Big issues in brief
In defence of Corbyn, against claims of antisemitism
A letter to my rabbi
If you’ve read my previous article About the Author — Why I am who I am, you’ll know that I am an atheist of Jewish heritage. I do not practice and am strongly opposed to religion as a whole (but respect individual’s rights to be religious). I grew up attending a Reform synagogue and I highly respect my rabbi, who is an activist against religious schools and in favour of the right to die. However, I was disappointed to find out that he was on his way to London to support the protest against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, organised by The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. Here’s what I wrote to him. The first letter has been updated with his responses indented, and below that are further responses.
Thanks for taking the time to write such a long letter — as I’ve received some 100 replies to mine, which I am slowly working through, excuse the brief response…and see comments below.
I felt it necessary to challenge the protest and today’s letter by The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council.
I am sure you are up-to-date with the claims over the last few years that the Labour Party has a problem with antisemitism, and that you have insider knowledge on various Jewish organisations’ voicing of concern over this. I therefore feel inadequately equipped to speak with any kind of authority on the matter. However, I have been observing what’s been happening and I believe the evidence in no way shows that Corbyn is antisemitic, and shows that Labour is working to deal with all types of prejudice.
He may not be personally, but has has allowed it to flourish on his watch in a way that no other Labour leader has done.
Take, for example, the following cases. Just over a year ago, Ken Livingstone was suspended from the party for his idiotic remark about Hitler being pro-Zionism. At the beginning of this month, his suspension was further extended. Earlier this month, several members of a pro-Palestine Facebook group were suspended from the party, because people have posted antisemitic content in the group. These issues have been dealt with and are under investigation.
It’s worth noting that on Facebook, it’s possible to add friends to a group without their permission, which is quite dodgy. Corbyn was a member of the group before his leadership bid, when presumably his team trawled through his social media to root out anything that looks bad. It’s highly unlikely that someone with a schedule like his as an MP would be aware of everything going on in this type of group — I’ll come back to this shortly. Corbyn supports the right of Palestine to exist and challenges Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and so do plenty of Jews, myself included. He has similarly been smeared many times for instances such as referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” (when meeting with them and attempting to engage in discussion — it does not mean he condones their actions) and for sharing a platform with Sajil Shahid (who reportedly said antisemitic things only after the event had taken place — how was Corbyn to know before the antisemitic remarks had been made?) — I’ll come back to this, too. The latest smear insinuates that he approves of an antisemitic mural. On first glance, when I saw the mural perhaps it’s just my naivety, but it didn’t scream out as being antisemitic. On closer inspection, it clearly is, and its unacceptable. Corbyn did not comment in defence of the content of the mural in 2012, he was defending freedom of speech. I do not personally equate freedom to spread hate speech with freedom of speech, but I hardly believe that this historic incident is proof of Corbyn holding antisemitic views.
What is worrying is that there are so many “it just so happens’ instances... but it is not him who is directly accused of being anti-semitic but those within the party, and the accusations are coming from Labour MPs, councillors and activists (and both Jewish and non-Jewish).
In fact, Corbyn has a long history of activism against all forms of prejudice. This dates back to 1977 when, as a councillor in Haringey, he joined a 12,000-strong anti-Nazi demo against the National Front. His first act after his resounding victory in the Labour leadership contest was to join a demo in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers. If you watch his 2016 speech in memory of the Battle of Cable Street, you’ll see what he really stands for. This is his record, and the unfounded claims of antisemitism do not negate this.
I think a more reasonable view to take of the situation is that every major political party unfortunately has members who hold some disgraceful views. Just look at the numbers: Labour has over 550,000 members — it’s the largest political party in Europe, with almost 8 times as many members as the Tories. That massively increases the chance of public expression of unsavoury viewpoints being associated with the party. Conservative voters currently outnumber Labour voters, but with so few holding party membership, there is no evidence that fewer Conservative voters hold antisemitic views.
True, but is is individuals… whereas within Labour today it seems to be in danger of being institutionalised — not my impressionable view but what i am told by those within the party.
The Tories and the media that backs them have a long history of Nazi, racist and pro-apartheid associations. Raising this issue is not an attempt to distract from claims of antisemitism within Labour, which of course must be investigated, but it is important to put into context how this is not an issue specific to Labour or the left, and it is not just a recent issue. However, at the same time, the recent rise in antisemitism cannot be ascribed to the left, as discussed in the next paragraph. In a recession, there is always a rise in bigotry, and this can be seen across Europe and the US. Combined with the further increase in racist incidents following the EU referendum, extremist thinking has unfortunately penetrated society and must be stamped out.
Many on the left (compared to the right) are rightly critical of Israel’s foreign policy towards the Palestinians, yet this is often conflated with antisemitism. A recent report by Institute for Jewish Policy Research showed that there is a strong correlation between anti-Israel attitudes and those with left-wing views (and that Labour is obviously associated with left-wing views). However, whilst there is also a strong correlation between antisemitic attitudes and those with right-wing views, antisemitism is around or below average on the left. As you know, it is very important to highlight the difference between anti-Israel and antisemitic attitudes. Furthermore, the types of Facebook groups and activist organisations that oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians do unfortunately attract antisemitic people as well as those who are not — this means that unbigoted Labour members are being tarred with the same brush as the antisemitic members of the group. I admit that these people are tempting fate by being a member of such groups, or alternatively that they should do more to challenge antisemitic views that are expressed within such groups, but internet forums are ruleless places where it’s difficult to have any effect through such challenges — as I have been finding out recently, when confronting bigoted British people who live in Finland and use Facebook groups to spread nasty views about Finnish people.
I believe that people can realise the errors of their ways and make up for them, and Judaism teaches the same. Naz Shah’s suspension was lifted in 2016, with support from the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, who said “She has proven herself to be a bold and courageous agent of change at a time when strong leadership on this issue is so important”. The Board of Deputies of British Jews said there was a clear demarcation between Shah and several others, including Ken Livingstone, who had been suspended by Labour for alleged antisemitism. “Naz Shah stands out as someone who has been prepared to apologise to the Jewish community at a local and national level, and make efforts to learn from her mistakes,” a spokesperson said. “In that regard, her reinstatement today seems appropriate and we would hope for no repeat of past errors.”
The instances concerning Corbyn’s occasional and inconcrete crossing of paths with antisemites does not in any way suggest to me that he is antisemitic, and for the reasons already pointed out, no evidence suggests to me that the party has a particular problem with antisemitism. Nevertheless, Corbyn has repeatedly apologised and the party is making a concerted effort to root out any members expressing such views. Why can this not be recognised in the same way that Naz Shah’s actions have been?
The same report by Institute for Jewish Policy Research states that “Jewish support for the Labour Party fell to an estimated 15% in the May 2015 general election (compared to 64% for the Conservatives) and an estimated 7% a year later (compared to 67% for the Conservatives), whereas support for both parties had been found to be at similar levels to each other just five to ten years earlier.” This worries me, not because I think the loss of support by Jews will have a huge impact on the next election result, given that Jews make up a small percentage of the electorate, but more because the reputation of the party is unjustifiably being damaged through smears. In fact, the ideology of the party and socialism as a whole is directly counter to the image that’s being portrayed.
I am by no stretch a conspiracy theorist, but there is a concerted effort by the right-wing media, Conservatives and even some neoliberal parts of the Labour Party to smear Corbyn’s party and its shift back towards the left by whatever means necessary. This is not only reflected in these antisemitism smears, but also in the attempt to oust him (he came back with an even greater majority after the second leadership contest) and the attempt to paint him as a Stalinist (he is considered a Trotskyist, but his actual policies are only moderately socialist, are progressive and anti-authoritarian, and the picture that’s portrayed in the media is pure hysteria). Before Corbyn, a Jew was the leader of the party, but unfortunately he did not have a clear set of ideologies, as nice as he seemed. Socialism and Judaism have a strong shared history and this is being eroded by these smears. I fear that this is what lies at the heart of the attacks on Corbyn’s Labour, which is a party gradually returning to its roots.
I stand in defence of Corbyn, not because I am a particularly huge fan — I support the Greens, am more socialistic than Corbyn is (…allowed to show, as leader of Labour in the current era…) and I don’t think he did enough in the beginning of his leadership to demonstrate that he is prime ministerial material — but because I believe there is no clear evidence to back up the claims that he is antisemitic, or that he has allowed antisemitism to become a particular problem within Labour. These smears are harming the political left, and I find it irresponsible of The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council to attempt to mobilise an entire religious group against the (twice) democratically elected leader of a mainstream party with no clear evidence of antisemitism.
The rally was not a challenge to his leadership, but to his handling of one particular issue.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I welcome your response, but also understand if you do not have the time to respond to these concerns.
Likewise… even if we have to disagree about this one.
Replies where appropriate below.
Thanks very much for your response and sorry for my slow reply. Just to respond briefly:
- The smears began after Corbyn had been leading the party for around a year. If there has been a rise in antisemitism, it would have been gradual, existing even under the former, Jewish leader.
True, but I still reckon it’s Corbyn who — unwittingly or not — allowed it to burst forth and flourish.
- I fully support an increased effort to stamp out antisemitism in the Labour Party membership base. No-one can deny that the party would be a better place without these kinds of opinions existing within it. It’s also undeniable that antisemitism is commonplace within campaign groups that oppose Israel’s actions — though they are not explicitly linked with Labour. Hopefully this will kick the party into gear in terms of acting on this issue, although I’m sure you can understand the difficulty in policing a membership, compared to vetting councillor or MP candidates. However, plenty of Conservatives — councillors and even MPs, not just members — have been exposed over the last few years for their antisemitic or equivalently discriminatory conduct. The main complaint from the left is that Labour has been singled out, when the problem is not specific to Labour, and that the Tories haven’t faced any scrutiny in this regard.
- There are also links to the pro-Israel lobby in the groups blaming the problem on the current leadership, which can’t be ignored. As a vocal critic of Israel’s policy towards Palestine, there has been plenty of speculation that Corbyn and the movement within the Labour Party that oppose Israel’s actions are the target of a smear campaign. Even Haaretz has been backing up Corbyn — an indication that it is the British media that either misunderstands the problem in the middle east, or wilfully chooses to conflate anti-Israeli sentiment with antisemitism.
True, but if it was just an attempt to smear anti-Zionists without any real instance of antisemitism, it would hot have got the traction it has received, nor survived the intense scrutiny of 10 days in the news… even Momentum is saying that Labour has under-estimated the problem, it’s a real issue and the leadership needs a process of education.
- The latest episode in the smear campaign has been the effort to shame Corbyn for attending a seder organised by Jewdas, a far-left group of almost exclusively practising Jews, which describes itself as “radical” and “anti-Zionist”. The outright demonisation of this group by the media — a group of Jews that absolutely has the right to consider themselves Jewish, despite their non-conformism, is a step too far. Corbyn has agreed to meet Jewish leaders from the organisations that organised the protest, but he equally has the right to meet with similarly minded Jews to discuss how to engage with all sections of Jewish society.
True, but politically, it was totally stupid and a massive own goal… like having a row with the Archbishop, saying you’re not against Christianity, and then proving it by walking past the Archbishop’s house and spending the evening at a Humanist meeting… whilst the Jewish community will take a message about his attitude to us, the wider community might take it as a comment on his leadership skills (or lack of) and wonder, if elected, whether he can be a unifying figure or will prove highly divisive and partisan.
I appreciate that you may not see eye-to-eye with me on this. I do not in any way condemn you and the Jewish groups trying to hold Labour to account on this issue, but the way it’s being used by the media as a tool to delegitimise Corbyn is shameful, and I would hope to see similar action against bigoted people within the Conservative Party and other sections of society, both from the same Jewish groups and from the media as a whole.
Thanks again for the discussion.
Yup, I’m enjoying it too!
Thanks again for your replies. I appreciate that your support of the protest was based on the good intention of dealing with antisemitism, which I support. However, I think that your responses show that your support of the protest is based partly on:
- faith in the authorities that called for the protest (whose motives are rightly being challenged by the left),
- trust in the media (much of which has demonstrably tried to suppress support for Corbyn since he was elected, as he challenges the divisive ideologies they spread),
- perhaps also a limited of understanding of how online forums work (they cannot be used as proof of a problem within the party).
On the last point, I recommend reading this article, if you have a few minutes to spare. Below are a couple of quotes from it:
“I would like to address the claims made in the Sunday Times and the Times that within these groups there are ‘routine attacks on Jewish people, including Holocaust denial’ and that such attacks are ‘rife’. The investigation uncovered 2000 incidents of ‘racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, violent and abusive messages’; this means that antisemitic incidents were fewer than 2000, probably a lot fewer but a breakdown is not provided. As a percentage of all the posts and comments on 20 of the largest groups, 2000 represents less than 0.05% of the total content on these groups.”
“All Facebook users know that hate speech and abuse occurs on this platform, as it does on Twitter and other social media platforms. As a responsible Facebook user, I have reported many incidents of hate speech directly to Facebook; these were not on pro-Corbyn or Labour groups but elsewhere on the platform. FB have responded to all my complaints, with the exception of one, telling me that what I have reported does not contravene their community standards and will not be removed. The type of racist abuse and hate speech inciting violence I have reported is truly abhorrent and dangerous and I cannot understand how FB could possibly decide it met their standards.”
I can vouch for this personally. I have recently been challenging racist views in a couple of non-political groups I am a member of, only to have a troll turn on me and contact my former employer to inform them that I have been harassing him and spreading racist views. I have reported many instances of racism to FB — including, for example, very clearly antisemitic posts by the nationalist Hungarian party Jobbik — and they do not take them seriously. Most of the pro-Labour groups have no official affiliation to Labour, and it would be impossible for the party to manage the sheer quantity of comments people post online. There are some deranged people out there, but there’s no evidence that any significant proportion of them have been knowingly allowed by Labour to spread antisemitic views.
Finally, the issue about Jewdas shouldn’t be an issue at all. If he wants to meet with a non-establishment, left-wing Jewish group, as the leader of a left-wing party, it is not for the media establishment to decide whether this is acceptable or not. He is also going to meet the leaders of the Jewish authorities to seriously discuss how to deal with antisemitism. This incident with Jewdas actually helped to reveal the hypocrisy of the moralising by titles such as the Daily Mail, who themselves spread hatred and division against Muslims and historically supported the Nazis — it is purely a way of drumming up anti-Corbyn sentiment. Their readers in general do not understand Judaism or antisemitism and are happy to back their paper’s views, regardless of how pro- or anti-Jewish they are being at the time, as long as it damages their political opponent.
I hope that all antisemitism gets dealt with, both inside the Labour Party, inside other parties and in society in general. If the Labour Party has a backlog of genuine cases to deal with, I hope this kicks them into dealing with them quicker. I support any means by which you and other Jewish leaders work towards that which do not involve politicisation of the issue, which applies to many sections of society outside the Labour Party as well. I absolutely believe that a protest against the leadership was an unjustifiable way of politicising the issue in the run-up to the local elections next month. The right approach would have been for the leaders of those authorities to first meet Corbyn and offer support in dealing with the issue, instead of calling for a protest as a reactionary response to the revelation of an incident that happened six years ago.
I don’t think we will be able to see eye-to-eye on this issue, but thanks very much for the discussion and all the best.
Just to echo your last sentence… and also to suggest that this issue will not be a factor in the May elections, as people will vote because of NHS/local jobs/cuts in bus services/perceptions of party leaders… will be interesting to see the results.