In Henry Miller’s play, The Witches of Salem, Judge Danforth is called into the village to rule on whether women in Salem have been possessed and are witches. Like all ‘witch-hunts’, this was an outpouring of social hysteria, but a hysteria with an underlying purpose. This was a manufactured hysteria, whipped up for political reasons and with, clearly, a strong misogynist dimension. At a critical moment when appeals are being made to Danforth for mercy, he makes the dread announcement:
” – as God have not empowered me like Joshua to stop this sun from rising, so I cannot withhold from them the perfection of their punishment.”
Punishment is both unavoidable and sublime – ‘perfect’. The crime? Holding different, despised, values and beliefs. 20 people were hanged…perfectly.
Maybe the most often cited modern witch-hunt were the McCarthy hearings of the late-1940s and 1950s. In fact, The Witches of Salem plays directly off the McCarthy hearings (non-judicial trials, actually) and was written to depict its dangerous absurdity. Senator Joe McCarthy held prominent public hearings at a House of Representatives Committee accusing people, mostly in public life, of links to the Communist Party or holding communistic beliefs. The hearings were largely responsible for whipping up a social hysteria that fed neatly into the ‘Cold War’ narrative. The techniques of the ‘hunt’ were fully exposed in Miller’s play: hyperbole, brow-beating, aggressive interrogation, distorting the meaning of words and utterances, the presumption of guilt, exploiting local political tensions and, crucially, persuading people to betray each other. (For example, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper and Walt Disney (in)famously denounced Hollywood people to McCarthy, helped create a Hollywood ‘black-list’, and ruined careers.)
McCarthy meted out ‘perfect punishment’, a punishment (public humiliation and condemnation) that was inevitable and unavoidable – sublime to onlookers caught up in the hysteria. ‘Witches’ were hunted down and exposed, there were betrayals.
The bubble inflated inexorably over many years until it finally burst when McCarthy unwisely took on the armed services, and then attacked a legal assistant of Joseph Welch, legal counsel to the army. There was a famous moment when the indecency and dishonesty of McCarthy was suddenly exposed and his flame extinguished almost overnight – it was a moment of the highest political drama. The witch-hunt lay naked in its lack of substance, florid in its hyperbole. Here it is:
Such a moment has not yet arrived in today’s witch-hunt that is the campaign against alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party – though the back-firing of Rabbi Sacks’ intended comparison between Corbyn and Enoch Powell has come close. There is no doubt that there is antisemitism in the Party, just as there is in other organisations, political parties and walks of life. This is not in question, and this is not enough to provide the fuel for a witch-hunt. For social hysteria to be generated there have to be allegations of systematic, ruthless, undermining, endemic activity – and so the Labour Party and its leadership is accused of being systemically prejudiced against Jewish people. For the moment, this has been accomplished, though on a thin evidence base, mostly one that plays on the confusion between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. (Not all Zionists are Jews, not all anti-Zionists are non-Jews…you can be pro-Israel and anti-Zionist…some religious extremists are Zionist and anti-Israel…you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel and pro-Zionist…and so on). To reiterate, evidence of antisemitism in Labour there is likely to be – but whether this counts as evidence of a Labour Party that is a ‘fearful place’ for Jews, that Labour is nastily racist, and that the election of a Labour government would present a tangible threat to Jewish communities is a leap to the level of Salem.
One of the characteristics of a witch-hunt is that the rhetoric and the hysteria – the allegation itself – adds enough colour to an accusation to stand as a surrogate for evidence. This is the pre-assumption of guilt – much like the trick question of the eponymous barrister who wrong-foots a defendant by asking him ‘when did you stop beating your wife’. It doesn’t matter that he never beat her – the very fact that he is defending himself implies his guilt. Into this category fall many of the accusations held against Jeremy Corbyn. Were he to respond to an accusation by saying something like, ‘yes, I did say that – now I wouldn’t – so what?’ one feels that the issue would disappear in a puff of smoke. He doesn’t.
Meanwhile, the issue of antisemitism needs to be addressed sensitively – with greater sensitivity than the current inflated rhetoric allows. Though why privilege antisemitism…? Prejudice against Muslims and other ethnic groups fall into just the same category. There needs to be a broad-ranging debate and programme of action about anti-ethnic prejudice that is tolerant of interpretation, that takes nuance seriously, that is responsive to the real world and that is respectful of difference.
I will take just one example to illustrate how manufactured hysteria undermines such rational exchange and measured deliberation.
Corbyn and Labour are much berated for not accepting both the definition of antisemitism and the guidance that goes along with it, given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Labour says that some of the guidance is inappropriate for today’s context and needs reworking. This is hotly disputed by some (not all) Jewish representative groups and some of Labour’s own MPs. But this is in spite of the author of that definition, Kenneth Stern, saying (in written evidence to the US Congress) just this – that the definition is a “working definition”, never intended as a stipulative or regulatory device, but something that needed adaptation according to circumstance.
Now, modern circumstance demands a very different approach to the IHRA definition since the passing of the Nation State Law in Israel which has attracted critique in the Israeli parliament as elsewhere for fostering apartheid and being openly racist. The definition – its guidance clauses, actually – make somewhat confused the key issue of when being anti-Israeli policy or pro-Palestinian leaks into antisemitism. But read this clause from the Nation State Law:
“the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
For the first time in its history, Israel is constitutionally defined as a Jewish State. What this means is that any criticism of any Israeli State action or policy is tantamount to antisemitism, for it is anti-Jew – as is any defence of Palestinian rights that implies criticism of Israeli policy (eg. the West Bank settlements, Gaza atrocities, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing). The IHRA definition could not have predicted this state of affairs. It is worthy of adoption, but it needs reworking. In fact, given the Nation State Law a reworking would involve considerable dictionary-dexterity.
It will not be reworked – not, at least, until Jewish representatives have allowed the balloon of social hysteria to pop. For the moment, ‘perfect punishment’ must be administered, victims shamed and condemned, leaders toppled before the voracious greed of the hunt is sated.