February 22, 2020
Jamie Stern-Weiner, Jacobin (21 February 2020)
Such claims were not marginal excesses on the fringe of an otherwise sober narrative: they were the narrative.
Yet no persuasive evidence was ever presented in support of either allegation. Corbyn was not an antisemite but, on the contrary, a veteran anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigner, for whom the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” was a formative influence, and who has long counted Jewish socialists among his closest collaborators. Far from being in imminent peril, British Jewry actually constituted the most prosperous and well-integrated minority community in a country where, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), levels of antisemitism were “among the lowest in the world,” and Jews were “seen overwhelmingly positively by an absolute majority” of the general population.
The prevalence of anti-Jewish stereotypes among Labour supporters did not soar under Corbyn but, on the contrary, “remained fairly consistent” throughout his time as leader, according to the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA). Levels of antisemitism were not unusually high among left-wingers and Labour supporters; in fact, the JPR found, Britain’s “political left” was on average “a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” The CAA’s research showed that Labour Party supporters were “less likely to be antisemitic than other voters.”
Even as “Labour antisemitism” hunters spent years feverishly trawling through the social-media histories of party members for incriminating material, the proportion of members subjected to disciplinary action in relation to anti-Jewish comments rounded to literally zero. When the anti-Corbyn Labour MP Margaret Hodge submitted 200 complaints about 111 people, Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby had to inform her that just twenty of those people were Labour members — which did not stop Hodge from trumpeting her complaints in the national media as evidence of an “antisemitism crisis.”
The former Chief Rabbi of the Reform Movement broke a taboo to advise that congregants “vote for whichever party is most likely to defeat Labour” since “a Corbyn-led government would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it.” Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis all but urged a vote against Labour, in a statement timed to derail the party’s “Race and Faith” manifesto launch. The Jewish Chronicle implored its non-Jewish readers to take a stand: if Corbyn was chosen as Britain’s prime minister, the message would be sent that our “fears and dismay count for nothing.”
These heartfelt appeals from representatives of Britain’s most prosperous and well-integrated minority group ignored the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was running against the party that implemented a “hostile environment” for immigrants and oversaw the Windrush scandal, now led by a man with a long record of overtly bigoted remarks, whose future political strategy will most likely depend upon the excitement of a resentful and exclusionary nationalism. When the Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed the Chief Rabbi’s intervention, anti-racist activist and academic Gus John resigned from the Church of England in disgust.
After the election, the BOD congratulated Boris Johnson on his “historic achievement,” while Jonathan Goldstein of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) suggested that the result “showed that Britain remains a place which respects minorities.” The new Conservative government has since deported people who had lived in the United Kingdom for almost all of their lives to Jamaica, and defeated a proposal by Lord Alf Dubs — who escaped Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the Kindertransport — to permit stranded child refugees to join relatives in Britain. Apparently, some kinds of “fear and dismay” still “count for nothing.”
Second, the relentless allegations against Labour members drained activist morale. People who joined the party on a surge of idealism and moral conviction found themselves depicted in the national conversation as a racist gang. The resulting disorientation grew worse as seemingly nonpartisan Jewish communal groups endorsed these allegations, and left-wing public figures almost uniformly chose not to rise to the defense of Labour members. It is difficult to convey the mounting dread felt by many of those members as they contemplated the fresh antisemitism controversy that would inevitably erupt anew each summer, and ahead of every local or national election.
More established groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center — which named Corbyn as the world’s worst antisemite of 2019, just ahead of the neo-Nazi who tried to shoot up a synagogue in Halle — have largely kept their powder dry. This is in line with the broader liberal strategy of ignoring and sidelining the Sanders movement rather than confronting it head-on. But AIPAC has already sponsored a Facebook advert alleging that “radicals in the Democratic Party are pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people,” and is reportedly helping to raise funds for a closely affiliated political action committee that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on adverts attacking Bernie Sanders.
The Corbyn experience offers some object lessons in how not to respond to such efforts, if and when they reach critical mass.
1. Don’t try to appease the unappeasable.
“Labour antisemitism” was never a grievance amenable to resolution through reasonable compromise, but rather the pretext for a campaign to overthrow Corbyn’s leadership and demobilize his base. Nothing Labour might have done, short of total capitulation, could have prevented or even moderated the media campaign against it. None of Labour’s many concessions silenced its critics for so much as a second. But they did divide and demoralize members and make the leadership appear feeble. When Labour adopted the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, this won the party no respite, while handing an additional weapon to its enemies.
Labour’s defeat only spurred its opponents on. The Board of Deputies has now called on all leadership candidates running to replace Corbyn to “openly and unequivocally endorse” its “10 Pledges.” These include demands to outsource the party’s disciplinary processes to an “independent” body (in other words, one approved by the BOD); grant “regular, detailed . . . updates” on internal disciplinary cases to external “Jewish representative bodies” (i.e., the BOD and its allies); and suspend any Labour members or local parties “who support, campaign or provide a platform for people who have been suspended or expelled in the wake of antisemitic incidents.”
Given the number of hotly contested suspensions and expulsions, implementing this last demand alone would require ejecting most of the membership — as is the Board’s manifest objective. Yet so craven and cringing has the party become that every single leadership candidate rushed to concede to the Board’s ultimatum.
2. Don’t collude in falsehoods.
Every time a senior Labour figure apologized for the party’s purported “antisemitism crisis,” they merely validated claims that such a crisis existed. This legitimized the exclusion of evidence-based contributions from the public debate, and encouraged the depiction of Labour members who denied the existence of widespread antisemitism in the party as “part of the problem.” More fundamentally, once truth was abandoned for the sake of what seemed like political expediency, nothing could prevent the discussion from careening ever further from reality.
Some alleged examples of “antisemitism”: a prominent anti-racist activist accused a right-wing Labour MP of working with a right-wing newspaper (he was expelled); a Jewish Labour councilor made a Woody Allen joke (she was suspended); a parliamentary candidate called the “Labour antisemitism” controversy a “witch-hunt” and a former Chief Rabbi a “racist” (he was suspended). If the BOD’s pledges are implemented, anyone who voices support for any of these individuals will also find themselves suspended.
Meanwhile, at a Labour leadership hustings hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel, the left-wing candidate unhesitatingly affirmed that it was “antisemitic” to “describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation” as “racist.” By this standard, Bernie Sanders — who has repeatedly called Binyamin Netanyahu a “racist” — would probably be expelled from the Labour Party
3. Don’t genuflect before communal “representatives.”
Throughout the “Labour antisemitism” controversy, mainstream Jewish organizations demanded deference on issues of antisemitism, on the basis that they represented the affected constituency. These bodies in fact lack substantial democratic legitimacy: the JLC is unelected; BOD elections are largely uncontested, and do not engage either ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews or most Jews who do not attend synagogue. But even if they did speak for a majority of British Jews in what they said about Corbyn, Labour, and antisemitism, that did not change the fact that it was wrong — just as British Hindu groups were also wrong to ascribe Labour’s support for human rights in Kashmir to anti-Hindu racism.
One of the ugliest aspects of this entire affair has been the scorn and contempt heaped by Britain’s Jewish establishment on Jewish Labour supporters, who have been marginalized and dismissed as “fake Jews” or collaborators. Corbyn’s association with left-wing Jews has itself been cited as evidence of his malice, while the BOD’s pledges includes the demand that Labour “engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organizations.”
No ground should be given to such authoritarian blackmail. It is entirely proper that a progressive movement voluntarily associate with and take its lead from those elements of all communities which share its values and objectives. Conversely, it is absurd for a left-wing, internationalist party to accept lectures on anti-racism from any organization which lobbies on behalf of outright apartheid.
The Sanders campaign ought to set up a small-scale rebuttals unit, to address prominent allegations as they arise. Sanders himself might answer an initial question about a particular case, but after that, he should refuse to discuss it any further. This will not prevent media hostility, which is inevitable whatever the campaign does. But, if communicated consistently and with conviction, it would offer Sanders supporters a defensible position that aligns with their principles while minimizing the energy squandered on this issue.
The main objective of the “Labour antisemitism” campaign was never to reduce antisemitism, but rather to bog Labour down in a time-consuming, soul-destroying internecine conflict. It succeeded because, for honorable as well as cynical reasons, Labour leaders allowed it to. The most effective response to any manufactured “antisemitism” controversy in the United States will be to hew closely to truth and principles, retain perspective, explain how the Sanders movement intends to reduce racial discrimination and inequality in the United States, and — above all — keep your eyes on the prize.