In Conversation with Jackie Walker
I met Jackie Walker following the performance of her one woman show The Lynching of Jackie Walker in Berlin, 2018. The activist and author, who is of Jewish descent, was accused of anti-Semitism in 2016, and subsequently suspended from Britain's Labour Party. Her play was a response to what she described as a wide-spread witch-hunt, directed at her and other left wing activists in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.
We spoke on the phone as Walker made her way to Prague ahead of another performance and I was struck by her frank responses. We discussed her play's reception, identity politics and the recent accusations of anti-Semitism. It was refreshing to hear someone discuss these topics with such openness, and at a time when speaking out was becoming increasingly difficult.
RH: You’ve had quite a few performances of The Lynching of Jackie Walker in Britain and are now beginning to tour around Europe. Have you noticed much of a difference in the reception of the play?
JW: The message is beginning to take on a more international perspective. I expected there to be more of a gap in perception. What’s been amazing, and I think it’s very telling, is how small that gap has been. Sure there are people who don’t get the colloquial references or who are not informed about the history of British Caribbean migration, but the whole thrust of the show, which is about racism really, not just anti-Semitism, has been understood. In the Czech Republic and Germany, they are very aware of the pressures of the so-called new anti-Semitism and they are conscious of the infringements to freedom of speech. The strategy of trying to get this new anti-Semitism accepted as racism has a global perspective and as activists we need to start understanding that it’s not just happening in England or Germany. This is happening in countries across the globe.
RH: Can you say more about this?
JW: A few years ago the Israeli government made a decision to fund a department devoted to undermining the BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions] Campaign and we know that they are working in a number of countries to do that. You can see this in programmes like Al Jazeera’s The Lobby. You can see it in what is happening to activists in these different countries. And you can see the response of political leaders in countries like Canada, the US, Germany and France. Suddenly the establishment began focusing on anti-Semitism - which does exist - to both beat and confine the left. I think they’ve found it an effective tool. I think it’s about time that we, in the left, begin to understand this is not a particular issue confined to any one country. This is a global response. It’s not just about racism. This is not the leaders of America and France becoming suddenly hyper-concerned with equality. If it was they would also be looking as intensely at Muslims, who are far more the target of discrimination in these countries. They would be looking at people of colour, who are excluded and targeted by police so much more. This is about the global struggle between right and left and this tool, this new anti-Semitism, which equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, is one of the major tools they’re using to try to fracture and break us.
RH: As Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May promised over 13 million pounds to fight against anti-Semitism. When you contrast this with the 1 million pounds the government recently promised in the fight against other hate crimes -
JW: It’s phenomenal isn’t it? It takes your breath away, the audacity of it. The audacity of the right, of the establishment, of extremely right-wing newspapers adopting the garb of anti-racism - i.e. anti anti-Semitism - and the rest of the media seems to accept this unquestioningly. In Britain we have the Community Security Trust, which is now directly funded by the British government. They produce statistics with commentary that make it appear that Jewish communities and individuals are more of a target than they are, and this is done without reference to what is happening in other communities. Just take for example in the Labour Party. People of colour are excluded from power at all levels. That’s what we know. If you look at the Chakrabarti Inquiry she found evidence of anti-Semitism in terms of abuse and people being upset by the way that Jews were talked about. But Chakrabarti also found people of colour, and other oppressed minorities, were being excluded from power at all levels. This is a profound observation and yet still nothing has been done about this.
RH: The Jewish Voice for Labour, a newly created network for Jewish members of the Labour Party, is an anti-racist, labour-oriented organisation that is also supportive of the BDS movement. What do you make of this?
JW: The formation of JVL reflects the feelings of many of the membership. Many activists are dubious and confused about the strategies the Jewish Labour Movement have been using. And let's be frank, their leaders have gone as far as they can to denounce Jeremy Corbyn and his followers. What we saw in the 2017 conference was a spontaneous response, an almost gasp of relief that someone had the chutzpah, the courage, to stand up and say what many people were thinking which is, mostly, these are false allegations of anti-Semitism which are being used strategically against the left. Everybody was surprised - nobody knew that Leah [Levane] and Naomi [Wimborne Idrissi] were going to stand up in conference and say what they did. Nobody in the JVL - of which I'm a member - expected the turn out for the launch to be so big and received so enthusiastically. I certainly did not expect the response to The Lynching, both in the UK and in Europe, to be what it was. It’s like people, the left, have been waiting for somebody, some organisation to provide an alternative narrative, because it appears at the moment that our leaders have been silenced. They're running scared of publically coming out and questioning what is often both statistical and political drivel. There you go - I said it!
RH: You have stated that you are a universalist. Could you say what this means to you?
JW: What it means to me is that I don't politically recognise boundaries between people. I don't recognise nation-state boundaries and I don't recognise cultural or ethnic boundaries. This doesn't mean that I don't know that I'm of Jewish heritage, that I'm of African heritage, that I was born in America, that my mother was Jamaican, but it’s a about where I feel my commitments are. My political commitments are with humanity, not with any specific group. I have particular perspectives as a black Jewish woman, as a mother, as a grandmother, but what I don't do is prioritise anyone one people above the other.
RH: This is very interesting because we are in a time of a particularly pronounced period of identity politics.
JW: I think what happened is identity politics, or the superficial messages of it, which developed as part of the demands of the radical left who wanted to see emancipatory change, was subsequently adopted by those of the establishment and the right for their own purposes. I think many people have been fooled into taking identity politics into a realm which actually divides people from one another rather than what it was meant to do - supporting people in their struggle for equality and emancipation. We need to remind ourselves that this is what political debate around identity was originally for. It was for women, for blacks, for homosexuals, for oppressed minorities to gain an equal voice.
I have a materialist understanding of what causes all oppression. Whether it's race, whether it's class, whether it's sexuality, I think there are material reasons why our society chooses to oppress one group and not oppress another. I think once we get that straight we can put identity politics back to the function it was supposed to fulfill. It is of use, but it shouldn't be dominating our narratives. So I speak to you as a black woman, and my understanding is that there are a number of experiences which we share which I might not share for example with a white man, but what I will share both with you and with a white man is an understanding of the material causes of how we respond and that's where our universalism can lay.
RH: I sometimes think about this in terms of the media. There is a lot of space to talk about identity in a way that there isn't for class.
JW: And there's a reason for that. There's a reason why the Daily Mail will quite happily talk about identity. Its favourite thing now is to talk about one form of racism: anti-Semitism. There are reasons why these pillars of the establishment will happily take on that garb, because it gives them a credibility, which is not theirs. This is not their discourse and we have allowed them to appropriate it. The same papers that talk so much about anti-Semitism are also at the moment some of the worst perpetrators of Islamophobia for example. We have to stop it by standing up, calling it out for what it is and refusing to be complicit with these narratives.
RH: And what would be the first steps towards doing that?
JW: I think we need to name it for what it is. What I've learned is that in any activist resistance the first thing you do is name it. And that is what I'm doing. I'm naming it and that's partly why so many people, including on the left, find what I say difficult to hear.
RH: Bringing the conversation back to The Lynching, your mother plays quite a prominent role as your defender in the court of public opinion. Could you discuss why you chose her to defend you?
JW: *Laughter* When I started to develop the play my mother had a five-minute piece in it but actually it's now in reality become The Dorothy Walker Show, with me playing a bit part as her progeny. My mother was a Jamaican Civil Rights activist in the United States in the late 40's and 50's and my father was a Russian Jewish communist activist. What I'm trying to do in the play, in a way that everybody can readily take on, is to get people to have a historical view of what is happening at the moment. This has all happened before, as my mother says. This is a technique that the right use against the radical left whenever they need to button us down. And so people need to stop thinking this is just about England, this is just about Britain or the Labour Party. We have to stop thinking this is even just about Europe. This is a much wider struggle between the left and the right and yes, it's happened before. In the play my mother calls on people to 'wake up'. This is about an attack on the left. And that's the message of the play.