Jews, racism and the fear of Jeremy Corbyn

There is an elephant in the debating chamber when it comes to British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the issue of leftist antisemitism that has plagued him throughout the summer. As the debacle about Mr Corbyn’s tolerance of Jew-baiting in his party has rumbled on, his defenders have stressed his lifelong opposition to “all forms of racism”. They have also stressed his principled distinction between Zionists (bad) and Jews in general (probably not so bad).

But the Jewish community has said the same. The leadership of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, of which I was a member until earlier this year, has argued strenuously that its opposition to antisemitism should not be seen as an attempt to stifle criticism of the Jewish state, and that criticism focusing on the state and military, rather than Israel’s right to exist, is a quite different and entirely legitimate form of self-expression.

This structuring of the debate has allowed Mr Corbyn and his camp to suggest that Zionists and Jews are separate groups, and that hostility to the former does not imply hostility to the latter. The Jewish establishment, similarly, has insisted that friendship towards the latter does not necessarily imply exoneration of the former. The argument is one and the same.

In fact, the distinction is less clear than both camps have found it useful to suggest. Although many Jews in the UK are critical of Israel’s actions, especially under its present prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, criticism does not preclude their being absolutely committed to Israel and its welfare and survival. Like Jews the world over, UK Jews have family in Israel, travel to Israel, holiday in Israel, foster a love of Israel in their children, think well enough of family members who serve in Israel’s army, sponsor charities in Israel, and feel attacked when Israel is attacked.

And while religious Jews stress the centrality of Israel to Jewish prayer over 3,500 years, warmth for Israel is shared by secular Jews for whom religious practice is of minor importance, if not absent entirely.

So the attempt to separate anti-Zionism and antisemitism is misleading, even though both Mr Corbyn and the Board have spent the past year cautioning anyone from saying so.

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are closely related, and Mr Corbyn is guilty of both, but we need to understand exactly how. That has not been helped by the way the term has been used recently. During the summer Mr Corbyn was branded an antisemite by Labour MPs Louise Ellman and Margaret Hodge and others, when there were simpler, less loaded words for his tolerance of nasty behaviour and nasty attitudes towards Jews by Labour’s more headstrong members. (Bully? Hypocrite? Rabble-rouser?) Frank Field, another Labour MP,  also muddied the waters by complaining last week about the way moderate Labour party members were harassed by Mr Corbyn’s thugs, attaching an additional charge of antisemitism that he may have had evidence for but did not back up.

Is Mr Corbyn an antisemite? Not obviously, in the classical sense of the word. But that does not mean that he’s not in other ways. Labour MPs Chris Williamson and Diane Abbott have endlessly assured us that because Mr Corbyn has always championed the oppressed and fought racism, he cannot be antisemitic. They do not confess that much of his fight against racism has been directed against Israel, and that if he has made tireless efforts to bring people together (their explanation for his friendship with representatives of Hamas and other Palestinian groups), he has never tried the same with Israeli leaders.

When Mr Corbyn’s friends explain that a lifelong campaigner against racism cannot be an antisemite, they are therefore being slippery. If Zionism is racist at its core—and Mr Corbyn’s proposed caveat at the National Executive Committee’s IHRA meeting on Tuesday shows he believes it is—anti-Zionists must also believe that its supporters are racists. And while there is no evidence that Mr Corbyn dislikes Jews as individuals or has engaged in the language of bigotry, there doesn’t need to be. Jewish support for Israel makes the mass of Jews racist, as far as the anti-Zionism lobby is concerned.

(And not just Jews: in the far left’s eyes, everyone’s a racist or a fascist or a Nazi who sees objective value in a Jewish haven or, more generally, in a democratic haven in the Middle East, or who may have benefitted from this haven, such as Arabs who prefer life in Israel to life in their own country, or members of the LGBT community, or Africans and Asians who have migrated to Israel in search of a better life and whom the far left treats as Uncle Toms. Jews, however, as the “owners” of Israel are evidently the worst offenders because, thanks to Israel’s Right of Return law, those Jews who aren’t already Israeli, and therefore racist, may be seen by as Israelis-in-waiting, and therefore racist.)

In the hope of obscuring this fact, the far left has tried to drive a wedge between “Zionists” and “Jews”, as if the two were unconnected. Mr Corbyn has done this repeatedly in public this summer; so, in the past, did former Labour MPs Ken Livingstone and George Galloway. But the wedge is largely a falsehood. Jewish support for the idea of Israel as a restored historic homeland and bolthole if all goes wrong elsewhere makes all Jews irredeemably untrustworthy for anti-Zionists. That even includes Jews with no love for Israel who nonetheless have the right to escape there, should they ever need to.

To justify their distrust, far-left activists have given the appearance—for the time being—of sidelining Jews’ Jewishness and seeing only their Zionism. In response, many Jews have applied a tired, old and rather unhelpful label to this new kind of leftist racism: they’ve called it “antisemitism”. They don’t care that it’s a different kind of racism from that of the past—the racism of anti-Zionist idealism rather than of classical stereotype; for Jews, it all ends up the same.

And some on the left do venture into classical antisemitism, repeating that Jews are allied with global banking or have a secret grip on the media. Mr Williamson MP regularly brushes off complaints about Mr Corbyn as “false slurs by sections of the media”, as if complaints about left-wing racism were merely a ruse for keeping Labour out of Downing Street by Jews and their powerful friends; and former MP Peter Willsman, now re-elected to Labour’s NEC, suggested in July that challenges to Mr Corbyn had been put up by a cabal of his own invention: Jewish “Trump fanatics”.

Mr Corbyn and his friends are right to stress that anti-Zionism isn’t the same thing as antisemitism. It’s not—until those who say it isn’t make it so.

This is the elephant in the room, and once it’s revealed, it casts a very different light on the antisemitism row. For one thing, it makes a nonsense of many of the protests by the Jewish establishment, not least the remarks made by the former chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, to the New Statesman last week. Lord Sacks described Mr Corbyn’s comments about the unEnglishness of British Zionists as “the most offensive statement” by a politician since the late Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968—it wasn’t—and went on to demand that Mr Corbyn “repent and recant as quickly as possible”, a call that was repeated by the entire United Synagogue rabbinate and that echoed an even wider coalition of rabbinic complaint some weeks earlier.

Jews seem unable to see that Mr Corbyn cannot repent because, on his own terms, he’s not personally at fault, any more than he considers the rest of the intellectual left to be at fault. His thinking is in line with the post-Marxist ideology he’s signed up to and that the intelligentsia has embraced for decades. Every university department in the world has a library of books proving that he’s right.

Jewish fear of him is actual, however, no matter how mendaciously the propaganda against him has been stoked and misrepresented by London’s Jewish Chronicle and the mysterious Campaign against Antisemitism, which admittedly has a strong (5:2) Tory bias among its patrons. When the Jewish community expresses its fear of him, and talks about preparing to leave the UK should he ever come to power, they’re scared for the wrong reasons: he doesn’t hate Jews in the old-fashioned way. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be scared for the right reasons.

What should Jews fear? A Corbyn government would want to introduce a programme of hard-left reforms, including the formalising of its anti-Israel hostility and the elevating of BDS principles into legislation. The effect of this could be that opponents—Jews, overwhelmingly, but not exclusively—would find themselves on the wrong side of the law and might even lose rights and freedoms, just as Jews lost rights and freedoms in the Third Reich. BDS was, after all, originally conceived and promoted by Palestinian NGOs; if Jews were to suffer in consequence of pro-BDS legislation, there’s no shortage of BDS campaigners who’d say they had it coming.

Jews should also fear the dismantling of parliamentary democracy under a Corbyn government. Mr Corbyn, although a parliamentarian himself, does not trust other parliamentarians, and nor do his friends. In a revealing interview on the BBC a couple of years ago, his supporter and fellow-radical, the film-maker Ken Loach, expressed more venom towards the Parliamentary Labour Party than towards its Conservative opponents, on the grounds that Labour MPs had, by their centrism, betrayed the principles of socialism that they should have been upholding. Corbyn idealists want to shift power away from the Palace of Westminster towards what they like to call the grass-roots, where a less compromised politics can be conducted under the pretence of greater authenticity.

Jews should remember that similar ambitions played out during the French Revolution and in Hitler’s Germany. Mr Corbyn may not be a Robespierre any more than he is a Hitler, but both political leaders believed in a republic of virtue that polarised their countries into those for whom death was a political necessity and those who were virtuous—or whose qualification for death had not yet been established. Many of Mr Corbyn’s activists are too young to recall those tyrannies, some socialist, some fascist, in which one group was empowered to monitor and decide the fate of others; but Jews, even young Jews, have a vested interest in remembering. They also recall the phenomenon of the slippery slope.

What’s noteworthy is Mr Corbyn’s silence about all of this—about what his lifelong radicalism would actually mean if put into action and about the smokescreen of not conflating “Zionists” and “Jews”. And it’s that silence that’s the most worrying. If he wanted to calm fears, he’d speak out about what his leadership would bring; but he doesn’t. And he won’t—not until he’s in power. Then we shall see what we shall see.

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.
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