While the left and right indulge in whataboutery, Muslims and Jews are united against bigotry

The pointing to the other side by those defending themselves against accusations of prejudice does nobody any favours.

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In 1972 terrorists took hostage and then murdered 11 Israeli athletes and a West German policeman, castrating one after he was shot, in a terror attack that shocked the world and whose victims were honoured at the most recent Olympic Games.

In 2014 Jeremy Corbyn was photographed laying a wreath at a memorial site that commemorated three of the key members of the terror group behind the attack. He referred in an article he wrote himself to having been there. And four years later he has admitted being “present” for the ceremony, but not actually involved – despite being photographed holding the wreath.

Before that point came a barrage of denials and distortions, each abandoned as it was proved to be utterly untrue. First, Corbyn and his office claimed he had been honouring victims of a different attack. Then hours before Corbyn admitted being present at the event in question, Labour’s Twitter account addressed widows of the victims, falsely telling them they were being misled by the media.

There is no simple way around this, and nor should there be. Those Corbyn has offended deserve an honest explanation or apology, and every member and supporter of Labour who claims to be anti-racist, or anti-terror, should hold Corbyn accountable in the way in which they would any other politician.

Instead, we get whataboutery: some supporters point to the Conservatives’ own deep-rooted problems with Islamophobia, some ludicrously claim Boris Johnson’s own deeply offensive comments last week were somehow equivalent (they were not; Corbyn’s actions are worse). Others point to the hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian victims of unjustifiable Israeli attacks. Some point – bafflingly – to the actions of Saudi Arabia.

And one high-profile commentator declared no one was killed by a wreath, an absurd and idiotic line of argument that will likely be thrown back by the right for decades in explaining why people shouldn’t take offence at offensive words or actions which stop short of violence.

On the Conservative side, those rushing to defend Boris Johnson leapt straight to Labour’s woes. “The former Foreign Secretary is in step with public opinion,” wrote the Sun in an editorial. “Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn continues to shame Labour with his anti-Semitism”. In a Telegraph article, meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the Prime Minister of allowing “personal rivalry to take the heat off the Labour Party … Attacking Boris merely helps the opposition.”

There is no moral or principled argument for doing this. We live in a world with seven billion people and a history full of horrific acts. Were we to merely judge everything against the worst of humanity we would find ourselves constantly comparing things to the horrors of the Holocaust and finding them come up short. We can be better than that. We have to be.

When someone deflects criticism by saying “what about” some other issue, they are not raising that issue or honouring the people affected by it: they are throwing those people out as chaff in a bid to defend Corbyn, or whichever other politician is under attack. It is subsuming their cause to a politician’s coverage. It is the act of a moral and political coward.

The Labour Party, its membership, its leadership, and its supporter base are the people best able to make sure Labour lives up to its goals as a progressive and anti-racist party. Labour is in a position to fix Labour, not the Conservatives. If there is a problem – and if you don’t think Labour has a serious anti-Semitism problem then you’re part of Labour’s serious anti-Semitism problem – then Labour are morally obliged to fix it, no matter what else is going on in other parties or other countries.

There are two sets of groups which have admirably failed to indulge in this game of whataboutery, of not calling for issues to be tackled head on. Those are the UK’s Muslim and Jewish groups – who have spoken out in defence of one another time and again.

When Labour’s anti-Semitism has hit the headlines, Muslim groups have stepped up, not to say Conservative Islamophobia is worse, but to say anti-Semitism is a real and pressing problem which must be tackled. In May, an open letter from prominent British Muslims spoke of the need to stand “against anti-Semitism no less than anti-Muslim hatred”, signed by the director of the Tell Mama, which tracks hate crime against Muslims, and the chair of the Association of British Muslims, and many others.

Jewish groups have done the same when Islamophobia has hit the headlines – not only has the Board of Deputies said “we have repeatedly challenged bigotry against Muslims and other groups and we are looking for other ways to extend this important work,” but it also met former Conservative chair Baroness Warsi, who has repeatedly challenged her party to tackle the issue. Only last week the Jewish Chronicle ran a leader headlined “Mr Johnson’s shame” criticising the former foreign secretary’s article on the Niqab. 

Both groups are absolutely right, tactically and morally, to do as they do – to stand together and not allow the other to be used as pawns in political fights. More of us should follow their example.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk