How has a once great party come to this?

Last week, eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party, with many citing the totalitarian ideology of the party leadership, and the antisemitism within its ranks. How did a great party – imbued in social justice and opposition to bigotry – find itself having to fight off accusations of racism, totalitarianism and bullying?

Nearly a year ago, the British Jewish community protested outside Parliament over Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to confront antisemitism in his party. The unprecedented action of a reticent community was spurred by the extraordinary position in which we found ourselves with respect to Her Majesty’s Opposition, where anti-Jewish hatred has been legitimised.

Corbyn has not just spent his political career feting and apologising for antisemites. He is personally responsible for propagating anti-Jewish canards, be it suspecting ‘Israel’s hand’ in terrorist attacks in Egypt, or his stubborn support for a mural replete with anti-Jewish imagery.

He has allowed a culture of toxicity to engulf the Labour Party, where its elected officials and ordinary members spew vile anti-Jewish racism daily with little fear of retribution. He now presides over an institutionally antisemitic party and the blame lies squarely with him.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn giving his keynote speech at the party’s annual conference, October 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Yet this is not just a UK problem. We need only look across the Atlantic to see how progressive politics have morphed into anti-Jewish racism. Democrat Congresswoman Ilhan Omar  recently claimed that American politicians support Israel because they are paid to do so. Her “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet will go down as the antisemitic dog whistle of the year.

Those who wish to show solidarity with Palestinians often fail to distinguish themselves from those who don’t accept Israel has a right to exist

The reality is that US politicians are pro-Israel because American voters are pro-Israel and because American and Israeli values are one and the same. As in the UK, progressives’ shift towards greater criticism of Israel gives rise to an unclear dividing line between criticism of Israeli Government policies and antisemitism, such as regarding Israel itself as a racist endeavour. 

Those who wish to show solidarity with Palestinians often fail to distinguish themselves from those who don’t accept Israel has a right to exist at all and those who use antisemitic tropes to express their opposition to Israel and perceived Jewish influence in the US.

Few people deny that criticism of Israel is illegitimate, but tropes about rich Jews buying Congress goes against the anti-racist credentials of progressive parties, be it the Democratic Party or the Labour Party. If Omar needed any confirmation that she had strayed into murky waters, she got it when none other than former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, also a fan of Corbyn, came to her defence. The mainstreaming of an anti-Jewish canard damages our society’s fabric.

Omar has since apologised, but she’s allowed a toxic atmosphere to follow, where such sentiments are accepted. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle – for many, this is as a good thing.

France is another example, where the gilets jaunes, the yellow-vested protestors, are also embroiled in allegations of antisemitism. What began as a protest against fuel tax rises has quickly broadened to include an array of grievances and has become more and more radical.

Last week, prominent Jewish French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was called a “dirty Zionist” who should “go back to Tel Aviv”. The question is why protest so often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theory, illiberalism and hatred of the Jew. We live in an increasingly polarised and politically fraught world and this usually spells disaster for the Jew, a convenient scapegoat for the ills of the world. 

Jews are learning hard and fast that anti-Jewish hatred comes in many guises. Many will look at Omar and think, because of the bigotry she has faced as a black Muslim woman, that she is an ally, in the same way many assume Corbyn must be because of his left-wing politics. 

It is to our detriment we deny agency to individuals based on their ethnicity or their ‘values’. We must be show zero tolerance because a climate of antisemitism doesn’t emerge overnight. If we can’t hold our elected representatives’ feet to the fire to ensure that an incident doesn’t become a pattern, we stand no chance of winning this fight.

We have history to tell us what happens next.

About the Author
Claudia is the Jewish Leadership Council's Co-Chief Executive