The World

Corbyn’s Anti-Semitism Problem

Lasting damage has been done to the long relationship between the Labour Party and British Jews.

Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visits Peckwater Estate on Tuesday in London. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Within the context of a political career whose lowlights include describing Islamist terrorist organizations as “friends,” associating with a Holocaust denier, and earning thousands of dollars for appearances on Iran’s state propaganda network, Jeremy Corbyn’s recent Facebook post expressing support for an anti-Semitic mural in East London is far from the worst of the indictments on his now-lengthy charge sheet.

In 2012, local authorities in London removed a mural designed by the Los Angeles–based artist Mear One, which depicted anti-Semitic caricatures playing monopoly on a board held up on the backs of the poor. “Tomorrow they want to buff my mural Freedom of Expression. London Calling, Public art,” Mear One wrote on Facebook, to which Corbyn replied, “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”

When the media uncovered this post last month, Corbyn bungled his response. First, the party itself tried to claim, “Jeremy was responding to concerns about the removal of public art on the grounds of freedom of speech.” But in a second statement put out by the leader’s office, he claimed, “[T]he defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form” and said that the problem, in fact, was that he “did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on.”

For the leadership of Britain’s Jewish community, enough was enough. The community’s representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council co-published a letter, submitted to the Labour Party, that stated, “We have had enough of hearing that Jeremy Corbyn ‘opposes anti-Semitism,’ whilst the mainstream majority of British Jews, and their concerns, are ignored by him and those he leads.” They condemned “a repeated institutional failure to properly address Jewish concerns and to tackle anti-Semitism” within Labour and organized a rally outside the Houses of Parliament.

It did not help Corbyn’s case that, at around the same time, it emerged that he had been a member of several pro-Palestinian and far-left Facebook groups, whose posts included anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and material related to Holocaust denial. Corbyn’s team claimed he did not follow the content of these groups and was not an active participant in them, but he subsequently and quietly deleted his private Facebook account nonetheless. These revelations only seemed to validate the board and JLC’s initial complaint.

“We conclude that [Corbyn] cannot seriously contemplate anti-Semitism, because he is so ideologically fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities,” the board and JLC said, arguing that time and again he has “sided with anti-Semites rather than Jews.” At worst, this suggests “a conspiratorial worldview in which mainstream Jewish communities are believed to be a hostile entity, a class enemy.”

Since Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jewish communal leaders have felt as if what the sociologist and campaigner against anti-Semitism David Hirsh has called Corbyn’s “history of anti-Semitic politics” has not been properly addressed. Corbyn has largely sidestepped or found excuses for his past associations with, among others, the Islamist leader Raed Salah (“He did not at any stage utter any anti-Semitic remarks to me”), the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen (“I have no contact now whatsoever with [him]”), or extremist political activist Dyab Abou Jahjah (“I have no recollection of him”). The British novelist Howard Jacobson wisely warned Corbyn, “Mix less often with bombers and fanatics in places where bombers and fanatics are bound to congregate, and the ones you do meet might linger longer in your mind.”

Neither has Corbyn been seen to understand nor deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party or among his supporters. To his credit, under his leadership Labour has become a party of relative mass membership once more, topping out at more than 550,000 members after the general election in June, compared with about 200,000 in 2015. With his leadership, however, have come supporters who believe that Jews were the “chief financiers of the slave trade,” engage in abusive behavior online while throwing around the term Zio, share articles arguing that there is a “Jewish question” that must be addressed, and accuse Jewish MPs of engaging in conspiracy with national newspapers.

There are only so many statements one can issue condemning anti-Semitism “and all forms of racism” before people begin to take them with a pinch of salt. As Hirsh previously told me, “What Corbyn has done is he has allowed the whole thing to be treated as if it’s just a few bad apples in the barrel, and if you find the bad apple, just kick it out.” The inquiry Corbyn set up to investigate Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, led by the human rights advocate Shami Chakrabarti, was largely seen as a whitewash when she received a seat in the House of Lords shortly after her report was published.

Indeed, just as Corbyn’s dispute with the board and JLC was reaching boiling out, Christine Shawcroft—a director of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group—had to resign from Labour’s National Executive Committee, when it was revealed she had opposed the suspension of a candidate for local government who allegedly claimed the Holocaust was a “hoax.” And the future of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone—whose Labour membership was suspended in 2016 for arguing that Adolf Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”—remains unresolved.

The feeling that Corbyn simply doesn’t care about anti-Semitism has not been helped by a total failure to reach out to the very institutions he’s alienated. It took an unprecedented protest to get the Labour leader to agree to a meeting with the board and JLC, the terms of which were finally agreed upon on Wednesday. This was not before Corbyn worsened relations by spending the third night of Passover with the radical, irreverent group Jewdas, known for its non-Zionism and satirical critiques of British Jewish leadership. Jewdas has been incorrectly tarnished with the brush of anti-Semitism, but still, from a political standpoint if the task at hand is for Corbyn to show Jewish communal figureheads his seriousness, it perhaps was not the wisest appointment to have taken.

Similarly, having refused and ignored its interview requests for months, Corbyn only just acquiesced to a sit-down interview with the London-based free newspaper the Jewish News. All the while, pro-Corbyn left-wing newspapers and websites have perpetuated the view that accusations of anti-Semitism are part of an elaborate smear campaign against Corbyn, promoting counternarratives that, for example, anti-Semitism has in fact decreased within Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. Allies of Corbyn, while claiming an interest in “smashing anti-Semitism,” are engaged in tit-for-tat arguments in order to show that the Conservatives are racists, too (as if that helps). Expelled members of the party, including Jackie Walker of the aforementioned slave trade theory, have founded Labour Against the Witch-Hunt, which seeks to fight those who “promote the false anti-Semitism smear, who conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and who promote the myth of left anti-Semitism.”

The line that “any criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is now immediately conflated with anti-Semitism” has become the standard defense of Corbyn and his supporters. It would be one thing if we were dealing with so-called legitimate criticism of Israel. But how the words of Walker and Livingstone or Corbyn’s associations with Holocaust deniers and Islamist fanatics constitute a fair-minded critique of Israel’s occupation is anyone’s guess. When Labour members are found to have posted “links to Holocaust denial myths, allegations of Israel’s involvement in the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks and the training of Islamic State fighters, and conspiracy theories involving the Rothschild family” in closed Facebook groups, unless the nuances are somewhat hidden, it does not exactly seem as if they are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people all that much.

Momentum founder Jon Lansman was right when he spoke recently of those who possess an “unconscious bias” when it comes to anti-Semitism, minimizing or dismissing it in a way while treating similar reports of racism or Islamophobia with the utmost seriousness. It has gotten to the point now where nearly 80 percent of Labour members believe that, to some extent, accusations of anti-Semitism are being hyped up or deliberately exaggerated to “damage Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle criticism of Israel.” In such an atmosphere, Jews seem to be the only minority group in contemporary Britain who are not entitled to define the terms of the prejudice and discrimination they experience.

Though British Jewish voters have tended for economic, social, and class reasons to lean Conservative in recent elections, they also have a deep historic and contemporary relationship with Labour. The Jewish Labour Movement has been associated with the party since 1920, as an association that promotes democratic socialism and equal rights for Jews in Britain while supporting Labor Zionism as the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people within Israel. Labour Friends of Israel was formed in 1957 and, at least until the Six Day War, the party’s ties with Israel were generally comradely and supportive.

It is also true, however, that since 1967 an anti-Zionist tendency emerged within the Labour Party—one which, as Dave Rich explains in The Left’s Jewish Problem—that views Israel “as a product of Western colonialism [and] that Zionism is a racist ideology,” worthy of the same opprobrium as apartheid South Africa. On this New Left, Rich argues, Jews are defined as “white” and thereby excluded from anti-racist politics, with other groups replacing them as the “new Jews.”

Corbyn is a product of this New Left and though there is no suggestion that he himself is an anti-Semite, when Lansman spoke of an “unconscious bias” on the far left, he might as well have been referring to Corbyn. The Labour leader understands anti-Semitism, Rich concludes, only as a far-right phenomenon. He opposes it to the extent that he opposes all forms of racism and xenophobia, as well as fascism and racial inequality overseas, including apartheid. But he is also trapped by the false perception that because he and the wider left are anti-fascist and anti-racist, they cannot be guilty of anti-Semitism in turn.

Both supporters and detractors will say, for what it’s worth, that Corbyn’s views have been consistent throughout his political career. The problem with such stubbornness is that if Corbyn has still not been convinced of the view that anti-Semitism is manifest on the wing of politics he has called home for more than three decades—even when it is staring him in the face in the form of an evidently anti-Jewish mural—he isn’t going to change his mind now. Though the link between Labour and British Jews can outlast one leader, the relationship between Corbyn and communal institutions is likely fundamentally and irreparably broken. Dyed in the wool, Corbyn is never going to be able to give as much as the Jewish community needs for its own reassurance—and thus the divide shall remain.