Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Corbyn and Antisemitism

There is no doubt that the Labour party has an antisemitism problem. But the figures (see below) suggest it involves a tiny minority. Claims that the party is “riddled with antisemitism” are a deliberate lie. What makes antisemitism claims against Labour powerful is that they are associated with Jeremy Corbyn. In particular many have suggested that Corbyn himself is antisemitic. And if you present the evidence is a certain way the claim looks like a strong one.

I am no Corbyn fan, and actively campaigned against him in 2016. My problem with him was not antisemitism, but Brexit, and my fears came to pass this summer. But I could see immediately that there was something odd about the evidence produced to suggest Corbyn was antisemitic. With a couple of exceptions, they all related to his championing of the Palestinian cause. And with possibly one exception, none of them involved him actually making any antisemitic statements.

As the volume of attacks against Labour and Corbyn himself increased, I thought I should look at some of this evidence against him more carefully. I also had some very personal reasons for wanting to find the truth. It is a long post I’m afraid, but if you want to do justice to the issue it has to be.

Evidence against Corbyn

I will restrict myself here to four of the most common pieces of evidence quoted.

  1. Saying Zionists don’t understand English irony, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”.

This is the only example I can find of Corbyn making an allegedly antisemitic statement. “When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European anti-Semitism” said a former Chief Rabbi, But, as with so many of these claims, the context is rarely given.

Corbyn was commenting after the Palestinian ambassador to the U.K., who was born and raised in Jerusalem, had made an ironic statement. Corbyn made the observation that when the ambassador had made the same comment in his address to parliament, some Zionists in the audience “berated” the ambassador for what he said.

He said that those who berated the ambassador “don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either.” By comparison, Corbyn went on, “Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively.” So Corbyn was not making a remark about all Zionists, let alone all Jews, but a few in particular - those who had misunderstood the ambassador’s remark at the time. There is no hint of any generalisation from a particular group of Zionists to all Zionists in the UK.

This is a classic example of how remarks, taken out of context, can be given a different and much more sinister meaning.

  1. Corbyn once invited a preacher who has peddled antisemitic myths to tea at the House of Commons and introduced him in a flattering way.

This is one of many examples where Corbyn is accused of antisemitism because he has had some brief association with people who are antisemitic. But in none of these cases did the association arise because the person was antisemitic. Instead these associations typically result from Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause. Now you can fairly accuse Corbyn of not being careful in who he associates with. He also famously invited IRA members to Parliament, and has appeared on Iran state TV.

There are many similar allegations to this example, but much the same allegations can be laid at the door of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Conservatives tried this guilt by association tactic when attacking Sadiq Khan in the London mayor elections.

  1. He is alleged to have laid a wreath to honour terrorists.

The context. He was attending a ceremony at a cemetery in Tunis to commemorate those killed in Israel’s 1985 airstrike on the PLO HQ, which was condemned by the UN, Thatcher and Reagan. But others are buried at that cemetery, one of whom is accused by the US and Israel of being strongly linked to terrorism. Was a wreath laid on his grave during the ceremony? Was it as well or instead of the graves of those killed by the internationally condemned Israeli airstrike? If it was laid at the grave of the alleged terrorist, did Corbyn knowingly lay that wreath? None of that is known.

If you say that Corbyn laid a wreath at the grave of someone who spilled innocent Jewish blood, it sounds very bad and certainly would make you worry. But the context is Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause, which is why he was at that cemetery. Context is important. If you think anyone who supports Palestinians to the degree that Corbyn does is antisemitic, I would suggest that is a dangerous conclusion, particularly as I note above his level of commitment is similar to his involvement in other causes.

  1. He failed to recognise an antisemitic mural for what it was

Context. In 2012 on Facebook Corbyn supported an artist who was being forced to take down a mural because it was antisemitic. On seeing the mural again after Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has since joined the Lib Dems, raised the issue, Corbyn agreed the mural was antisemitic and apologised.

Corbyn’s initial failure to call the mural antisemitic was clearly a mistake, but was it a sign of antisemitism? Some comparison here is useful. When YouGov asked a represented sample of people for their views on seven statements involving common antisemitic tropes about Jewish people, 40% of men agreed with at least one. Conservative party members were more likely to agree with one than Labour voters. Does this mean that 40% of UK men are antisemitic? Obviously failure to recognise antisemitic tropes does not make you antisemitic. Knowingly using them does.

The evidence no one talks about

I think it is clear that the ‘irony’ quote was not in the least bit antisemitic, which means that Corbyn has never made any antisemitic statement. That means he is either not antisemitic, or has incredible self control. But consider the following, which are never mentioned by the media:

  1. He took part in a campaign to overturn a decision by Islington Council to allow a Jewish cemetery to be sold to developers

  2. In 2002 he led a clean up of a Finsbury Park Synagogue after an attack

  3. In 2010 he supported an Early Day Motion (by Dianne Abbott) calling for the UK govt to resettle Yemeni Jews in the UK. There are scores of similar motions supported by Corbyn that condemn antisemitism, holocaust denial and so on.

  4. The many people who know him well and do not necessarily support his politics, some of whom are Jews, who say they do not think he is antisemitic. John Bercow, for example said “Known him 22 years, never detected even a whiff of anti semitism” and added “I haven't experienced one incident of anti semitism from anyone in Labour”.

Not the kind of things you would expect of someone who is antisemitic. People can make up their own mind on the basis of this or other evidence, but what I see are the action of a lifelong anti-racist and supporter of the Palestinian cause who is sometimes less careful than he should be when pursuing the causes he supports, and is not nearly critical enough of people who he believes are on the side of the poor and oppressed.

Media influence

There are I think two additional things that influence a lot of people. The first is the poll suggesting that 87% of Jewish people think Corbyn is antisemitic. The second is that all they ever see in the media are negative stories about Labour antisemitism. That must have come from somewhere people think. The two claims are linked, so let me deal with them in reverse order.

It is certainly the case that the media is full of stories about Labour antisemitism. You will find it hard to find anything like the kind of account presented here. It is of course exactly what you would expect from the right wing press. But in papers that are not right wing, or from the BBC, you will also find the allegations against Corbyn with little or (more often) no defence or attempt at balance. Furthermore the media talks about Labour antisemitism far more than it talks about the, at least as serious, problem of Tory Islamophobia (see below).

The left would say this is because everyone is biased against Labour. I think there is more to it. Claims of antisemitism against Corbyn are newsworthy because they come from current or former Labour MPs. Does that make them more credible? Here we have to talk about agendas. Ever since Corbyn got elected there have been some within Labour who wanted above all else to bring him down, and in their eyes ‘get their party back’. Just as with the press, they have no problem with criticising their leader. . 

But there is another reason. Journalists are impressed by the 87% figure for Jews who believe Corbyn is antisemitic. The same poll found that 39% of the UK public thought the same. Let me start with the second figure. Why do a large proportion of the general public think Corbyn is antisemitic? Because they read articles in a Corbyn-hostile press and reports on the BBC. They see the evidence presented above put in an incomplete way such that it appears to make a strong case.

Exactly the same is true among Jewish voters except more so. A Jewish Chronicle poll before the 2015 election had 69% of Jewish voters voting Conservative. Mainstream Jewish papers like the Jewish Chronicle are strongly hostile to the Labour party when the Labour party supports the Palestinian cause, as it did under Ed Miliband. The Jewish Chronicle's editor, former Express and Mail writer Stephen Pollard, is no friend of the left, having written in 2006 "The Left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy." The Chronicle has run a relentless campaign against Corbyn, and other Jewish papers have followed the Chronicle’s lead. What information do most people have about Corbyn's alleged antisemitism than the media they read? 

Unfortunately some on the right of politics today do tend to smear any opponents of the current government of Israel with the charge of antisemitism. Just look at the US. Right wing politicians have been free with charges of antisemitism against the two Muslim Democratic members of Congress, with little or no cause. This is how the political right in the UK and the US, and their media supporters, now behave.

Am I saying that most Jews call Corbyn antisemitic because they don’t like his support for the Palestinians? No. I’m saying that they see the evidence presented in a way that deliberately paints Corbyn as antisemitic and follow that evidence. In addition some of that evidence presented in this way will be much more potent if you feel a connection to Israel. I think this point is made rather well by Jack Shamash.

One final point is that it is not true that the entire Jewish community think Corbyn is antisemtic. There are plenty of Jews in the Labour party, and some Jewish candidates for Labour in the coming election. Many Jews support Corbyn, and he has been supported by some rabbis. (Incidentally and perhaps revealingly the only source I could find for this after an extensive search is one I would not normally rely on, but this article suggests it is correct.)

Antisemitism in the Labour party

There remains the issue of the extent of antisemitism within Labour, and whether the leadership is indifferent to it. There is no doubt that Labour have an antisemitism problem within its membership. Indeed, given much of the left’s stance on the Israel/Palestine conflict and Labour’s ‘for the many not the few’ slogan, it would be rather surprising if antisemites, who believe the conflict is a convenient way of expressing their antisemitism or who believe conspiracies about Jewish bankers, were not attracted to be Labour members. 

I also think there is a regrettable tendency of a few who support Palestine to go over the top in their criticism of Israel. Calling for the end of the Jewish state is antisemitic in my book, and comparing Israel’s actions to anything done by the Nazi’s is shockingly insensitive as well as being inaccurate. If they are confronted by statements of that kind, it is not surprising that Jewish members feel very uncomfortable. But given all that, it is also worth noting that one survey suggested that in the UK and US there was less antisemitism on the left than the right, and less antisemitism than average among those critical of Israel.

But hearing about cases of antisemitism in a biased press is a terrible way to assess its extent. The data we have suggests around 300 Labour party members have had credible complaints of antisemitism made against them. No doubt the way the Labour party deals with these complaints should be improved. But 300 out of nearly half a million is not a large number. A recent nationwide poll of what voters thought put the proportion at 1 in 3, which is over 500 times too large. It is the same phenomenon as people hugely overestimating the extent of welfare fraud, and indicates the sheer amount of press misreporting of the issue. Labour is not riddled with antisemitism, but the media is riddled with reports of Labour antisemitism that lead people to think it is.

Has Corbyn or his team interfered with the complaints procedure. We shall find out from the EHRC, but I would be pleasantly surprised if they hadn’t. It is what politicians do, unfortunately. For just one example, see the Lord Rennard affair for the LibDems. That does not excuse Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with this issue, which is in some ways the consequence of his uncritical attitude to people he sees as allies I noted above.

The election

To say that Labour and Corbyn should have been more proactive in dealing with the issue is one thing. To suggest that should influence the way people vote is another. Voting is always about comparisons. If anyone uses Labour’s antisemitism problem as a reason for not voting tactically to prevent a Johnson government, then they have to make comparisons between parties and not look at Labour in isolation. Our next Prime Minister will be Johnson or Corbyn. Which has the better record on racism?

Just compare how Labour has dealt with antisemitism to how the Tories have dealt with Islamophobia. Did the Tories adopt a code to help assess whether statements were Islamophobic, like the IHRA code now adopted by Labour? No. (Labour’s reluctance to initially adopt all the IHRA examples was a serious political mistake, even if it was done for understandable reasons.) Do we know all the statistics about the complaints there have been about Islamophobia in the Tory party? No. 

Baroness Warsi, ex-chairman of the Tory party, said recently the climate for Muslims in the her party was hostile. While Corbyn has made no racist statements, the same cannot be said about Johnson. One longstanding Muslim Conservative left the party when Johnson was elected. Even if you think Johnson is not a racist, what he says empowers those who are, which is why attacks against Muslims rose after he called some Muslim women letterboxes.

This does not mean that we should ignore Labour’s very real antisemitism problem, still less stop putting pressure on Labour to get things right. Labour cannot use the obvious bias in the media as an excuse for inaction. All political parties will contain racists of some sort and those parties will require constant pressure to expose and end it. But to suggest we should prefer Johnson to Corbyn as our next PM because of Labour’s antisemitism is complete nonsense. Labour have an antisemitism problem which they are dealing with, and the Tories have an Islamophobia problem which they are trying to ignore. Unlike Corbyn, Johnson has made a number of racist statements.

I know feelings run high on this issue. Based on past evidence I know that some people will say I must be antisemitic to suggest Corbyn is not. But the real tragedy here is that serious antisemitic attacks are on the rise across the world. Among the population the far right is far more antisemitic than the far left, and the physical attacks come from the extreme right rather than from the left. Rather than focus on a party leader who as far as we know has never made an antisemitic statement in his life, we should be focusing on fighting the far right, and those in the Conservative party who seem happy to tolerate, and use, racism to gain themselves votes.

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