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My intro to the Battle of Ideas debate on 'Antisemitism Today'

I was invited by Claire Fox to take part in this event. Here are my introductory remarks. I was alongside, among others, Melanie Phillips, Brendan O'Neill, and Richard Angel (Progress). 

You might wonder why I, a philosopher, have been invited on to this panel. I guess the reason is I'm interested in and have published on the ways in which bullshit beliefs - myths and prejudices - can get a grip on public thinking.

I wrote a book called Believing Bullshit - How Not To Fall Into an Intellectual Black Hole which flags up some of the key signs that we are dealing with a with a myth or prejudice rather than rational belief.

So how, in particular do prejudices regarding women, black people, Jews and so on get started?
Well, once it's been suggested that a certain group have some 'problem' - that women have a bad driving problem, say, or Jews have a greed problem, it's usually not hard to find examples.

After all, inevitably, some women are terrible drivers. And inevitably, some Jewish people are greedy.

Indeed, once it's suggested there may be a 'problem', people will often start to find their own examples. Often, they'll notice the really emotionally arresting examples and then later be able to recite them with ease - a woman who caused an awful motorway pile-up that killed several children, for example.

Once this pattern of thought has set in - it's called confirmation bias - where we search only for positive instances to confirm what we already suspect is true - people can easily convince themselves of things that aren't true.

They may become so convinced, in fact, that if we present them with hard evidence that women are just as good - perhaps even better - drivers than men, they'll dismiss it out of hand. They'll insist it's just obvious that women are bad drivers - everyone knows women are bad drivers - that they can point to lots of examples of women being bad drivers.

And yet this supposed evidence that women have a 'bad driving problem' is of course entirely useless and ancedotal. Obviously some women really are very bad drivers. There's no denying that. But of course, that doesn't remotely justify the conclusion that 'women have a bad driving problem' - i.e. that women are worse drivers than are men.

I'm sure we all recognise such anecdote-driven patterns of thought are one of the main ways racial and other prejudices get a grip: including anti-semitism.

So, now let's consider the charge that Labour has an anti-semitism problem.

Public Opinion

It's now widely considered obvious that Labour has an anti-semitism problem - that levels of anti-semitism are higher in Labour, or higher on the Left - than elsewhere.

Indeed, many now suppose anti-semitism is rampant on the Left.

For example:

This summer 68 Rabbis signed a letter saying: "As British rabbis, it is with great regret that we find it necessary to write, yet antisemitism within sections of the Labour party has become so severe and widespread that we must speak out with one Jewish voice."

The Jerusalem Post' has claimed that 'Britain’s Labour Party has a major problem with rampant antisemitism.'

New York Post ran a leader that 'Britain's Left is melting down over rampant antisemitism'
This finger-pointing at the Left matters. In fact it may well influence the outcome of the next general election. Labour are increasingly viewed as toxic because of the this perpetually repeated allegation that it's now riven with anti-semitism.

The Evidence

What's the evidence supporting the allegation that Labour has an anti-semitism problem? For the most part it consists of a few hundred complaints to the Labour Party, out of well over half a million members. That's a small fraction of one percent of the membership.

And then there are various other alleged cases of left anti-semitism that have been featured very heavily in the media.

That's it. That's pretty much all the evidence. But of course this is, again, entirely anecdotal, cherry-picked evidence.

Citing such examples no more supports the allegation that 'Labour has an anti-semitism problem' than it supports the allegation that women have a bad driving problem.

This is not to say that there is no antisemitism in Labour - obviously there is. But the suggestion that the Left is riddled with anti-semitism is clearly entirely unjustified. Indeed, drawing that conclusion on the basis of that sort of evidence is a classic example of confirmation bias.

Actually there is plenty of much better quality evidence concerning levels anti-semitism on the Left. However, all this evidence flatly contradicts the claim that there's more anti-semitism in Labour or on the Left than there is elsewhere. For example:

· Jewish Policy Research - a Jewish think-tank - conducted an extensive survey looking into anti-semitism, including on the left (2017). They concluded, and I quote, 'antisemitism is no more prevalent on the left than in the general population'. That's a Jewish think-tank's conclusion.

· A Cross-Party Home Affairs Select Committee was tasked with looking into levels of anti-semitism in the UK (2017). It concluded, and I quote, '...there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.'

· In 2015, 2016, and 2017 Campaign Against Anti-Semitism conducted a survey of British attitudes towards Jews. It found supporters of the Labour Party were less likely to hold antisemitic views than those of the Conservative Party or the UK Independence Party (UKIP), while those of the Liberal Democrats were the least likely to hold such views.

· Further analysis by Evolve Politics of the CAAS YouGov data indicated antisemitic attitudes had actually *reduced* in Labour under Corbyn.

· The Chakrabarti inquiry looked into the accusations of significant antisemitism in Labour and found no significant problem.

· In 2016, Channel 4 Dispatches programme did a 6 month undercover investigation of Momentum, looking for dirt, including anti-semitism. They found none at all. After six months of undercover investigation.

· A 2019 study by The Economist showed that in the UK those who are 'very left wing' were significantly less likely to be antisemitic compared to those 'very right wing, or even in the centre. However the study also revealed (as did the JPR study) that there are more critical attitudes towards Israel found on the far left.

So, so far as I can see, all the available hard evidence not only fails to support the allegation that Labour has an anti-semitism problem - it directly contradicts that allegation.

Pretty much everyone agrees there are some anti-semites in Labour. Just as everyone agrees that some women are bad drivers. Is there a greater percentage than in the population at large, or in other parties?

Pointing to a bunch of emotive anecdotes supplied by the Press and on social media is not good evidence that there is. And the fact is that all the available hard evidence very strongly suggests there isn't.

Journalism

So how has this myth been generated? Journalists have played a key roll.

The real story regarding 'Labour's anti-semitism problem' is the story of how this myth about Labour being riddled with anti-semitism arose and came to so dominate the British media for so long - on front page after front page after front page - and with such potential significance for the outcome of the next general election.

A recent Birkbeck College London and Media Reform Coalition Research project into Press reporting on anti-semitism recently concluded that British media reporting of allegations of anti-semitism in Labour has involved, and I quote, "a persistent subversion of conventional news values" 

In particular, they said, and I quote: "completely false claims were presented as fact, often without even the most basic challenge." Shockingly, the BBC were singled out as one of the very worst offenders.

Conclusion

We all have a moral duty to be vigilant and call out anti-semitism when we see it, but we also have an important moral duty to be careful, calm, and not shoot from hip and fire off accusations on the basis of obviously flimsy or nonexistent evidence.

Those who do fire off accusations cavalierly, without taking care with the evidence are, (i) are disrespecting the memory of the millions who were slaughtered by real antisemitism during the Holocaust, (ii) drawing our attention away from the real anti-semites in our ranks, (iii) crying wolf: making it more likely that genuine reports of a/s will not be believed.

Ironically, all this actually puts Jews at increased risk.

POSTSCRIPT 15/11/19: Of course, criticism of Labour with respect to antisemitism might still be justified. For example, while there may not be more antisemitism in Labour or on the Left than elsewhere, and while it might even have declined under Corbyn, perhaps those instances of antisemitism that have been identified were not adequately dealt with, or were dealt with far too slowly (I have some sympathy with this last charge). It's also possible consistently to maintain that while the Party and the left are no more antisemitic than the general population, Jeremy Corbyn is. I take no position here on any of these other charges.

POSTSCRIPT 20/8/20: Regarding the above postscript, it's now pretty clear that the slowness in dealing with allegations of antisemitism by the party, blamed on Corbyn by HQ staff, was actually a result of those staff members' own inaction in dealing with the allegations, despite their being urged to do so by Corbyn and his team. See here:

Yet credible evidence has now emerged that challenges the deadly accusation that Corbyn undermined efforts to tackle antisemitism. It suggests, on the contrary, that the party’s inability to get to grips with the issue may have been in large measure due to the actions – or rather the inaction – of the very people who gave interviews attacking Corbyn in the July 2019 Panorama.

 So another key part of the case against Corbyn and the left re antisemitism collapses. 

In addition, it's now clear that allegations made by Margaret Hodge - she said she personally submitted 200+ complaints to the party and was astonished and disgusted that there had been just 12 expulsions - were highly unreliable. Only 20 of the individuals she accused even turned out to be members of the Labour Party. 

Other instances of Labour antisemitism have also evaporated in closer inspection, e.g. that alleged in Louise Ellman's constituency against Labour members there. The Jewish Chronicle has had to issue an apology - see here.

 The Campaign Against Antisemitism did produce a 2019 poll that seemed to show an increase in antisemitism on the left (running entirely against all the polls they had previously run), but it achieved this result entirely by moving the goalposts - it changed what counts as antisemitism. Negative attitudes towards Israel were now counted as antisemitism - see here:

Whereas previous surveys asked respondents whether they agreed with a number of negative generalisations about Jews, this new study also tested for agreement with a handful of propositions about the State of Israel:

  1. ‘Israel and its supporters are a bad influence on our democracy’.
  2. ‘Israel can get away with anything because its supporters control the media’.
  3. ‘Israel treats the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews’.
  4. ‘I am comfortable spending time with people who openly support Israel’.
  5. ‘Israel is right to defend itself against those who want to destroy it’.

The CAA defined endorsement of the first three statements, and disagreement with the last two, as antisemitic.

But of course many studies had already noted that negative attitudes toward Israel are much more prevalent on the left. They just didn't count such attitudes as antisemitism (quite rightly). See The Economist's findings below, for example.

Comments

Sam Burns said…
Is there a video of this discussion? I can't see how anybody could refute what you're saying. It'd be interesting to see how the debate unfolded.
Stephen Law said…
There's an audio on the website for the event I think. I was the only person defending Labour membership against the charge of rampant a/s. The audience was pretty hostile also. I think it's fair to say there was no real response to me.
Alan Spence. said…
That panel were a nest of vipers and fully paid up members of Murdoch's press preview mafia. Hope you got something out of it. You talked a lot of sense.
Jack said…
I am an Australian Jew who is not affiliated with any political party - sometimes voting Liberal, sometimes Labour and sometimes Green. I am highly critical of Netanyahu and appalled by the structural direction of the Israeli polity. I could theoretically be considered anti-Jewish insofar as I might be a radical atheist who thinks that all religions are rubbish or indifferent insofar as I might be a wishy-washy agnostic who thinks everyone has a right to be wrong.

I suspect that there is no more anti-Semitism on the Left than on the Right - probably less so insofar as I view all those right-wingers who "love" Israel with enormous suspicion. They want us to "go back" so that they can be rid of us.

I suspect that there is far more critique of Israel from the Left than from the Right and this becomes conflated with anti-Semitism - with some but not complete justification. In particular, the critique of Israel becomes anti-Semitic when it becomes disproportional and when it ignores the history and the context and thereby takes a one-sided or simplistic view. The disproportionality exists relative to the violence Israel perpetrates and threatens relatively to the violence that other states such as the USA, China, Russia, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Liberation Armies etc... perpetrate and threaten... some continually and some sporadically... now and/or in the not too distant past. The simplistic view is inevitable when a political party has no choice but to offer a simple zero-one, good-bad, yea-nay response without nuance in order to satisfy the simple non-nuanced views of the majority of ideologically passionate members.



As for the BBC - I can never forgive it for footage it showed many years ago in Jenin when it showed an old woman stuck in her wheelchair, unable to move, in the middle of the town square surrounded by Israeli and PLO/Hamas snipers in buildings that were more than likely booby-trapped by the Jenin resisters. The reporter criticised the Israeli soldiers for not going out to help the old woman. The reporter didn't wonder to question how the old woman unable to move got there in the first place. She didn't criticise the PLO/Hamas snipers for not going to her aid. She didn't wonder whether she might not have been put there as bait Hamas/PLO. I can't help but thinking that nobody was able to question the footage because of an institutionalised one-sided perspective on fault as well as the intoxication of having emotive sensational footage that fed into a David-Goliath story. The same one-sidedness was shown when the Peace Ship from Turkey set out to provoke, knowing full well what the Israeli response would be.

Finally, your statistical logic is flawless except that you forget that statistics are political and that there are lies, lies and statistics.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for the comments - especially Jack's. Jack what do you think of this as a response to your claim that focusing on the bad behaviour of Isreal must be a result of antisemitism? https://conatusnews.com/lefts-antisemitism-problem-focus-israel/
Unknown said…
I tried posting a comment but was unsuccessful. Could you do it for me? I want to ask your opinion the EHRC verdict? The media may have an axe to grind but the EHRC is supposed to be unbiased so why was its finding so damning and why didn’t it expose the fact that the vast majority of allegations were unfounded? Is it because it just looked at how the complaints were dealt with without investigating is there was any truth in the allegations? Is the Commission just as guilty of ‘bias confirmation’ as the media and the Left’s critics? If so should / can it be challenged?
Stephen Law said…
Hi Unknown. The EHRC's remit was not to examine how much antisemitism there is or was in the Labour Party. As to its independence - that was being challenged by many folk early on. e.g. Antony Lerman (of Jewish Policy research) wrote: 'The complainants have highly politicized motives for the actions they have taken. Their track-records for objectivity and balance on the issue of antisemitism and Labour are poor. Even the EHRC itself does not start from an uncommitted position. Of course, by definition it opposes racism in all its forms, but in 2017, its chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath responded with these words to accusations against the Labour Party: ‘Antisemitism is racism and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist Party. A zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism should mean just that.’ Prior to investigation, is it not worrying that the CEO already claims to know what the Labour Party needs to do?'https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/the-labour-party-institutional-antisemitism-and-irresponsible-politics/
Stephen Law said…
More comment on the ehrc here... https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/10/labour-antisemitism-report-ehrc-corbyn-commission
Anonymous said…
You're entirely missing the point. Statistically there may not have been a huge rise in antisemitism during the early part of
Corbyn's leadership, but it was coming from the top, Corbyn, Formby, Murphy, Milne, Murray, McKluskey. Since Starmer has
tried to address it they're all coming out of the woodwork.

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