MESOP TODAYS OPINION: contradictio in adiecto – The Antisemitism of the British Left is based on Trotskyism

Anti-Semitism & the British Left


LONDON — Opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour Party, usually claim one of two things about him: that his politics are extreme and will lead the party to electoral oblivion, or that his values are admirable but he is too incompetent to put them into effect.

These two arguments seem contradictory, but in Mr. Corbyn’s handling of an anti-Semitism scandal that has hung over the Labour Party, they have converged. In April, after months of accusations of anti-Semitism among party members, particularly on social media, Mr. Corbyn ordered an inquiry and asked Shami Chakrabarti, who had just stepped down as the director of Britain’s leading civil liberties organization, Liberty, to head it. So far, so good.

The aftermath of her report, however, has aggravated the very wounds it was supposed to heal. It was inauspicious that, at the news conference in June for its publication, Mr. Corbyn looked on in silence as one of his supporters accused Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish member of Parliament, of conspiring against the party leader. Ms. Smeeth left the room in tears.

Worse followed when, a few weeks later, Mr. Corbyn broke his vow not to create any new members of the House of Lords by nominating Ms. Chakrabarti for a peerage. Whatever justification there might be for this award, it gave the impression of a quid pro quo: that Mr. Corbyn was willing to compromise his lifelong hostility to Britain’s system of unelected privilege in return for an inquiry that pulled its punches.

Ms. Chakrabarti’s report was not without merit. Many Jews welcomed its calls on the party to outlaw “Zio” as a term of abuse and for members to avoid making comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel. What was missing, though, was any broader analysis of why such language has become so prevalent on the British left. Many British Jews believe it is connected to strident anti-Israel politics with which Mr. Corbyn sympathizes.

A year into Mr. Corbyn’s tenure, there is no trust and precious little dialogue between the Labour leader and Britain’s Jews. The country’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has spoken of Labour’s “severe” problem of anti-Semitism — a problem that Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the community’s leading representative body, says Mr. Corbyn is loath to tackle.

Mr. Corbyn faces a challenge in a new election for the leadership, which most analysts think he will win thanks to a large influx of left-leaning supporters into the party’s ranks. But when the Jewish Labour Movement, an organization affiliated with the Labour Party for nearly a century, recently polled its members on how they would vote in the leadership election, only 4 percent supported Mr. Corbyn, while 92 percent backed his challenger, Owen Smith. (The result of the race will be announced on Sept. 24.) –  Mr. Corbyn himself appears bemused. The mantra he repeats — that he is opposed to racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (he rarely speaks solely of anti-Semitism) — suggests that he is wedded to the idea that anti-Semitism is chiefly a right-wing phenomenon. It is true that Mr. Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was the target of some thinly veiled anti-Semitic slurs from Britain’s tabloid newspapers. But the notion that well-meaning people on the left might also harbor bias against Jews seems to pass him by.

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The insensitivity extends to Mr. Corbyn’s inner circle. One senior party spokesman, Paul Flynn, said in 2011 that Britain should not appoint a Jew as ambassador to Israel, because the post should be filled by “someone with roots” in Britain who couldn’t “be accused of having Jewish loyalty” — unwittingly invoking the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish disloyalty. This year, one of Mr. Corbyn’s closest aides, Seumas Milne, wanted to remove the greeting “Chag Kasher VeSameach,” which translates as “A Happy and Kosher Holiday,’ from the leader’s Passover message to the community because he felt the use of Hebrew implied support for Zionism. (After some debate, Mr. Milne was overruled.)

For many Corbyn supporters, talk of Labour anti-Semitism is a smear intended to silence advocacy for Palestinians. This segment of party members tends also to subscribe to a worldview that blames the United States and its allies — foremost among them, Israel — for all that is wrong in the world.

This anti-American, anti-imperialist strain of the British left has deep roots, but the 2003 Iraq war gave it a new impetus, and opened up a broad rift in the Labour Party. On one side are supporters of the Blairite legacy that includes a warm embrace of Israel and of Labour Zionists; on the other stand Mr. Corbyn and other veterans of the Stop the War Coalition. Despite the initial mass protests against the Iraq war, the coalition was run by an activist core of far-left groups like the Socialist Workers Party allied with Islamists like the Muslim Association of Britain. For this alliance, a visceral objection to Israel’s existence was a key point of unity.

The Muslim Association of Britain has been described by a government minister as the British “representative” of the international Muslim Brotherhood organization. The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood is Hamas, the radical group that governs Gaza — and which Mr. Corbyn has praised for its commitment to “peace and social justice and political justice.” This is not the only case of Mr. Corbyn’s appearing to align himself with Islamism: From 2009 to 2012, he was a paid host on the Iranian state-owned Press TV.

For many British Jews and others, Mr. Corbyn thus personifies a tolerance among parts of the left for reactionary Islamists that is at best naïve, at worst malign — not least because it overlooks Islamism’s history of murderous repression toward democratic socialists in Muslim-majority countries.

Labour had once been Britain’s most pro-Zionist party. This began to change when support for Palestinian statehood entered party policy. Mr. Corbyn arrived as a new member of Parliament in 1983 as a sponsor of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, a new group that was pledged to “eradicate Zionism” from the party and saw Israel as a colonial implant in the Middle East. Rather than being a legitimate expression of Jewish national longing, Zionism was then labeled a racist ideology akin to apartheid.

At the same time, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government included a record number of Jewish ministers. Most British Jews had long since moved on from their origins in a prewar immigrant working class, and many among the new suburban Jewish middle class were attracted to Mrs. Thatcher’s entrepreneurial capitalism. According to the historian Geoffrey Alderman, “Anglo-Jewish political attitudes and loyalties, which were substantially Liberal for much of the 19th century and substantially Labour in the mid-20th, are now substantially Conservative.”

This may be of little electoral consequence to Labour, since Jewish voters influence the outcome in only a handful of parliamentary seats. In any case, the Corbyn project seems more directed at molding an ideologically pure movement than winning power at the next general election in 2020.

Yet there remains a strong progressive tradition among Jews that now has no political home. Their alienation from Labour is an ill omen: Whether British Jews ever feel they can return to Labour will give a strong indication about the future direction and character of the party as a whole.

Dave Rich, the author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism,” is the deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, a group that monitors anti-Semitic incidents and provides protection services.