What is an antisemitic conspiracy theory? A reply to David Rosenberg

Following Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking as shadow education secretary for sharing an interview with actor Maxine Peake, David Rosenberg responded with a Facebook post in which he disputed the accusation that the interview contained an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”. He claimed that the accusation “emptied that term of all its meaning”. Jewish Voice for Labour were so impressed by David’s arguments that they reproduced the post on their website, under the title “Conspiracy theories — and what they aren’t….”

When it comes to accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, unfortunately, David Rosenberg’s political judgement is all over the place. His response to that issue appears to vary from case to case, depending on his attitude towards the individual against whom the charges of antisemitism have been made.

He’s politically unsympathetic to Ken Livingstone, so he effectively joined in the attack on Ken, dredging up political disputes from the early 1980s in a way that could only assist the rightwing witch-hunters. On the other hand he leaps to the defence of individuals who have his political support, notably Jeremy Corbyn and in this case Rebecca Long-Bailey.

David had no hesitation in accusing Ken of “poor judgment”, but he refuses to recognise that Rebecca’s decision to share Maxine Peake’s now notorious Independent interview was ill-judged at all — or indeed that there was anything objectionable in what Maxine herself said.

He adamantly rejects the view that Maxine’s false claim, about the chokehold used to kill George Floyd having been “learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services”, amounts to a conspiracy theory. This is because “conspiracy theories are all about unearthing secret plotting by sinister powerful groups, revealing a hidden hand”.

But isn’t that a fair description of the Morning Star’s fraudulent story that provided the basis for Maxine’s claim? The Star inaccurately reported that Israel’s Chicago consulate had hosted a conference at which “officers from the US police force responsible for the killing of George Floyd received training in restraint techniques … from Israeli law-enforcement officers”.

This was used by the Morning Star to justify the entirely unsubstantiated charge that the knee-on-neck method which led to George Floyd’s death originated in Israel and was imported into the US via police exchange programmes between the two countries. What is that, if not a spurious claim to have unearthed evidence of the “hidden hand” of Zionism behind George Floyd’s murder?

David sees nothing problematic, and certainly nothing antisemitic, in Maxine Peake’s repetition of the Morning Star’s fake story, because it was “not a comment on Jews in general but a comment on a particular unit of the Israeli state”. But antisemitic conspiracy theories don’t require that “Jews in general” should be accused of involvement in the alleged activity. The Jewish population worldwide is close to 15 million. If they were all involved in a conspiracy, it wouldn’t be a conspiracy, would it? By their very nature conspiracies have to remain secretive, which limits the number of participants.

If you follow David’s reasoning, there’s nothing problematic about claiming that the Rothschilds control all but three of the world’s central banks and manipulate nations into going to war with each other because it’s good for business. After all, this is not an accusation against “Jews in general”, but merely commentary on the activities of a particular banking family. That, indeed, is the defence against charges of antisemitism typically used by the people who promote Rothschild conspiracy theories.

David himself gives as an illustration of antisemitic conspiracism the rightwingers who “see the hidden hand of Hungarian Jew George Soros behind protest movements and pro-migrant, pro-refugee movements”. He’s right about that. These days Soros vies with Jacob Rothschild as the antisemites’ favourite exemplar of scheming international Jewish financiers.

According to David’s logic, though, if these rightwingers restrict their attacks to Soros the individual and avoid blaming Jews in general, then this conspiracy theory isn’t antisemitic.

What antisemitic conspiracy theories do is claim to have uncovered the role of Jewish organisations and individuals in crimes they didn’t actually commit. In reality, the Rothschilds don’t control and manipulate governments through ownership of the world’s central banks, George Soros isn’t planning to destroy western civilisation by encouraging a flood of immigrants, and Israeli state agencies are not to blame for training US police in a chokehold technique used to murder African Americans.

David Rosenberg does concede that Maxine Peake was mistaken in asserting that the restraint method that killed George Floyd was “learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services”. He accepts that “this particular tactic — police kneeling on the neck of an individual they are apprehending — goes back several decades in America’s policing of black communities” and “precedes any cooperation with Israeli services”.

However, David still defends Maxine against her critics — on the grounds that, while her specific charge of Israeli responsibility for George Floyd’s death was inaccurate, “her general point was sound: that Israeli units have run seminars for American counterparts”. To illustrate that point he reproduces a 2017 article from Haaretz, which provides some details of these arrangements. This strikes me as a false argument.

You might as well try to excuse the cranks who promote fantasies about the Rothschilds controlling the international financial system and subjecting gentile politicians to their command, on the basis that those particular accusations may be wrong, but the general point is accurate: the Rothschild family does enjoy considerable wealth and influence.

Or you could argue that far-right racists may be over-egging it when they accuse George Soros of trying to implement white genocide through mass immigration, but their general point is valid: Soros has indeed provided substantial financial backing to organisations that support migrants and refugees.

Regarding Israeli training programmes for US police, David writes: “There is no conspiracy here. The information is out in the open.” It is true that these programmes are not secret, but the same could be said of Soros’s support for migrants and refugees. Just because the information is readily available, that doesn’t mean it can’t be twisted into a conspiracy theory.

The organisations responsible for arranging the US-Israeli law enforcement exchange programmes include the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange.

Jewish Voice for Peace has played a leading role in exposing these training programmes. However, JVP also warns about the antisemitic implications of inflating Israel’s part in George Floyd’s murder:

“Suggesting that Israel is the start or source of American police violence or racism shifts the blame from the United States to Israel. This obscures the fundamental responsibility and nature of the U.S., and harms Black people and Black-led struggle. It also furthers an antisemitic ideology. White supremacists look for any opportunity to glorify and advance American anti-Black racism, and any chance to frame Jews as secretly controlling and manipulating the world. Taking police exchanges out of context provides fodder for those racist and antisemitic tropes.”

If exaggerating the role of Israeli-conducted training schemes in fostering US police racism carries the danger of encouraging antisemitic tropes about Jews secretly controlling and manipulating the world, how much greater is the danger when Israel is blamed for introducing through these schemes the specific restraint technique used to kill George Floyd?

Interestingly, Jewish Voice for Labour reproduced the JVP article, which suggests they agreed with it. They don’t appear to have registered the contradiction between JVP’s warnings and David Rosenberg’s blithe dismissal of the idea that falsely accusing Israel of complicity in George Floyd’s murder could conceivably have any antisemitic implications.

This article was first published on Medium in July 2020