Jeremy Corbyn and the Crisis of Anti-Semitism

Jeremy Corbyn and the Crisis of Anti-Semitism

Jeremy Corbyn and the Crisis of Anti-Semitism

A vicious feud has engulfed the Labour Party—why can’t its leader defuse it?


Since the language of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and T.S. Eliot—each of whom had unpleasant things to say about the children of Israel—lacks a term capable of encompassing the current state of relations between Britain’s Jews and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, we turn instead to the beautiful Yiddish word broyges. Deriving from the Hebrew for “anger,” a broyges is a dispute or quarrel—with a strong undertone of grudge.

Depending on which side you’re on, the current broyges between Corbyn and the Jews reached its peak on August 23, when the Daily Mail unearthed a five-year-old video of Corbyn telling a pro-Palestinian group that “Zionists…have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.” Or maybe it culminated with Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, calling Corbyn’s remarks “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech,” a blatant appeal to racism that cost Powell, a Tory MP, his seat in the shadow cabinet. Things were now so bad, Sacks added a few days later, that “the majority of our community are asking ‘is this country safe?’”

At a time when Prime Minister Theresa May’s grip on the Conservative Party is weakening by the day thanks to the Tories’ continuing civil war over Brexit, press coverage of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis dominated the headlines. In the case of The Times and The Sun (both owned by Rupert Murdoch), the Evening Standard (edited by former Tory cabinet minister George Osborne), the reliably right-wing Daily Telegraph, and the reliably more right-wing Daily Mail, that’s hardly surprising. The profound bias of the press here acts to amplify any attack on Labour. But the left-leaning Guardian has been just as engaged, with some of its own columnists leading the attack, a fierce battle on its letters page, and the paper editorializing that “Corbyn bears some responsibility for losing the trust of the Jewish community”—a mild formulation that belies the deep divisions within The Guardian, whose former associate editor, Seamas Milne, is now Corbyn’s spokesman and chief strategist.

How did a party whose previous leader, former Nation intern Ed Miliband, is himself a Jew come to be described, in a common editorial published on the front page of Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers, as an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”? Are British Jews really packing their bags? Or, as some of Corbyn’s supporters suggest, is the whole dispute no more than a crude effort on the part of Corbyn’s enemies, on the right and inside his own party, to discredit his leadership?

To answer those questions, we first need to peel apart a few strands of the argument. For American readers, there are also two facts to bear in mind. First, the Jewish community in Britain is tiny: At under 270,000, Jews make up just 0.5 percent of the population, according to a 2011 census—behind Christians (59.3 percent), Muslims (4.8 percent), Hindus (1.5 percent), and Sikhs (0.8 percent). Second, unlike in the United States, Jews in Britain are roughly evenly split between the two main political parties, which means that despite their small numbers, the political loyalty of British Jews is heavily contested—and deeply divided. So, for example, when The New Yorker quotes Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard saying there is “probably nothing” that Corbyn could say or do to resolve his party’s difficulties, the magazine’s readers might well have taken Pollard for a neutral observer, rather than what he is: a brilliant polemicist who fought battles against the left of the Labour Party from the pages of The Spectator, The Times, and the Daily Mail.

Over its 870-year history, anti-Semitism in Britain has certainly included violence and terror. The “blood libel” accusing Jews of slaughtering Christian children for ritual purposes originated in Norwich in 1144; in 1190, the entire Jewish population of York was massacred. One hundred years later, Edward I ordered all Jews expelled from England, where they were not readmitted until the reign of Oliver Cromwell. But in modern times, British anti-Semitism has been a matter “of rebuff and insult,” not martyrdom and murder. In Trials of the Diaspora, his magisterial history of anti-Jewish bigotry in England, Anthony Julius writes that anti-Semitism here “no longer represents a threat because it no longer speaks for anything that is substantial, anything that could injure or even impede.” To Julius, writing just eight years ago, anti-Semitism in Britain seemed like a relic, operating “by stealth, by indirection, by tacit understandings and limited exclusions” among a social elite who were themselves on the road to extinction.

Yet alarm bells over the safety of Jews in Britain—and in Europe—have been ringing for some time. So, too, has the effort to conflate criticism of Israel with racism or, as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman once argued, to claim that “anti-Zionism is not a politically legitimate point of view but rather an expression of bigotry and hatred.” Nor have Israel’s defenders hesitated to resort to deeply personal attacks. Back in 2014, Maureen Lipman, a star of British stage, screen, and especially television, announced that she was ending five decades of support for Labour because of Miliband’s decision to back a vote recognizing Palestinian statehood—and for eating a bacon sandwich in public. What makes this latest blowup between Labour and the Jews different from every other blowup is that, this time, Labour’s critics have a point.

The immediate roots of the current crisis go back to 2012, when former London mayor Ken Livingstone, trying for a comeback, told a group of Jewish supporters that Jews wouldn’t vote Labour because they were rich. Though he later apologized—something he’d refused to do after he compared a Jewish reporter to a “concentration camp guard”—Livingstone evidently held a grudge. In April 2016, when Labour MP Naseem Shah was temporarily suspended from the party for a Facebook post suggesting that all Israeli Jews be “relocated” to the United States, Livingstone inserted himself into the dispute—and the headlines—by telling the BBC that Shah had done nothing wrong, because “a real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel.” Adding injury to insult, Livingstone also claimed that Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism.

Corbyn promptly suspended him, but the incident sparked a fresh outbreak of press attention to anti-Semitism within Labour, partly because Corbyn and Livingstone had long been allies on the party’s left. Since Corbyn’s surprise victory as party leader in 2015, the issue had remained on a low boil. While no one then accused the new leader of Jew-hatred, his longtime support for the Palestinians—as well as, perhaps, the unlikelihood of his ever being more than a fringe figure in British politics—had sometimes led Corbyn into ill-judged pronouncements, such as when he referred to both Hezbollah and Hamas as “our friends,” and unsavory associations, such as his defense of Stephen Sizer, an Anglican vicar who’d been banned by the church from social media after posting an article asserting that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks.

In light of the Livingstone furor, Labour asked Shami Chakrabarti, who had recently stepped down as director of the human-rights group Liberty, to lead an inquiry into allegations of racism and anti-Semitism within the party. Her report, issued in June 2016, found that although Labour “is not overrun by antisemitism,” there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” within the party that needed to be addressed.

Who knows what would have happened if Chakrabarti’s call for prompt action had been heeded? Instead, at the very press conference announcing the report, Corbyn used language that appeared to equate Israel with the Islamic State. He then stood by while Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish MP, was reduced to tears by a heckler who accused her of working “hand in hand” with the Tory press to discredit the Labour leadership. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had initially been receptive to the report, dismissed it as a “whitewash.”

The perception that Corbyn, despite his long history of anti-racist activism, was at best a bystander to attacks on Jews was heightened by fresh scrutiny of a 2012 decision by an East London council to remove a mural by the California-born artist Kalen Ockerman that depicted a group of bankers—many with large noses—playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor. Corbyn’s response then, it was revealed, had been to defend the rights of the artist. He must not have read Ockerman’s explanation that “some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are.”

Pressed by the Labour MP Luciana Berger, Corbyn did eventually (this March) declare that the “mural was offensive, used anti-Semitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it is right that it was removed.” He later added, “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on.” Some Jewish Corbyn supporters—myself included—were inclined to accept his explanation; others felt it was both insufficient and insincere.

The latter group was strengthened by Corbyn’s even more feeble response to reports that as a backbench MP, he’d attended a 2014 ceremony in a Tunis cemetery that included laying a wreath at the graves of two members of Black September, the Palestinian group behind the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. Corbyn, who said he was there to honor victims of Israel’s 1985 bombing of PLO headquarters, first claimed he may have been present for the wreath ceremony, “but I don’t think I was actually involved in it”—only to modify his position when photographs emerged showing him with a wreath in his hands.

The point of this sorry recitation is that long before the recent dispute over how the Labour Party would define anti-Semitism poured gasoline on the flames, Corbyn had what the British call “form” on the charge of being insensitive—if not indifferent—to Jewish suffering.

Yet it is also undeniable that from the very moment he took over as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s every effort to move it to the left has met with massive resistance from a large number of his own MPs. In June 2016, Labour MPs passed a motion of “no confidence” in Corbyn’s leadership by a vote of 172–40. When, just three months later, Corbyn crushed his rivals in a leadership election, winning the support of over 313,000 party members—at a time when the Conservatives, who refused to publish precise figures, were rumored to have under 100,000 members—the internal opposition changed tactics, abandoning a frontal assault for a series of rearguard actions.

In this context, as Matt Seaton recently observed in The New York Review of Books, “Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis is the gift that keeps on giving.” Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Labour Party politics couldn’t help but notice that many of the loudest voices inside the party criticizing Corbyn—Wes Streeting, Ian Austin, Margaret Hodge, Chuka Umunna—were Blairites: loyalists of former prime minister Tony Blair who, though properly unwilling to contain their outrage over anti-Semitism, had had no trouble supporting their hero’s war in Iraq and no discernible passion over the effects of a decade of austerity on Britain’s poor. As Seaton puts it, “the fight between Corbyn skeptics and Corbyn fans over Jews and Israel has become a ruinous proxy for what is, in its essence, a struggle between social-democrats and socialists for the soul of the party.”

This ongoing power struggle, however, doesn’t excuse Corbyn’s repeated failures to defuse the issue. Jon Lansman, who ran Corbyn’s successful leadership bid before founding Momentum, the left pressure group whose rapidly growing membership makes up Corbyn’s power base within the party, told me, “While I agree it’s possible for there to be a problem and also for it to be used opportunistically…if people are exposing a valid problem, you have to deal with it. And actually, the motivation of the person exposing the problem is irrelevant.”

So why hasn’t Corbyn—or his party—dealt with it? Perhaps because anti-Semitism on the left doesn’t look or sound like right-wing bigotry. Left anti-Semitism presents itself not as prejudice, but as sympathy for the oppressed. Its roots lie not in religious or racial hatred, but in frustration with Jewish particularity and in an exaggerated sense of Jewish power. Its historic high-water mark was the infamous 1975 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. Though that resolution had more to do with Cold War realpolitik than sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the scars from being told that in a world of nation states, somehow Jewish nationalism was uniquely evil, uniquely deserving of worldwide condemnation, ran very deep.

Though that resolution was rescinded in 1991—again for reasons of realpolitik rather than any change of heart—the legacy of mutual mistrust remains. Even Jews with no attachment to the Zionist project can be made uncomfortable when the gap between “Israel oppresses Palestinians” and talk of Jewish conspiracy isn’t as wide as it should be. Yet among the internationalist left—which is very much Corbyn’s milieu—the consensus that Israel is simply the oppressor is too strong to leave much room for the history that brought the country into being. But omitting those centuries of exile, persecution, and extermination deprives Jews of our identity.

Another reason, though, has to do with the way Israel’s supporters in Britain continually overplay their hand. In 2017, for example, Corbyn, Momentum, the Jewish Labour Movement, and Labour’s national executive committee all backed a change in the party’s rules including anti-Semitism in the list of offenses “prejudicial to the Party.” It was a rare outbreak of common sense—right up to the point when, citing the new rule, the party expelled Moshe Machover, a Tel Aviv–born anti-Zionist Jew whose sole crime was having written an article, “Anti-Zionism Does Not Equal Anti-Semitism,” for the Weekly Worker, the newspaper of the British Communist Party.

Though Machover was eventually readmitted, his expulsion provided ammunition for those—many of them Jews—who argued that the fight over anti-Semitism was always really about restricting criticism of Israel. To connoisseurs of English irony, the dispute between the largely Zionist Jewish Labour Movement and the fiercely anti-Zionist (and pro-Corbyn) Jewish Voice for Labour resembled nothing so much as the contempt displayed by the People’s Front of Judea for the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Given the absence of good faith on either side, it was only to be expected that a proposal for Labour to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism would turn into another test of strength among Labour’s various factions. The core definition—“a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”—was merely vague. But it came with a list of possible examples that was problematic enough that even a parliamentary committee suggested “additional clarifications to ensure…freedom of speech.” But when Labour’s national executive committee did just that—adopting the core definition verbatim, but deleting some of the examples relating specifically to criticism of Israel— all hell broke loose. (A recent move by the US Department of Education, citing the IHRA definition, to reopen a civil-rights case against Rutgers University after it hosted Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti is just the latest illustration of why the definition needs clarification.)

Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal lies in the fact that you always know which side he’s on. In a straight choice between Israel and Palestine, Corbyn is going to choose Palestine every time. For some Jews—or anyone else whose first priority is the defense of Israel, regardless of the policies of the Israeli government—that makes him an enemy. But outside a handful of constituencies, the “Jewish vote” doesn’t matter very much in British politics. (Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley was one of them; Ilford North, Wes Streeting’s constituency, is another.) Nor do most British voters—regardless of religion, party, or ideology—care about the precise wording used to disapprove of anti-Semitism.

The data—as opposed to the headlines—consistently show that virulent anti-Semitism is vanishingly rare in Britain, with only 2 percent of the population holding “very unfavorable” opinions about Jews, while 39 percent regard Jews favourably. Most Britons—56 percent—are either neutral or “don’t know.” The data also show anti-Semitism rising as you move to the right on the political spectrum. While neither party can accurately be described as a hotbed of prejudice, Conservatives are somewhat more likely to “endorse antisemitic statements”—such as “Jews chase money more than other British people” or “I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew”—than Labour supporters.

The real question, then, is why this dispute has spread so far and lasted so long—and whether anything can be done to resolve it. Because while the terms of the conflict can seem parochial, the stakes are enormous—and not just for Labour, or British Jews. At the very least, the whole mess has been an enormously convenient—and dangerous—distraction from the ongoing catastrophe of Brexit, where the lack of an effective opposition has allowed Theresa May’s government to sleepwalk right to the cliff’s edge.

Whatever his personal faults, Corbyn has been the catalyst for a powerful challenge to the austerity agenda imposed by both Labour and Tory governments following the 2008 financial crisis. The economic program outlined by Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, offers a radical break from both neoliberal orthodoxy, championed by the Tories and the Blairites alike, and the bureaucratic welfare-state model of the postwar European left, which until very recently remained the default Labour pole. If that left-populist alternative put forward by Corbyn runs aground on what, to most British voters, remains a peripheral issue, there is a very real danger that Britain could join Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, and the Czech Republic in the European axis of reaction.

So the focus is rightly on Corbyn, who now has a firm grip on his party’s machinery. Until the end of August, it was just about possible to believe that Corbyn’s perverse reluctance to act against anti-Semitism in the party—so long as it came clothed in the colors of anti-Zionism—was political, a consequence of his unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause, or a refusal to give quarter to factional enemies.

However, once the Daily Mail released footage of Corbyn saying Zionists “don’t understand English irony,” that position became untenable. Yes, the Daily Mail is a vile paper—an enemy of progress by anyone’s reckoning. As Corbyn later insisted, he may well have used the term “Zionist” in “the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people.” But the implication—that Jews, even if they’ve “lived in this country…all their lives,” aren’t, and can never be, fully British—is a classic trope, not of the “socialism of fools” sometimes found among the conspiratorially minded left, but of the traditional racist prejudice once rife among the kind of people who were raised, as Corbyn was, in big country houses. Even for some of his longtime defenders, that was the last straw.

For Jews who supported Corbyn but never believed him infallible, the current situation is excruciating. Essentially, we are being told to shut up and take one for the team—a demand no political party claiming to be progressive has a right to make of any group. Desperate for some kind of resolution, earlier this month I attended the Jewish Labour Movement’s conference, where I heard Momentum’s Jon Lansman declare his “solidarity with Jewish female MPs” like Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, who have been targets of vicious racist abuse online—as has Lansman himself.

Which made it all the more poignant to hear him repeat the argument he’d made to me months before: that the best way to deal with bigotry inside the party is through education and training, not expulsion. “Do you think there’s no redemption?” Lansman asked the conference. Summarizing just a few of the current government’s most egregious failures—on health, education, the environment, and the economy—he pleaded with the delegates not to let their understandable, and justifiable, anger over anti-Semitism lead them to abandon the fight. “Labour now has 600,000 members,” he said. “Those 600,000 members are a weapon we can use to defeat the Tories. Do not throw it away lightly.”

Was anyone listening? The applause that followed Lansman’s remarks gave some cause for hope—at least until later that afternoon, when Margaret Hodge, a minister in Tony Blair’s government who had confronted Corbyn in the House of Commons, calling him “an anti-Semite and a racist,” told the delegates that nothing short of the Labour leader’s resignation would satisfy her. “The problem is that he is a problem,” Hodge said to thunderous cheers.

Days later, Labour’s national executive committee announced that it had now adopted the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, including all the examples, along with a short statement declaring that “this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.”

Will this be enough to end the conflict? Maybe not, given Hodge’s immediate dismissal of the move as “two steps forward and one step back.” But not all British Jews share her refusal to take yes for an answer—or her eagerness to fold the fight against anti-Semitism into a war on “the left.” Many of us realize that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to resign—and that the endless campaign to dislodge him is a distraction from the disasters facing this country.

With the next election less than four years away, and the very real possibility of a crash landing out of Europe looming in March, only a fool would make predictions. The headlines here, however, seem to have moved on. For the moment, at least, it looks like British Jews and the Labour Party have each taken a step back from the brink.

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