Corbyn’s Complaint

The Labour Party leader insists he is an anti-racist—but British Jews are losing their doubts that he is also an anti-Semite.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn (Hannah Mckay / Reuters)

Jews are a hyperbolic people. Even English Jews; no matter that we were not hyperbolic enough for Philip Roth. Reticent, unremarkable, and parochial, he is said to have found us during the short time he lived in London in the 1970s. “England’s made a Jew of me in only eight weeks,” says Nathan Zuckerman toward the end of The Counterlife, meaning that nothing confers identity quite like hostility. If we’re going to trade hyperboles, I might ask why it took Zuckerman so long, given the “latent and pervasive” anti-Semitism Roth arranges for him to encounter in London. Most Roth-reading English Jews boggle at those scenes. Jews eat out a lot but don’t commonly hear gentile diners demanding the windows be thrown open to get rid of their smell.

Roth was having it both ways. English Jew-hating made a Jew of even the most reluctantly Jewish of American Jews, but still didn’t inspire in English Jews the unaccommodating, impudent vociferousness he identified with Jewishness. What he forgot was that you need both the safety of numbers and the certainty of entitlement to complain as loudly and indecorously as Portnoy, and we have neither. There are fewer than 300,000 Jews in the whole of the U.K., and it’s scarcely more than 700 years—a mere blink in time as Jewish history goes—since King Edward I expelled them. Keep your heads down, our fathers warned, and maybe the English wouldn’t notice we were back. My own father’s favorite expression was “Take a shtum powder”: Swallow a pill that will make you shut up. You didn’t have to talk Jewish if you weren’t asked; there were other subjects. It was good advice. Balancing exaggeration with understatement is also a Jewish virtue. But Portnoy Takes a Shtum Powder would never have been a big seller.

Now, suddenly, faced with the increasingly likely prospect of a Semitically unfriendly Labour Party winning the next election, some English Jews are talking loudly about leaving the country of their own accord. Just what Jeremy Corbyn’s party will do to them if they stay they aren’t sure. Line them up and shoot them, ha, ha? Only a few weeks ago posters appeared on bus shelters in London saying ISRAEL IS A RACIST ENDEAVOR. They came down as soon as they went up, but who’s to say what will be posted next time, and how long it will stay posted? Though I’m not planning to go anywhere myself for the foreseeable future, I don't laugh when others express deep anxiety and even bring up Berlin in the 1920s. When do you know it’s time to leave? It’s a fair question.  Some do laugh and point to the vastly different circumstances. But then, skeptical Berliners would doubtless have said the same had anyone brought up the pogroms in Kishinev or Kiev. It will always be more comfortable to believe that nothing’s going to happen. Mainly it doesn’t; the trouble is … and then suddenly it does. If we haven’t learned yet how quickly a friend can become an enemy, or an enemy become a worse one, we haven’t learned anything.

There is mounting concern, anyway, as evidenced by the spectacle of previously shtum-powder Jews taking to the streets, raising their voices, demonstrating outside Parliament, carrying banners that insist Enough Is Enough. It’s still kept within the bounds of Anglo-Jewish moderation. Much more of this and we might think about losing patience. But at least we’ve met Roth’s objections halfway. The conundrum, though, remains: Is talk of leaving based on a rational assessment of the dangers, or have we just traded understatement for hyperbole?

How we’ve reached this pass can be easily explained. In 2015 a self-marginalized, Sovietized Labour MP who had spent his entire career frequenting the purlieus of protest, opposing nuclear weapons, the West, NATO, America, and of course Israel, astonished everyone, not least himself, by becoming leader of the party with which, on most matters of foreign policy, he’d also been in disagreement for his entire career. The change in party rules governing membership and voting that made his election possible need not detain us. The important thing is that at a stroke the extreme margins of the party moved, in his wake, into the center.

Jeremy Corbyn was not a wholly unknown figure before this. His support for failed and failing revolutionary governments and movements around the world—failed only because the forces of capital had schemed to make them fail—and his appearances on Russian and Iranian TV, telling his hosts the things about the West they wanted to hear, had not gone unnoticed. But there was a plodding archaism about his ideology, suggestive of the crackling radio through which die-hard academic Marxists and Trotskyists of the 1930s took their cue from Moscow, that rendered it innocuous. Corbyn himself was no orator. His appeal—to those for whom he had appeal—was to speak as though from a position of justified weakness. Turn the sound down on his denunciations of oppression and he could have been propounding the virtues of veganism. Indeed, when interviewed in the run-up to his election, he seemed to prefer talking about the vegetables he grew on his allotment to expounding policy. Yes, he had been the chairman of Stop the War Coalition, a wrathful advocacy group that campaigned against whatever could be described as militarism or imperialism, and so had a lot to say about Israel, but it sometimes seemed that he was there in a grandfatherly capacity, to take the edge off its stridency.

It was only when he became leader of the party that a history of more sinister associations began to be publicly revealed. Though he was, when first challenged, unable to recall sharing platforms with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah—men on whom he lavished praise and was unembarrassed to call comrades—his powers of recollection returned when photographs of these encounters appeared in newspapers. They were proof, Corbyn insisted, of his lifelong commitment to peace. If that explanation didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, it might have been because peacemakers can only be called peacemakers if they talk to all parties in a dispute, and photographs of Corbyn talking to senior Israelis are still to surface. These comrades weren’t confined to the Middle East. The IRA could also be numbered among those whose struggles he supported. But enemies of Israel, indeed it might be said enemies of Jews—since some didn’t scruple to deny the Holocaust or come up with new versions of the blood libel—figured with a disproportionate regularity.

Still, Corbyn was allowed the benefit of the doubt. Out-and-out anti-Zionism was a given of left-wing politics everywhere in Europe, reiterated so routinely that it functioned more as a shibboleth than a program. Say you hated Israel, and no door was closed to you. It would have been asking a lot of Corbyn, even when he became leader of the party, to find a more conciliatory tone. It would have been asking still more to let the word Israel escape his lips. Challenged at a public meeting to speak it, he turned his face away. Palestine was the nearest he got.

There are Jews, of course, who share his distaste for Zionism. Those who didn’t said their prayers and agreed to one of those demeaning compacts that minorities must make the world over: “We’ll let you say this about us on the understanding that you won’t say that.” Zionism was the burnt offering. Roth would have been amused.

Anti-Zionism can be anti-Semitism–free, but its exponents need to keep their wits about them. There usually comes a moment when a little Jew-hatred starts leaking out. And it wasn’t long into Corbyn’s leadership before the bargain—that Labour could have anti-Zionism, so long as it remained strictly what it called itself—showed signs of fracturing.

A Labour MP suggested shipping all Israeli Jews to America. The vice chair of the Labour steering group Momentum accused Jews of financing the slave trade. A member of the party’s executive committee questioned the numbers killed at Auschwitz. Jewish Labour MPs became the objects of hate mail from the party’s grassroots. One was referred to as the MP for Tel Aviv. Ken Livingstone, once the mayor of London and a close ally of Corbyn, quoted from a book he’d read that proved Hitler was a Zionist; it was only when he “went mad” that Hitler turned to gassing. Some men should never be allowed to read a book. Livingstone cited it at every opportunity, seemingly to the embarrassment of the Labour Party, though one couldn’t be entirely sure. Maybe others in the party had read the same book. It took an age for Livingstone to be disciplined, while similar instances of maybe–anti-Semitism were tossed into a drawer marked To Do and left there. As for Corbyn himself, while it was his apparent blindness to anti-Semitism rather than its promulgation that was causing concern, that blindness had sooner or later to account for itself.

Under a barrage of criticism, he agreed to an enquiry into Labour anti-Semitism, appointing Shami Chakrabarti—the director of the human-rights group Liberty until a month before—to lead it. The enquiry was highly selective in the evidence it took, came to its conclusions in a matter of weeks, and cut no ice with Jews who had hoped for something more thoroughgoing than mention of an “occasionally toxic atmosphere in the party,” a proposed statute of limitations on historic offenses, and a recommendation to desist from calling Jews who supported Israel Zios.

In response to cries of a whitewash, Corbyn promptly—I don’t use the word carelessly—elevated the author of the enquiry to a peerage. The findings of a House of Commons All-Party Select Committee into anti-Semitism in the U.K. make interesting reading. “It is disappointing that [Chakrabarti] did not foresee that the timing of her elevation to the House of Lords, alongside a report absolving the Labour Leader of any responsibility for allegations of increased antisemitism within [Corbyn’s] Party, would completely undermine her efforts to address this issue. It is equally concerning that Mr Corbyn did not consider the damaging impression likely to be created by this sequence of events.”

If that isn’t quite a questioning of the principals’ probity, it is certainly an indictment of their judgment. The Jewish version of what had happened was still more damning. Corbyn surely had considered the damaging impression likely to be created by the fact and timing of Chakrabarti’s elevation and wanted to show that he didn’t care. He was giving two fingers to the Jews.

These events took place just over two years ago. They decisively mark, in my view, a decline in Corbyn’s standing among British Jews.

From then on there would be a closer scrutiny of his history and a greater unwillingness to allow his words to pass for deeds. He was no racist, he proclaimed over and over again. Maybe not, but his anti-racism wasn’t all-embracing. You could, by no very-elaborate ethical contortion—since Jews were hardly any longer a poor or an oppressed people—be both anti-racist and anti-Semitic. At times, indeed, it seemed that a discreet seasoning of the second was a guarantee of an unwavering commitment to the first. Little by little the sophistry was laid bare.

Each week, as though a hidden hand were completing an identikit of Corbyn and his party, the evidence mounted: now a chance or not-so-chance remark, now a newspaper cutting, a photograph, a video. Is that Corbyn not just shaking hands with terrorists but laying a wreath on the grave of the Black September terrorists responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics? No, says Corbyn, they’re in the next grave along. Yes, says the Daily Mail: There’s the photographic evidence. Tory smear, says Corbyn. A video turns up showing him on Iranian TV, arguing that there is a bias in the BBC toward saying that Israel has a right to exist, which can only mean that to an unbiased person Israel does not have a right to exist. It’s only anti-Zionism again, but this time the ideology is manifestly springing a thousand leaks. A nonexistent Israel equates to a lot of nonexistent Jews.

The standard Corbyn defense of not remembering, not noticing, not being sure, was wheeled out to counter each of these new embarrassments in turn. When it transpired that he had defended a mural showing the world’s capitalists—all Jewish or Jewish-ish—playing Monopoly on the bent backs of naked slaves, he claimed not to have looked carefully enough to see anything offensive. Looked carefully enough! A person driving past that mural at a hundred miles an hour while checking his emails would have grasped its message. And if Corbyn hadn’t given the mural even that much attention, what was he doing defending it against the criticism of those who had?

To many, the game was up. Corbyn’s previous defense—that Zionists were the object of his ire, not Jews—no longer held water. The subject of the mural wasn’t Zionism, but Jewish exploitation of the world’s poor. If Corbyn didn’t notice any gross caricature of Jews in the mural, it could only have been because he carried an identical picture around in his head: a picture familiar to anyone schooled in Soviet anti-Semitism of the Cold War, which held the Elders of Zion to be no less zealous than they had ever been in pursuit of world domination.

What it took for members of his own party to finally accuse Corbyn of racism was his unwillingness to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The sticking point for Corbyn was one particular example of what constituted anti-Semitism—“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Though this was not a good time to be picking a fight with Jews, not being able to call Israel a racist endeavor with impunity was a concession too far.

Why, a reasonable person will ask, is not being able to call Israel a racist endeavor so hard to live with when the IHRA definition makes ample provision for criticism of the Israeli state, so long as it is “similar to that leveled against any other country [it] cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”? What’s the extra bit of definition for which Corbyn has been prepared to lead his party into this toxic morass of rage and recrimination? The answer is that word endeavor. It is not enough for Corbyn to excoriate Netanyahu, to rail against the settlements and the wall, to compare Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto and worse. It is not even enough to say that Zionism has cruelly lost its way. It would appear that unless he can discredit its original energies and ambitions, its hopefulness and its idealism, unless he can defame the entire enterprise, from its first practical stirrings in the Jewish people’s breasts to the tragedy that is Israel today, he is failing those on the left of the party to whom he owes a lifelong loyalty.

And there’s the crux of the fatal disagreement between Corbyn’s Labour and the shtum-powder Jews. If the latter will not accept that Zionism is from start to finish a colonial adventure—never was, never could or will be anything else—they’ll have to live with, indeed deserve, all the calumnies thrown at them. And if Corbyn is unwilling to understand the centrality of Zionism to the Jewish imagination, the yearning and the displacements that shaped it centuries ago, its poetry and idealism; if he cannot enter sympathetically into the life-or-death desperation that turned it into a necessity—if he will not, in short, answer the question: What else would you have had us do?—then Jews will not be shaken in their conviction that he has not only tolerated anti-Semitism in his party, he has encouraged it.

Labour has now accepted the IHRA definition in full—though only after rejecting an addendum, worded by Corbyn himself, in which the phrase racist endeavor tried to creep back in—but it cannot be said that peace has broken out. Charges of anti-Semitism are still being described by many in the Labour Party as part of an orchestrated smear campaign to silence criticism of Israel—an endlessly repeated jackdaw imputation of dishonesty that strikes to the heart of Roth’s normally long-suffering British Jews, who can be as critical of Israel’s conduct as anybody and who hold anti-Semitism to be too repugnant a prejudice to ascribe to all and sundry.

Two days before his speech to the party conference, Jeremy Corbyn appeared on The Andrew Marr Show and was offered the chance to apologize to the Jewish community. He didn’t take it. He insisted, instead, and with the usual obstinate irrelevance, that he has been an anti-racist all his life. But we know now what anti-racism does and doesn’t cover. And what, then, about Israel? A racist endeavor? “No,” he said. “The establishment of the state of Israel was in agreement with the United Nations and its borders were defined.” If that’s a no to the question, “Is Israel a racist endeavor?” why does it sound so like a yes?

Those who have their cases waiting in the hall won’t be unpacking them any time soon.