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31 July 2018

On Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism, is there is anything left to say?

If the evidence so far has not convinced you that the Labour leader has a blind spot on prejudice against Jews, then nothing will.

By Helen Lewis

Early in Jeremy Corbyn’s term as Labour leader, I remember watching clips of a phone-in he hosted for Press TV, Iran’s official television channel. (These have now been deleted from YouTube.) In one, he listened politely as a caller described Israel as a “disease” not agreeing, but not disagreeing either and replied: “OK, thank you for your call”. Another caller described the BBC as “Zionist liars”, to equally little reaction.

The clips stuck in my head because there was none of that panicked look I associate with radio and TV hosts when they realise they’ve got a nutter on the line and need to shut them down as quickly as possible. Jeremy Corbyn, I thought, must be used to hearing sentiments like that. 

That’s unfortunately the same conclusion I have to draw from the leaked recording of Peter Willsman ranting there is no other word for it at a meeting of Labour’s ruling committee, the NEC, on 17 July. Willsman’s remarks were first made public a fortnight ago (and not denied). The Jewish Labour Movement complained about them at the time. However, he was not removed from the Momentum/Campaign for Labour Party Democracy slate the so-called “JC9” and there was little condemnation of him from Corbyn’s media outriders until the audio surfaced last night

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Importantly, there is no record of Corbyn intervening to stop Willsman fulminating about how Jewish “Trump fanatics” were spreading false claims of anti-Semitism, or criticising the 60+ rabbis who signed an open letter saying that the party had a problem. The audio suggests that at least two members of the NEC did contradict him when he claimed there was no evidence of anti-Semitism, and that the meeting’s chair told him to sit down. (Willsman is a member of the party’s disputes committee, meaning that he has seen ample evidence of anti-Semitism evidence which has led to the suspension of several councillors and ordinary members.)

I don’t envy anyone who is not a politics obsessive trying to keep up with all this. It is, however, worth unpicking the recurring tropes and arguments underlying Willsman’s comments, because they are extremely revealing of what’s gone wrong. 

My reading is that Willsman is referring to the fact that the president of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, congratulated Donald Trump on his election win. What that misses out, though, is that there was an immediate backlash within Britain’s Jewish community to Arkush’s statement. The JC, edited by the former Daily Express columnist Stephen Pollard, began its story like this: ”British Jews have responded angrily after Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies, publicly congratulated Donald Trump on his election win.”

I mention this because the “Trump fanatic” comment is typical of the pro-Corbyn memes which circulate on social media, and are given impetus through pro-Corbyn sites such as The Canary and Skwawkbox. It is necessary to understand this ecosystem to understand why Labour’s anti-Semitism row is so prolonged, so toxic and so intractable. Put simply, for sites such as these, the default assumption is that criticism of Corbyn is motivated by a “centrist” or “Blairite” agenda  or perhaps even by In another case, The Canary claimed that “36 international Jewish groups” had backed Corbyn over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. A closer look at the groups revealed them to be tiny, overlapping fringe organisations, often containing the same left-wing activists whose comments were under investigation.

It pains me to say that Corbyn’s team, and Corbyn himself, have encouraged this narrative: that criticism is never valid, can never be valid, because it is never motivated by anything other than knee-jerk opposition to Corbyn’s socialist programme. This line of thinking is, frankly, conspiracist. We also know where it ends: with one Labour councillor wondering if there is a “Mossad assisted campaign to prevent the election of a Labour government pledged to recognise Palestine as a state” and another hosting Facebook posts under his name about “blood-drinking Jews“.

The Times this morning has reported that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has privately interceded with Corbyn, urging him to change course. That would chime with comments by both McDonnell and his ally Rebecca Long-Bailey saying that disciplinary proceedings against Labour MP Margaret Hodge (who called Corbyn an anti-Semite) should be dropped. On this issue, McDonnell is pragmatic; Corbyn is dogmatic. 

The row also speaks to our lack of understanding about how prejudice and discrimination work. Corbyn  a lifelong anti-racist activist and campaigner against apartheid seems unable to recognise that he might have a blind spot, even when hundreds of members of a community try to tell him so. Some of his supporters, meanwhile, appear to want an impossible standard of proof before they will acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism in the party. A higher standard of proof than posts about blood-drinking Jews.

Reluctantly, my conclusion is this. There is nothing left to say on Labour’s anti-Semitism row. If you don’t think there is a problem by this point, then surely nothing can change your mind. In fact, you are the problem.