Progressives Can’t Stay Silent on Anti-Semitism

Benjy Cannon
on February 18, 2016

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Late last week, Alex Chalmers, the co-Chair of the Oxford Labour club resigned to protest what he described as “poisonous” anti-Semitism within the group. The controversy underscores the ongoing issues with anti-Semitism on the far-left, as well as the support Jews receive when they bring them to light.

Some of the concerns Chalmers raises are deeply troubling:

Whether it be members of the Executive throwing around the term ‘Zio’ (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former Co-Chair claiming that ‘most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf, a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.

It’s a sobering reminder that amidst a serious and important conversation about Israel’s future, human rights and the occupation, there’s a problem with anti-Semitism. It’s a problem I hear about again and again from my British relatives. And it’s a problem I’m sometimes surprised to see progressives keeping quiet about. To be sure, it’s important not to lump the entire BDS movement in with anti-Semitism, but we cannot ignore or dismiss statements like Chalmers’s.

Both the right and left should take greater ownership of the fight against anti-Semitism. There’s a fundamental difference between criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. Equating all criticism of Israel with criticism of Jews makes it far harder to identify and combat the real examples of anti-Semitism among some of Israel’s critics. But progressives have to take responsibility for weeding out anti-Semitism in their midst, and not be afraid challenge it, even when it comes up in the context of opposing the occupation.

Labour Students, a national student affiliate of the Labour party, showed us what a great response looks like. They said they were “deeply troubled” by the reports of anti-Semitism in their Oxford club, and “unequivocally condemn any form of anti-Semitism.” This week, Labour Students announced plans for a full investigation into these incidents.

Elements of the Labour party, as well as the British left, have long expressed concern about the occupation and settlement enterprise, and are generally comfortable criticizing Israeli policy. That does not and should not stop them from speaking up about anti-Semitism. We should follow the example of Labour students — we can be steadfast in our commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and continue advocating for an end to the occupation. But we have to be clear-eyed about the prevalence of anti-Semitism, and fight it wherever it rears its head.

Benjy Cannon is the 2015-2016 Mikva Fellow at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @benjycannon