Evidence and its abuses in public life: the case of antisemitism
Current concerns about the use of evidence in public debates are very much focussed around so called fake news (i.e. lies that ignore evidence) and there is considerable debate among the ‘providers’ of evidence, broadly speaking the scientific community, about how to deal with this. Of course, inattention to evidence by politicians and media is nothing new and many have been complaining about it for years; in my own case about how successive Governments have ignored evidence about the harmful effects on schools of publishing performance league tables. One particular example that has been current for some three years in the UK, is the discussion about antisemitism within the Labour party. The debate that has evolved contains many of the ingredients we can find elsewhere, and a look at the structure of this debate hopefully will help us to learn how we might deal with the more general problem of how to promote good evidence. In addition, of course, the topic of antisemitism and how to deal with it is important in its own right, and is one to which I have contributed before.
When I attend and enjoy a performance of The Merchant of Venice and hear what seem to be clear antisemitic sentiments, am I bound to make a statement to anyone who will listen that I reject the antisemitism? And if I am a politician, should I also make a public statement that denounces Shakespeare’s antisemitic atmosphere, lest I am accused of ‘guilt by association’? The Nazis really liked the play for its perceived antisemitism; should that deter me from seeing it? If it did, I would actually be missing the ambiguities and nuances that many have pointed out actually make the apparent antisemitism highly problematic, especially when considered in the context of Shakespeare’s time and society.
I ask these questions, because the logic behind them is the same logic that can been applied to the activities of those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn since 2016 in relation to antisemitism in the Labour Party. He has been vilified for sharing a platform with antisemitic politicians, for attending ceremonies where antisemitic statements have been made, and most recently for writing a foreword for a hugely influential book by John Anthony Hobson on the emergence of Capitalism, that also happens to have some pages devoted to what he saw as a global Jewish financial conspiracy. Let me elaborate a little on the Hobson case because it raises important general questions of trust in institutions and individuals.
Hobson is regarded as an important early critic of the role of nineteenth and early twentieth century Western imperialism. He especially identified large financial institutions as key facilitators of the rise of exploitative corporations and the consequent submission and exploitation of the global South. He also had clear antisemitic views (see for example *), as indeed did many on the ‘left’ at the time. Scapegoating Jews as progenitors of social evils, then as later among the poor and marginalised, was not difficult to do, but in fact (see Feldman, http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/imperialism-and-labours-antisemitism-problem/ ) in Hobson’s case was superfluous to his principal arguments, and was effectively ignored by many later admirers and users of his work. To write a forward to a new edition of Hobson’s work praising its scope and principal message, but without mentioning its antisemitism, can hardly be seen as condoning antisemitism, so much as emphasising its irrelevance to Hobson’s thesis. Lenin, who was a strong critic of antisemitism, did much the same when he acknowledged his debt to Hobson’s work.
Corbyn has also been derided for his attendance at events where there were antisemitic speakers, or representatives of antisemitic groups, again as if the association itself implies that Corbyn is antisemitic or as the Jewish Chronicle would have it ‘his (Corbyn’s) election as prime minister would pose an existential threat to British Jews’ (https://www.thejc.com/comment/leaders/three-jewish-papers-take-the-unprecedented-step-of-publishing-the-same-page-on-labour-antisemitism-1.467641 ). Perhaps more problematic was Corbyn’s praise for a clearly antisemitic mural (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43523445 ) that depicted corrupt capitalist financiers, with Jewish features. He admitted that he had not seen clearly enough what he was praising: this does raise concern about his level of judgement, which while being an important given his leadership role, does not of itself present strong evidence of antisemitic sympathies.
I’ve talked in previous blogs about the way in which these issues have been used as weapons by Corbyn’s enemies to try and destroy his credibility, so will not repeat the arguments now, save to reiterate what others have also pointed out, namely that one should not try to appease enemies, who have shown themselves quite unscrupulous with little concern for real evidence. The attempt by Labour to do this in the Summer of 2018 by reversing their stance and accepting the flawed IHRA ‘definition’ of antisemitism, has if anything been seen by Corbyn’s enemies as ‘drawing blood’ and encouraged even further attacks.
I have no simple solution of course, but I do think that the recent ‘problem’ with antisemitism and the Labour party may offer important insights. I have pointed out in previous blogs that the evidence, such as it is, about antisemitism in politics suggests that the Labour Party, whilst having its share of anti-Semites, does rather better than most other parties, especially those on the right, and that a focus on these might be more fruitful. In particular, as people such as Chris Williamson MP have pointed out (for which he was actually suspended from membership), the Labour Party’s response has been weak or appeasing (as in the case of the IHRA definition) but also unimaginative. It has tried to present (actually fairly persuasive) statistical evidence to show that in fact the real amount of antisemitism as judged by complaints about its members, is acceptably low and does not justify the claims made by Corbyn’s opponents (outside the party but also by people such as MPs Hodge and Mann inside the party).
Of course, such individuals and groups, as I have suggested, show little inclination to be swayed by evidence. In which case, while continuing to try and obtain the best evidence (and here the Labour Party has certainly dragged its feet by failing to obtain independent surveys of what its members attitudes really are) they should also be seeking to attack and undermine those individuals and institutions who show scant regard for evidence. This needs to be done, however, as part of a more general attempt to resurrect a respect for evidence itself, and not simply as a measure of defence. If the Labour Party, as it is now, wishes to be seen as a genuinlye radical party seeking to change fundamental aspects of Society it really does have to earn people’s trust and it cannot do so unless it is also seen as treating evidence seriously, even when it might appear to undermine its own policies.
This is not easy. Especially it is not easy for groups that have supported Corbyn, such as Momentum, to admit to flaws, whether in the responses to antisemitism, or fence-sitting around the issue of Brexit. The temptation is to defend your ‘hero’ at all cost – but that is ultimately self-defeating and will not encourage people’s trust. If the ‘left’ is really able to grasp this issue it can claim a distinctiveness that has a chance of earning people’s trust. Note that by the ‘left’ I am not merely referring to those in the Labour Party (of which I am not a member) but those, principally in Green parties, who share similar social aspirations and who in many ways may have a broader social perspective and perhaps a greater willingness to be guided by evidence.
Harvey Goldstein. June 2019