2018 09 – Corbyn, Labour and anti-Semitism

Corbyn, Labour and anti-Semitism

by Mark Cowling.

The issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has roots which go some way back, but has become particularly prominent under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The obvious reason is that, unlike previous Labour leaders, he has long-standing associations with the Palestinian cause. This has led to a feeling that he may be slow and reluctant in tackling anti-Semitism within the party. The issue keeps coming up. There have now been two demonstrations by Jews and Jewish organisations outside Parliament accusing Labour of anti-Semitism . Labour has been very slow in developing a satisfactory process for dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism. Ken Livingstone was suspended for two years over alleged anti-Semitic comments; the issue was not satisfactorily resolved and he has now resigned. Margaret Hodge is facing disciplinary procedures for calling Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite, and Ian Austin is being disciplined for something which he says leaves him puzzled, but has something to do with his worries about Corbyn and anti-Semitism. Every few days some new aspect of the issue of anti-Semitism in the party emerges.

A good indication of why the problem stems from Corbyn himself is the following notorious quotation: ‘Tomorrow evening it will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well … the idea that an organisation that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region should be labelled as a terrorist organisation by the British government is really a big, big historical mistake.’ JEREMY CORBYN, LONDON, 3 MARCH 2009.[1]

It would be worth analysing this in detail. Briefly, however, although Corbyn was right to oppose banning Hamas as a terrorist organisation, its charter then in force is a rambling document, including celebrating the killing of Jews,[2] and a clause which is pretty clearly based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and contains just about every anti-Semitic concept imaginable.[3] In addition, Hamas had recently been encouraging the Second Intifada, which involved numerous suicide bombings of Israeli citizens, including families at a pizza restaurant and 29 people celebrating the Seder. Hezbollah had been responsible for a bombing in 14 which killed 85 people at a Jewish centre in Argentina, and one of its spokesmen had said in 2002 at an international conference that it was a good thing that Jews were concentrated in Israel as that made it easier to find them and kill them..[4]

It seems that this issue just simply won’t go away. Towards the end of March 2018, the issue was raised of Jeremy Corbyn’s Facebook entry in 2012 supporting Los Angeles-based artist Mear One’s mural, which was about to be removed from a wall in the East End. The mural depicted a group of bankers, who I and many people thought looked decidedly Jewish, sitting around a table underneath which were pressed stylised workers. Particularly when it is noticed that above the bankers there is a large picture of a Masonic Eye, this feeds into what are described as anti-Semitic tropes. A trope is a metaphor or theme, particularly one which recurs. So, seeing the bankers who are oppressing the workers as Jewish bankers, and linking them with the secretive Masons, links to a series of tropes going back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The episode led to condemnation from bodies representing British Jews, a demonstration outside the Commons, and considerable concern amongst many Labour MPs. Corbyn felt constrained to issue two separate apologies over the episode.

Corbyn again found himself in hot water over anti-Semitism at his meeting with the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council on April 24, 2018. He made constant references to processes for dealing with anti-Semitism in the party, which was fine as far as it went. However, he apparently failed to condemn the actions of those of his supporters who had jeered at the demonstration against anti-Semitism in the party beyond saying that it was not in his name – there was no suggestion of a public denunciation.

An important background point is that Jews generally have felt a connection to Israel, going back to mediaeval times and beyond.  The vast majority of British Jews share this connection, and most of them have visited Israel at some time.[5] In a collection of submissions expressing worries about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party made to the Chakrabarty commission, one of the contributors, Noru Tsalic, makes this point very well, starting with the observation that even non-observant Jews tend to celebrate the feast of the Passover, which ends with “next year in Jerusalem”.  He then goes on to list extensive connections between Jews and what is now Israel.  The centrepiece of the Jewish book of prayer reads: raise a banner to gather our Diasporas, and bring us swiftly together from the four corners of the Earth into our Land. Blessed are You Lord, Who gathers the exiles of His people Israel.[6]

In a way this sums up the evidence that Tsalic provides of over 1000 years of connections.  None of this should be assumed to indicate particular entitlements to the land of Israel, but it does show that the Zionists are not simply inventing connections which do not exist.

A Toxic Situation

It is clear that the anti-Semitism row provides opportunities for the right-wing media, and is damaging to Labour’s electoral prospects. A really bad problem at the moment is that accusations are being made so readily, of anti-Semitism on the one hand and of the anti-Semitism accusations really being ways of undermining Corbyn’s leadership on the other. Space needs to be made for debate about where legitimate criticism of Israel spills over into anti-Semitism. Similarly, Hamas can be praised as a body which is not corrupt, carries out extensive social service functions, and has won a series of clean elections. However, it has also sponsored terrorism, notably suicide bombings and the firing of rockets into Israel, so that unqualified praise for Hamas is arguably anti-Semitic. The episode which led to Ken Livingstone’s suspension and eventual resignation stems from his advocacy of views based on a book by Lenni Brenner which is very debatable as a full historical account. It should have been challenged in its own terms, not simply used as a way of attacking Livingstone for anti-Semitism.

More generally, much of the left follows the views of Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky, for whom the state of Israel was founded in an act of straightforward ethnic cleansing, views which are very much open to challenge, but which feed into an entirely negative picture of the state of Israel. This also should be challenged and debated.

Most urgently of all, Jeremy Corbyn needs to go beyond insisting that he is not anti-Semitic. He needs to explain clearly what is his position on Hamas and terrorism. He and the NEC need to explain carefully why they consider that the full definition of anti-Semitism accepted by numerous other bodies needs to be adapted for the Labour Party, and why four of its examples need to be left out.

The alternative approach of doing a minimum, disciplining a variety of people on dubious grounds, and hoping that the issue goes away is not now likely to work.


[1] Rich, Dave. The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Kindle Locations 77-82). Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hamas Charter, Article 7.

[3] Hamas Charter, Article 22.

[4] Rich, The Left’s Jewish Problem, locations 2543-52.

[5] ibid.,  Location 50.

[6] Ornstein, Judith . Whitewashed: Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Kitty Hawk Press Ltd. Kindle Edition, location 1150 et seq.