Moshe Machover and the battle for the soul of British Labour

This week, Moshe Machover, a Jewish mathematician and philosophy professor at the University of London, was expelled from the British Labour party, for having written an article called, “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism”. The irony could simply not be greater: Machover was taken out by those who do precisely what his article title suggests. (Jonathan Cook has covered the case in detail, here and here.)

As Labor activist Bob Pitt notes in his appraisal of the Machover expulsion, the letter handed to Machover by Labour Head of Disputes Sam Matthews used vague language to substantiate its grounds for expulsion, claiming that Machover uses “language that may be perceived as provocative, insensitive or offensive” (emphasis added) – but that Clause 2.1.8 of the party rules, which Machover is accused of breaching, contains no such provision.

Pitt writes:

“Matthews’ formulation echoes an amendment to party rules [recently] proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement, according to which an antisemitic incident would be ‘defined as something where the victim or anyone else think it was motivated by hostility or prejudice’ (emphasis added). But JLM remitted that proposed rule change, no doubt because they knew there was no chance of getting it through party conference. Delegates would have rejected the adoption of a disciplinary procedure that allowed members to be convicted of an offence based merely on someone thinking that an incident was antisemitic, without any objective evidence being required.”

The Labour Party adopted a ‘compromise’:

“According to the new Clause 2.1.8 that was adopted at conference, before disciplinary sanctions can be imposed on a party member over alleged antisemitism it is necessary to establish that their behaviour ‘might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice’. In other words, it is not enough for someone to perceive that an incident is antisemitic and be offended by it; it is necessary for the party to establish that the perception has a reasonable basis”.

In other words, Pitt concludes,

“Matthews is apparently trying to introduce the JLM’s abandoned rule change through the back door.”

This is the back door of “feeling” and “knowing.” It’s that vague sensitivity that is so ethereal, it can hardly be pinpointed at all – and it doesn’t need to be.

This vagueness is already embodied in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of Anti-Semitism, which the UK formally adopted last year. Its problems are apparent already in its lead sentence:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.”

Jonathan Cook quotes Stephen Sedley, a former appeals court judge in Britain, who is Jewish, and who has noted the central problem inherent in this very formulation:

“If anti-semitism is defined as a ‘perception’, who is qualified to do the perceiving? And if anti-semitism ‘may be expressed as hatred’, does that not also imply, more troublingly, that it ‘may not be’ so expressed.”

This is only the first of the many problems of the IHRA definition, but it embodies its essential problem: the problem of placing Anti-Semitism outside of the range of objective reasoning.

Last year, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis told the Sunday Times that Jewish students at universities were confronted with a “wall of anti-Zionism, which they feel and know to be Jew hatred” (emphasis added). This was following a ‘dramatic’ decision by one Oxford student, Alex Chalmers, to quit the Labour club, claiming he had been made uncomfortable by anti-semitic comments, a decision which made headlines (Cook covers this story here). Chalmers argued, without providing any substantive evidence, that many Labour activists “have some sort of problem with Jews.” As Cook notes,

“Almost a year later, and largely unnoticed, a Labour inquiry cleared fellow students of Chalmer’s anti-semitism accusations. But Labour peer Baroness Royall was among those dissatisfied with the outcome. She said: ‘I am deeply disappointed by the outcome and fear it will further harm relations between the Jewish community and our party by confirming a widely held view that we do not take anti-semitism seriously.’ Contrary to his portrayal in the media, Chalmers was far from a disinterested observer of Labour party politics. An investigation by the Electronic Intifada discovered that he had previously worked for BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, another wing of Britain’s Israel lobby.”

Adding to this “knowing and feeling” trend was the influential liberal-Zionist Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland (also a contributor to the New York Review of Books). About the same time of the Mirvis “knowing and feeling” comments, he published an opinion titled “My plea to the left: treat Jews the same way you’d treat any other minority”.

Here, Freedland, in his attempt to ‘tame the left’ (by bringing it further right), made an ostensibly ‘universal’ point:

“On the left, black people are usually allowed to define what’s racism; women can define sexism; Muslims are trusted to define Islamophobia. But when Jews call out something as anti-semitic, leftist non-Jews feel curiously entitled to tell Jews they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic – and to then treat them to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is. The left would call it misogynist ‘mansplaining’ if a man talked that way to a woman. They’d be mortified if they were caught doing that to LGBT people or Muslims. But to Jews, they feel no such restraint.”

Jonathan Cook has appraised the flaw in Freedland’s point:

Black people, women and gays are groups whose views should be listened to sensitively and considered seriously by oppressor groups, precisely because the oppressor is still in a position to oppress. It is not that white people’s views of racism are worthless; it is that their position of privilege makes it extremely hard for them to consider fully what it is like to suffer a particular form of racism and discrimination, or what it means to be a victim.

But Freedland and the JLM’s views of anti-semitism do not fit neatly into this model of victim-oppressor. When the JLM ties its Jewish identity to Israel – a state that privileges one ethnic group, Jews, over native Palestinians; that was built on the dispersion and ethnic cleansing of that native people; and continues to oppress them through a brutal military occupation – it precisely subverts the notion of Jew as victim.

In fact, it can be argued that this is the very appeal of Israel to Zionist Jews like Freedland and the JLM. They enjoy at a distance the empowerment provided by Israel. This is the excitement, described at length by liberal Israeli professor Yaron Ezrahi in his book Rubber Bullets, of the Jew who is transformed by Israel into a warrior. It is the reason many Zionist Jews are publicly thrilled by the sight of Israeli soldiers, “his and her” weapons casually slung over their shoulders.

Moshe Machover’s article which led to his expulsion is exquisite. That Jews may feel offended because Machover quotes Nazi official Heidrich saying (1935) that “The government finds itself in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry itself, so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry throughout the world and the rejection of all assimilationist ideas”, has really got to be their own problem. These are sound historical facts. Jonathan Freedland can complain all he wants about Ken Livingstone’s comments on Zionist-Nazi collaboration, as so many others have, but in the end these are well documented matters.

These comments do not reflect anti-Semitism in themselves. In fact, the reason they are taken issue with is that they reflect badly on Zionism. And those who are leading the witch-hunt on UK Labour ‘anti-Semitism’, are simply seeking to weaken the Corbynite elements which are more pro-Palestinian, so as to return the party to the Blairite conservatism which is more supportive of Israel, and Zionism. This could thus be called the ‘Blair witch-hunt project’.

Many of those who are sensitive to what Jews may “feel and know” to be anti-Semitism, seem to have very little parallel sensitivity to what Palestinians “feel and know”. You do not have to be a genius to “feel and know” the crushing brutality of Israeli oppression. It’s there every day. In Palestine, you can be administratively detained anytime without charge, on the basis of ‘secret evidence’. You will definitely “feel” it, but you will perhaps never know why you are being incarcerated.

Maybe I have offended some Jews here. Surely, I have. But you can’t expel me from Labour, I’m not a member. And I will keep writing about this, for sure. Because what I “feel and know” is, that what is happening here is very wrong.