Jasmine Donahaye investigates the antisemitic slur against Plaid Cymru
For decades Plaid Cymru has been slurred with allegations of fascism and antisemitism, in particular since it became a party that Labour had to reckon with in the 1970s. To anyone who looks at Plaid Cymru’s current position it is clear that such associations in the present are false. Even some of those who made allegations in the 1970s have modified their views. Leo Abse told me in an interview in 2002 that he had “loathed the Welsh nationalist movement as it was constituted” in the 1970s, as he had when he was young. “The picture I had”, he explained, “was influenced by my picture of Saunders Lewis – who was drenched in anti-Semitism”. But even vehemently anti-Plaid Abse had to acknowledge that “the people who came into prominence after the first devolution referendum – you couldn’t describe them as fascists; it would be silly”.
Nevertheless the allegation continues to be made. Indeed, the popular association between the words ‘nationalism’ and ‘fascism’ is so entrenched in the UK that for many the one is a synonym for the other. However, I suspect that, unlike Abse, most who make the allegation know more about the totalitarianism of the left than of the right, and associate fascism less with political or economic ideas than with authoritarianism and racism – that is, with a set of attitudes, rather than policies.
Given that in popular usage ‘fascist’ has come to mean, variously, authoritarian, humourless, rule-following, aggressive, ultra-conservative and resistant to change (‘grammar fascist’, for example), the term is a useful bit of offensive-smelling muck to throw at Plaid Cymru for reasons ranging from its position on independence to its policy on language.
But more usually the link that gets made between Plaid Cymru and fascism or antisemitism has to do with allegations against Plaid Cymru in the past. Of course, this is how smearing works – by association, not by fact. The facts themselves appear to tell a different story, as Richard Wyn Jones shows in his recent book, ‘Y Blaid Ffasgaidd yng Nghymru’: Plaid Cymru a’r Cyhuddiad o Ffasgaeth (‘The Fascist Party in Wales’: Plaid Cymru and the Accusation of Fascism). Jones investigates the historical evidence for and against these allegations of fascism, and concludes that they are and have always been without base: Plaid Cymru was never a fascist party.
As the example of Leo Abse illustrates, allegations of fascism against Plaid Cymru are often intimately associated with accusations of antisemitism, particularly against Saunders Lewis in the 1930s, and I was particularly interested to see what new understanding Jones would bring to this issue. Usefully, and necessarily, he separates the two. He points out that while the hostile and then genocidal policy on Jews was fundamental to Nazi doctrine, it was not, for example, a part of early Italian fascism (in fact, during its early years, Italian Jews had been members and supporters of the Italian fascist party). It was also the case that hostility to Jews existed in some form right across the political spectrum in the 1930s and 1940s (as it still does). Consequently, despite the popular conflation of fascism with antisemitism, the expression of hostility to Jews, he argues, does not in itself denote fascist sympathy.
Unfortunately, how he deals with the question of antisemitism itself is less useful. Like almost all writers and historians in Wales who have considered hostile imaging of Jews, Jones relies on two unhelpful approaches. Firstly, though we might like to believe that there are common liberal understandings of what constitutes ‘antisemitism’, it is in fact the subject of very heated disagreement, particularly in the context of criticising Israel. At least a working definition would be useful, but here as elsewhere we have to rely on assumptions about its meaning and parameters. Secondly, again like many if not most commentators on the subject before him in Wales, Jones characterises antisemitism as a disease – “Mae’n haint sydd wedi difwyno bywyd ‘gwareiddiad’ y Gorllwein ers canrifoedd lawer” (“It’s a plague that has contaminated the ‘civilisation’ of the West for many centuries”).
Pestilence and infection that taints or contaminates might be rhetorically familiar and satisfying, but a set of attitudes is not a disease, contagious or otherwise. I have argued strenuously against this habit of language in Wales, because of what it permits and what it bypasses. With antisemitism characterised as a pestilence comes the inevitable trap of measuring the degree of its virulence, and this in turn enables a distracting argument over what amount of virulence constitutes antisemitism and how much hostility makes someone an antisemite (or how much praise makes a philosemite). Downplay the virulence and you can stand accused of being an apologist; overplay the virulence and you can be accused of hypersensitivity or hysteria. To characterise antisemitism as something virulent sets in train a discussion that leads inexorably away from rather than towards a deeper understanding of how and why people use negative stereotypes of Jews.
Hostility to Jews, or the use of negative Jewish stereotypes, is not an aberration or sickness. At the opposite extreme, admiration and praise for Jews (so-called ‘philosemitism’) does not indicate some kind of default purity. Neither term is very useful, because both sets of attitudes deploy common, long-lived, resilient and flexible stereotypes, whether positive or negative, that designate difference. Positive stereotypes about Jews always also carry their negative shadow – thus even the allegedly ‘philosemitic’ protestations by Gwynfor Evans or Harri Webb between the 1940s and the 1960s (particularly with respect to Israel) are as problematic for Plaid Cymru as are the negative images used by Saunders Lewis and others in the earlier period: in much Welsh writing in both languages, ‘the Jews’ are uniquely gifted or uniquely grotesque, and therefore usefully positioned to behave uniquely – to represent otherness.
Such attitudes and statements about Jews are complex, part of two millennia of Christian discourse. Some of this complexity is evident in current arguments about the Daily Mail’s characterisation of Ralph Miliband (see here), or about use of the term ‘Yid’ by Spurs supporters, for example. It is the subject of numerous studies, several of which focus on the highly adaptable stereotyped imaging of Jews in the various political and cultural contexts of the UK. Given its complexity, it’s a shame that the extensive research published over many years in the burgeoning field of British Jewish studies has once again been left out of consideration in discussion of these issues in Wales.
Jones argues that the occasional hostile Jewish imaging in the 1930s by some members of Plaid Cymru (and in the Plaid newspaper, Y Ddraig Goch) is not evidence that the party was in the period constitutionally antisemitic, and that such imaging did not reflect any kind of party policy or position either then or since. Not only was it not typical or representative of Plaid Cymru, he argues, but it was also the case that some English writers and politicians on both the left and the right expressed at least equal hostility to Jews in the 1930s, as did Welsh writers and political figures who had no affiliation to Plaid Cymru.
It is certainly useful to situate such imaging in this wider context, but as Jones does not also consider the particular purpose of its deployment in the unique context of early Plaid Cymru (including in its official newspaper), this argument reads as a deflection, and takes on the contours of mild whataboutery – what about Churchill, what about T. S. Eliot, what about Orwell’s statement that writers on the left were just as guilty. So why this unfair, unbalanced and out-of-context focus on statements by Saunders Lewis? It’s a familiar objection from those who would defend Israel against criticism – what about the equally damaging or worse foreign or domestic policies of all those other countries? Why single Israel out and hold it to this apparently unfair standard?
The appropriate response to that objection applies also in this case: the necessity of accountability and understanding elsewhere does not in any way change, and nor should it deflect from, the necessity of accountability and understanding here. Other people used hostile Jewish stereotypes, and English writers and political figures did so as much or more than Welsh writers and political figures. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about its unique deployment by members of Plaid Cymru in the 1930s.
It is clear that neither the party nor its founder was ever ‘drenched’ in hostility to Jews, but the allegation about antisemitism is not laid to rest by presenting hostile expressions about Jews as being, on the one hand, typical of the period and, on the other, as being exceptional for Plaid Cymru rather than representative. Richard Wyn Jones’s book should help end the slur of fascism, but until historians and critics engage with what hostile Jewish stereotypes meant and how and why they were used in the particular context of Plaid Cymru in the 1930s, someone somewhere will go on making a stink about them.