'Structural racism' is a voguish term on the left. It is often mocked and frequently disparaged. However it does contain an essential truth – racism isn't just the fault of a few bad eggs. Sometimes entire institutions and ideologies subordinate people based on their ethnicity.
The distinguishing feature of structural racism is a lack of intent. We can all recognise the harm caused by the frothing-at-the-mouth skinhead, but less overt racist assumptions can be carried along by society's immutable institutions. The most notorious recent example of the power of structural and institutional racism was the police's lethargic response to the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was slaughtered in an unprovoked attack while waiting for a bus in South London in 1993. His killers were unarguably evil and depraved individuals; yet the problem of racism went further than the actions of 'a few bad eggs'. The Lawrence family was forced to seek justice from a police force that itself appeared to carry a number of unconscious racist assumptions about black victims of crime.
Anti-Semitism can permeate institutions and political organisations in a similar fashion. It is easy enough to call out the thugs who proudly sport swastikas and emit unmitigated Jew hatred; yet anti-Semitic assumptions and tropes have entered the mainstream in far more ambiguous forms.
The controversial statements of the new NUS president Malia Bouattia are a pertinent example of the phenomenon. Bouattia has never explicitly expressed anti-Semitic views, yet she has in the past unwittingly echoed the repugnant doctrines of the most vicious anti-Semites. She has accused the media of being 'Zionist-led' (the idea that the Jews control the media is a common anti-Semitic canard) and Birmingham University's Jewish society of being a 'Zionist outpost'. She has also defended the Palestinian 'resistance', which has carried out suicide attacks and mass stabbings on civilians.
In more ways than one, Bouattia is symptomatic of a far deeper problem on the left. According to Alex Chalmers, who resigned as co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) back in February: 'A large proportion of both Oxford University Labour Club and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews'.
Chalmers claimed that members of the club executive regularly used the term 'Zio' as a term of abuse. Other revelations followed his resignation, including an accusation that members of the OULC had expressed support for indiscriminate attacks on Israeli citizens.
This week Tory London Mayor candidate Zac Goldsmith accused Labour of failing to deal with anti-Semitism within its own ranks, after Naz Shah MP issued an apology for sharing a discriminatory social media message suggesting Israel should be "relocated" to the US.
Add in the various Labour members who have recently been suspended for anti-Semitic tweets, and it is evident the left has a serious problem with burgeoning anti-Semitism.
And yet the response on much of the left has been anything but serious. On the popular Open Democracy Website, one writer dismissed the claims of Chalmers and others as little more than a campaign to 'smear the left as anti-Semitic'.
It is perfectly possible to oppose the human rights abuses of the Israeli government without completely dismissing the Zionist project, which in its most basic interpretation means simply the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state
Similarly, when an article about anti-Semitism was posted on the Labour Party Facebook forum (a closed group restricted to Labour members) last week, the most popular responses to the piece claimed that it was 'crying wolf'; and that 'very seldom anything called anti-Semitic is actually anti-Semitic' [sic].
It's worth asking if other accusations of racism would be treated with the same degree of scepticism reserved for accusations of anti-Semitism.
For those of us on the left, things like institutional racism have long been perceived as afflictions of the right. This is partly attributable to the nature of what it means to be a radical. When leftist governments have historically behaved badly, the default excuse has always been of the 'no true Scotsman' variety. Those who have abused power were never 'true' socialists anyway, or so it was claimed. Thus when left-wing anti-Semitism has reared its head, such as in the Soviet Union, there has always been a neat get-out clause: it's not our problem, comrades; this is not 'real' socialism.
It's important of course to see these things in perspective. The right has a lamentable historical record when it comes to racism; yet today – in Britain at least – there is a discernible barrier between the mainstream right and its lunatic fringes. This invisible wall, which would send fascist-sympathising Tories into political oblivion, does not exist on Labour's far-left, where apologists for the Soviet Union (and its anti-Semitic loathing of Zionism) mingle incongruously with democratic socialists from a more honourable tradition.
The left must face up to its structural anti-Semitism: the derogatory platitudes about Israel and Zionism that have become as commonplace as a blue sky on a summer day.
This has a baleful effect in terms of combating anti-Semitism. The left has never properly come to terms with its past, and has never fully accounted for its history of anti-Semitism (which today goes under the guise of 'anti-Zionism'). As the critic and filmmaker Jamie Palmer has written: 'Soviet anti-Semitism was diligently and uncritically reproduced in the communist press and thus made its way into the ideological bloodstream of the left'. Unlike the very public repudiation of racism on the mainstream right, no similar detoxification has taken place in the 'bloodstream' of the left.
Properly rooting out anti-Semitism begins by challenging fanatical anti-Zionism. It is perfectly possible to oppose the human rights abuses of the Israeli government without completely dismissing the Zionist project, which in its most basic interpretation means simply the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state. If the anti-Zionists wish to be consistent, they should be equally scathing about other movements for ethnic and cultural self-determination – such as that of the Kurds or the Palestinians themselves. The fact they rarely are should worry anyone calling themselves a progressive.
As with forms of racism, moralising about the evils of anti-Semitism will never be enough. Op-eds calling on the left to 'speak out' will only do so much if they're crashing up against a long-standing culture that is willing to unflinchingly denounce 'Zionism' and considers Israel to be evil incarnate. Beyond the hand-wringing, what must be challenged are the assumptions that make it acceptable for nice men like Jeremy Corbyn to share platforms with Hamas and Hezbollah and nice women like Bouattia appear to excuse violence against Israeli civilians. The left must face up to its structural anti-Semitism: the derogatory platitudes about Israel and Zionism that have become as commonplace as a blue sky on a summer day.
Modern Conservatism has, for the most part, learned the appropriate lessons from its racist past. It's time the left did the same.