eremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party and likely future prime minister if Theresa May’s Conservative government continues to flounder, is once again embroiled in a furor about anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s remarkably sanguine attitude toward Jew-hatred has been a contentious issue in Great Britain ever since he took over the Labour Party in a shock party vote in 2015. The controversy seems to have come as a surprise to Corbyn himself, for during his decades as an extremist but inconsequential backbencher on the edge of expulsion from the party, he had taken part in countless anti-Israel events and hosted activists from the most extreme Palestinian and Islamist groups—and had never been moved to reject, condemn, or apologize for the often violent and virulently racist statements by his fellow agitators.
The roots of the current controversy are to be found in events that took place earlier this year, when it was revealed that the Labour leader belonged to three Facebook groups in which anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial were commonplace, and whose members posted stories about Rothschild control of the world’s banking systems and Israeli armed forces harvesting the organs of their Palestinian victims. Many, but by no means all, of Corbyn’s fellow Facebook group members came from Britain’s predominantly Pakistani-origin Muslim communities, presumably reflecting the fact that in these communities, such calumnies have never become controversial or impolite.
A few days later, it emerged that Corbyn had objected to the removal in 2012 of a mural on Brick Lane in East London called “Freedom of Humanity” that had depicted stereotypically Jewish financiers playing Monopoly on a table supported by the backs of emaciated brown-skinned people. Asked by the Jewish MP Luciana Berger to explain this stance, Corbyn said, “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on.” Berger and other MPs were of course aware that Corbyn had a history of giving supposedly inadvertent support to purveyors of anti-Semitic as well as extreme anti-Zionist expression. He had, for instance, defended Stephen Sizer, an eccentric Church of England vicar devoted to the notion that Israel was somehow secretly behind the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attack.
In response to the Facebook scandal, Many Labour MPs joined a demonstration in Parliament Square at the end of March called by the British Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, the UK’s most prominent Jewish community organizations. Corbyn’s response was oddly low-key. He and his spokesmen kept repeating that the Labour leader had “fought against racism” his entire career, but he carefully refrained from using the term “anti-Semitism.” Observers could be forgiven for wondering if Corbyn insisted on referring only to “racism” because he considered the Jews not to be a race, but rather some other kind of grouping, and therefore a legitimate object of prejudice.
Eventually Corbyn and his people decided that some kind of friendly or at least accommodating gesture might be appropriate, so he attended a Passover Seder held by a radical Jewish organization called “Jewdas.” The group had condemned the demonstration in Parliament Square and had once described Israel as “a steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of.”
Concerns about Corbyn’s approach to anti-Semitism and anti-Semites flared again this summer as Labour prepared to adopt a new Code of Conduct. It included a 16-point definition of anti-Semitism drawn from a formulation used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—but its draft had excised those parts of the definition that related to the use of anti-Semitic tropes in critiques of Israel. It also specified that anti-Semitic intent would have to be proven for any criticism of Israel to be considered anti-Semitic. No such caveat exists in the Labour Party’s treatment of other forms of racism.
That Labour’s National Executive Committee sought to amend the IHRA’s formula at all caused consternation. The governments of Scotland and Wales have signed up to that standard formulation, as have the Crown Prosecution Service (the British national version of America’s U.S. attorneys), 124 local authorities in Great Britain, and about 100 national governments around the world. However strange it may seem to Americans for government bodies to feel the need to adopt a political definition in this way, in the British context it has become so normal that for the Labour leadership to insist on changing such a standard definition carries considerable symbolic weight.1
Technically the new Labour Code of Conduct adopts the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, but it does not include all the examples set out in the IHRA’s document. Those examples that the Labour leadership does not accept include accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own country, claiming that the State of Israel is an inherently racist enterprise, and likening Israeli actions to those of the Nazi Third Reich.
The official position of the Corbynite leadership has been a contradictory one, claiming that the excluded examples were already covered by implication in the Code of Conduct and that the IHRA’s formulation needed to be adjusted to protect the right to criticize Israel.
Jewish groups have pointed out that the IHRA formula explicitly guards against its misuse to curtail freedom of speech: “Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic,” the guidelines say. At a private meeting in the House of Commons, a majority of Labour MPs, many of whom are unhappy with Corbyn’s leadership but have little influence over the party as a whole, voted in favor of accepting the full definition.
As the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee prepared to vote on the alternative code in early July, there was an unprecedented outcry from Britain’s normally disunited Jewish communities. The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, declared that the party would be treating Jews “with contempt” if it went ahead with its own neutered definition of anti-Semitism. All three of the country’s rival Jewish newspapers—the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Telegraph, and the Jewish News—published the same editorial entitled “United We Stand” on their front pages. Sixty-eight rabbis from across the religious spectrum, including anti-Zionists, signed a joint letter saying that Labour had chosen to ignore the Jewish community and was acting in an “arrogant and insulting way” by choosing to amend an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism.
Even so, the new, diminished code was passed by the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee on July 17.
have previously dissected Corbyn’s hard-line ’70s-style “anti-imperialist” radical views and his profound, long-standing hostility to the state of Israel in these pages. As a backbencher, he not only shared platforms with and hailed as “brothers” members of Hamas and Hezbollah, but routinely embraced a number of anti-Israel organizations and campaigners on the most extreme edge of anti-Zionism. One of his guests for tea at the House of Commons was his “honored friend” Sheikh Raed Salah (head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel)—a man notorious for suggesting that Jews make matzoh bread with the blood of murdered children. He was also a supporter of a Holocaust denier named Paul Eisen. Until this August, when he was essentially forced to dissociate himself from it, Corbyn was a member of the international advisory panel of an NGO called the “Just World Trust”—which is not simply an anti-Israel lobbying group but one that defended the French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy.2
In 2011, when Corbyn was making one of his frequent appearances on Press TV, the then London-based Iranian-funded English-language propaganda channel, he criticized the BBC for pro-Israel bias in revealing terms: “I think there is a bias towards saying that Israel is a democracy in the Middle East, Israel has a right to exist, Israel has its security concerns”—the inference being that none of these things is true.
On the same station, but on another occasion, Corbyn happily repeated some of the conspiratorial theories about Israel that are so popular in the Arab world and that echo traditional anti-Semitic themes about behind-the-scenes manipulation, claiming that “the hand of Israel” was behind al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Egypt.
The real significance of the Labour Party leadership’s decision to exclude certain tropes from their definition of anti-Semitism is less the content of those tropes than the fact that so much effort has been put into changing what is a relatively unexceptional formulation, and that the leadership is so blithely unconcerned with the reaction of the Jewish community. This may not be simply a reflection of Corbyn’s ideological extremism, intellectual limitations, or personal biases. It probably also reflects some basic political calculations by his hard-left advisers. There are only 260,000 Jews in the UK, out of a population of 63 million, according to the 2011 census. Except perhaps in one London constituency, they are electorally irrelevant.
On the other hand, there are at least 2.8 million Muslims in the UK, almost 4.4 percent of the population. While there is no obvious evidence that securing their votes requires taking ardent anti-Israel positions still less anti-Semitic ones, there may be enough such sentiment apparent in certain British Muslim communities for Corbyn and others to believe it is worth pandering to.
This may especially be the case in areas where the Muslim vote seems less solidly pro-Labour than it once was. For while the northern and midlands cities with large or majority Pakistani communities have been Labour-controlled for a long time, it is not at all uncommon for entrepreneurial British “Asians” to become more inclined to the Conservative Party as they become more successful or more resentful of business regulation and high taxes. If Labour leadership feels it has to work harder to secure the votes of Pakistani communities, it is not inconceivable that part of that effort may involve dropping certain progressive traditions that were once part of Labour’s DNA.
Thus, a party that was once devoted in practice as well as in theory to women’s rights has become conspicuously quiet about female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and the effective denial of female voting rights, all of which are problems in Pakistani-majority parts of Britain’s cities. Dropping the party’s traditional relationship with and concern for a miniscule Jewish community could be just another sacrifice of principle for the greater good of securing a Labour majority in parliament. The fact that Corbyn and co. are steeped in a traditional Marxism with a strong anti-Semitic component, and the New Left’s “anti-imperialist,” tiers-mondiste loathing of Israel, only makes the sacrifice easier.
n any case, the reaction to criticism of Corbyn over the IHRA and Labour’s Code of Conduct has been revealing and depressing. Fury that the leader has been questioned and attacked for alleged anti-Semitism has prompted something akin to an internal purge and generated responses from Labour officials and activists that are unquestionably examples of the real thing. After two prominent MPs, Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin, publicly called out Corbyn for equivocating or worse about anti-Semitism, the party immediately instituted disciplinary action against the two that could lead to their expulsion.
After Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, warned that the party had to deal properly with anti-Semitism or “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment,” pro-Corbyn activists made much of the fact that among the donors to Watson’s campaign was the left-wing Jewish businessman Sir Trevor Chinn. One such activist, a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum named George McManus, posted on Facebook: “Apparently Electoral Commission states that Watson received £50 000 + from Jewish donors. At least Judas only got 30 pieces of silver.” Indeed, the ferocity of the outrage reflects the fact many Labour activists, including left-wing Jews, are convinced that the dispute about the IHRA is simply part of a smear campaign designed to overthrow the leader.
One senior Labour leader, Peter Willsman, was recorded raging about this unfair smear campaign at a meeting that Corbyn attended—it was fake news, he said, with some of it coming from “Jewish Trump fanatics.”3 Willsman added: “So I think we should ask the 70 rabbis, where is your evidence of severe and widespread anti-Semitism in this party?” (Willsman is himself the secretary of the Labour Democracy Group, which supported former London Mayor and Corbyn intimate Ken Livingstone when he was criticized for his remarks about Hitler’s being a supporter of Zionism.)
To be fair, until Corbyn’s ascension and the effort to dilute the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, there really had not been much if any evidence of traditional anti-Semitism in the Labour Party—other than at the fringes of local government and in the actions of Corbyn and his immediate circle. The rhetoric of his current defenders, however, suggests that there may be rather a lot of it under the surface.
In a blog post for the Times of Israel, Corbyn supporter Joseph Finlay conceded that some “lowly Labour members had posted some stupid and offensive things on Facebook” but asserted that the idea that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem is a tall tale with a dark guilt-by-association subplot: “It is no longer just that the leadership of the Labour Party has been soft on anti-Semitism—Jeremy Corbyn himself is, drumroll, an anti-Semite! Now the villain of the tale has finally been unmasked [and] the coda is inevitable—Jeremy Corbyn will be forced out, the Blairites will return to great fanfare, and everyone will live happily ever after in a centrist Eden.”
While some of his Corbynite colleagues blame one-time supporters of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for this alleged smear campaign, a great many are convinced that other, secretive forces are at play: wealthy Jewish donors or Mossad or both. Pro-Corbyn websites such as Skwawkbox and the Canary are awash with speculation about the nefarious mechanisms by which Bibi Netanyahu and his local allies are trying to overthrow the leader. As the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis has pointed out: “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.” Or his support for Palestine.
A Labour councilor in Scotland, since suspended, named Mary Lockhart wrote on Facebook, “If the purpose [of criticizing Corbyn] is to generate opposition to anti-Semitism, it has backfired spectacularly. If it is to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, it is unlikely to succeed, and it is a shameless piece of cynical opportunism. And if it is a Mossad-assisted campaign to prevent the election of a Labour government pledged to recognise Palestine as a state, it is unacceptable interference in the democracy of Britain.”
It is not surprising that both David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan wizard, and Nick Griffin, the former leader of the neo-Nazi British National Party, have come out in support of the Labour leader. And it may well be that among the half million or so mostly young new members who have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn became leader of the opposition are significant numbers of fascists, neo-Nazis, and single-issue anti-Semites. Certainly the language on pro-Corbyn social media suggests their presence. A quick look at the Corbynite Facebook page “Britain Is the People” brings up this comment on the Jewish MP Margaret Hodge currently being investigated by the Labour Party for calling Corbyn a racist and an anti-Semite: “After all is said and done, do the British people give a f##k about this nasty, venomous little jewess?”
Every day brings another expression by Corbyn or his supporters of precisely the kind of opinion that the IHRA condemns. On August 5, sources including a former aide to Corbyn said that they had overheard the Labour leader and his acolytes refer to the Jewish Labour MP Dame Louise Elman as “the honorable member for Tel Aviv.”
I have heard older Jewish friends who are lifelong Labour supporters respond to all this by reminding their interlocutors about “golf-club anti-Semitism” in the Tory Party and among Tory voters. Indeed, back in the 1980s, the long-retired former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan quipped sourly that Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet had “more Estonians than Etonians”—a reference to the fact that a quarter of her 20-man cabinet were Jews of Ashkenazi immigrant background. Since then, the Conservative Party has actually had a Jewish leader, Michael Howard (its second if you count Benjamin Disraeli, who was baptized as a child but was never less than overtly proud of his background), something the Labour Party had never come close to achieving until the brief premiership of Ed Milliband. Of course, even if small pockets of such prejudice do survive in some corners of the Tory Party, anti-Semitism has not been remotely respectable within its higher echelons for decades, still less any official attitudes or actions along the lines of the Labour Party’s recent behavior.
Nevertheless, some of the talk by British Jewish commentators about being made to feel “unsafe” in Britain by the Corbynistas’ hedging about the definitions of anti-Semitism can seem both hyperbolic and a resort to the kind of febrile rhetoric used by censorious activists, millennials, and university students to add weight to calls for the banning of texts and pulling down of offensive statuary. Britain is not (yet) anything like France, Germany, or even Sweden in terms of incidents of anti-Semitic violence or anti-Semitic political rhetoric.
However, this could conceivably change (along with a lot of other sureties Britons take for granted) in the event that Corbyn becomes prime minister. And that is the real threat that underlies serious concern about Corbyn’s attitudes.
As it is, Britain’s once-admired police forces, encouraged by a craven, hopelessly politicized Home Office, have been infamously unwilling to enforce certain laws depending on the ethnic identity of perpetrator and victim. Female genital mutilation, forced marriage (i.e., kidnapping and rape), and the overtly racist “sexual grooming” of white and Sikh girls by predominantly Pakistani rape gangs have all been so studiously ignored by police in a number of cities that these crimes have been all but legalized.
London’s Metropolitan Police, the most important and influential in the UK, notoriously holds different ethnic groups to different standards especially when it comes to laws against violent rhetoric and “hate speech.” On a number of occasions over the years, when Islamist demonstrators have called for the beheading of the Jyllands-Poster cartoonists or the killing of Prime Minister Blair, they have been treated with remarkable deference by Met officers while would-be counter-demonstrators have been made to move on or face arrest. It is therefore far from inconceivable that violent assaults on visually identifiable Jews would become similarly invisible to police eyes (as seems to be the case in Sweden) if carried out by Muslims rather than by white far-right extremists
If what is already happening on left-wing college campuses in the UK is any guide, then it is also probable that “anti-racist” laws and laws prohibiting behavior likely to cause a “breach of the peace” could be misused to close down or silence Jewish and pro-Israel groups.
In the meantime, large parts of the British Jewish community are in a state of depressed shock. While there has been nothing like the horrific episodes of deadly anti-Jewish violence seen recently in France and to a lesser extent in countries such as Germany that have imported large migrant communities from notoriously intolerant societies in the Middle East, the sense of complete safety and acceptance once enjoyed by British Jews no longer feels as solid as it did. The sensation may be particularly acute among the many Jews, especially in prosperous, politically progressive areas of North London, who feel a traditional, even tribal, connection to the Labour Party.
As the novelist and columnist Howard Jacobson recently wrote: “The incantatory repetition of the charge that Jews cry anti-Semitism only in order to subvert criticism of Israel or discredit Corbyn is more than fatuous and lazy, and it is more than painful to those many Jews who own an old allegiance to the Labour Party and who are not strangers to criticizing Israel. It is the deepest imaginable insult.…Most Jews know what anti-Semitism is and what it isn’t. Its history is written on the Jewish character in blood. To invent it where it is not would be a sacrilege….For myself I feel I am back in that lightless swamp of medieval ignorance where the Jew who is the author of all humanity’s ills lies, cheats, cringes, and dissembles.”
1 For any American steeped in or committed to traditional First Amendment jurisprudence and ideas, this whole discussion of permissible rhetoric may feel uncomfortable. Indeed, the UK’s (much-abused and unequally enforced) hate-speech and hate- crime laws would never pass constitutional muster in the United States, though they are, sadly, now admired by those parts of the American left that no longer see free speech as a priority.
2 Although a Labour Party spokesman denied that Corbyn ever sat on its advisory panel, the president of the Just World Trust, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, told the Observer newspaper, “Jeremy Corbyn has been a member of Just’s IAP since 1994.”
3 “And some of these people in the Jewish community support Trump—they are Trump fanatics and all the rest of it…. So I am not going to be lectured to by Trump fanatics making up duff information without any evidence at all.”