There are some key things Jeremy Corbyn should have been able to say with ease to address mounting communal concerns in recent weeks.
First he should have publicly acknowledged that, far from a smear campaign as many of his supporters dismissed the revelations about his associates, concern over his hosting and defence of extremists and anti-Semites was entirely legitimate.
A pattern of behaviour over many years which he knows has caused huge offence and which surely warrants some expression of regret from a man who has been at the forefront of tackling racism for decades. Next, Corbyn needs to make absolutely clear he would not again invite, share platforms with or associate in an way with those who have expressed racist or anti-Semitic sentiment or belittled the Holocaust.
Saying, as he has in relation to at least two unsavoury characters he was linked with, that they didn’t utter racist words in his ear shot when a simple google search would reveal their true colours, simply won’t work for a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Diane Abbott’s claim that backbenchers often turn up at events at which they are unaware of who will be making an appearance may be true, but this did not apply in some of the most troubling cases involving Corbyn where he himself was doing the inviting. If, giving him the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he and his office were unaware of certain individuals’ track records, then he would surely want to reassure British Jews and others that with more staff and more responsibility – will come more stringent checks and scrutiny of potential guests to ensure there is no repeat.
None of this should have been hard to say during the campaign; it doesn’t require him to disavow his anti-war stance or his support for the Palestinians. If it’s not possible to promote dialogue without bringing those who have expressed anti-Semitic or homophobic sentiment into the fray, then there is a major problem somewhere. Addressing these issues would not only provide a bridge for opening dialogue with Anglo-Jewry but would also be a further practical expression of his passionate work against racism of all kinds.
While on the subject of racism, this campaign shone a disturbing but important light on the anti-Semitism of some on the hard left who crawled out of the woodwork to back Corbyn. While his remarks to the Jewish News that anti-Semites should not have no say in the leadership battle – and indeed that he wanted to work with Jewish leaders to fight anti-Semitism – were welcome, he must now use his unique position and apparent influence to address head on this scourge in his midst. If this were to happen, a real positive could yet come out of the sickening reaction of some on the hard-left.
But It would of course be wrong to suggest that the issue of his associates was the only reason for widespread concern within Anglo-Jewry. If there is potential for some common ground around tackling racism, it’s not at all clear where this might exist on Israel-Palestine. The Islington North MP and Palestine Solidarity Campaign patron has for years been one of Parliament’s most vocal critics of the Jewish state from the backbenches and it is inconceivable that there will be a dramatic change in those views now he is in high office.
Many will fear that the final months of Ed Miliband’s reign – hardly a high point in Jewish-Labour relations – will start to appear as almost halcyon moments in comparison. Those fears will only have been compounded by the dramatic departure – post General Election and post Corbyn election – of many of Israel’s greatest supporters on Labour’s front bench. Could the exit of many of the big hitters who stayed away from the Commons vote on Palestinian statehood embolden the leader and those around him to harden the party’s position further.
We are now in unchartered territory and much remains unknown. It will be hoped that with his new-found responsibility will come less of a gung-ho approach to the issue. (it’s notable that he didn’t broach the subject of calls for Netanyahu’s arrest this week and didn’t address a protest ahead of the Israel-Wales match that some of Israel’s supporters feared he would, though it remains to be seen whether that was just a blip). Recognition, at least, that there are two sides to the conflict and of the tough neighbourhood Israel sits in, as well as of Israel’s incredible achievements in many areas, would be an important step. Believing Hamas should be engaged is one thing, but surely he can see why British Jews would see red at the prospect of a Labour leader maintaining it’s acceptable to describe a group that has set out to murder their family members in Israel as “friends”.
Clarification of Corbyn’s support for elements of the boycott campaign – something Ed Miliband strongly opposed and which looks set to further red water between Labour and the Tories on Israel – are also likely to be sought by community leaders when they sit down with him. Further down the line, those same community leaders will be wondering if the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which the community will celebrate in 2017, will be a flashpoint given that Corbyn has previously apologised for the historic document.
More immediately, all eyes turn to his appointment as shadow chancellor for an indication about how far left he plans to take the party, as those who care about Israel will also be looking to his shadow foreign secretary pick for any initial pointers to intentions on matters beyond these shores Then there is the question of what will be said at the party conference on the main stage and perhaps more significantly on the fringes. Could we see Corbyn address Labour Friends of Israel and, if so, what would constitute holding out an olive branch?
Community leaders have been quick to indicate their readiness to meet Corbyn – his mandate is unprecedented and our leaders have a responsibility to make the best they can of the situation – but it’s important they present a united position now of all times. While Jewish Labour figures will inevitably face questions over their future in the party – and it’s hardly a surprise a mini exodus had already begun – early indications are that most including many prominent figures will stay and fight from within whilst maintaining red lines. For them, it seems likely to be a bumpy ride – for how long is the question on everyone’s lips.