Why it’s right for community leaders to meet Corbyn

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the Scottish Labour conference at Caird Hall in Dundee, Scotland, March 9, 2018. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the Scottish Labour conference at Caird Hall in Dundee, Scotland, March 9, 2018. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)

Last week, following our exclusive sit-down with Jeremy Corbyn, we declared his reassurances on tackling anti-Semitism within Labour were ‘not good enough’.

If the Labour leader’s failure to condemn the characterisation of some allegations of hate as “smears” compounded worries, his description of the fringe group that staged a counter-demo to the main rally as “good people”, left many fuming. How could he go out of his way to endorse a group which had gone out of its way to suggest a situation that had brought thousands of British Jews on to the streets was driven more by an undeclared, political agenda, rather than fighting racism? Just what was he trying to tell us?

Then, no sooner had Momentum’s founder insisted claims cannot be dismissed as smears and accepted the problem is more widespread than previously thought, than Corbyn breaks matzah with another Jewish group that suggested recent events were “about anything other than an attempt to address anti-Semitism..it is a malicious ploy to remove the leader of the Opposition”. Whatever the arguments about meeting constituents on a night off, and despite the fact many of the group are far less on the fringes than JVL, he couldn’t possibly have been unaware of the message this would send out at this hyper-sensitive moment. It certainly wasn’t lost on Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who couldn’t be accused of shying away from engagement with all parts of the community society, but for her his presence at this moment was a step too far. That, right there, is a measure of how toxic his brand has become in large parts of the community. If enough was enough last week, that has now been amplified.

But just as Corbyn’s actions have sometimes undermined his vow to be a “militant ally” in a fight against anti-Semitism over the last fortnight – and Labour has too often fallen short of its zero tolerance rhetoric over the last two years – it would be wrong to suggest things haven’t moved on.

The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council have ensured that. It’s only after their intervention that he acknowledged the scourge in his ranks is more than just a few bad apples and apologised for the hurt caused. And publicly listed examples of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. And attached new urgency attached to full implementation of the Chakrabarti report. Only after their unprecedented intervention did we hear an admission that some disciplinary cases have not been dealt with quickly enough.

Of course these are but words at a time of huge media pressure, but they say you can only start addressing a problem once you’ve acknowledged it. Our mainstream leadership must deal with the reality of where we are today and not on some alternative reality – and that meets holding face-to-face talks; they can’t very well berate Corbyn for meeting fringe groups and not meet him themselves. But action is what he will be judged on. Steps like banning elected officials from sharing platforms with suspended members and introducing a fixed timetable for disciplinary cases – starting with Ken Livingstone – should be simple steps on the path to zero tolerance.

They must be given the time to make their voices heard, in the full knowledge that the scale of the problem means more days of one step forward, two steps back are highly likely as yet more skeletons emerge.

Does a meeting let Corbyn off the hook? Far from it. Direct contact where he can be held to account is for now the best way of maintaining specific pressure for specific actions. It is the best way of making sure that the important rule change introduced overwhelmingly last year is applied uncompromisingly. If they hit a brick wall after everything of the last two weeks, they will have a duty to say so – clearly and publicly – and there will be nowhere to hide for Corbyn. If they make real progress, a tarnished party and a battered community can only benefit. All who care about the fight against racism will be hoping for the latter – many with varying and understandable degrees of scepticism. And quickly.

About the Author
Justin Cohen is News Editor of the Jewish News.
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