British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn on January 10, 2019 in Wakefield, England. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images.
For most of his career, before being unexpectedly elected as leader of the British Labor party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was a backbench politician of hard-left views, an active supporter of anti-Western causes in general, and an outspoken proponent of the anti-Israel cause in particular.
His tenure as Labor leader has been no different. Since his election, he has retained his radical political platform, his deliberately cultivated bad-boy persona, his vow to “rebuild and transform” Britain in the image of Marxist-Leninist socialism—and his flamboyantly announced intention, should he someday become prime minister, to recognize “Palestine” on his first day in office.
No shortage of ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilled on Corbyn, his record, his utterances, and his meteoric rise. In what follows, I mean to explore the central role played by anti-Semitism in abetting and consolidating that rise, the adroitness of Corbyn’s management of the anti-Semitic theme, and the meaning for British politics of his success with it. I begin with some fundamentals.
At the heart of Corbyn’s political coterie sit anti-Israel organizations of both Marxist and Islamist origins. He himself personifies the program of the so-called red-green alliance, which coalesced ideologically around the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The alliance holds that Israel is the “little Satan,” lesser only to the United States as the focal point of the evils that typify Western civilization as a whole. For the “red” part of the alliance, those evils are capitalism, imperialism, and racism; for the “green” part, domination by infidels.
For both parts, Israel must be defeated.
British organizations faithful to that overarching aim include the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The former, with help from the Socialist Workers party and the Muslim Association of Britain, was founded in 2003 to oppose the post-9/11 war on terror; it now focuses on denouncing Israel and promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). (Throughout the Syrian civil war, ironically, the ill-named coalition did and said precisely nothing to stop anything while millions of civilians were being displaced and hundreds of thousands murdered, justifying its silence with bleating reminders that its primary goal is to oppose the West.) As for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which holds the honor of being the first British organization to label Israel an “apartheid state,” it is the main organ of pro-Palestinian activism in the UK. It, too, promotes BDS, and also associates itself closely with Hamas.
Together, these two organizations have sought to popularize the notion that Israel and the Jews are the chief cause of global war and strife. Their influence within the Labor party as a whole may be measured by a meme, courtesy of Mel Gibson, that was recently “shared” on Facebook by the party’s former regional organizer for the West Midlands: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!”
Corbyn has held positions of leadership within both of these organizations, serving as chairman of Stop the War Coalition until his election as party leader and continuing to this day as a patron of PSC. At a 2013 event convened by the so-called Palestine Return Center, he inveighed against Zionist Jews for their alleged ignorance of British life and customs despite “living in the country almost all their lives.” The plain insinuation was that, what with their suspect attachment to the pariah regime in Jerusalem, British Jews are congenitally disaffected from, if not disloyal to, their country and its culture.
Corbyn also associates with terrorists, both secular and Islamist, who actively seek the destruction of the state of Israel. On numerous occasions he shared a platform with Leila Khaled, the convicted plane-hijacker and former mastermind of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In 2014 he was photographed, alongside the exiled PFLP chief Maher Taher, laying a wreath at a memorial ceremony for the Black September operatives who carried out the murder of eleven Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He has spent time with high-ranking figures from Hamas and Hizballah, including those whom in 2009 he welcomed to the British parliament “as friends.” In a 2010 visit to the Palestinian territories, he met with Hamas officials in Gaza. In 2016, he declared on British television his support for engagement with Islamic State, asserting that the West needed to understand “where [IS’s] strong points are.”
Corbyn’s ascension to the top of the largest political party in the United Kingdom caused his anti-Semitic discourse, hitherto a more or less bearable embarrassment, to become the troublesome centerpiece of Labor’s image. Thus, in April 2016, when “Red” Ken Livingstone, a key Laborite supporter of Corbyn and the former mayor of London, proclaimed on national television that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,” a number of scandalized Labor MP’s, not all of them Jewish, made their discomfort known. As a result, Livingstone was suspended from the party for two years and, eventually, a formal inquiry was established into the palpable spread of anti-Semitism within Labor ranks. More on that inquiry below.
But the main response to the Corbyn disease, from the beginning and until now, has come from the British Jewish community—a community already somewhat estranged from Labor after Ed Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor and an MP of Jewish descent, drafted a motion in 2014, at the height of fears regarding Islamist attacks on European Jews, in support of Britain’s recognition of a state of Palestine. For some time now, this estrangement has quietly manifested itself in Jewish voting patterns, specifically the noticeable increase in support for the Conservatives since 2015. Corbyn’s unapologetic flirtations with anti-Semitism, however, has forced the community to issue unprecedentedly vocal denunciations of Labor’s leadership and of left-wing anti-Semitism in general.
This past summer, the three most prominent Jewish newspapers in the UK released a joint editorial under the headline “United We Stand”—stand, that is, not only against Corbyn in the present but proactively against the all-too-credible threat posed to British Jewish life by the possibility of his becoming prime minister. The Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s reflexively apolitical lay representative organization, together with the Jewish Leadership Council, another umbrella group, mounted two large-scale protests under the slogan “Enough is Enough.” Both Ephraim Mervis, the current chief rabbi, and Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, have broken a longstanding clerical reluctance to speak out on political matters by condemning Corbyn explicitly for, in Sacks’s blunt words, reviving “the language of classic prewar European anti-Semitism” and giving “support to racists, terrorists, and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map.”
As the possibility has emerged of a Conservative defeat and a Labor victory in the next elections, nearly 40 percent of British Jews in a recent poll said they would seriously consider leaving the country. Some, indeed, have already begun to act on their fears.
British media, for their part, have hardly been slack in bringing Corbyn’s anti-Jewish animosities to the forefront or in covering the internal divisions, such as they are, within the Labor party itself. The distinguished magazine Standpoint, founded by Daniel Johnson, has been especially vigilant, offering consistently acute analyses of the Corbyn scandal and its repercussions; and the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign-policy think tank, has been similarly diligent in tracking and exposing the left’s “Jewish problem.” Well-known British writers, including Melanie Phillips and the acclaimed novelist Howard Jacobson, have dissected the anti-Semitism lurking in plain sight underneath Corbyn’s “anti-Zionism”—a charge he blithely denies while pleading victimization by those leveling it.
Yet none of the outrage at the Labor leader and his supporters, no matter how trenchant the critique or distinguished the source, has so much as laid a finger on Corbyn or in the least restrained him or caused him to rethink his course, let alone to backtrack.
And here it’s pertinent to ask: where in all this have been the Conservatives, who are still the British ruling party? The answer is that, like so many others in British politics, they have largely absented themselves from the scandal, perhaps because they hope that, left to its own devices, it will implode upon and cripple their opponents—or perhaps because they and others are instead paralyzed by the fear, should they undertake to “side” with the Jews, of being charged with Islamophobia, with all the tangled and adverse political consequences such a charge would inevitably trigger.
Indeed, just last summer, when the former Conservative foreign secretary Boris Johnson joked lamely in the Telegraph about the “letterbox”-like appearance of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab, Sayeeda Warsi, the party’s former co-chair (who in 2014 resigned to protest then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s allegedly too-favorable policies toward Israel), demanded a full-scale inquiry into Islamophobia within party ranks.
And so, with his critics effectively defanged, Corbyn, unapologetically fanning anti-Jewish flames, caustically disavowing Israel’s right to defend itself, openly associating with terrorists, not only remains in power but has in fact consolidated his hold on the party and furthered his public standing.
How has he gotten away with it? Partly by his own cunning, and partly because of something he understands that others have yet to grasp: namely, that anti-Semitism, rather than being an obstacle or a detriment to his standing or his approval ratings, has been a winning strategy. Let’s briefly count the ways.
For starters, consider the electoral math. Jews in the UK make up half of 1 percent of the total population, and their votes matter in only a handful of parliamentary constituencies. By contrast, the more than two-and-a-half million Muslims in the United Kingdom constitute over 5 percent of the total population. By no means are all of them Islamists, but significant numbers do detest Jews. Even a fierce critic of Israel like the al-Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hasan has acknowledged the extent of casual, ingrained anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. The upshot for Labor is that attacking Jews, under the guise of “criticizing” Israel, has not only become relatively cost-free but can offer real dividends in the effort to secure the Muslim vote. Corbyn has made this point integral to his electoral fortunes, and there is no denying that his anti-Semitic discourse has indeed helped to expand the size and influence of his coalition.
And there is more. The same discourse has also helped him grow and sustain a fanatical base of large proportions. After his unexpected victory as party leader in September 2015, his associates set out to radicalize Labor from the fringes. Their vehicle was Momentum, a political movement aimed at cementing the alliance between Islamists and socialists and at injecting “Corbynism” across the party as a whole.
Momentum dominates Labor’s grassroots by threatening to unseat politicians who do not subscribe to its political platform. In the past few months alone, it has organized formal votes of no-confidence against numerous non-cooperative MPs, including Joan Ryan, the chair of Labor Friends of Israel. Its army of loyal “Corbynistas” targets and abuses the leader’s critics on social media, repeatedly accusing Jewish and/or pro-Israel Labor politicians of harboring “allegiances to a foreign government” and threatening them with punitive action. Its former vice-chair is the American-born black Jewish extremist Jackie Walker, who has echoed Louis Farrakhan’s smear that Jews were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade.
With the aid of Momentum, comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany, and conspiratorial accusations of Jewish attempts to undermine democracy in the UK, have become commonplace in the party. Last August, the London Jewish Chronicle sent an undercover reporter to a meeting of Momentum addressed by Corbyn’s parliamentary ally Christopher Williamson. When movement activists at the event denounced Corbyn’s Jewish critics as “Israeli foot-soldiers” attempting to supplant British democracy, Williamson responded encouragingly that, while some comments of this kind might be “perceived as anti-Semitic,” they were in fact perfectly legitimate and defensible.
Momentum’s success is deeply revealing of Corbyn’s strategy. Indeed, the more extreme Corbyn’s views, associations, and words, the more he has prospered. Conspiratorial anti-Semitism has clearly fueled his growing fandom; under his leadership, the Labor party has almost tripled in size.
This brings us back to the inquiry into anti-Semitism within the party in the wake of Ken Livingstone’s playing of the “Zionism-Nazism” card. To oversee the inquiry, billed as a comprehensive attempt to quantify and root out the poison, Labor commissioned the well-known human-rights activist Shami Chakrabarti. As it turned out, the process was essentially orchestrated by Corbyn as a coverup of his own anti-Semitism. At the event announcing the commission’s findings, he paid lip service to its declared purpose but then, in a trademark Corbyn maneuver, defined the real issue as the heinous actions of Israel and its Jewish supporters, actions from which he then hastened to absolve “Jewish friends” who, he magnanimously allowed, were no more responsible for Israel’s deeds than Muslims in Britain were responsible for Islamic State.
Both Rabbi Mervis and Rabbi Sacks publicly condemned these words, the latter calling Corbyn’s implicit equation of Israel and Islamic State a “demonization of the highest order.” But the ploy succeeded in diverting attention from the blatant whitewash that was the report itself. With transcendent evenhandedness, Chakrabarti’s inquiry found that “the Labor party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of racism” (emphasis added). Three months later, Chakrabarti received a peerage in the House of Lords, an honor for which she had been promoted by none other than Jeremy Corbyn himself—who had promised when campaigning never to distribute such unegalitarian honors.
Nor does this exhaust Corbyn’s talent for dodging accusations of anti-Semitism by changing the subject or enlarging it so as to minimize the significance of the Jewish component within the large and amorphous category of “all forms of racism” (thereby conveniently ignoring the fact that Jews, at 0.5 percent of the population, are the targets of 12 percent of all hate crimes). Having universalized the problem of racial hatred in the United Kingdom, he brazenly challenges its applicability to him personally by reaffirming his own steadfast, progressive commitment to “anti-racism.” In brief, he simply refuses to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is an issue at all, let alone the issue.
Of ancillary use in this regard is the appeal to “free speech.” For instance: the British government’s official definition of anti-Semitism, like that of dozens of other European countries, is taken from the definition worked out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Among the telltale examples of anti-Semitism cited in that definition are four pertaining to Israel, like “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Corbyn opposed adoption of this definition by Labor’s national executive on grounds that it could endanger “free speech on Israel.” As he put it in his artfully elliptical way: “[I]t should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact.”
Picking up on the cue, his allies in the party outdid him in candor, asserting that Israel has itself fabricated the charge of anti-Semitism in order to obstruct and evade criticism of its policies. Mark Serwotka, leader of one of Britain’s biggest trade unions, speculated that the Jewish state had planted “stories” of Labor anti-Semitism in order to avoid challenge on its own “atrocities.” The IHRA definition was also vilified for elevating anti-Semitism above the Israel-inflicted sufferings of the Palestinians and for contravening the rights of “Palestinian civil-society organizations.”
Leaving no weapon unmobilized, Corbyn and his allies have also adopted the “intersectional” left’s insistence that Jews are too privileged to be considered victims of racism and as such, by definition, cannot experience “race hatred.” In this spirit, a local Labor group recently rejected a statement expressing sympathy with the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh on the grounds that it gave too much credence to the very concept of anti-Semitism.
Finally, even as Corbyn has made the denial of anti-Semitism a core principle of the left, he has made it clear that he is more than willing to support “good” Jewish groups—that is, those who share his ideology. These include the self-described radical British groups Jewdas (sic) and Jewish Voice for Labor, both of which have refashioned Judaism into a battle cry against Israel and Western civilization.
As for the bad Jews, those who dare to affiliate in any way with the state of Israel, they are entitled to neither tolerance nor sympathy when they are the objects of violence whether physical (as at Tree of Life) or verbal—a notable case of the latter being the Labor MP Luciana Berger, who was compelled to employ a bodyguard at a Labor-party conference after being targeted with abuse labeling her a “racist Zionist,” an “apartheid apologist,” and a “warmonger.”
Jeremy Corbyn reminds us that anti-Semitism is not just an irrational hatred, harbored by madmen at the fringes of British society. He has achieved something new, not only infiltrating anti-Semitic language, tropes, and accusations into mainstream British political discourse but successfully wielding anti-Semitism as a means of dramatically increasing support for his larger program of “transforming British society.” No matter how much the British Jewish community cries “Enough is Enough,” for Corbyn it is never enough; to the contrary, to renege on his “anti-Zionism” would be to repudiate his entire worldview and renounce a core strategic key to his political success.
In sum, if Theresa May’s government falls and Jeremy Corbyn is elected prime minister of the United Kingdom, anti-Semitism, in one cheeky guise or another, will have been declared not only officially acceptable but an essential component of the governing mandate of one of the world’s greatest democracies.
Postscript: one must always hesitate to compare like with unlike, but a British observer cannot help feeling a twinge of sympathetic worry at the recent accession to the U.S. House of Representatives of several Democratic congresswomen harboring a frank and open animus toward Israel and boasting political affiliations reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn and his milieu. One can only pray the worry is misplaced.