Why #WeAreCorbyn hurts: it is the kind of tribalism the 20th Century should have stopped

My grandad’s story makes me sympathetic to Corbyn, but also concerned at the response of some supporters.


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“Your dad is the only person who can make me defend Israel so stridently!” our family friend said to my mum in my grandparents’ kitchen, shaking her head with exasperation. I can’t have been much more than 10 years old, but I still remember the tense dinner-table argument, and the way the friend (herself a top barrister) had to retreat into the kitchen to calm down.

My grandad was an argumentative and passionate soul. And one thing he frequently fumed about in his old age was Israel’s treatment of Palestine. I don’t recall him ever going so far as to compare Israel’s behaviour to the Nazi regime – such as the holocaust survivor, Hajo Meyer, did at a Memorial Day event in 2010 (which Jeremy Corbyn has recently apologised for attending).

But the sentiment behind his outbursts possibly came close, especially after a glass or two. “The only people worse than the Palestinians, are the Jews,” was one particularly memorable line.

Yet, my grandpa was also himself Jewish. Born in Romania in 1922, he and his mother soon moved to London’s East End after her husband died of tuberculosis. Poverty was a fact of daily life: clothing was supplied by the synagogue; his older brother was regularly sent into the orphanage so he could be fed; and the local Communist MP had to intervene to ensure the reluctant council awarded him the grammar-school scholarship that he had won on merit.

These early hardships went a long way to explaining the more steely sides of his personality in later life (as well as his deep dedication to his family). And perhaps also his fraught relationship to his Jewish identity.

There was an unspoken sense that discrimination and anti-semitism lurked closely at the edges of his upbringing. He would have been 14 at the Battle of Cable Street, and three years later, when World War Two broke out, he soon joined up.

This all had a complex effect. After the war and nationalisation, he proudly changed his name to an Anglicised version, and aspired to emulate your ultimate English gent. By his eighties, he even got irritated when we tried to light the candles for Hanukkah.

Kate Maltby has recently written movingly of her grandmother’s similar (and more pronounced) rejection of her Jewish identity, after fleeing Nazi-occupied Budapest. “As an adolescent, I assumed this was a drama idiosyncratic to my own maternal family. Then I met person after person who told the same story: the fear, the denial, the traumatic discovery,” she writes.

I would not like to say exactly where the line fell, in my grandpa’s case, between fear, memories of anti-semitism, and anger at the actions of the Israeli government. But I do feel that this era of persecution left psychological wounds that came out in all kinds of shapes. And also that his criticisms of Israel and Jews (and their problematic conflation), are not equitable to similar remarks coming from someone of non-Jewish descent.

Everyone around the table that lunchtime felt similarly, I believe. Even if we were uncomfortable with the extent of my grandpa’s rhetoric, we excused him. As an aged Jewish person, he wasn’t punching down on those less powerful than him – just outwards, and partly towards himself.

I raise these memories now, not to excuse Hajo Meyer’s 2010 comparison of Israel to the Nazis (I think there are parallels, but that Meyer goes far too far). Nor to exonerate Corbyn from not countering Meyer’s statements (in this case, I do not think Corbyn can do much more than apologise for not foreseeing how the event would play out, which he has done).

I raise them because I have found some of the defences made of Corbyn’s behaviour in this instance both painful and worrying to read.

An article by Mark Steel on the Independent online, concludes with the useful point that it can simultaneously be true that there is unaddressed anti-Semitism on the left and that Corbyn’s opponents use this for their own purposes.But in Steel’s willingness to defend the Labour leader, he also reduces his own argument to crass point-scoring. “Corbyn says he disagrees with [Hajo Meyer], but that’s not enough, he should have decked the twat,” Steel writes.

Steel's tone is tongue-firmly-in-cheek – and dark humour certainly has its uses – but here it risks belittling how others like Hajo Meyer may have processed the Twentieth Century and its fallout. The article was also retweeted by the @PeoplesMomentum Twitter account, with the hashtag #WeAreCorbyn. Yet for me, it is neither Meyer nor Corbyn whom this latest discussion of anti-Semitism is calling us to stand with in solidarity.

Instead it is an opportunity to acknowledge the wider legacy of Jewish identity in the Twentieth Century – and its insights into the tragic ends of tribal politics. If that history teaches us anything, it is that #WeAreHuman above all.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.