London — Brits just had their hottest recorded summer since 1976, and the political temperature is also turned up to full blast. Throughout the summer, civil wars have consumed both of Britain’s main political parties. While the Tories are now preoccupied with a looming Brexit decision and a potential leadership challenge, Jeremy Corbyn has become the focus of Labour’s all-consuming anti-Semitism row.
The Labour leader has for years now been dogged by a seemingly endless stream of scandals involving anti-Jewish bigotry. In 2009, he invited Islamist “friends from Hamas” to the House of Commons and said that the idea that the group “should be labelled as a terrorist organisation by the British government is really a big, big historical mistake.” In 2010, he hosted an event (also at the House of Commons) on Holocaust Memorial Day in which a Jewish Auschwitz survivor compared the Israeli government to the Nazi regime. In 2014, he attended a ceremony in Tunisia and reportedly laid a wreath on the grave of one the Black September terrorists who murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Before the Iranian state broadcaster, Press TV, was banned in January 2012, he reportedly accepted up to £20,000 for his appearances on the channel.
In 2016, amid mounting pressure from inside and outside Labour, Corbyn announced an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and racism in the party. The report concluded that there was a toxic environment within the party. He later apologized for the “concerns and anxiety” caused by his past appearances “on platforms with people whose views I completely reject.” But these vague gestures struck many as empty, and a war for Labour’s very soul is now being fought between the party’s moderate old guard and its Corbynite radicals.
In the former camp, ex-Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have lamented Corbyn’s anti-Semitic “stain” on the party, while Frank Field, a veteran Labour MP, has resigned and 15 more are said to be contemplating the same course of action. Meanwhile, the socialist grassroots movement Momentum, which has no official political power, is seeking to purge Labour of moderates. Joan Ryan, a Labour backbencher and critic of Corbyn, recently faced a vote of no-confidence from her local party. Ryan has called Momentum “a party within a party” full of “Trots, Stalinists, Communists, and assorted hard-left” activists, for whom “anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is fundamental to their politics and their values.” She believes she was targeted for speaking up for Israel and against Corbyn.
The trouble is that the Corbynites seem to be winning this fight. At the Party’s National Executive Committee election last week, Momentum candidates won all nine places. One place even went to Peter Wilsman, who blamed Jewish “Trump fanatics” for initiating the anti-Semitism debate. Previously, the Jewish Chronicle leaked a recording of Wilsman attacking 68 rabbis at an NEC meeting for requesting that the party adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
It is little wonder that, outside the party, a genuine atmosphere of fear exists in the British Jewish community. A survey conducted by the Jewish Chronicle, for instance, found that 40 percent of British Jews say they would consider leaving the United Kingdom if Corbyn became prime minister. Last month, when The Times revealed a video from 2014 in which Corbyn tells a group of Palestinians that “Zionists” don’t understand “English irony,” Britain’s foremost rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, spoke out against the opposition leader in the strongest possible terms. He called Corbyn an “anti-Semite” who had “given support to racists, terrorists, and dealers of hate.” He also likened Corbyn’s language to that in Enoch Powell’s controversial 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech.
Of course, many rightly point out that anti-Semitism ought not to be conflated with criticism of the Israeli government or those who question its legitimacy. But Sacks’s point is that the term “Zionism” must be used with immense care precisely because such distinctions matter. Dan Rich explains as much in his book, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism. Rich cites a 2010 survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which revealed that 95 percent of British Jews said Israel plays some role in their Jewish identity, 82 percent said it plays a central or important role, and 90 percent said they see Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. As Rich puts it:
For most Jews, this is what Zionism is: the idea that the Jews are a people whose homeland is Israel (wherever they actually live); that the Jewish people have the right to a state; and that Israel’s existence is an important part of what it means to be Jewish today. This deep, instinctive bond doesn’t necessarily translate into political support for Israeli governments or their policies: both surveys found strong support for a two-state solution and opposition to expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, Corbynites typically dismiss accusations of anti-Semitism as politically motivated spin or, to quote one letter to the New Statesman, a “ludicrous Jewish overreaction.” To understand this response, and why it’s worrisome, one must understand the ideological roots of Britain’s radical New Left.
As Rich points out in his book, the New Left emerged in the 1960s, when the foundations of modern identity politics were laid and a contingent within Labour abandoned its historical support for Israel in favor of the Palestinian cause. For the hard-left, colonialism is an absolute evil, and Zionism — support of a racist, illegitimate state — is a racist and oppressive ideology. On these grounds, Israel’s Labour opponents have often blamed it for the Iraq War, the wrath of ISIS, and the prevalence of Islamophobia. And in this regard, Sacks has said that the return of anti-Semitism on the British left is partly due to “the cognitive failure called scapegoating.”
Likewise, with Corbyn and his acolytes a curious double standard exists: They tend to favor a sweepingly broad conception of racism, except when Jews are the minority being attacked. After much fierce debate, on September 4 the Labour party finally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism — which, it’s worth noting, also emphasizes the importance of the freedom to criticize Israel. Even after a career spent dogged by anti-Semitism scandals, Corbyn put up a fight against adopting the full definition, dragging the process out for months before eventually relenting. The question is why? If Corbyn’s rhetoric is as benign as he and his supporters claim, if it is not informed by an uncompromising ideological prejudice, he must prove it. Until he does, British Jews are right to be deeply troubled.