How do you solve a problem like Mike Sivier?

Last month the Labour Party’s National Constitutional Committee finally got round to dealing with the disciplinary charges against Mike Sivier, a Labour Party member from Wales who runs the pro-Corbyn blog Vox Political.

Sivier was suspended back in May 2017, as a result of allegations of antisemitism. His case came up before the Labour NEC’s disputes panel in January this year, where it was decided that the suspension should be lifted if Sivier agreed to accept antisemitism training from the misnamed Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion). Not unreasonably, given that JLM is a hardline Zionist organisation that has played a disgraceful role in the witch-hunt over antisemitism in the Labour Party, Sivier declined that offer. As a result his suspension was reimposed and the case was referred to the NCC. Unsurprisingly, given its past record, not to mention the presence of “witchfinder general” Maggie Cosin as chair, the NCC found against Sivier and expelled him from the party for a period of 18 months, at the end of which he can apply to rejoin.

Like other party members accused of antisemitism, Mike Sivier has been on the receiving end of libellous attacks in the media, based on information about his case that was leaked to the right-wing press by individuals within the party apparatus. Sivier has fought back against this, with some degree of success.

One of the false accusations against him, based on a misreading of a clumsily phrased comment, was that he is a Holocaust denier. He forced a retraction from Robert Peston who had made that accusation on his Peston on Sunday show, and IPSO also upheld Sivier’s complaints against the Daily Mail and the Jewish Chronicle who amended their articles accordingly. The Sunday Times, however, still has a report on its website referring to Sivier as a Holocaust denier without even the qualifying use of quotation marks. He is currently organising a crowdfunding appeal to finance court action against those who have defamed him.

The background to all this was the hysteria over antisemitism in the Labour Party that has been whipped up by anti-Corbyn right wingers, inside and outside the party, in co-operation with the Zionist lobby. Many of the resulting accusations of antisemitism against party members have been baseless, but that is not always the case. Gerry Downing, for example, was expelled for propagating conspiracist gibberish about the hegemonic role of the world Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie. Although I’ve known Gerry for decades and have always liked him personally, I didn’t oppose his expulsion, nor would I support his reinstatement until he repudiates those views and apologises. Then there was Laura Stuart, who was suspended from the party a year ago and is presumably still undergoing an investigation that I hope will result in her expulsion too.

My view is that when people are falsely accused of antisemitism — as was the case with Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Marc Wadsworth, to take three prominent examples — the Left should back them to the hilt. When people are charged with antisemitism and the charge has some substance, then it’s both unprincipled and politically counterproductive to give them uncritical support.

In order to make a judgement about a specific case, you need to know what the charges against that particular individual are. By Mike Sivier’s own account, the basis for the Labour Party’s disciplinary action against him was an article published in April 2017 by the so-called Campaign Against Antisemitism. CAA is a hard-right, fanatically pro-Israel outfit that has led the charge in framing the Labour Party as institutionally antisemitic and individual party members as Jew haters. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything CAA says is a lie. If you asked him, I’m sure CAA chair Gideon Falter would tell you the Earth is round. That doesn’t mean the Earth is flat.

The CAA’s denunciation of Sivier as an antisemite predictably featured examples of conduct that wasn’t antisemitic at all. As proof of Sivier’s supposed “taste for antisemitic discourse”, CAA indignantly reported that “his support and enthusiastic defence of Ken Livingstone, and his assertion that Hitler supported Zionism, runs so deep that he has even written an e-book on the subject”. (Needless to say, it was taken as self-evident by CAA that Livingstone’s historically accurate reference to Nazi support for Zionism in the 1930s was by definition antisemitic.) Sivier’s use of the word conspiracy in connection with the Al Jazeera documentary The Lobby, which among other revelations showed Israeli embassy official Shai Masot plotting to “take down” pro-Palestinian politicians including Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan, was distorted by CAA to claim that Sivier “believes that there is a ‘conspiracy’ by Jews”.

However, there were some examples of alleged antisemitism produced by CAA that did appear to cross the line, notably when they accused Sivier of linking to an article by Gilad Atzmon on the Redress Information & Analysis website. This arose from Sivier’s defence in 2016 of Labour MP Naz Shah over her tweeting of a satirical meme proposing that the Israel/Palestine conflict could be resolved by relocating Israel to the United States — a meme that Sivier identified as originating in a Redress article co-authored by Atzmon. (He was probably mistaken — the image was in general circulation at the time.) CAA objected that Atzmon “has taken antisemitism to a new level, asserting that ‘Jewishness’ is toxic” and that Redress is “a website so antisemitic it features Mr Atzmon’s work on a regular basis”. They were right.

In a discussion on the Facebook group Labour Against the Witchhunt–UNOFFICIAL, I pointed out that we don’t know what the list of charges was against Mike Sivier, because he still hasn’t provided the full details (unlike, say, Ken Livingstone). I asked him whether the Redress/Atzmon business had been included in the charge sheet, adding that I thought that he was in the wrong over that particular issue, and that there was no justification for linking to an article on an antisemitic website written by a virulently antisemitic author.

To say this criticism was not welcomed by Sivier would be an understatement. His response was to launch an attack on yours truly on his Vox Political blog, quoting an excerpt from my Facebook comments on the issue. He named me as one of his “fake ‘anti-Semitism’ accusers” and claimed I had smeared him by means of “guilt through association” (i.e. association with an antisemitic author and website that he had in fact linked to and quoted from).

Generally I’m not in favour of making discussions from closed Facebook groups public. However, seeing that Sivier himself has no compunction in doing that, and has selectively quoted my words in order to misrepresent me as some sort of witch-hunter, I don’t feel obliged to observe that rule in this particular case.

Mike Sivier and Naz Shah’s meme

As I said during the Facebook discussion with Sivier (although he edited it out of the excerpt he posted) I think he was quite right to defend Naz Shah over the meme controversy. The image she tweeted wasn’t antisemitic, as her critics claimed, and the Labour Party should have upheld her right to post it, instead of condemning and suspending her.

My objection was that Sivier had, as CAA correctly reported, linked to an article on the Redress website which he believed was the source of the meme. The Redress article had deployed the image in response to proposals by Israeli far-rightists like Avigdor Lieberman (which the article attributed to Israelis as a whole) for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel and some of the occupied territories. Sivier declared that this shone a completely new light on the issue of Naz Shah’s meme. (“This revelation could throw the whole ‘anti-Semitism’ row into reverse” was the breathless headline to his post.) In support of this view, he presented the Redress site as a legitimate authority, quoting at length and entirely uncritically from Redress’s own description of itself as “an independent, privately-funded, non-profit-making website dedicated to exposing injustice, disinformation and bigotry, and to providing thought-provoking interpretations of current affairs”, etc etc.

In the comments section, anti-Zionist activist Tony Greenstein described Sivier’s post, with characteristic bluntness, as “stupid and ill-thought out”. He argued that the meme originated elsewhere (he identified the Jewish Virtual Library as the source), adding: “it’s a bloody good job that it didn’t come from Redress, because Redress is an anti-Semitic conspiracy site with holocaust deniers, including Gilad Atzmon posting. I suggest large dollops of humble pie and you take this idiotic post down quick.”

To which Sivier replied: “Whether it’s an anti-Semitic conspiracy site or not is really neither here nor there in this instance.” He asked Tony Greenstein: “Is any part of the article inaccurate? I couldn’t find any glaring factual errors. The opinions are up to the authors, of course.” Far from removing the offending post or amending it, Sivier reproduced it, including the reference to Redress as a website “dedicated to exposing injustice, disinformation and bigotry”, in his book The Livingstone Presumption.

The Redress article to which Sivier linked, titled “‘Clash of civilizations’ and a possible solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict”, was a composite piece by two authors. The main text was by Gilad Atzmon (who had already republished an earlier Vox Political piece in defence of Naz Shah on his website, without any objection from Mike Sivier) and there was a supplementary comment by Redress editor Nureddin Sabir which included the meme that Naz Shah used.

Atzmon’s descent into raving antisemitism has been chronicled in detail by Tony Greenstein, and his Redress article offered a clear exposition of his now well-established hatred of Jews (“Humanity is faced with a savage tribe that shows a complete absence of empathy yet for some peculiar reason believes itself to be chosen”). But Sivier remained oblivious to this, even though he had certainly read the article — he quoted Atzmon’s condemnation of Israel for killing 130 Palestinians “just to make sure that one Israeli soldier … didn’t fall into Hamas’s hands alive”. In fact Sivier’s post concluded with an Afterthought in which he explicitly rejected accusations of antisemitism against Atzmon, dismissing what he termed “comments about his character” as merely “subjective opinions”.

Even now, Sivier still maintains that he did nothing wrong in linking to Redress and Atzmon: “I traced the image to that site and, checking its context, found no anti-Semitic content.” All I can say is he obviously didn’t look very hard.

Mike Sivier and Alison Chabloz

As I pointed out to Sivier in our Facebook discussion, the Redress/Atzmon issue wasn’t the only example of what could charitably be described as his appalling naivety when confronted with open displays of antisemitism. In a Vox Political post denouncing the attacks on him by Campaign Against Antisemitism, Sivier referred sympathetically to “one blogger currently being prosecuted by this organisation”, quoting that individual’s claim that the prosecution was an example of CAA attempting “to use the law to silence dissenters”.

The blogger in question was in fact the notorious far-right antisemite Alison Chabloz (pictured), who had posted a Youtube video of herself singing a disgusting song denying the Holocaust, resulting in CAA launching a private prosecution against her. (Chabloz was later convicted of an offence under the Communications Act and received a 20-week suspended prison sentence.) Sivier had no excuse for not being aware of that, because his post linked to a Jewish News report on the case, which quoted from the lyrics to Chabloz’s song: “Did the Holocaust ever happen? Was it just a bunch of lies? Seems that some intend to pull the wool over our eyes. Eternal wandering liars haven’t got a clue, and when it comes to usury, victim’s always me and you.”

Chabloz was delighted that Sivier had endorsed her claim that she was the victim of a CAA attempt to “silence dissenters”. The two of them engaged in a friendly exchange in the comments section to the post, with Sivier quoting one of his Twitter critics who had accused him of “identifying with a genuine Nazi on trial”. Sivier evidently found this highly amusing. He told Chabloz lightheartedly: “So you’re ‘a genuine Nazi’, apparently. And on trial! I take it both those pieces of information are inaccurate.” (They were of course entirely accurate, as Sivier would have known if he’d bothered to check.) It was only after Chabloz came out with an explicit statement of Jew hatred (“My right to freedom of expression has been removed in my own country of birth because I dared to criticise and mock Jews and Jewish power”) that Sivier belatedly twigged that he was being matey with a rabid antisemite and backed off, commenting mildly that “If you mock Jews and Jewish power, then your detractors may have a point about you”.

When I challenged Sivier in our Facebook discussion about his exchange with Chabloz he replied: “She was right.” By which I assume he meant that she was correct in characterising CAA’s action against her over her advocacy of Holocaust denial as an attempt to suppress dissent.

Mike Sivier and the Rothschilds

Another example of Sivier’s myopia when it comes to antisemitism is his attitude towards Rothschild conspiracy theories. This also came up during our Facebook discussion, in relation to a councillor from Rossendale named Pam Bromley, who was suspended from the Labour Party earlier this year after posting Rothschild conspiracy material on her Facebook page.

As you can see, Councillor Bromley shared an article (“World War 3: Trump begins paying his penance to Rothschilds”) which appeared on the crackpot conspiracy site YourNewsWire (since renamed News Punch). The author, one Baxter Dmitry, was also responsible for such sober, well-researched pieces as “President Nixon hid proof of alien life in White House time capsule” and “Dave Chappelle’s family claim star was killed and cloned by Illuminati”, which can be found on the same site.

Not only is the YourNewsWire article completely deranged, but it’s also blatantly antisemitic, referencing classic Rothschild conspiracy themes. (“The Rothschilds were up to their old tricks — funding both sides of the war in order to fuel chaos, derive maximum profit, and ensure they retain ultimate influence when the new order emerges.”) Dmitry says he takes it for granted that “everybody knows” about Hillary Clinton’s links to these evil banksters, before continuing: “But what is less well known is that Donald Trump is also a Rothschild creation and actor, playing a part in the great sham that is the New World Order’s fake politics.” The Rothschilds are not the only sinister New World Order influence on the Trump administration identified by Dmitry. He also finds it highly significant that treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin previously worked for Goldman Sachs and George Soros. Both of whom, like Mnuchin himself, just happen to be Jewish.

If Labour Party members, and particularly Labour councillors, share that sort of crazed antisemitic crap on social media, then clearly action needs to be taken. (Even more so when, as in Pam Bromley’s case, they blame the allegations against them on the machinations of “the Jewish lobby”.) Not only is it wrong in principle for the Left to try and excuse such behaviour, but it also plays into the hands of the witch-hunters, who can use this to portray the entire party as either antisemitic or soft on antisemitism. Yet in our Facebook discussion Sivier refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing on Bromley’s part. In response to my criticisms of her promotion of Rothschild conspiracy theories, he accused me of using false accusations of antisemitism in order to “attack justified criticism of a neoliberal banking organisation”. Seriously! That’s what he wrote.

Nor is Sivier averse to a bit of Rothschild conspiracy mongering of his own. Here he is in 2014 posting an article on his Vox Political blog condemning an attack by the Mail on Sunday on the users of food banks, who were accused of claiming assistance under false pretences. Unfortunately Sivier saw fit to illustrate this post with a Rothschild meme.

As you can see, the illustration depicted David Cameron walking away from the Rothschild Bank with a big bag of money marked “BRIBE”. The clear implication was that Cameron was acting as a paid agent of the Rothschilds. It’s difficult to interpret this as anything other than a reference to the antisemitic canard that Jewish financiers are secretly operating behind the scenes, using their vast wealth to subject gentile politicians to their command and control.

Sivier was pulled up on this in the comments section by a critic who wrote: “Shame about the image. Not sure it’s helpful to refer to a Rothschild Bank. It’s important to be aware of the long history of anti-semitic obsession with the Rothschilds by conspiracy theorists — in reality I can’t see they ever behaved any different to anyone else in oligopolistic positions. But they currently don’t even play that huge a part in the UK banking sector afaik, so it’s doubly odd to refer to them in the British context.”

To which Sivier replied: “It’s a meme that’s doing the rounds just now. Regarding the Rothschilds, it’s a widely-held belief that they own the banking systems of every country in the world, bar three, and I think that’s why their name is on the signpost. It isn’t anti-Semitism, it’s all about that particular banking family.”

The smug ignorance on display here is really quite shocking. Sivier’s claim that the reference to the Rothschilds was not antisemitic because it was “all about that particular banking family” is just laughable. The reason why the Rothschild family have long been the subject of conspiracy theories, going back to the nineteenth century, is of course not just because they’re bankers, but because they’re Jewish bankers. The absurd notion that the Rothschilds control of all but three of the world’s central banks is one of these conspiracy theories. But Sivier goes even further, and suggests that with three exceptions the Rothschilds may “own the banking systems of every country in the world”! What is that, other than giving credence to an antisemitic fantasy about nation states being in the grip of international Jewish financiers?


Which brings us to my question “How do you solve a problem like Mike Sivier?” By this I mean, more generally, how should the Labour Party respond to the idiots in its ranks who are themselves not consciously antisemitic but are politically brain dead when it comes to recognising and repudiating actual antisemitism?

First of all, we have to place this question in a wider context. It’s true that if you spend much time on social media you will come across people claiming to be on the left who believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories, some of which are antisemitic. However, just as you can find some Labour supporters posting Rothschild memes, you can find others advocating nonsense about Muslim grooming gangs and the threat of sharia law, or conflating Islamic religious conservatism and even mainstream religious practices with violent extremism. That is hardly unexpected, since all the evidence shows that in society as a whole Islamophobia is at a much higher level than antisemitism. It would be surprising if Labour Party members remained immune to this.

Take the case of an anti-Corbyn former Labour councillor from Haringey named Nora Mulready, who has repeatedly posted Islamophobic commentary of the sort that you would associate with an English Defence League activist, as one critic put it. Three years ago Mulready shared an article co-written by Asra Nomani, a US right-winger notorious for trading on her Muslim origins to legitimise and encourage Islamophobia, in which it was asserted that women who participated in World Hijab Day were declaring their solidarity with the ideology of political Islam as practised by ISIS.

This was in December 2015, in the fraught atmosphere following the ISIS-inspired attacks at the Bataclan theatre and elsewhere in Paris, when reports were coming in of headscarf-wearing Muslim women being subjected to harassment and even violence because in the eyes of their racist abusers their religious clothing was identified with terrorism. Under those circumstances, Mulready thought it was a good idea to publicly endorse an article which argued that the racists were essentially correct in that view.

She wasn’t the only one — Mike Katz, for example, retweeted Mulready’s recommendation of the article. You may recognise that name. A couple of months later Katz was elected joint vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, in which capacity he played an active role in the witch-hunt of Ken Livingstone, demanding Ken’s expulsion from the Labour Party on the grounds that his comments on the history of Nazi-Zionist relations had brought the party into disrepute. But Katz thinks it’s perfectly OK for him and his friends to promote right-wing propaganda claiming that Muslims who see the hijab as an expression of their faith are ideological allies of ISIS. No bringing the party into disrepute there, apparently.

So, in addition to the original question about Mike Sivier, perhaps we should ask another: “How do you solve a problem like Mike Katz?” How should the Labour Party respond to the idiots in its ranks who are themselves not consciously Islamophobic but are politically brain dead when it comes to recognising and repudiating actual Islamophobia? I would say that, in both cases, the answer should be education rather than disciplinary action. In that respect the NEC disputes panel’s decision in January to let Sivier off with a warning as long as he agreed to training was a proportionate response. The problem is, who is to do the training?

A situation in which the Jewish Labour Movement is given official approval to carry out training on antisemitism is patently absurd. This is the organisation that held a training session at Labour Party conference in 2016, in the course of which Jackie Walker’s contribution was secretly recorded, reportedly by JLM campaigns officer Adam Langleben. The recording was then leaked to the Daily Telegraph, who used it to smear Jackie. At that same conference JLM’s director, a former Israeli embassy employee named Ella Rose, was caught on camera threatening Jackie with violence. If the Labour Party had dealt with this responsibly, Adam Langleben would have been subject to a disciplinary inquiry, Ella Rose would have been expelled from the party, and JLM would certainly have been banned from conducting any further training sessions as it is clearly incapable of guaranteeing a safe space for discussion.

There is also the question of why antisemitism should be the form of racism that is singled out for official training. The Labour Party states that, as an anti-racist party, it is “committed to combating and campaigning against all forms of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”. But in practice there has recently been a disproportionate emphasis on combating antisemitism at the expense of Islamophobia and other forms of racism. There was speculation earlier this year that anti-racism training in the Labour Party might be handed over to an independent organisation like Show Racism the Red Card. Although there has been no further news on that front, I think it is an excellent idea. It would have the effect of further sidelining the discredited JLM and introducing a system of training and education that did indeed involve combating and campaigning against racism in all its forms.

First published on Medium in December 2018