The perfect poem for Labour’s anti-semitism row

Those following the anti-Semitism row in the Labour Party will be aware of the recent suspension of Momentum vice chair, Jackie Walker. Following an investigation into comments she made on Facebook about Jews and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, she’s been reinstated into the party. The Walker incident, and similar incidents, have opened a fierce debate about the Left and anti-Semitism, and where anti-Zionism crosses the line into racism. But let’s step back from the intensity of the frontlines of this debate. Let’s talk about Walker and an allusion to a famous German poem.

Since I watched it earlier today, I’ve been captivated by an interview Walker gave to the Russian-state broadcaster, RT, in the middle of her suspension. In the interview, Walker defended her Facebook comments, and gave her assessment of the wider debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Then she fielded a question about her use of a poem by the 20th-century German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, which she quoted from in a Facebook statement written immediately after her suspension. In the statement, she talked about her commitment to anti-racism, her own Jewish heritage, and standing up for minorities. “If they can do this [suspend her] to me they can do it to anyone,” she wrote. She then quoted Niemöller’s famous “First they came” poem.

On the RT programme, explaining Niemöller and the poem to the interviewer, she said: “An absolutely extraordinary man. He wasn’t Jewish. He was a Christian pastor. And he was actually tortured and killed by the Nazis—He was German—for standing up against the Nazis. And he wrote this extraordinary thing, which is that if we don’t all stand up for issues like freedom of speech, that they will pick us off one by one.”

“First they came” is an fascinating text to quote in the context of an argument about whether or not Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, not the least because it is about the intellectual cowardice among German intellectuals during Hitler’s rise to power. It is not mainly about controls on free speech, but rather the moral weakness of those that said nothing—falsely and selfishly believing they would be spared.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

What’s so amazing about Walker’s use of the poem, and subsequent reading of the poem, is that she seems totally oblivious to the fact that Niemöller was lamenting his own sinful past and previously-held anti-Semitic views. It’s an apology of the deepest order—from an anguished soul. He’s not lamenting the Nazis, but that good men like himself fell into the sin of indifference and Jew hatred.

Walker’s history is, interestingly, completely wrong. Niemöller lived until 1984. He wasn’t killed by the Nazis. In fact, in 1933, he welcomed the arrival of Hitler, had private conversations with Hitler when he first came to power, and held deeply anti-Semitic beliefs himself. He even offered to fight for Hitler’s Germany as late as 1939. While Niemöller was imprisoned by the Nazis, and likely risked death, it was another famous German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis. What’s fascinating about Niemöller is that he changed, and came to look back in shame at his own actions and previously held beliefs. “I have sinned and my people have sinned,” he wrote later in life, reflecting on his own, and wider German society’s, complicity in the Holocaust. So in regards to “First they came…”, the poem is, at least partly, a personal reflection on Niemöller’s own shame for not speaking up for the Jews.

This brings me to what an honest, and morally reflective response to accusations of anti-Semitism (indeed all racism) might look like. Walker is a lifelong anti-racism activist. And we need strident voices to speak out against Israeli aggression against Palestinians. But her comments about “many Jews” being the “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade” are not only historically inaccurate—despite the best attempts of the KKK and Nation of Islam to perpetuate the myth of Jewish dominance of the slave trade—but offensive. They play into the trope of the controlling, world domineering, singularly evil Jew. What’s wrong with just saying “I’m sorry”? Or. “I didn’t think about it that way. Amazing how we can all fall into the pit of racist stereotypes.” 

Naz Shah, the Labour MP suspended for anti-Semitic remarks in April, for me stands out. After being called out for her offensive posts on social media, she said. “I have made a mistake and I wholeheartedly apologise.” Reflecting on the experience of those on the other end of her language, she continued, “I accept and understand that the words I used caused upset and hurt to the Jewish community and I deeply regret that. Antisemitism is racism, full stop.” Simple and powerful.

Yes, I know, Walker had other intentions—she’s simply misread the poem and doesn’t know her history very well. But isn’t it remarkable that she accidently posted a poem that is an apology, a call to atonement, and a plea to others not to be indifferent to the plight of other groups beyond one’s own loyalties? It’s the perfect poem for the moment.

I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.

  • Msiegnaro

    With reference to Niemöller offering to fight for “Hitler’s Germany” as late as 1939, where is the evidence of this? Niemöller was imprisoned from 1938 to 1945 so it seems odd that he would make such a statement in favour of those who imprisoned him.

  • Mara Naile-Akim

    the way I see it, she is jewish and so has every right to be extra critical of their past history

    perhaps the ‘chief financiers’ part is exaggerated – that is outside my knowledge and up to the specialists in the period to debate. But she has every right – as a jew – to question their role in the persecution of others, just like we question the British role in similar things.

  • It is odd, but I suppose understandable, given his imprisonment, that he would reach out to an old friend, Admiral Raeder. Goebbels refused his offer. Most books on Google Books are in snippet view. But this blog and correspondence on the University of California Santa Barbara website should suffice. The language of “Hitler’s Germany” is Niemöller’s.

  • Msiegnaro

    A fascinating a truly complex individual, reading that snippet I interpret it more to mean duty to one’s country rather than serving Nazism or indeed Hitler. This article is truly worthwhile to shed light on this individual whom I feel deserves much more examination and I intend to now look into his life in more detail.

  • meirmoses

    Except the ‘exaggeration’ part is the chief thrust of her argument – one notably championed by parties extremely prejudiced against Jews – and this ‘exaggeration’ is false history. There were Jews (at a time when most Jews were generally greatly impoverished) who were involved in the slave trade, but for Walker this is a statement that goes beyond mere historical fact – it is a provocation – a broad sweep aimed at brushing Jews with the tar of tyranny.

    As for her Jewish credentials – mere blood or other remote affiliation does not confer ‘Jewishness’ or rights to speak ‘as a Jew. Marx or Trotsky (to use an example) may have been born as Jews, but they represented something else). If she was active in or deeply affiliated with Jewish society and played a role therein it might be different. She doesn’t.

  • Timothy Horgan

    How come nobody in the media is questioning Jeremy Newmark, Head of Jewish Labour, who was told by Judge Snelson in 2013 that he had lied consistently in court about antisemitism or John Mann MP who was described as giving “glib” evidence that he could not substantiate on antisemitism.

    Judge Snelson- “We regret to say we regret as untrue the evidence of M.Newmark”

    A case of letting sleeping dogs lie or lying dogs sleep?

  • I know, I’m thinking of buying a biography now. It’s a good story of someone who sought repentance after previously going astray. In the era of purity politics, it’s good to have models of those that have erred, but moved towards atonement. If you find any good books, let me know!

  • Msiegnaro
  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And the exaggerated message is reminiscent of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ inter alia. This conspiracy theory strand of anti-semitism is found in other prejudices but the odd Rothschild viewed as a persistently malign financial eminence grise overlooks the gentiles’ similar practice and also ignores the poverty of the shtetl. Walker’s response to her suspension is quite like that of the Christian protagonists in The Merchant of Venice.

  • There is a difference between “questioning” British role and questioning Jewish role. In what possible universe can someone make that analogy honestly?

    But never mind that for now.

    The fact is that Walker’s rhetoric seeks to threaten Jews with this type of “historical” fallacies in order that she, and others who share her anti-Zionist policies. can continue to spread their anti-Israel venom free from challenge. The underlying idea is as follows: Watch out, you Jews, if you don’t desist from disrupting BDS, if you insist on curtailing our inexorable march towards isolating Israel in the world and bringing its 6M Jews to a state of dejection and dhimmitude, we will make you pay for it. We will go after you by any means we can, and we mean, ANY means we can.

    It’s mafia tactics. Not even brilliant. Walker’s method is to parade a gorilla in order to scare away some easily frightened squirrels. And she regards it as righteous and true.

  • Barber O’Riley

    You’d be more persuasive discussing Ms Walker’s perceived inaccuracies if you were able to quote the poem accurately.

  • Niemöller rewrote the poem a dozen times over decades, there are dozens of versions. I used the most often cited. What version of the poem were you thinking of?

  • More to Walker’s claims:

    “They might find out — from the book’s own vaunted
    authorities — that, for example, of all the African slaves imported
    into the New World, American Jewish merchants accounted for less than 2 percent, a finding sharply at odds with the Nation’s of Islam’s claim of Jewish “predominance” in this traffic.

    They might find out that in the domestic trade it
    appears that all of the Jewish slave traders combined bought and sold fewer slaves than the single gentile firm of Franklin and Armfield. In short, they might learn what the historian Harold Brackman has documented at length — that the book’s repeated insistence that the Jews dominated the slave trade depends on an unscrupulous distortion of the historic record. But the most ominous words in the book are found onthe cover: “Volume One.” More have been promised, to carry on the saga of Jewish iniquity to the present day.

    However shoddy the scholarship of works like “The
    Secret Relationship,” underlying it is something even more troubling:
    the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. For it suggests a
    doctrine of racial continuity, in which the racial evil of a people is
    merely manifest (rather than constituted) by their historical misdeeds. The reported misdeeds are thus the signs of an essential nature that is evil.”

    ” The purpose of “The Secret Relationship,” [Farrakhan] he said, was to “rearrange a relationship” that “has been detrimental to us.”

    “Bash the Jews, these demagogues apparently calculate, and you’re halfway there. ”

  • terence patrick hewett

    Labour’s Antisemitism Problem: Maureen Lipman:

  • Westonite

    I have to question your account of Niemoller himself. He was in the German Navy, was a member of the Nazi party as were many who were in service at that time. He was not anti-Semitic and he began speaking out against Hitler in his sermons because he opposed Hitler’s views on religion, etc. – he was warned but was committed to speaking out. That is what landed him in his first concentration camp, Dachau – all political prisoners where held there at the time. He was subsequently held in other camps, surviving the war and wrote his poem as a warning to others who failed to recognize what might happen. He was acquainted with Hitler, but was not an ardent follower of Nazism as you seem to say. What is clearly astounding in this article regarding Walker’s ‘misguided’ comments or factual lies, is that it is easy to find biographical information on the man with a simple Google search – if you are going to quote someone or speak of them, get your facts straight so you cannot be refuted. Why is it that a non-journalist can find the correct info but those reporting cannot?

  • Jonathan Burg

    She did not simply ‘misread the poem’ : She’s guilty of a lot more than just not knowing her history very well. She has inverted a radical poem about antisemitism into an antisemitic meme calling her victim of a global Jewish conspiracy, asserting her virtue in face of McCarthyite ‘them’. This woman is a walking distortion of history and knows very well she has committed a rampantly antisemitic act by appropriating that poem and turning it against the people of its original intention to support.

    Wake up guys. ‘Accidental’ antisemitism like this is like being punched in the head followed by the perpetrator saying ‘whoopsie’.

  • mickfealty

    Interesting counter account Weatonite, for which many thanks. But Walker’s elision between Niemöller and Bonhoffer shows just how easy it has become to insert ‘cod history’ into the official narrative.

    It’s everywhere these days, from Trump to Duncan Smith (if I believe it, it is so) and the modern UK Labour Party.

  • Westonite

    Thanks mickfealty. I believe in facts and actual history which can be touched, seen, experienced – not revisionist history. Walking through Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and seeing Niemoller’s poem (the original) was profound and he became my personal hero along with the likes of Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, etc. This Walker woman is what we call a ‘shanda’ – a shame. She not only fails to understand her own history as a Jewish person but she appropriates another’s history and then fictionalizes and debases the history of the Jews in relation to the slave trade, etc.

    The problem with many people these days whether it be here in Canada, the US, Europe or the Middle East, is that they are ‘sheeples’. They follow where they are led without doing any research into what they are being fed and told. They do not reject outrageous statements but embrace them as if they are whispers from the Almighty him/herself. As a person who has always been on the left of centre and finds themselves moving further to the right as the years go by, I can only attribute that to the deluded nature of the left as to what they believe is ‘righteous’. Right is left, up is down, black is white and terror is freedom fighting. It’s upsy-downsy land…

    And when it happens to Jews or to Israel, it’s okay because it’s just the Jews… the irony of what Pastor Niemoller was trying to tell people. Failure to remember history … doomed to repeat it. Sadly.

  • Gopher

    The opposition to Hitler was mainly just to the left of the Nazi party and even included the commander of an Einsatzkommando responsible for mass murder. The opposition only became actuated to action when they realised Hitler was going to bring their interests down with him. The state they were to replace him with was hardly one of liberal democracy. Mass murder had not actuated them previously. As for the good Pastor you would have had to been a “Hardman” to have served in the U-boat arm, Freikorps and support the Kapp Putsch. Getting arrested in pre war Germany was never the hardest thing to achieve. The quote never the less is a good one after the event, a pity the good Pastor and a lot of fellow Germans could not read the runes or choose to lead a different life before the event.

  • terence patrick hewett

    We could learn from the play The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz and the poet and playwright Emanuel Litvinoff:

    “So shall I say it is not eminence chills
    but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
    the sly words and the cold heart
    and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
    Let your words
    tread lightly on this earth of Europe
    lest my people’s bones protest.”

    For fear like him one day “all we see are ghosts.”

  • Daniel

    Cultural appropriation of the most evil kind. German Neo Nazis have exhibited similar m.o. in the past. This woman is a huge antisemite.

  • Harvela

    I’m late to this blog and having only just found you from another blog .
    It needs to be said that first off Walker is not Jewish . She can call herself Jewish but her mother was not Jewish therefore she’s not a Jew . I cannot be sure , but I would assume she’s had very little connection to Judaism in practise except where it is expedient in order to deflect accusations of antisemitism to be found within the Palestinian Solidarity / BDS movement and now from within the Labour Party or so it seems . Walker’s credentials are of course enhanced by being black as well as ‘ Jewish ‘. The PSC also use the fringe sect of religious Jews the Neturei Karta as exemplars of the ‘ good Jews ‘ who deny Jewish right to self determination and pray for its eradication pending the return of the Messiah.
    As for Jewish participation in the slave trade , Walker derives her numbers from Farrakhan so no surprises there . She should read Gates for a full refutation but that wouldn’t suit her agenda . I’m sure Walker is disappointed to be called out for antisemitism but then again she is one and frankly what debt do we owe Ms Walker to call it any other way

  • Harvela

    Except she hasn’t even said whoopsie