In late October, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found the United Kingdom’s Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn guilty of creating a culture of anti-Semitism through “unlawful discrimination, lack of due training, and political interference within the complaints process.” After Corbyn dismissed the findings, he was temporarily suspended. Why has it taken five years for the non-Jewish world to realize the severity of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party?
The United Kingdom is not alone in its failure to recognize anti-Semitism. The non-Jewish world often fails to condemn anti-Semitism because it has trouble recognizing anti-Semitism as a form of racism.
“Punching down,” the imposing of inferiority upon minority groups, is how racism frequently functions. The Sambo stereotype, for instance, depicts African-Americans as “simple-minded and docile,” a stereotype white slave owners used to defend the transatlantic slave trade.
Anti-Semitism, however, functions by “punching up,” fueling hate by imposing superiority and power upon an ethnic minority. Anti-Semites often project this false power onto Jews to explain away insecurities or misfortunes of non-Jews. This frame, in turn, justifies the violent discrimination towards Jews, such as hate speech, ghettoization, and — at its worst — ethnic cleansing.
This power attributed to Jews, like the inferiority imposed onto other ethnic minorities, does not exist. But the minority groups subjected to “punching down” are not subjected to “punching up,” making it hard for people to associate anti-Semitism with other forms of racism.
“Punching up” anti-Semitism isn’t new. The Khmelnytsky massacres in Eastern Europe in 1648–1649, for example, targeted Jews under the justification of fabled Jewish economic power, because Jews were hired by the nobility as tax collectors and estate managers. This kind of anti-Semitism evolved to produce the foundational document of political conspiracism, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The “Protocols” not only fueled the genocidal anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, but also that of the Soviet Union, in which Jews were depicted as all-powerful puppeteers conspiring to bring down “the state.”
Through the basic categorizations of anti-Semitism — economic libel, blood libel, and conspiracy fantasy — immense power and wealth are imposed onto Jewish people. But as these libels have evolved, they are not only used against the Jewish people but the Jewish State — the beacon of Jewish power.
Ben M. Freeman, Holocaust educator and author of “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People” says that the imposition of power onto Jews causes people to overlook the nuance of anti-Semitism in favor of equating Jews with the oppressor. “This imposing of superiority onto Jews, allows, or really reinforces the belief that Israel is a powerful, rich, white country, and because people have difficulties recognizing punching up and anti-Semitism, they never question themselves,” he told the Journal.
“Punching up” allows entities such as the Labour party to dismiss anti-Semitism as not a legitimate form of racism. The Labour Party often considers itself an “anti-racist” party, evidenced by its slogan, “for the many not the few.” The projection of power onto Jews has allowed the Labour Party to consider Jews as “the few” and therefore the oppressors of the people they consider themselves to be protecting.
“Punching up” allows entities such as the Labour party to dismiss anti-Semitism as not a legitimate form of racism.
“Punching up” gave members of the Labour Party a platform to promote conspiracy fantasies and economic libel that portrayed Israel, and therefore Jews, as a beacon for capitalist white supremacy—despite Jews being a primary target of said supremacy. For example, Pam Bromley, a local councillor (or city councilperson) from Lancaster, repeatedly accused Jews of creating capitalism, controlling the world’s financial system, and engaging in a conspiracy for control of the Labour Party — accusations that the EHRC likened to “anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.” When Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, claimed that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews” in 2018, nearly a dozen Labour members cited it as the reason for their resignation. Livingstone dismissed them as acting on behalf of a foreign power. (Livingstone resigned from Labour in 2018, and Bromley was expelled from the party in February 2020.)
As a result of punching up, many have dismissed white supremacist anti-Semitism as a “real threat” to Jewish life. This dismissal fostered the Labour Party’s apathy towards anti-Semitism. Although current party leader Keir Starmer promised to “root out” anti-Semitism within Labour, it is clear that more work must be done. Starmer allowed Corbyn’s trial to proceed under the same complaints process that the EHRC report ruled as biased and unfit — a decision that, unsurprisingly, led to Corbyn’s reinstatement on November 17. (Starmer has since confirmed that he will not restore the whip to Corbyn “pending review.”)
It has taken five years since Corbyn became Labour’s party leader for the United Kingdom to take action against the party for their anti-Semitism. That delay is because anti-Semitism is malleable and, in modern society, dismissed because Jews are considered privileged, white, and part of the powerful elite. The Labour Party must seek to understand “punching up” to finally undo the damage of their anti-Semitism and rebuild their relationship with the Jewish community.
Eliyahu Lann is a British-Australian Media and Communications student. Follow him: @eliyahulann