When it comes to Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour Party and its antisemitism crisis, those fighting against the legitimisation or whitewashing of antisemitic beliefs and tropes are all too often met by an intransigent doubling down in their defence. How can it be that this ancient battle is still being waged in 2019, more than three years into Corbyn’s leadership, with almost daily revelations of either fresh or unearthed examples of antisemitism from the leadership and its key allies?
In searching for a deeper understanding of this struggle, can the Zohar, the primary canon of the Kabbalah, provide any insight? The passages to consider are those where the Zohar discusses the nature and origin of evil, which it does in a myriad of – often seemingly contradictory – ways.
The Zohar scholar, Isaiah Tishby, believed this inconsistency was due to dual influences, from Gnosticism and from Neoplatonism, which gave rise to pessimistic and optimistic portrayals of wickedness respectively. Tishby argued that this internal tension within the Zohar represented its inclination towards a dualistic understanding of good and evil on the one hand, and its need, on the other, to ‘restrict’ these tendencies to fit better within Judaism’s monotheistic framework.
It is possible, however, that the Zohar was, in fact, portraying two distinct forces of evil. The pessimistic characterisations may capture a more malign power, the optimistic ones a more benign malevolence.
Either way, the Zohar typically names them as the Sitra Achra – Aramaic for ‘the other side’, an apt epithet for much of Jeremy Corbyn’s history of resisting the mainstream and championing the fringe, however fanatical. Alternatively, for Corbyn and his supporters, this battle is against the oppressive nature of corrupt capitalism, a double negative, if you will, that they believe serves the good of mankind.
Within the Zohar, one kind of evil is driven (as the name itself suggests) to compete against holiness, whilst the other ultimately aids the divine. To assess which might best capture the antisemitic elements within the Corbyn-led Labour Party, let us examine a few of the Zoharic depictions of the two types of evil:
Reflecting arguably the best-known religious explanation for the existence of evil in the world, the Zohar expresses that one role of the sitra achra is to facilitate free-will, without which humans would not be able to align with G-d through their own volition: “When man enters the evil way and then abandons it, the Holy One, blessed be He, is exalted in His glory” (Zohar II, 34a). In addition to highlighting man’s resultant free-will, the text suggests that it is thanks to the temptation of evil that G-d can be elevated when its lure is rejected.
The same passage also articulates that “there is no light except that which comes from darkness…and there is no good except that which comes from evil” (Zohar II, 34a). Without the differentiation, therefore, neither good nor bad could exist as everything would be unified within the divine. These opposing forces are part of what enables creation to come into being, with a central spiritual aspiration in life being to transmute our wicked inclinations into holy ones.
After the British Jewish Community’s unprecedented Enough is Enough demonstration outside The Houses of Parliament in Westminster in April 2018, Jeremy Corbyn issued what seemed like a sincere apology to the Jewish Community (even contradicting his downplaying of the few bad antisemitic apples he claimed that very morning). Corbyn had an historic opportunity. Though many Jews were alarmed by his long record of appearing alongside and supporting known antisemites, from holocaust deniers to Hamas and Hezbollah, here he offered a glimpse of what could be. Out of the darkness, could Corbyn lead the antisemitic elements of the far left into the light?
Alas, it was not to be, and the expression of remorse was likely an insincere attempt to manage the growing political fall-out from the demonstration. All subsequent apologies have failed to soften the criticism, often exacerbating the hurt felt by exposing how little Corbyn really cared. Still, at that time, most Jews assumed that whilst Corbyn had kept company with many an antisemite, he was probably not one himself even if he undeniably had a hugely insensitive blind spot.
A common defence from Corbyn allies has been that the real threat of antisemitism comes not from the far left but from the far right. Obviously not a zero-sum game, there is, moreover, no uniform manifestation of antisemitism and no part of the political spectrum that is immune to it; though it is interesting that one side can readily acknowledge the antisemitism of its opponents.
In exploring the relativity of evil, the Zohar highlights that what may be considered evil from one perspective may be deemed holy from another. Specifically, it is thanks to the constrictive force (the original divine template for evil within the Big Bang-like theory in Kabbalah) that creation can exist as the purity and intensity of G-d’s light is gradually stepped down from one emanation to the next. Just as a lower emanation can be considered an evil shell in relation to ones above, so too can it be considered a spark of light in relation to those further below: “…one is a shell of a [kernel] which is itself a shell of another” (Zohar I, 20a).
Somehow, to the ‘life-long anti-racists’ of the far left, antisemitism often fails to register unless it is the overt Jew-hate found amongst the far right. Are they struggling to acknowledge the other, more nuanced types of antisemitism now highlighted by the IHRA definition and by the ‘punching up’ variety of racism that may be unique to anti-Jewish bigotry? Is the politics of the hard left too closely aligned with strands of conspiracy theory which inevitably include a degree of antisemitism? Or is the far left largely oblivious to the antisemitic roots of its anti-Zionist discourse (much of which proliferated under the supervision of the Soviet KGB) and fooled into thinking that they are merely espousing anti-Israel sentiments? It is hard to imagine such tone-deafness in the face of prejudice aimed at, say, black or LGBT people which raises the question as to why, bottom-line, are so few willing to recognise the offences caused to the Jewish community?
In a fantastic article in Fathom in 2013 (http://fathomjournal.org/the-pleasures-of-antisemitism), Eve Garrard explored the seductive pleasures enjoyed by antisemites that can be difficult to reject. Some of these subtle but profound internal gratifications, however, could be experienced through any other superiority-complex based racism – for example, the antisemitism of the far right ‘rewards’ the racist in much the same way as for any of their xenophobic intolerances. Yet, for the far left, for whom traditional forms of racism are rightly abhorrent, only a small pool of righteous racism is available, and this is the ‘punching up’ antisemitism (as expounded by John-Paul Pagano – https://forward.com/opinion/393107/how-anti-semitisms-true-origin-makes-it-invisible-to-the-left) that places the Jews at the heart of a powerful and secretive elite, i.e. as the oppressors to use Jeremy Corbyn’s language.
It requires emotional and intellectual maturity to be able to discern, honestly, one’s own bigoted inclinations (none of us are prejudice free) but these are qualities that are hard to find amongst those drawn to the populist driven arguments of the hard left.
In the Zohar, we find an allegory describing how a king hires a whore to seduce his son. The prostitute is commissioned to test the son so that the king can discern whether he will remain faithful in face of temptation (Zohar II, 162b-163b). Not many of Corbyn’s supporters would pass such a test if it meant resisting the lure of antisemitic thinking. To be fair, it is easier to rebuff the traps of racism when society is prospering but when it is challenged by increased hardships, the appeal of projecting one’s discontent onto a scapegoat inevitably rises and the Jew has, regrettably, served this role for centuries.
Highlighting how this tempter type of evil is employed by G-d, the Zohar goes on to prompt that the whore, representing the sitra achra, deserves to be respected and that iniquity can also serve a higher purpose, even if indirectly.
One of the unexpected positive side-effects of the rise of antisemitism on the left is that is has helped underline how unified the overwhelming majority of the UK Jewish community is on this issue, in sharp contrast to the cliché of two Jews, three opinions. 68 British Rabbis from all denominations of Judaism came together to sign a letter to the Guardian newspaper urging Labour to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism last autumn. Similarly, the MP Dame Margaret Hodge even stated that where her family and rabbis had failed, Jeremy Corbyn had succeeded in making her Jewish – and she is not alone.
In another segment of the Zohar, the sitra achra is likened to a guard who ensures that only those worthy of G-d’s glory are blessed by it. Again, illustrated through an allegory, we read that a king wrapped a serpent around his treasure so that only those he trusts can gain access to it (Zohar II, 172b-173b). By preventing the inappropriate trespassing of the un-initiated into the spiritual spheres, the sitra achra can serve to protect both the Godhead from impurity and, equally, the unworthy from Icarian harm.
Is antisemitism a fatal flaw that will prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister – either directly, as some of the electorate see it as a deal breaker, or indirectly if people view the Labour Party’s inability to deal with the problem properly as a warning of their wider ineptitude (even in relation to the calamitous Conservatives)? Can Jeremy Corbyn and his key allies survive the formal investigation launched by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which will, given the high threshold that has been met to launch such an enquiry, likely find that the Labour Party has discriminated against Jews unlawfully?
Is the antisemitism within Labour safeguarding against a possibly worse scenario were the current leadership to form the government? As for Corbyn himself, it has often been suggested that he may not actually want to be Prime Minister – is he resistant to changing his lifetime’s practice of opposing power from the side-lines and/or reluctant to relinquish the, perhaps unconscious, gratification of his anti-establishment worldview?
Within the Zohar’s more dualistic presentations of wickedness we find that the separate configurations of the sitra achra mirror the arrangement of the divine sefirot, or emanations. The stain of inequity is thus removed from G-d, for “destruction appears in the world only from the side of [evil],” (Zohar II, 141a). The role of the sitra achra in these depictions is that of G-d’s adversary since it opposes the forces of goodness and tries, at all costs, to promote its own power: “When [holiness] is strong, all the limbs of the sitra achra grow weak. When one side is replete, the other is ruined,” (Zohar II, 238b). This metaphysical struggle centres on mankind’s behaviour; transgressions fuel the negative sway of the sitra achra, good deeds fortify the harmony of holiness.
We can see that the hard left has taken full advantage of its opportunity to build up its power base and to cement as much control as possible within the different Labour Party structures. In many ways, this is a natural desire of any political force, but it has left many feeling that the Labour Party they grew up supporting has been hijacked. It is, moreover, rather disturbing to tot up the instances where Corbyn has railed against NATO, the EU, the British Government plus its allies and where he has sided with extremists, terrorists and their state sponsors. ‘Whose side is he really on?’ would seem to be a fair question.
Corbyn’s supporters might point to the inevitable flaws, even very significant ones, within the man-made institutions that govern the country and the international organisations we uphold (though the hard left alternatives would certainly be similarly imperfect). There will always be a measure of plausibility bolstering their rejections (or of deniability to obfuscate their failings) but how firmly rooted to reality is the justification offered or how distorting is its presentation?
A charming passage within the introduction to the Zohar provides an insight into the dynamics of truth and falsehood. Set within a cosmic drama, the creative forces -symbolised by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet – appeal to G-d to be chosen as the primary channel of creation. Although the letter shin would herself be a worthy candidate as she is described as representing truth, she is turned down since shin is vulnerable to being seized by the letters kof and resh, which appear on the ‘dark side’ (Zohar I, 2b). When shin is captured (literally followed) by kof and resh, the 3 letters spell the word sheker which means falsehood.
Truth is thus supplanted by and cannot co-exist alongside its adversary of falsehood, whilst, crucially, for deception to subsist, it needs to feed off a source of faithfulness (i.e. off shin, the first letter of the word).
Consider, for example, the deflection that the accusations of antisemitism aimed at Corbyn are merely a smear and that the issue has been weaponised against him as he is a long-time advocate of the Palestinian cause. Certainly, there will have been instances where the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for his historical antisemitic allegiances have been primarily political; in fact, it would be extraordinary if none of his opponents stooped to smear him. However, the antisemitism crisis would simply not persist without a firm basis of truth (as is highlighted by the extremely short lifespan of the fiction that Corbyn was a Czech spy).
A movement that is genuinely anti-racist would never seek to dismiss the deep fears of the overwhelming majority of a minority just because some political foes resorted to underhand tactics. Indeed, the remarkable moral and intellectual manipulations applied by apologists for Corbyn are often more hurtful and insulting than the original instances of antisemitism. Truth is twisted into untruth to defend the indefensible.
When video footage was unearthed in the summer of 2018 revealing that Corbyn had accused British Zionists of not understanding English irony, he crossed a clear line. Many people who had been reluctant to label him an antisemite, as well as some who had previously argued in his defence, recognised that this was an unambiguous example of antisemitism. That Corbyn described the British Zionists in question as having probably lived here their whole lives only makes sense if their ancestors were from overseas. Zionist could, therefore, only mean Jew. Rather than apologising for the obvious affront, however, Corbyn insisted that he had used Zionist in the correct political context and, as expected, his social media activists doubled down despite the obvious dishonesty.
If truth cannot co-exist alongside falsehood, and if the Labour Party has been taken over by a radical faction whose antisemitism is evident, should the remaining Jewish Labour MPs and members, along with their allies, not quit the toxified party?
Calls for this are growing ever louder but it depends on whether the damage to the Labour Party is irreparable or not. The enduring Jewish members believe they are fighting for the soul of the party and that it would be a travesty to concede defeat to those who have so altered its makeup. If the antisemitism of the far left is a manifestation of the malign kind of evil, then it may already be too late; if it is a more benign and mis-guided by-product of their idealism then there is more hope.
The introductory passage within the Zohar hints at both varieties of evil. Where one encounters Sheker, falsehood that has gazumped truth, one needs to isolate it and sever any connection to it; it will, otherwise, always taint and drain one’s energy and integrity. One option is certainly to renounce the Labour Party and to remove the holy source it feeds off – a mass exodus would leave the far left with a hollow shell of a party – but the challenge of building a new mainstream political entity is unenticing in a first past the post electoral system. If one is determined to stay and restore the righteous character of the Labour Party captured by the far left, it will be necessary to unhook, completely, the multifarious and far reaching tentacles of the antisemitic adherents. It would be a long, fraught and bitter struggle against those desperate to cling to power.
A very different possibility exists for the less destructive evil: Re-arranged, the same three letters of sheker, falsehood, spell the word kesher (meaning bridge or connection) which is linked in the Zohar to the concept of a knot and associated with negative dynamics. When facing the destruction of sheker it is imperative to break the ties to the impurity, when facing kesher, however, it is possible to disentangle the negativity much as one would a tortuous knot.
If the antisemitism of Corbyn and his cronies falls into the category of kesher, then the remaining Jewish members within Labour and their allies are right to believe they can liberate the soul of the party from the temporary twisted control of the hard left. Whilst far from straightforward, it is much less traumatic to undo the more superficial damage caused by this kind of evil than by the more malign variety.
The Kabbalists posit that the position of the letter shin in the middle of the word kesher is akin to the soul trapped within the constraints of the physical body. In passages which describe how the soul is bound to the realms of holiness and the body to the dominion of the sitra achra, the Zohar teaches that the task of the righteous is to choose, constantly, good over evil. In this way, the righteous remain connected to the level of the soul and free from the rule of the material realms, which are intrinsically tied up both with the sitra achra and with suffering.
The Zohar compares the descent of the soul into the body to the descent of the patriarchs into Egypt, which is, in turn, likened to the process of purifying precious metals within a refiner’s crucible (Zohar I, 83a-b, 147b-148a). The sitra achra is likened to the dross that is discarded by the alchemists as the goal of the mystics is to cleave, whether via meditation or prayer, to the level of the soul and to ignore the ‘lower’ bodily urges, a practice designed to transform their inner being.
There has been little evidence of the hard left being willing or able to apply any introspection following the many instances of antisemitic abuse aimed even at Labour MPs. On the contrary, many have moved to ‘purify’ the party in the opposite direction, as highlighted by the (antisemitically motivated) attempts to deselect the Jewish MP Luciana Berger before she finally quit the Labour Party alongside a handful of colleagues, citing the institutional problem of antisemitism therein as a primary cause.
Also disturbing is how the party’s compliance structures have been run and how interference from the leadership’s office has been exposed in what should have been an independent process assessing cases of antisemitism amongst its members. As Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, aptly tweeted when Luciana Berger was facing deselection, “It’s simple: if you are an antisemite in Labour, you are safe. If you are a Jew who complains about antisemitism, you are not.”
This conduct is more symptomatic of the destructive evil, concerned primarily with survival at any cost, and has not been reserved solely for Jewish Labour MPs but for the hard left’s more vocal opponents too. In a twisted sense, perhaps the far left regard antisemitism as a regrettable off-shoot of what is, primarily, a drive to create a factionally pure political party that can fight to re-balance the vast inequalities in a society that has lost its way.
The trouble with this level of projection is that one cannot reason either with the antisemites or with their supporters; they are impervious to any position that challenges their own. Significantly, the Zohar frequently states that the sitra achra is too powerful to destroy in battle and that it is often best to appease it. In a passage discussing Job, the Zohar suggests that his suffering resulted from his directing his sacrifices solely towards G-d, ignoring and, therefore, agitating the sitra achra (Zohar II 181b-182a). Offerings to the sitra achra, however, are only meant to be superficial, their underlying function being to lull the influences of evil into a false sense of satiation and to nullify them. Rather than try and tackle the antisemitism of the far left directly, it is best to sidestep any personal confrontation and to refer the matter to a higher authority – and since the Labour Party’s Compliance has been compromised it has needed to be referred on to the EHRC.
Interestingly, the sitra achra is, elsewhere, ascribed the role of accuser, through which it acts to bring human shortcomings to the attention of G-d in the hope that G-d will allow it to dispense the punishment. As the ‘adversary’ the sitra achra acts not only against man, but also against G-d, whereas as the ‘accuser’, the sitra achra boasts less autonomy, can only charge man before G-d and ultimately serves both.
An instrumentalist reading of this latter facet of the sitra achra suggests that it serves G-d by encouraging mankind to improve its behaviour so that it may experience less punishment and suffering. Taking this a step further, one could argue that this aspect of evil actually seeks, albeit indirectly, to reduce its strength and influence in the world, for the less human beings sin and the holier their actions, the weaker the sitra achra becomes. Only an eternal optimist, though, would believe this could apply to any facet of the antisemitism that has engulfed the Labour Party.
Having outlined a number of sub-categories of evil illustrated in the Zohar, let us consider which of the two broader varieties fit Corbyn’s antisemitism:
The first, more dualistic, type of evil exists as G-d’s adversary, intent on punishing man and on maximising its power and influence at the expense of the divine. In the case of the Corbyn and antisemitism, we can see this in the attempts to punish the Jews and their advocates – most clearly highlighted by the hounding of Luciana Berger out of the Labour Party – and by the seizing of the party apparatus. The ultimate purpose of this form of evil is that of destruction – and the Labour Party has seemed incapable of changing its ways in a positive sense, always succeeding somehow in making matters worse for the Jews.
The second, less dualistic, kind of evil is portrayed as G-d’s agent and solely punishes mankind so it can correct its ways; it tests its strength of faith and provides the structures that ultimately protect both the Godhead and creation. This evil can be considered constructive, but it would appear perverse to thank the antisemitic drivers within the Labour Party for the resilience of the Jewish Community and the way it has come together in the face of such an unforgiving threat.
Unfortunately, it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that the antisemitism crisis we have been witnessing in the UK for the last 3 or 4 years is the consequence of a nihilistic antisemitic force masquerading as anti-racist. The question remains, therefore, whether the proponents of leaving and relinquishing the Labour Party or those of remaining and rescuing it are on the right path and perhaps this will only become clearer once the EHRC investigation reaches its verdict in however many months that may be.
In the meantime, as the British Jewish Community has sadly experienced since it tried to address the issue at the Enough is Enough demonstration, confronting the source of antisemitism within the Labour Party has led to an ongoing worsening of the problem and we should probably be braced for even more appalling illustrations as the EHRC carries out its enquiry. Perhaps an intriguing perspective in the Zohar can provide some consolation – apparently, even by meditating upon the structures of evil, one can gain an understanding of the make-up of the Godhead. Let this reward be true for those who have sacrificed so much in the often thankless and seemingly endless task of exposing and fighting the antisemitism that has seized control of the current incarnation of the Labour Party!