Anti-semitism in the Labour Party: A moral panic?

During the last few years there has developed widespread accusations that the British Labour Party contains many people holding anti-semitic sentiments. In particular the media have taken up and amplified such claims. Anti-semitism is far from dead in contemporary Britain and in a party with around half a million members it is likely that some of these people do indeed have negative attitudes towards Jews. However whether such racist attitudes are widespread in the Labour Party is questionable. Matters have reached the point whereby the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding anti-racist campaigner, is accused by some Labour MPs such as Margaret Hodge of being an anti-semite.

The main issue here is whether the Labour Party really is mired in anti-semitism or whether a widespread hysteria has developed whereby many people have come to believe that this is the case. Here it is suggested that what we are witnessing is an instance of a moral panic, a term popularised by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics first published in 1973. A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. Cohen took up the term to analyse public reactions to the Mods and Rockers disturbances in British seaside resorts during the nineteen sixties. Confrontations between rival groups of youths became defined as a general breakdown of law and order among young people and aroused much anxiety among the public at large. Media coverage of these incidents played an important role in arousing public fears and possibly amplifying the unruly behaviour. It could be that the current concern about knife crime is another instance of a moral panic. This not to say that a wave of stabbing incidents among some young people is not very real. But it could be that its incidence has been increased by the high level of coverage given to such crimes by the mass media.

The concerns expressed by some people about anti-semitism in the Labour Party seem to have originated with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader in 2015. Corbyn was a well-known, long-time supporter of the struggle of the Palestinians against oppression by the Zionist Israeli state. His elevation to a prominent position in British politics alarmed pro-Zionist elements in Britain. They feared that the British state would abandon its firm support for Israel if Corbyn became Prime Minister. Members and supporters of the pro-Zionist pressure group of Labour parliamentarians, Labour Friends of Israel, to which around eighty Labour MPs belong, started to accuse Labour critics of Zionism of being “anti-semites”. This attempt to conflate and confound anti-Zionism and anti-semitism also comes from sources outside of the Labour Party. On national television the right-wing former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, stated that “anti-Zionism is the new anti-semitism”. People like this who take the lead in claiming society faces a dangerous threat and that needs to be combatted are called moral entrepreneurs by Cohen.

The national media, particularly the predominantly right-wing press, seized upon the accusations of Labour anti-semitism and gave them prominent coverage. This was a stick with which they could beat Jeremy Corbyn whose reformist, social democratic policies they feared. The media play an important role in creating moral panics. Their publicising of cases of the behaviour perceived by some people as threatening stimulate further claims that instances of the said behaviour are occurring. People start to reinterpret behaviour they have witnessed as “anti-semitic”. This includes some Jewish Labour Party members coming to imagine that they are victims of anti-semitic prejudice. Thus a process of deviance amplification develops where widespread claims are made that anti-semitism is on the rise although in reality this may not be the case.

An earlier example of this sort of mass hysteria occurred in Britain during the late nineteen eighties and early nineteen nineties when widespread claims of child sexual abuse emerged. This had been something of a taboo subject but some well-publicised cases in the media gave rise to many people coming forward and claiming that they had been victims of sexual abuse in their childhood. This is not to deny that these claims were unfounded. Indeed revelations since that time have shown that child sexual abuse was widespread in the past and either ignored or covered up. The recent inquiry into sexual abuse in children’s homes in Nottinghamshire confirms this picture.

At the same time many people started to claim that they had been victims of childhood sexual abuse. In some cases this was probably imaginary. There were instances where “psychotherapists” convinced people that they had repressed their memories of experiencing such abuse. Also in some cases, such as one involving an extended family in Nottingham, it was claimed that this abuse of children involved “satanic rituals”. Such claims were taken up by prominent media personalities, for example Beatrice Campbell, but were shown to be without substance. Similarly it is suggested here that the true incidence of anti-semitism among Labour Party members has been greatly exaggerated by the same sort of social processes as occurred over the concerns about child sexual abuse.

It is fairly clear that the initial claims of anti-semitism in the Labour Party were made by pro-Zionist elements wanting to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. But once the moral panic got underway it developed a life of its own. Some Labour Party members started to imagine that anti-semitism was occurring where there was none. They began to see the behaviour of some of their fellow members as anti-semitic and even redefined their own past behaviour as containing elements of anti-Jewish prejudice. Some Jewish members of the Labour Party have contested the claim that anti-semitism is widespread in their party. Some of them have formed a pressure group called Jewish Voice for Labour. These people have attracted the particular ire of the Labour Zionists. A Labour Party member with an Afro-Caribbean father and Jewish mother, Jackie Walker, who has questioned the Zionists’ claims of racism has been subject to the Party’s internal disciplinary procedures and could be expelled. Cohen calls such people who are seen by some as posing a particular threat to cherished values as folk devils.

The irony of all this is that since Corbyn became Labour Leader he has succumbed to institutional pressure and kept his mouth shut on the Palestinian question. But from the point of view of the powers that be this moral panic they partly created has probably considerably decreased Labour’s chances of winning a general election in the foreseeable future. August 2019