reactions. Among them, that of her main competitor on the left, the former deputy of the district, who lost the left’s nomination amid the new electoral pact. The dissident candidate therefore sent a message: “The masks are falling: inviting and displaying the support of Jeremy Corbyn, dismissed from Labour and the parliamentary group for complacency with antisemitism in England, after 1,000 complaints registered by this party, is a disgrace that Danielle Simonnet is proud of. The left cannot accept this!” An Immediate response came from the interested party: “Shame on you. Jeremy Corbyn has never made a single antisemitic statement but has been the victim of a gross manipulation because he embodied the left wing. Labour had to apologize and reinstate him. There are enough real antisemites to fight against to invent others.” The answer is in the canons of the Insoumise rhetoric: reversing the accusation; reactivation of the thesis of manipulation to prevent the left from winning and, above all, where others invent antisemites, Danielle Simonnet, she, places herself in the camp of the real actors of the fight against the real antisemitism. Melenchonian recitation mastered to the letter.

Danielle Simonnet’s response, in turn, has generated its share of reactions, and this is where we approach the question that interests us. How was the context of the Nupes going to weigh on a sequence unfortunately too well known? For the other members of this alliance do not, in fact, have the same disposition towards the revival of antisemitism that Europe in general and France in particular are experiencing. For the benefit of our non-French readers, let us point out that in recent years the country has experienced an explosion of antisemitism: antisemitic discourse on social networks, a resurgence of “Jewish conspiracy” theories, an increase in antisemitic acts and murders of Jews (from Ilan Halimi to Mireille Knoll, not to mention the victims of the attack in Toulouse, the Hyper Casher, etc.) Jewish schools and synagogues have benefited for several years from reinforced police or military protection, but it is in their homes that Jews have been murdered in recent years. To understand this antisemitic groundswell, one need only look at the news of the last few weeks. The newspaper Le Monde reports that on June 3, the husband of the Les Républicains candidate in the first district of the Bas-Rhin department was assaulted to cries of “dirty Jew” in a working-class district of Strasbourg where he was putting up posters. In mid-May, René Hadjadj, an 89-year-old man, was strangled and then thrown from the 17th floor of his home by a neighbor in the working-class neighborhood of La Duchère in Lyon. In the newspaper Libération, we read that the investigation for “voluntary manslaughter” has been extended to “the aggravating circumstance of an act committed because of the victim’s belonging to a specific ethnic group, nation, race or religion” after the discovery of the suspect’s antisemitic conspiracy obsessions on his Twitter profile.

Among the various members of the Nupes, therefore, the Socialist Party has, in recent years, shown an indisputable clarity in the face of this resurgence of antisemitism in France. In this case, it is its number two, Corinne Narassiguin, an active supporter of the Nupes, who made an explicit riposte to Simonnet’s tweet: “Soliciting and welcoming the support of a man who was excluded from the British Labour Party parliamentary group for being lax on antisemitism is certainly not part of the common values on which we built the Nupes agreement. Quite the contrary.” The same old song of the France Insoumise on the one hand, welcome reaction of the Socialist Party on the other: a certain idea of the Nupes is emerging here. That of an alliance that remains above all electoral and in which cleavages and habits are put to the side, at least for the elections. Cleavages ready to erupt anew and which effectively reawaken when an action – considered as intolerable, that is to say not implied by the necessary electoral solidarity (what Blum liked to call a “case of conscience”) – occurs.

Toward a Collective Self-Correction?

But can the Nupes open the way to something else? To glimpse the possibility of this other destiny, we must look at the third main actor of the alliance: Europe Ecologie-Les Verts. Since October 2021, the latter has set up a working group “to fight against antisemitism” in order to “question the programs of political ecology in the electoral process from the point of view of the fight against antisemitism.” In the context of the current legislative elections, the group, once again noting “the continuous progression of anti-Semitism in our country and around the world” wished to send to the 577 candidates nominated by the Nupes a charter in 10 points that “encompasses all the major contemporary issues related to the fight against antisemitism.” The first point of this charter, which can be consulted online, is a commitment to “take a clear stand against antisemitic comments or acts as well as those denying the Holocaust, including if they were to be made by members of my political organization.” To date (Monday, June 6) only about 30 Nupes candidates have signed this charter. Among the signatories are mainly members of Europe Ecologie les Verts. Here, however, it is the possibility of another destiny for the Nupes that is taking shape. Rather than temporarily pausing divisions that are only waiting for the morrow of the second round to re-emerge, the Nupes could also be the active force that will allow each of its members to take stock of its liabilities and, hopefully, to reform itself. This is what it has already allowed the Socialist Party to do, by renewing its critique of the past deviations of Hollandism; a more than welcome reaffirmation. The treatment of the Corbyn Affair by France Insoumise, as well as Mélenchon’s multiple outbursts, call for a similar gesture of self-correction; at least if France Insoumise intends to remain faithful to the socialist heritage of the struggle against antisemitism; a struggle that has regained in necessity in recent decades. It is such an ambition, of internal self-correction, that would at least make it possible to initiate (let us not overestimate the powers of a charter) the massive signature, by all the candidates of the different forces gathered within the Nupes, of the charter of the working group of Europe Ecologie les Verts.

The benefit would be great, beyond the member parties of the electoral alliance. The last point of the charter, for example, commits each of its signatories to participate, at least once during their term, to a training session on the subject of anti-Semitism. If the charter were to be approved by the Insoumis, there are many actors in the intellectual and academic world who are specialists on antisemitism , among them some members of the editorial staff of our magazine, who would willingly take on the task of proposing such a training. This training would begin by recalling that historically the Left has for a long time been home to many antisemites, that it was even one of the poles of development of certain forms of modern antisemitism, and that therefore the denunciation of the antisemitism present on the Left can also come from people who sincerely hope for the advent of socialism, but who know that a socialism that does not make the fight against antisemitism its priority would not be one.

So far, there are few Insoumis among the signatories of the charter. However, the working group of Europe Ecologie les Verts was keen to open its process of drafting the charter to members of other parties in the electoral alliance. A common Whatsapp group was therefore created with representatives of the Socialist Party, La France Insoumise, etc. On the France Insoumise side, it is the MP Danièle Obono who has been integrated into this expanded working group. But the latter has still not signed the resulting charter. Danièle Obono who, last Friday, accompanied Jeremy Corbyn in his Parisian peregrinations has, on the other hand, echoed the tweet of Danielle Simonnet who denounced a “gross manipulation” by commenting: “Internationalists, anti-racists, with Danielle Simonnet, we do not back down! Despite all the cheap political maneuvers of Macron’s cronies and their allies.” A problem with antisemitism? Impossible, we are “anti-racist.” Legitimate criticism? No, “low political maneuvers of Macron’s cronies.” We know the song. Between the charter and the song, we will have to choose. The fight against antisemitism but also the future of the left in France demands making the right choice.


Milo Lévy-Bruhl

 

Notes

1 The Nupes or “New Ecological and Social Popular Union” is the electoral alliance formed in France by the various parties of the left and the Greens (Socialist Party, Communist Party, Europe Ecologie les Verts) under the aegis of France Insoumise (which came out on top of the left-wing parties in the first round of the last presidential elections) for the parliamentary elections this month

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