By Alice Lassman, Politics Editor
I am a British Zionist, so forgive me if I don’t understand irony.
It’s about time I spoke out about Corbyn’s attitude towards anti-Semitism. It’s time we all spoke out about Corbyn’s attitude to anti-Semitism. The promises on which Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party – for his honesty, his commitment to zero tolerance, and the promise of a society ‘for the many, not the few’ – are now breaking.
I normally keep my Jewish identity quiet. But my community is at risk, as Jewish families across the UK are becoming increasingly fearful of what a Corbyn government might mean for us. The thing is, this isn’t new. Every Jew knows their family’s story and every Jew knows the struggles their people have had. We are all painfully aware just how little it would take for public sentiment to turn against us and how a society that tolerates anti-Semitism can, and has in the past, quickly descend into so much worse. This is the day-to-day reality of being a Jew.
My family came to the UK in the late 1920s, a small part of the masses of Jews fleeing persecution in mainland Europe. They were in search of a nation in which they could belong, but arrived only to live in absolute poverty among the poor working classes of East London. My grandmother shared a room with her older brothers, sisters and parents. Their bathtub doubled up as a kitchen table and her brother’s bed – there weren’t enough chairs for them all to sit down. The Labour party represented the needs of the Jewish people socio-economically, but also was the driving British force of support for an independent state of Israel and was inherently Zionist even before the Balfour Declaration. Our mutual history and shared founding beliefs quickly intertwined our community with the party, and the Jewish socialist Movement Poale Zion urged Jewish voters to back the party and provide Labour with much-needed support. In 2018, it feels like a broken relationship – a deep and emotional betrayal.
I don’t like the attention the Jewish people are getting in the news – with every new story, boredom and apathy increase and sympathy for the movement against anti-semitism wanes. This is why the Labour party need to work fast to regain the trust of Jews within the UK. They might help the electorate to believe that they are a truly democratic and tolerant party. They might be able to uphold notions of equality and democracy. They might, finally, become an effective opposition.
Corbyn has made too many historic mistakes on the issue.
- He hosted an event where speakers compared Israel to the Nazis, and allegedly asked protesters to leave.
- He’s called Hamas and Hizbollah his ‘friends’, both proscribed terrorist organisations by the UK government. He has since expressed regret.
- He called Sheikh Raed Salah, a Palestinian mayor who openly claimed that Jews eat children’s blood, an ‘honoured citizen’.
- He expressed public support for a wall mural depicting Jewish bankers as the ‘enemy of humanity’, with the eerily familiar hooked-nose caricature, playing Monopoly on a table held up by the working class.
- Despite being pictured holding and laying a wreath near the graves of the people who murdered 11 Israeli Olympic team members, he claims he did ‘not think he was actually involved in it’.
- He has been pictured with a senior member of the recognised terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who later claimed responsibility for murdering four rabbis during their morning prayers. He denied any knowledge of the figure.
The list goes on. His political career, spanning over three decades, has been punctuated with his support for “Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and terrorist groups”, as David Krikler recently put it.
Given his ability to sit through hours of arduous debate to protest the removal of Tamil asylum seekers, to stand up to his party on a number of issues, including the Iraq War, and nobly protest sending his children to grammar schools, I’m not sure that I can believe that someone with such strong convictions isn’t aware of the implications of sharing a platform with such people.
The question of whether he actually is anti-Semitic still hangs in the air. Corbyn flatly denies that he is, as every apology of his neatly states: he doesn’t tolerate anti-Semitism ‘or any form of racism for that matter’. And yet, his inaction on perceived anti-Semitism within the party, his inability to account for his own role in inciting it, and his failure to apologise for his actions, are increasingly concerning.
Corbyn is an open supporter of the Palestinian people in the face of the Israeli military. I’m not here to defend Israeli treatment of Palestinians, extended settlements or their joint blockade of Gaza’s air and sea borders with Egypt. Being against Israeli foreign policy does not equate to being against the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own. But criticism of Israel that goes further than disagreement with their policies, specifically the denial of the right for Jews to have a Jewish homeland, is not only anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic.
Corbyn is alarmingly ready to blame society’s ills on “capitalists” and the “establishment pundits”, bringing what used to be fringe-leftism to the fore of the Labour Party which sees Israel as a symbol of US propagation of neoliberalism. This rhetoric you can decide upon for yourself. But the notion of Jews symbolising a monied elite has long provided cause for the far left to ‘obsessive(ly) hate’ the Jewish people, and now Zionism, as described by the Jewish Leadership Council. Israel is a more complicated state of affairs than this implies, and for those who know it, an incredibly diverse country that is defined by their communities, families and identities.
Corbyn struggles to straddle the idea that you can freely criticise the actions of the Israeli government while being Zionist, and not anti-Semitic – this is key. Yet, his contempt of Zionists proves that he does actually question the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in the form of a nation state. In practice, anti-Zionism implies that Israeli Jews do not deserve their home, and that Israel’s enemies should be allowed to overtake the state.
The track record of preventing anti-semitism in western states isn’t too strong, so for our protection I do believe that Jews should have their own state as much as any other ethno-religious group. It’s not a strictly nationalistic principle, it’s a way of recognising our history and struggle to exist for centuries, and Israel provides every Jew the safety of becoming an Israeli citizen.
I understand the concerns about claiming anti-Semitism as a tool to prevent complaints about Israel. If anything, we need to disassociate the two ideas entirely in order to prevent anti-Zionism, and by extension, anti-Semitism, to allow free and open criticisms of Israel as much as any other country. But ONLY if the Jewish people are not held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.
What’s deeply concerning is that he has only apologised for the ‘hurt’ he caused. He knows he has caused hurt, sure, but he doesn’t honestly believe he is responsible, or that he is wrong. It’s wonderful that he’s acknowledging this, but he phrases it like it’s an overreaction. Every apology he gives ends with a rhetorical question, and works for him to reassert his moral superiority. We get it Corbyn, you think you’re anti-racist. But how can you stand against discrimination of all races when your actions are contributing to discrimination against Jews?
Here is the crux of the issue of Corbyn’s leadership: he sets a precedent for anti-Semitism within the party. It is interesting that a number of British Jews were previously willing to defend Corbyn. This has changed, and currently, few Jewish defenders of him remain. Even the most loyal Jewish Labour supporters, such as Simon Hattenstone, have begun to vocalise their mistrust.
As the atmosphere becomes increasingly tolerant of anti-Semitism, the few Jews remaining within the party are allowed to be threatened and despicably labelled ‘Zionist whores’ (Jamie Rodney, over twitter). Some members of the Labour party, too, are calling this movement against anti-Semitism a “Jewish war” against the party leadership and painting this issue as an attempt for Jews to control the functioning of UK politics. The enemies of Jews will be empowered by having allies in government, helping to facilitate further anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish people. This – this, is where it needs to stop.
Any form of racism, any form of discrimination, should be treated with absolutely zero tolerance. Yet, those who have been calling Corbyn out, such as Margaret Hodge, who recently called Corbyn a ‘racist anti-Semite’, have been treated with abuse. Hodge was threatened with disciplinary action by the Labour party within only 12 hours of making the remark against Corbyn, putting her under investigation for “a breach of Labour Party rules”. If only anti-semitism were called out so quickly.
On the other hand, Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and a key supporter of Corbyn, made notably anti-Semitic comments in which he described Hitler as a supporter of Zionism, the very man who killed 6 million Jews.
Unlike Hodge’s disciplinary action, Livingstone took almost two years to resign after being initially suspended from the party, with no heavy pressure on him to resign until the Chakrabarti report. There is a severe disparity in how these cases have been dealt with. The immediacy of the response to Hodge compared to Livingstone clearly demonstrates the party’s priorities, and anti-semitism is quite near the bottom of that list.
Such quashing of anyone who isn’t aligned to his beliefs sets another worrying precedent for his growing cult of personality. And those who stand up against anti-Semitism are being questioned, not celebrated – worryingly similar to former, unspeakable events.
At this stage, the Jewish community ‘won’t accept gestures’, said one Labour source – we need serious proof from the Labour party that they will not stand for anti-Semitism. In March, Labour promised a ‘programme of political education within the party ‘to increase awareness and understanding of all forms of anti-Semitism” – this hasn’t happened. Instead, Corbyn is trying to redefine anti-Semitism, without consulting any Jews. Even when adopting the internationally recognised International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism, senior Labour officials have now announced that there will be ‘addendums, put into the rulebook, that will weaken the force of the IHRA examples’. This might mean that drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis are accepted by Britain’s main opposition party.
We are seriously afraid. Jews have called Britain their home for centuries, and worked ceaselessly to justify their existence here. How anti-Semitism is defined is not only important as a move by Corbyn to show he’s listened, but it is also paramount in the future of how anti-Semitism is responded to within the party. By defining it in the way most recently proposed, Corbyn is protecting himself from being scrutinised by his past actions, and allowing many anti-Semitic remarks to go without reprehension.
Even Tony Blair has stepped in, stating that Corbyn does not understand the seriousness of the party’s problem. He is selective of who he surrounds himself with, both through his aides and only associating with supportive Jews, choosing to blind himself to the real concerns. He has failed to show that he truly understands the issue.
Corbyn’s supposed founding principles are endearing. His track record as an MP is seemingly admirable. As such, I gave him the benefit of the doubt regarding his true beliefs about my community. We want to believe Corbyn’s facade because it’s easy. Because our alternative is a seemly wooden, once capable, Prime Minister. If his defence holds, and he is so ignorant of who he shares a platform with, time and time again, then he is not someone that should be trusted to lead our country. If his defence doesn’t hold, his political beliefs cannot be trusted to guide us through the zero-tolerance society that helped to place him at the helm of the Labour party.
It is easy to be reminded of the poem by Martin Niemöller ‘first they came for the socialists…’, but his words are still relevant. If we continue to excuse Jeremy Corbyn’s comments each time, we allow him to set a precedent in the UK for accepting the rhetoric and the hatred behind them. We have to call every comment out for what it is – inexcusable racism. His comments are in line with ideological anti-semitism, which most choose to blind themselves from, but he is leader of the opposition. He should be subject to as much, if not more, scrutiny than members of his party. If these allegations were made about a Labour MP, they would be investigated. Corbyn should not be exempt as leader, or from his own words for that matter – ‘If it arises in my party then we have a process for dealing with it.’ The only process there has been in the past few months is against Hodge.
It is the behaviour of Corbyn before he became a prominent figure within the Labour party that has garnered the most public criticism. The person we are learning about is the Corbyn who acted without fear of scrutiny. My main concern with Corbyn is that he doesn’t live up to who he says he is – the person he is presenting now is just a front, and who’s to say what policies he would implement upon coming into power?
His response, when criticised for not understanding the seriousness with which most Jews view anti-Semitism within the Labour party, was to join Jewdas for a passover meal – yes, Jewish, but in no means representative of the majority of the Jewish population. We’re a community of different ethnicities, religious movements, levels of wealth and experiences of society. Knowing that we can speak freely without feeling judged or silenced is a fundamental part of our community.
But a good politician will listen to people that make complaints about them and do their best to win back that support. Corbyn deliberately undermined his apology by choosing a radical anti-Zionist group, detaching a large part of the Jewish community, hiding behind the few that don’t see his words as anti-Semitic – a group that claims that the anti-Semitism row has been constructed “by people whose express loyalty is to the Conservative party”. He’s acting like a child who promises they won’t do it again with their fingers crossed behind their back – but he’s not a child, he’s leader of the opposition, and we can’t keep on making excuses for him.
That night, Corbyn sat through Jewdas’ four-hour seder service listening to the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt for the festival of passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery. That was just one story of Jewish persecution. It’s time Corbyn learns the rest.
Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr