In the last couple of weeks, I have become embroiled in a discussion at my synagogue – on which I am in a very small minority – about whether it is correct for an address made from the platform during our synagogue services to invoke a party political position, based on perceptions of anti-Semitism within the current Labour Party. This immediately followed an invitation to Ian Austin to address our Friday evening service, two weeks ago, on the 81st anniversary of Krystallnacht at which I was horrified at Austin’s invocation to his audience not to vote Labour in the forthcoming General Election to the approval, I need to add, of the vast majority of his audience; reflecting the current thinking of most of UK Jewry. And this was not the first of its kind.
Our rabbi, who is a very sincere and spiritual man – and a man for whom I have the utmost respect – has taken a position that it is his duty to speak out against Corbyn. This is from his most recent message, justifying the invitation, in our weekly congregational newsletter:
The only question we raise today is why there were not more Jewish leaders, scholars and lay leaders, with the courage to speak out against antisemitism and attacks on the Jewish people. As Elie Wiesel has so brilliantly challenged us over the past decades: “Do we really want our children to ask us years from now why we were silent?”
This statement is absolutely incontestable but whether one can conclude that Jeremy Corbyn is that duck, based on what he has quacked and with whom he swims, is far from proven in my opinion. There is some distance between the warning of a perceived direction of political travel and the reaching of conclusions of racial prejudice. More significant is the question as to whether the pulpit a correct place to direct voting intentions. (The Charities Commission says that it is not.) This is what I wrote, following that service, to the Rabbi:
Though I feel totally mismatched to engage with you on this, the fact remains that I did leave synagogue on Friday quite disturbed by elements of Ian Austin’s presentation to us – and I am not an apologist for Corbyn nor currently a supporter of The Labour Party. There will, however, have been quite a few at the service – which is also broadcast to a wider audience – who will be voting Labour in the coming election, and even some who do not see Jeremy Corbyn in the light in which he was cast. Do you have any concerns that they might feel that our synagogue is not a place where they feel comfortable? And is a political issue, such as this, one that should potentially drive such a wedge?
I know that it may be dangerous to quote from a person that I know nothing about, nor as to his ultimate motives. I suspect that I may find major areas of disagreement with Robert A H Cohen but I find myself in broad agreement with what he writes below in his blog Writing From The Edge: Rescuing The Jewish Covenant One Blog Post At A Time:
I’ve been told to fear the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. I’ve been warned that the Labour Party leader is antisemitic. And, according to a new poll, nearly half of British Jews are considering leaving the country if Labour wins the General Election on December 12th.
Despite the doomsday picture being painted for British Jews, I’m not fearful of Corbyn or the possibility of him reaching 10 Downing Street. Nor do I believe that the Labour Party is “poisoned” or “rampant” with antisemitism. But what has left me horrified over the last four years has been the reckless and irresponsible way in which antisemitism has been used to vilify Corbyn and make the entire Labour Party appear toxic.
For the record, I’m not a Labour Party activist, or even a Labour Party member. I have no particular brief to support Jeremy Corbyn. In local and national elections over the years, I’ve voted for Liberal Democrat candidates, Labour candidates and Green candidates. Geography means I don’t attend a synagogue as often as I’d like to, but I read and love my Jewish prayer book, and at home we light Shabbat candles and we celebrate the Jewish festivals. I worry about rising antisemitism around the world and I care about the safety and security of Jews in Britain. And because of all these things, it bothers me deeply when I see antisemitism become drained of meaning for the sake of narrow political advantage.
The UK’s Brexit induced General Election was always going to be about more than just Brexit. And so it should be. A decade of chronic underinvestment in public services; the growing disparity between rich and poor; our response to the Climate Emergency; and the very future of the United Kingdom itself, all need to be central themes of the campaign over the next month. The one issue that does not need to be part of the debate is antisemitism. At least not the version of the antisemitism debate we’ve been having over the last few years which has become profoundly politicised.
The opening days of the campaign
As things stand, scaremongering about antisemitism is in danger of hijacking the 2019 election. This is not good for British Jews nor for British democracy.
The position of the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News, the two most widely read Jewish newspapers in the UK, is entirely expected and consistent with the campaign they have been running since September 2015 when Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader.
As this General Election campaign got underway, the Jewish Chronicle’s editorial stated:
“The impact of a Labour victory is almost unimaginable for our community…The prospect is truly frightening.”
The Jewish News titled its main Op Ed ‘The nightmare before Chanukah?’
What exactly are these editorial writers expecting to happen if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister? Shouldn’t it be possible to imagine it? Is there some hidden anti-Jewish manifesto in Corbyn’s back pocket that only they have seen? Their language suggests they expect immediate discriminatory laws against Jews to be enacted by a Corbyn government or, at the very least, a hostile environment against Jews to be created across the country.
Speaking at a formal dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on November 4 the Board’s President, Marie van de Zyl, also hinted at the dark consequences of a Corbyn victory by saying the Board was “preparing for all scenarios.”
What kind of “scenarios” is the Board preparing for? It’s never made clear because it makes no sense. But a feeling of impending doom is created and left hanging in the air.
The Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, who’s been a prominent left of centre critic of Corbyn since his election, wove the same mood of dread and anxiety in a recent article in which he repeated the now well-worn (and well-refuted) allegations against Corbyn:
“I understand that to many, all this will sound overwrought. I’m afraid that Jewish history has made us that way, prone to imagining the worst. We look at our usually sparse family trees and we can pick out the pessimists, those who panicked and got out. It was they who left their mark on us. You see, the optimists, those who assumed things would work out for the best, they never made it out in time.”
It sounds “overwrought” because it is overwrought. But worse still, it’s feeding a moral panic across the nation and stoking fear in Jewish homes without a credible threat being presented.
But the Jewish establishment’s campaign against Jeremy Corbyn has never been only about convincing British Jews not to vote Labour.
The number of Jewish voters in the UK is tiny. Including adults and children, we make up only 0.5% of the population. There are only a handful of constituencies, mostly in North London, where Jewish votes (assuming they are cast uniformly) could make a decisive difference to the outcome. In any case, the majority of Jews stopped voting Labour long before Corbyn became leader. That’s to do with the economic and social advancement that most Jews in Britain have achieved. Until recently, it’s had nothing to do with Corbyn or antisemitism.
So branding Corbyn as antisemitic has always been about influencing the wider UK electorate. And it may well have succeeded. A poll carried out in April 2019 reported that 55% of respondents agreed with the statement that Mr Corbyn’s “failure to tackle anti-semitism within his own party shows he is unfit to be prime minister”.
Conservative supporting national newspapers, in particular the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Express, have all been enthusiastic amplifiers of the ‘Corbyn is antisemitic’ narrative. Neither these national newspapers nor the more liberal Guardian or the BBC, have shown much interest in seriously interrogating, let along challenging the allegations. The case against our mainstream media in its handling of the Labour antisemitism saga has been well established by media analysts and antisemitism experts in the book ‘Bad News for Labour’ published last month.
Meanwhile, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats’ leader, Jo Swinson, speaking at her party’s election campaign launch on November 5 came up with the most peculiar, contorted and self-serving framing of the antisemitism accusation I’ve seen so far:
“Most importantly, the reason why people are Remain [on the Brexit question] is about values, and one of those values is so important – is the value of equality – for recognising that people can be themselves, as individuals, whatever the colour of their skin, whatever God they pray to, whoever they are. And Jeremy Corbyn’s complete and utter failure to root out antisemitism in his own Party, is a – just – total dereliction of duty when it comes to protecting that value of equality.”
While this alignment of racism, inequality and support for Brexit may have some coherence when you look to the political right, it’s hard to make sense of it in Corbyn’s case, not when you examine Corbyn’s track record on campaigning against racism or his party’s policies on immigration and refugees. And while Corbyn’s position on Brexit is deliberately ambiguous, painting him as a hard Brexiteer doesn’t tally with his party’s position over the last three years. But hey, let’s not let any pesky facts spoil the antisemitism story.
As for the Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, he’s happily climbed on the bandwagon by describing his main opponents in this election as: “fratricidal antisemitic Marxists”. I feel sure he will return with characteristic enthusiasm to the subject as the election campaign reaches its climax.
For a more detailed account of how the right is exploiting and abusing antisemitism during this election, and over the last few years, I’d recommend the article by antisemitism academic Tony Lerman in Open Democracy.
The case against Corbyn’s Labour
So what is the case against Corbyn? And does it stack up as the show-stopping, moral argument against his gaining elected high office?
It’s always been difficult to disentangle the allegations of antisemitism from the wider divisions within Labour over Corbyn’s shift of the party to the left. The growing influence of more left-wing Labour members at the grass roots and within its national decision making bodies has been fought against by Labour MPs who favoured the Blair/Brown years of Labour leadership. Antisemitism has, in part, become a proxy battle in a bigger ideological war over how Labour should respond to decades of neo-liberalism and more recently austerity. So motivations can be, and have been, mixed and complex.
It’s impossible to understand the personal criticism against Corbyn without recognising that it’s nearly always in the context of a wider debate over the behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinian people.
Corbyn has been a long standing campaigner for Palestinian rights for decades. Those official and establishment Jewish voices that say they fear a Corbyn government tell us they do so because they fear a radical change in the safety and security of Jews in Britain. But a more credible explanation for their accusations is the possibility of a radical change in the attitude of the British government towards the State of Israel. But in merely expressing the possibility of a political motive behind the attacks, one quickly becomes branded as anti-Jewish. Freedom of speech gets buried alive in this war over the meaning of antisemitism.
Having noted this central aspect of the saga, it’s also true that some on the left make themselves, and by association Corbyn, easy targets for justified criticism. The left’s emphasis on the wrongs of empire, colonialism and racism lead to a small minority expressing an obsessive and un-nuanced understanding of Zionist thinking which too easily trips into antisemitism.
It’s true too that Israel/Palestine has become a totemic cause on the left, much as South African apartheid was in the 70s and 80s or the Vietnam War in the 60s. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to highlight Israel as a nation with a long and on-going history of human rights abuses which western leaders choose not to act against. A few on the left will make the lazy mistake of falling into anti-Jewish rhetoric to explain why this has happened. This in turn enables the professional advocates for Israel to label all anti-Israel criticism on the left as founded on nothing more than antisemitism.
The questions we are then left with are: how great is the scale of the problem and how well has Corbyn dealt with it?
Let the numbers speak
The precise scale of reported antisemitism within the Labour Party became clear at the start of this year when Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, released detailed numbers covering accusations of antisemitism made against Labour members between April 2018 and January 2019. This covered the period during which media interest in the story reached fever pitch in the summer and autumn of 2018.
The 673 accusations as a percentage of party members amounted to 0.1% of the total Party membership. However, 220 of the allegations were rejected through the disciplinary process which left 453 (or 0.08% of party membership) accused, found guilty and disciplined. Of these, only 12 were considered serious enough to warrant permanent expulsion.
Further analysis of these figures, and other data, and their comparison to survey data of antisemitism in the UK population as a whole, has been carried out by statistician Alan Maddison. The upshot is, there’s less antisemitism in Labour than you would expect to find in the UK population as a whole (which is already among the lowest in the world). In fact, reputable surveying in 2017 by Jewish Policy Research, showed that antisemitism was more prevalent on the right and far right than on the left in the UK.
“Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population.”
Which again begs the question as to why all the focus has been on Labour since Corbyn became leader. The numbers suggest we should be looking elsewhere.
What about Corbyn himself?
If Jeremy Corbyn is truly antisemitic he must be the most unusual and eccentric example of antisemitism ever displayed by a British political leader and perhaps any political leader.
When you are told that a politician is a diehard antisemite you don’t expect to then discover that over the decades he’s signed dozens of Early Day Parliamentary motions condemning antisemitism; helped organised protests against anti-Jewish marches; visited the Terezin concentration camp to commemorate Holocaust victims; attended numerous Jewish events in his constituency; and read the war poetry of Isaac Rosenberg at his local Remembrance Day service.
The list of antisemitic ‘crimes’ by Corbyn which have been ‘unearthed’ to ‘expose’ his guilt all crumble for anyone who bothers to do some fact checking or examine the context in which they happened.
If I have criticisms of Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism it’s that he did not defend himself or his party more robustly.
He should have toured the TV studios during the spring and summer of 2018 to refute the allegations made against him. He should have invited his accusers, in particular Campaign Against Antisemitism, and the leaders of the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to debate face to face. He should have given a platform to Palestinian voices to demonstrate the problematic nature of the IHRA “illustrations” of antisemitism. He should have given a major speech setting out his understanding of Jewish history, of antisemitism, of what does and does not count as fair criticism of Israel and Zionism.
The strategy of not giving more oxygen to the allegations through direct engagement turned out to be wrong. It just encouraged more vilification.
The failure of Jewish leadership
But the greatest failings in this story have not been Corbyn’s.
Over the last four years the formal leadership of the Jewish community in the UK, aided and abetted by Jewish community newspapers and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, have succeed in making the task of fighting anti-Jewish behaviour harder and more complicated.
They have exaggerated a problem within Labour and enabled a false narrative to take hold in the public’s understanding of the issue. In doing this, they have made antisemitism into a party political football.
With their promotion of the IHRA document as the international ‘gold standard’ of wording rather than the “working document” its authors describe it as, they have imposed on politicians, local authorities, universities and Churches a weak and deeply flawed definition of antisemitism.
They have promoted illustrations of antisemitism which are already chilling free speech and denying another people their history and identity.
By turning antisemitism into a political battleground, they have created ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’ – those that are allowed to speak with a Jewish voice and those that are condemned as traitors.
The campaign against Labour has never been about reforming or educating a small minority or rooting out a tiny hardcore of antisemitism. This has been about regime change. Only Corbyn’s resignation as leader was ever going to be truly acceptable.
With a General Election campaign now in full swing, Labour candidates and Labour activists, and indeed Labour voters, are being told they are actively promoting antisemitism or at least ignoring the concerns of the Jewish community in Britain. It’s no longer just Corbyn that’s being vilified. It’s half the country.
Meanwhile, Jewish families have become fearful under entirely false pretenses.
This is not good Jewish leadership. This is a dangerous failure of leadership.
If Labour loses this election and antisemitism allegations are perceived to have been a key factor in the Party’s defeat, what will be the long term political consequences? How will millions of voters perceive our Jewish institutions and leaders and indeed Jews in general?
A better debate on antisemitism
Whatever the result of this General Election, we’re going to need a better and very different debate about antisemitism in Britain than the one we’ve been having.
Antisemitism is real and it’s growing. We need to face into the role Israel plays in generating antisemitism. We need to recognise that Zionism can be experienced as both a movement for Jewish liberation and as a project of racist, settler colonialism. We need to be clear from which political direction the most serious dangers to Jews and other minorities are coming from. For some on the left, there is a need to learn some Jewish history and appreciate why so many Jews feel such an emotional tie towards Israel.
As for those who currently claim to speak in the interests of Jews in Britain, they too could do with some serious historical and political education. Or perhaps just early retirement.
I am deeply concerned.