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Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-Semitism question

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I never thought I would see the day. There I sat, in front of my laptop, watching the live feed from London of an official inquiry into anti-Semitism inside Britain’s Labour party.

Growing up in England in a working-class family, Labour was our natural political home. Harold Wilson, the prime minister who had dominated social democratic politics for a generation, was not only a great friend of the Jews and Israel, but surrounded himself with Jewish advisers. His successors, from Callaghan to Smith to Blair to Brown, were similarly supportive, and Ed Miliband was Jewish.

But it was more profound than this, and less tangible. There was a feeling of comfort and acceptance, and that no matter how onside the Tories became and Margaret Thatcher appeared, Labour was the place. As I say, I never thought I would see the day. But there it was, in front of me. As are the latest figures that show that less than 10 per cent of British Jews would vote for a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and since he looks likely to fight off the current leadership challenge, none of that is likely to change. So how did this happen and happen so quickly?

It’s obviously partly tied to policies and attitudes involving Israel, and on that issue, there are two errors we can make. One is to assume that every critic of Israel is an anti-Semite, while the other is to believe that anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred have no commonality. The truth is that the blanket accusation of anti-Semitism was thrown around far too readily in the past at anybody who criticized Israel. The allegation – and it’s a filthy one – was often used to silence valid geopolitical comment. Today, however, the border has been broken in so many places that it’s genuinely difficult to know who is the informed critic and who is the gutter hater.

In the case of the British left, and for that matter the left in much of Europe and North America, there are opponents of Israeli policy who would be appalled at being regarded as anti-Semitic, and indeed some of them are themselves Jewish. I’ve always found the “self-loathing” label to be at best unhelpful and usually just downright dumb. But there are others who either don’t care, do have authentic prejudices, or, in the case of some in the Muslim community, have taken on a greater dislike of Jews and Judaism.

Vicki Kirby, however, is not Muslim and she is the Labour party stalwart who said that Jews have “big noses,” “slaughter the oppressed,” that Israel rather than Islamic State should be attacked, and “I will never forget and I will make sure my kids teach their children how evil Israel is.” Kirby was suspended from the party, but that she felt comfortable saying and writing such things in the first place is revealing. And she’s not alone. Gerry Downing was expelled, re-admitted and then expelled again after he spoke on television of “the Jewish question.” Then we have the use of the word “Zio” by some on the left of the Labour Party to describe not just Zionists – and that would be bad enough – but Jews in general, and often Jews within the party itself.

The internal Labour inquiry into anti-Semitism eventually concluded that the party is not anti-Semitic, but that there is an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “too much clear evidence of ignorant attitudes.” Critics have accused the report of being a whitewash, and in what was quite extraordinarily clumsy timing, its chairwoman, Shami Chakrabarti, was made a life peer shortly afterward on the recommendation of Corbyn. She may well deserve such an honour, but it’s entirely typical of the Labour leader’s obtuseness that he would do such a thing at such a time.

And here’s the greater point. It’s simply too glib to dismiss Corbyn and many of the people around him as being anti-Semitic. In the traditional sense of the term, they most certainly are not, and the idea that they want to harm or remove Jews is absurd. But what can be said is that Corbyn has very little understanding of how other people perceive him and of how much pain he causes. In the context of Jews and Jewishness, he evinces hardly any empathy or sympathy with the Jewish experience and story. Whenever, for example, he is asked directly about anti-Semitism, he responds that he deplores it, “and every other form of racism.” But why does he need to expand and qualify the answer? If he’s asked about anti-black racism or any other form of racism, he can answer accordingly, yet these questions are specifically about hatred of Jews.

He has also shown, or seemed to have shown, support for violently anti-Israel groups in the Middle East, guest-hosted a show on Iran’s ludicrous and hateful Press TV, and has around him people who, shall we say, dislike Israel to such an obsessive degree that one has to question their motives.

Yet for most of his supporters, Israel and Jews are irrelevant, and they look to a man who has promised economic justice, radically egalitarian policies and a fundamental change in British policy. Many of them would probably rather that Corbyn and his bunch had never mentioned Israel, but he did, and he will. Then there are those in the party who vehemently oppose him. The chances are that they will remain in a minority and will even leave to form a new party with centre-left elements from elsewhere. Corbyn could, in fact, destroy the party he leads.

Canada is not Europe, and those bloody toxins that still flow through a few arteries of the body politic 3,000 miles away dried up long ago here. So be neither complacent nor hysterical. But be aware.


Michael Coren is a Toronto writer and broadcaster