The Labour Party has long prided itself on its reputation for challenging racism and oppression. But its reluctance to address the concerns raised by Britain’s Jewish community over anti-Semitism now endangers this status.
Lamentably, the lack of understanding about harmful speech extends to the top of the party. On 23 August it was revealed that in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn attended an event hosted by the Palestinian Return Centre and spoke disparagingly about British “Zionists”. They did not, he said, “want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
Mr Corbyn’s remarks conflated a political position and an identity; his explanation that he had used the term Zionists “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people” was unconvincing. He told the Guardian that “I am now more careful with how I might use the term ‘Zionist’ because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by anti-Semites as code for Jews.” Yet this “hijacking” happened long before 2013, and his remarks were no more acceptable then.
A steady flow of similar stories have dogged Labour throughout the summer. But Mr Corbyn’s reported comments are the most disturbing yet. In his interview with George Eaton, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes them as “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”. To many Jews and others, Mr Corbyn appeared to “undermine the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien”. The Labour leader, the rabbi added, had “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate”. This excoriating judgement should be a matter of profound shame for Labour.
Mr Corbyn’s response when his remarks were initially made public was inadequate. He should have offered an apology, rather than merely an explanation. It is not defensible, as some of his supporters have done, to insist that he was merely referring to “a small group” of Zionists. Had a senior politician referred to another minority or ethnic group in this manner, Corbynite commentators would never have engaged in such casuistry. The British left must hold itself to the standards that it rightly demands of others.
There is a way forward. If Labour is to salvage its moral credibility, it should begin by adopting the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance guidelines on anti-Semitism, as MPs and trade union leaders have demanded. There is no evidence that doing so would prohibit legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s politics, much of which is merited. Binyamin Netanyahu’s stridently nationalistic government has killed unarmed Palestinian protesters, expanded illegal settlements in the occupied territories and passed a new nationality law that formalises the second-class status of Arab Israeli citizens. All of this can, and should, be condemned.
Yet if the Labour Party is sincerely to promote peace in the Middle East, it must demonstrate greater empathy towards the Jewish community. Israel was born in 1948 as a haven for a people who had suffered the barbarity of the Holocaust (a unique event that is demeaned by comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany). Jews seeking their right to national self-determination, as well as the Palestinian people, deserve the solidarity of the Labour movement.
Jews in all countries are now confronted by a toxic resurgence of anti-Semitism. The Labour leader should address anti-Semitism and his own failings sincerely and thoughtfully in an extended speech or interview. We would happily give him an opportunity to be published in our pages.
Harold Wilson, one of Mr Corbyn’s most distinguished predecessors, once remarked: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” If the opposition is to regain this status, Mr Corbyn must sincerely engage with the offence caused by his past remarks.
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic