Considering British Jews’ reaction to the anti-Semitism that has seized hold of the British Labor party since it elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the novelist Howard Jacobson is reminded of a favorite expression of his father’s: “take a shtum powder,” meaning “swallow a pill that will make you shut up.” Jacobson accuses some among the UK’s left-leaning Jews of making a tacit compact with Labor: the party will limit its anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism, and they won’t complain. But Corbyn and his acolytes haven’t held up their end of the bargain:
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 Labor could have anti-Zionism, so long as it remained strictly what it called itself—showed signs of fracturing. . . .
The standard Corbyn defense [to revelations of his animus toward Israel] 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 finally to 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. . . .
And there’s the crux of the fatal disagreement between Corbyn’s Labor and the shtum-powder Jews. If the latter will not accept that Zionism is, from start to finish, a colonial adventure, . . . 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.