Why are Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks about British Zionists offensive?

For the bulk of Britain’s Jews, it will feel as though the remarks are about them. 

NS

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A 2013 tape has emerged of a speech by Jeremy Corbyn in which the Labour leader says that British Zionists “have two problems: one is they don’t 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”.

Why are the remarks so inflammatory? Well, 90 per cent of British Jews identify themselves as supporters of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, although surveys of the British Jewish community also consistently show that large majorities support withdrawal from all or part of the Occupied Territories, as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state.

To give you an idea of the scale of unanimity, that is a greater level of support than almost any proposition in Britain gets from the country as a whole: well in excess of the 71 to 75 per cent that support for the monarchy in general attracts, above the 80 per cent support that Queen Elizabeth II herself attracts. Only the NHS commands a similar level of support, with 90 per cent of all British voters regularly telling pollsters they are supporters of the service.  

So any remark about “British Zionists” will feel to the majority of Britain’s Jews as though it is about them, and not just the specific group of people referenced at the start of Corbyn's speech, just as any remark about “people who love the NHS” will feel to most British people as though it were about them. That is particularly acute when trust between the Labour party and Britain's Jews is low. 

But the remarks about irony are the ones that will cause real difficulty. The remark that despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either”, carries with it the implication that most British Jews are not properly British despite having lived in – and in most cases been born in – the UK. Even if just applied to the specific group of people targeted in the speech, it still involves describing those specific people in a way that implies they are not properly English or British despite having lived here for all or most of their lives, which will obviously upset anyone who feels they have a commonality with the people described in that matter. 

It’s hard to see where Labour goes from here. As far as rebuilding its relationship with the majority of British Jews goes, the first step would involve disavowing the speech and its contents entirely, but Corbyn won’t want to do that. But “Corbynism without Corbyn” remains an unachievable pipe dream in the minds of most of the project’s major players are concerned. As a result, the row will continue: and the number of Labour MPs who are open to a split will, as a result, continue to grow.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.