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26 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Corbyn’s lack of action suggests he doesn’t understand anti-semitism, or leadership

As party leader, dealing with anti-semitism is not simply about searching for the right words to diffuse tricky situaitons, but actually doing something.

By Daniel harris

Apologies are instructive. Though it is easy to say one thing and feel another, their substance offers insight into how a purported offence is perceived: even if there is no genuine sorrow, is there recognition of another angle; an understanding that what happened is a big deal?  

On Friday the story broke that, six years ago, Jeremy Corbyn opposed the removal of a mural so classically anti-semitic it could have easily passed for satire. Naturally, a response was necessary; not so naturally, this came via spokesman:

“In 2012, Jeremy was responding to concerns about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech,” it said. “However, the mural was offensive, used anti-semitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it is right that it was removed.”

Within this statement can be found neither apology nor remorse. Rather, the right side of the argument was co-opted by “Jeremy”, and the privilege of his blessing was duly delivered with requisite finality.

This was not a good sign – it is reasonable to expect that someone as bang-to-rights as he, for something as sensitive as this, would at least have the decency to fake an immediate and searing personal response. But no; instead, later in the day, Corbyn himself said as follows:

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 “In 2012 I made a general comment about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech. My comment referred to the destruction of the mural Man at the Crossroads by Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center.

“That is in no way comparable with the mural in the original post. I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic.

“I wholeheartedly support its removal.

“I am opposed to the production of anti-Semitic material of any kind, and the defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form. That is a view I’ve always held.”

Here we find three separate excuses: 1) Corbyn’s comment was not specific to the anti-semitic work in question; 2) he was in fact talking about a different work altogether, one removed due to the presence in it of Lenin; and 3) he failed to look at the offending painting carefully enough – its message is, after all, exceedingly subtle.

Again, there is no semblance of culpability or contrition, and those insulted by the image are ignored; the only feelings recognised are poor Jeremy’s.

Just in case anyone reading should ever accidentally argue against the removal of obviously anti-semitic artwork, a proper apology would read something like this: “I am horrified and distraught by what I did, I apologise unreservedly, and hope those affected can forgive me when they see that I have understood the issue and harm I have caused. I am now committed to ensuring others do not make similar mistakes.”

These infractions were not Corbyn’s first, second, ninth or tenth. So the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies of British Jews called on members of the community and those who oppose anti-semitism to join them in Parliament Square when Labour MPs hold their weekly meeting, to “show solidarity”.

Amazingly, Corbyn then had a third bash at making good. “I want to be clear that I will not tolerate any form of anti-semitism that exists in and around our movement,” he said. “We must stamp this out from our party and movement. We recognise that anti-semitism has occurred in pockets within the Labour Party, causing pain and hurt to our Jewish community in the Labour Party and the rest of the country. I am sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused.”

This time, there was at least an apology… though for non-specific offences, with still no acceptance of personal responsibility. In the meantime, the JLC and BoD issued an open letter, calling out the leader of the opposition for his inability to “seriously contemplate antisemitism”, and for siding “with antisemites rather than Jews”. In 2018!

It is fair to say that considered as whole, the Jewish community felt trepidation as soon as Corbyn was elected Labour leader. Mainly, people were worried about his attitude towards Israel, encapsulated by, but by no means limited to, his relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas – he had previously described members of both as “our friends” – another incident that eventually caused him “regret”, without supplying the will for an apology. Even so, and even though both these organisations want our friends and family dead, his position is theoretically defensible because all peace begins with conversation. Except all prejudice begins when one faction is treated differently to another, and it is impossible to envisage Corbyn sharing a platform with Israeli equivalents.

Of course, the Jewish community has its own problems, beginning with how we educate. The terrible truth of the State’s early days, in particular the driving of Palestinians from their homes, is largely ignored, and military might is often legitimised by the implacable truth of religion. Meanwhile, Likud, the party which leads the current ruling coalition, is more right-wing than ever before – as are its partners. This did not happen in a vacuum – indiscriminate attacks in public spaces will impact upon any body politic, regardless of the cycle of violence which preceded them ­– but it remains the case that the government is seeking neither peace nor justice, a situation as embarrassing as it is terrifying.

In such context, it is not hard to grasp why people are angry with Israel – many Anglo-Jews are too and feel it far more personally, likewise the majority of Israelis who voted for leftist and centrist parties. But, though socialism has a problem with the status quo – although socialism must have a problem with the status quo – Israel does not represent all that is wrong with the world, nor do its faults legitimise old anti-semitic slurs about greed, control and duplicity. Similarly, the dismissal of what we say as “hasbara” – indoctrinated, rehearsed propaganda – is disrespectful to a situation which is nuanced, dangerous and tragic, with fault and blame scattered all over the place.

Though Israel came into being in a manner not especially different from how many other nation-states came into being, only Israel is constantly challenged to justify its existence. And while people can be interested in whatever they like, there remains something discomforting in how many people with no connection to the country whatsoever are so exercised by it.

Paranoia, perhaps, but consider why Israel exists: following a trial period lasting hundreds of years, the world finally concluded that it simply could not refrain from systematically murdering or oppressing Jews due to the simple fact of their Jewishness. Trauma transmits to DNA, and for people who have experienced, witnessed and inherited it, to be told that they ought not to have a homeland – either by those with no idea or those who should know better – is hard to take. The reality is that Israel is the only country we can be sure will never kick us out.

If an increase in this kind of thing was predictable, the extent to which simple anti-semitism has increased is more shocking. Soon after his election, Corbyn appointed Ken Livingstone to oversee a defence reform, though he will have known that hundreds of thousands of people would be made uncomfortable by this decision – Livingstone’s status as an anti-semite is perhaps the solitary element on which there is consensus in Anglo-Jewry. Had Corbyn looked elsewhere, not one single person would have criticised him for so doing, but his rationale seems to be that if you’re left-wing enough, you’re good enough and nothing else matters. How this ended was not remotely surprising, yet there has been no apology for an unnecessary, self-indulgent decision which needlessly introduced painful lies into the public sphere.

As a consequence of Livingstone’s anti-semitism – and that of Naz Shah – Corbyn commissioned an inquiry into how the Labour party treated Jews and other minorities. This engendered no apparent shame, and when the Chakrabarti report was launched, Corbyn seized the opportunity to point-score, opening his speech by criticising the Tory party before singling out Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage. Clearly, he was right in what he said, but using the platform for that purpose indicated that he had grasped neither its gravity nor its point; the sole focus of his attention ought to have been why Labour was failing so badly under his leadership, and what he could do to improve.

In the event, the Ruth Smeeth controversy overshadowed what he said, but this too was concerning. After making various pledges that have patently not been kept, he noted that “The Jewish community has made an enormous contribution to our Party and our country. Jewish people have been at the heart of progressive and radical politics in Britain, as elsewhere, for well over a century.” This is a common difficulty – the suggestion that minority group cannot justify their presence simply by existing – and there is also an implication here, witting or otherwise, that some Jews are fine because they think the right things.

He then continued: “To assume that a Jewish friend or fellow member is wealthy, part of some kind of financial or media conspiracy, or takes a particular position on politics in general, or on Israel and Palestine in particular, is just wrong.

Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu Government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations. Nor should Muslims be regarded as sexist, anti-semitic or otherwise suspect, as has become an ugly Islamophobic norm. We judge people on their individual values and actions, not en masse. No one should be expected either to condemn or defend the actions of foreign powers on account of their faith or race. At the same time, we should have the sensitivity to understand how upset many Labour party members and supporters are likely to feel about various human rights abuses around the world.”

Nowhere in his speech did he explain why Israel exists, defend its right to exist, or note anything about it that is positive; is it any wonder that people were hoodwinked by “subtler and invidious manifestations of this nasty ancient hatred” and could not avoid “slipping into its traps by accident or intent”? Again, there was no apology to those who have suffered, nor acceptance of responsibility as party leader, and no plan as to how things would be made right, which is to say that these were the words of a man who does not care about anti-semitism, and would rather court the votes of anti-semites than of Jews.

A year later came the general election, and two days before it, party members displayed a 200ft banner in which Corbyn’s likeness was displayed opposite that of Theresa May, and to whose portrait had been added Star of David earrings. This rehashing of a damaging anti-Semitic trope was performed in Corbyn’s name, but his condemnation was conspicuous by his absence, and Labour performed far better than the majority of polls indicated.

With the position of Corbyn and his acolytes fortified, there have followed too many troubling events to detail – everyone will have their favourite – though things have escalated recently.

First, we were expected to believe that Corbyn had no knowledge whatsoever of the anti-semitic doings of the Palestine Live Facebook group in which he was active. Then, two Jewish Labour councilors from Haringey went public about the anti-semitism they had sfaced. Chris Williamson MP then said that it was a “real pleasure and a privilege” to share a platform with Jackie Walker, also citing Livingstone when referring to “these ridiculous suspensions and expulsions”. Next we learnt that Alan Bull, whose social media footprint is full of the basest anti-semitism, would be standing as one of Labour’s local election candidates in Peterborough. Then, finally, Corbyn’s historical support for the anti-semitic mural came to light.

Phenomenally, all of that has happened in the last two weeks, and staggeringly, none of it has affected Corbyn’s standing within the party. A position which should be untenable is not under the slightest hint of a possibility of a potential threat.

Though there are Jews who are comfortable with all of this, it is not wrong to assert that, as a community, we are worried – far more so than at any other point in the last 30 years. From a personal perspective, it is probably worth saying that I align with the left of the Labour party, so thinking, writing, talking and arguing about these things is upsetting, as is the reality that I, and many Jews like me, no longer have a political home in the country that is our home.

The Labour Party does not stand for this, yet very few people on the left seem to care. The commentariat, admirably motivated by the rights of all other minority groups, generally ignore the issue or accept every justification – they know Corbyn, so know that he isn’t anti-semitic. Except it is not for them to judge; it is for them to listen to what Jews are telling them. Not being anti-semitic is about more than answering “No” to the questions “Are you an anti-semite?” and “Do you dislike Jews?”, and when you are the leader of a political party, things become more complicated still; you must address questions like “Do people perceive you to be anti-semitic?”, “Is your organisation structurally anti-semitic?”, and “Are things improving or deteriorating?” 

In other words, it is not simply about searching for the right words to diffuse tricky situaitons, but actually doing something – lots of things – all the things. People need telling, explicitly, in detail, and every time, what is right, what is wrong and why; those in the wrong must listen, accept and reform; and only then will things change. We are waiting, and we have had enough.

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