Corbyn condemned himself with the mural

But tolerance for anti-Semitism in the UK Labour ranks has existed for decades: That's the real problem that needs to be addressed
Infamous mural which Corbyn questioned as to whether it was antisemitic (Via Jewish News)
Infamous mural which Corbyn questioned as to whether it was antisemitic (Via Jewish News)

If we think of Al Capone, we don’t think, first and foremost, of a vagrant or a tax evader. Yet those were the charges – vagrancy and tax evasion – that the US state department used to bring down Chicago’s pre-eminent mobster in May 1932.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’s investigation into the Labour Party, and the Labour Party’s subsequent suspension of Jeremy Corbyn after he refused to retract his statement in response, which said that the scale of the problem had been exaggerated by the party’s political opponents, both have a whiff of the forces bringing down Capone.

I don’t want to belittle the importance of the fact that the party’s processes were found to have discriminated against Jewish people, that Corbyn’s office was found to have interfered on at least 23 occasions, including into a complaint against Corbyn himself, or the other serious procedural issues unearthed by the EHRC.

But the central problem with the Corbyn era, and with Corbyn himself, was not revealed by anything he or his allies did or did not do as leader.

Corbyn condemned himself back in 2012 when he was faced with the sight of a mural that was so virulently and obviously antisemitic, it would not have looked out of place in a sitcom about a hapless buffoon who accidentally commissions an expensive work of art, only to find it is visibly and transparently racist.

You can almost imagine Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm trying to work out how to tell his neighbour that their new piece of artwork was antisemitic, or Leslie Knope trying and failing to get the truculent residents of Pawnee to remove such a mural.

What you can’t imagine, and until 2015 would have thought you had little need to, is the leader of the opposition, seeing that such a mural had been painted over would ask: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”

Screenshot of comments made by Jeremy Corbyn, questioning whether the mural was antisemitic. (Twitter/ Luciana Berger)

Those 18 words are more damning than any of the 35,000-odd words in the EHRC’s report: that Corbyn was either unable to recognise an obviously antisemitic piece of artwork when he stared it in the face, or that he agreed with its content made him an unsuitable candidate to be prime minister.

That that unsuitability had institutional consequences is important, but unsurprising: and ultimately, secondary to the moral issue exposed by the mural instance, one of a number of times when through a combination of action or inaction, the Islington North MP revealed himself to be beyond the pale.

Small wonder that by the time of the 2019 election, more than eight out of 10 British Jews believed Jeremy Corbyn to be antisemitic, and even more refused to back Labour at the election in the same year. The problem is, though, just as Al Capone did not invent the problem of organised crime, or organised crime in Chicago for that matter, the problems of antisemitism in the Labour party did not start with Corbyn.

This week’s Jewish News front page: UNMASKED

Indeed, the worst things that Corbyn himself did occurred under his predecessors as Labour leader. He had been condemned by our lay leaders and the Community Security Trust many times before he became leader. At a grassroots level, rather than complaining to the leadership, the issue was ignored.

It is convenient and somewhat reassuring to see the issue as one that began with Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader in 2015 and ends with his suspension in 2020. The reality is the problem of toleration of antisemitism in the Labour ranks was a problem that existed for decades. It is recognising that problem, and genuinely tackling it, that Keir Starmer must do.

About the Author
Stephen is Political Editor of the New Statesman, and is chair of the Board of Deputies Commission into Racial Inclusivity.