If there was any need for further proof of the continuing huge gulf between Jeremy Corbyn and the mainstream Jewish community it came within moments of the end of this week’s crunch talks. A statement released by the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council described the two-hour meeting as “disappointing”, while seconds later Corbyn interpreted that same parley as “positive and constructive”. It’s clear the two sides (how sad to have to describe as sides when we’re taking about the fight against racism) couldn’t even agree on this.
There has been movement on the language used by the leadership on this issue. Gone now is any sort of terminology suggesting a localised and limited issue, and seemingly embedded is the acceptance of a real problem in Labour ranks that is yet to be adequately addressed. That the leadership now appears to be comfortable making clear claims of anti-semitism are not a smear are also signs of progress – in words at least. For this, our community leaders undoubtedly deserve praise for forcing change in language and levels of engagement of the leader himself.
But in the absence of decisive action to back up those words, it’s little wonder the meeting has gone down like a lead balloon. A month after Jewish leaders put forward a raft of proposals for action, they are yet to receive a commitment on a single one. The fact that, in the current climate, they did not even get a pledge that elected officials will be barred from sharing platforms with suspended as well as expelled figures, is troubling. So too that there is not yet any commitment to putting time limits on disciplinary cases – a move that would be seen to help turn zero tolerance into a reality, though there was a pledge to look into the matter.
And what message are we to take from the fact that, while recognising the BOD and JLC as the main representative bodies of British Jews, he still insists on engaging with Jewish Voice for Labour whose representatives staged the counter-demo last month?
But perhaps the issue that most illustrates the mountain still to climb is the reticence to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, along with all its accompanying examples of contemporary anti-Senitism. Instead, the party suggests it will choose some of those examples along with others not included like ‘zio’. But anti-Semitism should not, can not be subject to a pick and mix approach or some sort of negotiation.
In the week of the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the McPherson definition of racism as ac act perceived as racist by the victim should be borne in mind here. If anti-Semitism smears are genuine and the Board and JLC are the main representative bodies, as Corbyn reiterated this week, surely it is only reasonable to follow the definition they are promoting. Instead, more than perhaps anything else, this reveals an ideological barrier that will rightly fuel pessimism over whether Corbyn will be able to fully follow through on his words. A fight against antisemitism without full and unequivocal acceptance of IHRA would simply not be seen as a fight on the community’s terms and would undermine all the rhetoric.
So deep is the schism now after three years that only action will do.
It is indeed positive that the mainstream community will continue to be consulted about educational programmes and that there are promises to bring the Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker cases to an end by the end of July.
But if the former ends up being little more than window dressing and the latter don’t end in time with the right conclusion, there should be no surprise if the next statement makes this one look like a ringing endorsement. The engagement of recent weeks must continue in order to hold him to account but there are only so many chances you can give before the ever increasing members who have already given up will grow yet further. For Corbyn, if he seriously wants to engage with the mainstream majority, he would do well to throw them a bone – and fast – or risk voices opposed to such engagement growing louder.