The anti-Semitism now rampant in Labour’s left-wing ruling elite has deep roots in history — but the party leader has no objection to it
J’accuse . . . It may seem impudent to use Émile Zola’s famous opening to his defence of Alfred Dreyfus. And yet, as on that occasion, the issue of anti-Semitism has become intertwined with wider political questions, in this case a party leader who consorts with terrorists in Ireland and the Middle East and admires repressive regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and a party whose members (including Members of Parliament) are being intimidated by extremists whose loathing for Israel has spilled over into contempt for Jews. This crisis has developed without much more than a murmur from the man at the top, although many, not just those on the Left, were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that his blindness to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party was another example of the chaotic management of his party that characterised the first year of his reign. But more recent revelations have shown clearly that Jeremy Corbyn is very much part of the problem; he passionately believes what Ken Livingstone or indeed George Galloway believes: that the history of Zionism and of Israel proves his case, and he is happy to keep the company of the Iranians and others who propose to wipe Israel off the map.
(COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY)
His silence was not indolence, incompetence or stupidity, but the silence of one who is content to look the other way and cannily let things develop in the direction he has always wanted. Hence his own lack of fury at what are quite astonishing statements repeated again and again in the press and by public figures that he, the Leader of her Majesty’s Opposition, is an anti-Semite, statements that with any other senior politician would be countered by angry, vigorous, firm denial, a dose of righteous (or unrighteous) indignation, and maybe even recourse to the courts. He should also be aflame with rage at the extraordinary threats and slurs that those professing to be his supporters have flung into the ether by way of social media, some of the most revolting of which are now under investigation by the police for racist incitement. Indeed, it is now reported that the Labour Party itself is under police investigation for sitting on stomach-turning comments about the Holocaust and about exterminating Jews that were apparently supplied by its own members.
Of course, his way of thinking should have been obvious from the moment that he installed Shami Chakrabarti and her colleagues on his commission to examine the presence of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The most significant feature of their conclusions was the way references to anti-Semitism were wrapped up alongside other forms of racism — in other words, it was always being relativised, shown to be inherently implausible because it was inconceivable that a party committed to anti-racism and the fight against Islamophobia would be hostile to Jews. Far from generating action, the report was seen as an opportunity to declare that action had been taken.
No one is claiming that the party itself is an anti-Semitic institution, although the fact that 70,000 members voted for Peter Willsman in the NEC elections, despite his outrageous comments linking Jews to Trump, does give one pause for thought, as do the comments now under investigation. Given the size of party membership, the presence of violent anti-Semites is statistically likely; but they are only part of the problem — there is also the failure to deal with them, which was among the issues prompting Frank Field to resign the Labour whip in Parliament. And at present the main issue is whether its leader is himself an anti-Semite, and whether his closest advisers (among whom the newspapers have singled out his éminence grise, Seumas Milne) have gained a purchase on the Labour Party that has given a respectability to anti-Semitism that the Left has long disavowed. The Left certainly has its own potent tradition of anti-Semitism — with the Webbs, most obviously — and Marx’s essay on the Jewish question approvingly conjures up all the stereotypes of which Marx’s own ancestors were regularly accused. Corbyn’s constant refrain that he opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism is, as we shall see, seriously complicated by his belief that most British Jews are in effect racists, insofar as the great majority support the existence of the State of Israel, making them, in a very broad sense of the term, Zionists. Meanwhile, it would be more than helpful if Corbyn cited chapter and verse to show that he has indeed fought anti-Semitism throughout his career.
The matter will not end if the Leader of the Opposition issues an abject apology for his behaviour and for that of far too many of his supporters. It has not ended with the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism by the NEC, either. As Margaret Hodge has pointed out, we need action, not words. There is no reason to believe that any apology would be in any way sincere; and Corbyn complicated the NEC debate with his typically obstinate demand that it should still be acceptable to describe Israel as a racist enterprise. When we have John McDonnell stating on Andrew Marr’s programme that the voices of both sides must be heard we have to ask: both sides? Anti-Semites and Jews? And McDonnell
cannot resist intruding a comment about the rights of the Palestinians, without mentioning the security of Israel. So apparently by “both sides” he means Palestinians and Israelis — but Corbyn does not bother to meet the Israelis. (Asked by a prominent Jewish figure whether he could say anything at all that is good about Israel, Corbyn is said to have remained silent.) McDonnell’s worry is clearly that his political party is in crisis as a split in the parliamentary party threatens, not that Labour has wandered into a dark and dangerous place and needs to rethink its moral foundations.
Much has turned on the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and the examples of anti-Semitic views and comments that the IHRA has provided. One may or may not wonder whether a tick-box approach is the right one; but some means need to be found to make important distinctions, such as criticism of the government of Israel as opposed to rejection of the existence of Israel. The difficulty is compounded because anti-Jewish sentiment is a dangerous beast that has mutated over the centuries, sometimes primarily taking the form of hostility to the Jewish religion (as with Martin Luther), sometimes taking the form of hostility to the Jews as a “race” (as with the Nazis), sometimes taking the form of hostility to Jewish financial successes (as in Western Europe and the USA around 1900, and even now), sometimes taking the form of hatred for the Jewish state. Most, but not all, of these forms of anti-Semitism envisage a supposedly better world in which there would simply be no Jews, or just a few insignificant ones. For anti-Semitism in its most virulent form has involved a wishing away of the Jews. (Another case of wishing away a people is the Gypsies, who shared the same fate under the Nazis.) The disappearance of Jews might be through assimilation or conversion or indeed extermination. One way or another, the world becomes Judenfrei. Virulent anti-Semitism involves strong negation: the negation of Jewish existence. We might call it the mental extermination of Jews, whether or not it is accompanied by physical extermination. The question then is how far Jeremy Corbyn thinks in these terms.
Anthony Julius’s substantial book on the history of anti-Semitism in Britain, Trials of the Diaspora (2010), looked both at this sort of anti-Semitism, loudly expounded by Oswald Mosley, with his wish to clear Jews out of Britain “to one of the many waste places on earth”, and at the sort of social anti-Semitism that saw Jews excluded from golf clubs, Jewish quotas in leading public schools, and occasional off-the-cuff remarks that were not appreciated in the Jewish community. I am not sure whether Macmillan’s famous jibe about there being “more Estonians than Etonians” in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet really qualifies as anti-Semitic; in fact, it serves as a reminder that the Conservative Party, once seen by Jews as a place that harboured a fair amount of social anti-Semitism, had become a natural home for the ever-expanding Jewish middle class. Around 1960 the only Jewish Tory MPs were the patricians Sir Keith Joseph and Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, while Labour had a great many Jewish MPs from much more modest backgrounds. And then here we were under Mrs Thatcher with three or four Jewish cabinet members. For Mrs Thatcher, the Jewish community demonstrated clearly how it was possible for people, many of whom were descended from poor migrants settled in the East End, to improve themselves and contribute significantly to British society and to the economy.
The changes not just in the political loyalty but in the social status of the Jewish community need to be borne in mind when looking at the anti-Semitism of the Left. Far from qualifying as members of an ethnic minority in need of support, Jews are now seen as white and middle-class, indeed very often as establishment figures — better not to mention how many Jews are judges in the High Court or professors at Oxford and Cambridge. They may be white British; but, paradoxically, they are also being classed as distinct. The radical Left’s war against the Jews is a class war as well as a race war.
Defining anti-Semitism is difficult because a distinction does have to be made, at least at some points in the past, between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. The latter is probably a more useful term with which to describe a period that was, nonetheless, pock-marked by pogroms, expulsions and forced conversions, the Middle Ages. St Augustine of Hippo took the view that Jews should be permitted to practise their religion as bearers of the Hebrew Bible, which (as they failed to understand) contained the prophecies of the coming of Christ; a remnant would abide until Christ returned to earth, the last Jews were converted, and the End of Time would come. Until then, Jews were expected to “serve” Christians, never exercising authority over them, and often being subject to the direct authority of the ruler. In some lands, such as Spain, this was not, at first, much of a disability. After all, just about everyone in medieval society served someone else, including even the Pope (servus servorum Dei, “servant of the servants of God”). Increasingly, though, Augustine’s dispensation was modified or ignored, as pressure was placed on Jews to convert to Christianity; increasingly, too, Jews were seen in popular culture as a pollutant, often obliged to wear a special badge and sometimes forbidden from touching fruit in the market.
Under Islam, life tended to be easier and the right of both Jews and Christians to practise their religion was generally accepted, again with the proviso that neither group exercised authority over members of the dominant religion, though in Spain, once again, the rules were honoured in the breach by sundry caliphs and emirs. And some later Islamic rulers, such as the Ottoman sultans, valued the contribution of the non-Muslim communities to the economy of their empire, allowing them extensive autonomy. It is therefore very sad that some of the modern abuse against Jews has come from Muslim members of the Labour Party. Equally, no one is suggesting that the abuse is a speciality of the Muslim community, despite the strength of feeling among many Muslims about Israel.
European anti-Judaism mutated into what might be called anti-Semitism at the end of the Middle Ages, when Jewish descent, and not just Jewish belief, made individuals into the target of persecution. Persistent and legalised hostility to those of Jewish descent became widespread with the Spanish Inquisition and the growing insistence that those Christians who wished to rise high in society must be able to demonstrate “purity of blood”, limpieza de sangre. Stricter application of these regulations would have excluded St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, both of Jewish descent, from their convents. The fundamental and theologically very unsound idea was that Jewish, or indeed Muslim, ancestry, corrupted the blood of subsequent generations, and that even the grace of Christ, through which conversion was achieved, could not remedy that.
Then and in later centuries, hostility to Jews had a different character to other forms of racism. Attitudes to sub-Saharan Africans and native Americans were guided by the much-mistaken notion that these people were primitive, lacking in intelligence, created to toil on behalf of European masters, “natural slaves”, in Aristotle’s phrase, so that even when legally free and living in their natural habitat they were (to quote one 16th-century Spanish writer) just “talking animals”. As Europeans encountered more black people within Europe itself, nearly all of whom had arrived as slaves, the association between a black skin and subordination or slavery sadly became normal in European thinking. In the wide spaces of North America and Australia, lack of respect for the human status of native peoples had devastating results.
By contrast, racism against Jews has taken different paths, leading to modern ideas that Jews are to be feared and condemned not because they lack intelligence, but because they are too clever, particularly when it comes to finance; so they are able to control the world through the Rothschilds and other families (a point made plainly in the revolting mural that originally attracted Corbyn’s approval). Even when the Nazis preached the physical inferiority of Jews, with the help of the caricatures with which they filled Der Stürmer, the underlying notion was not that Jews were naturally subordinate but that they were too subtle, too powerful, and able to manipulate the entire globe. Their supposed physical inferiority was countered by their malign mental power. And the answer to this was to begin by negating their achievements, by abolishing their music, literature, art and science (which must secretly carry the taint of corruption), by expelling as many as could be persuaded to leave with few or no possessions, and finally by initiating a programme for the extermination of World Jewry.
One of the most peculiar forms that this negation has taken is Holocaust denial, in which even the most cataclysmic event in Jewish history is taken away from the Jews. In one form, it is an expression of conspiracy theories according to which Jewry has successfully generated undeserved worldwide sympathy, leading to the fulfilment of one stage on the way to world domination, the creation of the State of Israel. Or it may involve acceptance of the murder of millions of Jews, but the ascription of a controlling role to the malign leaders of International Jewry, prepared to sacrifice the Jewish masses in order to create the State of Israel. But there are milder forms. Corbyn is one of those who would like to see Holocaust Memorial Day renamed Genocide Memorial Day, In fact, anyone looking at the programme of activities will notice that other groups, such as the Armenians, the Gypsies and the victims of the Rwandan civil war, regularly receive attention on the day, one of whose themes is “never again” — for any people. But as emphasis on the suffering of European Jewry fades, awareness of anti-Semitism also fades. So, of course, does the connection between the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, which is why Corbyn and his ilk are unhappy with the emphasis on the extermination of the Jews.
History, it appears, matters both to Ken Livingstone, with his bizarre reading of Hitler’s supposedly Zionist intentions “before he went mad”, and to Jeremy Corbyn, with his injunction to “Zionists” (i.e. Jews) during his notorious speech at the Palestine Return Centre to “study history”. It is possible that he means books by the likes of Ilan Pappé, whom even other radical historians of Israel condemn for their fabrications and distortions. But the first lesson Corbyn needs to learn from the study of the past is that it is not an exercise in proving one’s political convictions, but an exercise in looking as dispassionately as possible at events and their causation, and at people and their motives.
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism attempts to deal with the accusation that Israel is a racist endeavour. Obviously a distinction needs to be drawn between the foundation of the state and the conduct of its government. The Basic Law approved this summer by the Knesset has rightly aroused concern at its treatment of the sizeable Arab minority in Israel, including the Druze, who have strongly protested their loyalty to the state. The law is both unnecessary and, particularly in its treatment of the Arabic language, an insult to a great many citizens of Israel who in the nature of things cannot identify with a flag bearing the star of David or the Zionist dreams of the national anthem, Hatikva (“The Hope”). But to argue that Israel has enacted a racist law does not make “the circumstances around its foundation” racist, as Jeremy Corbyn was still insisting on the day that the NEC approved the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Now, Israel is indeed a state that owes its foundation to racism — to racism that went far beyond vulgar smirks or social rejection or even ghettoisation, to industrial mass extermination on a scale never before witnessed on earth. That is to say, it owes its foundation to racism directed against Jews, not to racism disseminated by and among Jews. It is also a perversion of the history of the state of Israel to argue that it was not founded legitimately; after all, as the ITN News helpfully pointed out in a lead story, it owes its birth to the United Nations, even if its relationship with the UN has soured over the years. For Corbyn to insist that “the circumstances around its foundation” were racist is to wipe off the record the awful dilemma of those who had survived Nazi persecution and were in desperate need of a homeland after 1945. These were not white supremacist colonists but homeless and often destitute refugees, the sort of people whom, in all the rest of the world, Jeremy Corbyn is keen to support and defend. To them must be added the 750,000 Jews who left Arab countries for Israel, often following violent attacks and increasing discrimination. Yet again, he displays a sort of negation of Jewish history and experience, a lack of pity for an oppressed people that sits very awkwardly with his sympathy for just about every other oppressed people.
It is true that Israel’s War of Independence was accompanied by the flight of very large numbers of Arabs and that a good many of these refugees were coerced into leaving; and it is true that very many of these refugees lived in unacceptable, miserable conditions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as in a number of Arab states. They were tragic victims of the creation of Israel; their own response was to develop a stronger sense of their own group identity, as Palestinians rather than just inhabitants of southern Syria or the Arab Levant, often carefully observing the Zionist movement and developing a rival national story.
Take, for instance, Nur Masalha’s recently published Palestine: a Four Thousand Year History, an attempt to prove that the entire land belongs to its only original inhabitants, the Palestinians, and that their history of statehood goes back millennia. Dealing with ancient Palestine, Masalha, by origin an Israeli Arab, tries to show that the Philistines created a cultured and successful state within the land that eventually took their name, passing over with embarassment the easily demonstrable fact that they were not “native” Palestinians but migrants from the collapsing world of Bronze Age Greece and the Aegean — the warriors of Agamemnon and Menelaus, in effect. Delving deeper into the book, I was intrigued by the attention he gives to the ruler of Galilee in the early 18th century, Dahir al-Umar, especially since one of my Sephardic ancestors worked closely with Dahir in the resettlement of Tiberias.
Looking at Masalha’s book, one finds no reference to the close relationship between Dahir and the Jews, because in his book the Jews have been largely written out of the history of Canaan/Palestine/the Holy Land (there are no entries for “Israelites” or “Jews” in the index, and periods of Israelite or Jewish rule are passed over at lightning speed). It is rather like those, including members of the Palestinian leadership, who stoutly deny that the Jewish Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif. Negation again: the writing of history without Jews, in Masalha’s case to prove that Dahir founded a fully-fledged Palestinian state in Galilee during the 18th century.
This brings one back to Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance before the Palestine Return Centre. It is obvious that a two-state solution can only be achieved if Israel is not forced to compromise its predominantly Jewish character by admitting tens of thousands, even millions, of descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948. (My own view is that evacuated West Bank settlements with all mod cons would make perfect homes for returnees, but it will probably never happen.) Some of those who support a return to all of Israel-Palestine, such as members of Hamas, do not, in any case, believe that Jews should continue to live in what is now Israel. Exactly what is to happen to the Jews of Israel in such a scenario is unclear, although one Labour politician did helpfully suggest that they should all go to live in the United States. It would be interesting to know what Corbyn thinks of the claim by his Hamas “friends” that the Jews initiated both the French and the Russian Revolutions, of which he clearly approves, and their claim that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion demonstrate that the Jews are constantly conspiring to dominate the world. Essentially, though, the Jews are unwanted and should disappear: another stark example of the negation of Jews that is such a dangerous form of anti-Semitism.
But for Corbyn the State of Israel is from its very foundation, even conceptualisation, a racist endeavour, as he has explicitly stated; in consequence, those who support it are racists; and if it is true that as many as 90 per cent of British Jews are in a general way supportive of Israel’s creation and right to exist, then how can it be racist to oppose the racists? Even those, among whom I would count myself, who are strongly critical of the policies of the Israeli government, particularly on the West Bank, are ignored. But the minority of strongly anti-Zionist Jews are the ones Corbyn takes to be real Jews, just as Arafat and Ahmadinejad hobnobbed with Neturei Karta, the ultra-orthodox group who take handouts from the State of Israel but fervently denounce its right to exist. Jeremy Corbyn showed which Jews counted in his thinking when he attended the parody of a Passover seder organised by the extremist dissidents of Jewdas, who spent part of the grotesque evening singing songs denouncing Israel at an event most Jews who observe the Passover festival will have regarded as quite simply blasphemous. Corbyn was a happy man that night; he had found real Jews — or so he fantasised.
The world of Jeremy Corbyn is not, then, a world entirely free of Jews. A small remnant that identifies with working-class values and hates Israel with as great a fervour as himself receives his kosher certificate. But as for the rest, the vast majority, living their comfortable middle-class existence — there is nowhere to place them, certainly not Israel. He wipes them out of his mind.