Corbyn must face up to Labour’s antisemitism
It’s extraordinary that politicians can fitness creeping antagonism towards Jews from the left and do nothing about it
Britain, just to set this down early on, is not a wildly antisemitic country. Ask your average Brit on the street what he thinks of Jews, and chances are he’ll say: “I quite like Ribena.” Speaking as a secular, assimilated, non-practising member of the tribe myself, it is obviously not for me to downplay the fears of my more identifiable kin in skullcaps and synagogues. Yet the statistics on unpleasantness, while certainly rising, remain pretty low. For a real picture of what it is like to be part of a community with a daily, visceral fear for its children, speak to a Muslim. They know.
With that out of the way, then, let’s look at where we are. This weekend, the Labour MP Luciana Berger tweeted out a choice selection of the online abuse she had received overnight. “Eat pork”, “kike”, “move to Israel”, yellow stars; it was all there. For Berger, who once had 2,500 abusive messages in three days, all with the hashtag #filthy-jewishbitch, this was presumably less upsetting than it used to be.
Personally, while I have barely suffered a moment of real-world antisemitism in my life, I’ll face a nut on the internet three days out of five. This includes a whole group, of whom I have written before, who are convinced that my Twitter profile picture shows me in the uniform they’re sure I wore while fighting for Israeli special forces in my twenties. And yes, I’ve explained that I spent my twenties working as a celebrity journalist, and the shirt is from Topman, but they don’t seem to care.
Generally, I think it’s a mistake to look at nuts and imagine they’re a trend. The thing is, there is a trend. Also this weekend, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of his alarm at rising levels of antisemitism on university campuses. This followed one particularly high-profile case last month at Oxford University, in which Alex Chalmers, co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned claiming many of his comrades had “some kind of problem with Jews”. Chalmers, who is not Jewish, spoke about the executive “throwing around the word ‘Zio’,” (a derogatory term normally found on the American far right) and gleefully championing the murder of Israeli civilians.
The Labour connection here is impossible to ignore. Jeremy Corbyn has faced his own Jewish-ish controversies (thanks to his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah) but has managed to largely shrug them off, perhaps due to the impression he gives of being a fairly good egg. Some of his comrades are more obviously sullied. Yesterday, political websites reported on the new vice-chairman of Woking Labour Club, one Vicki Kirby, who was kicked out of the party in 2014 for vociferous antisemitic tweeting. This, barely a week after Labour re-admitted (and then re-expelled) Gerry Downing, a revolutionary socialist former bus driver from north London who, as well as saying the 9111 hijackers “must never be condemned”, had also written extensively about the troublesome “Jewish question” of Zionists ruling the world.
Now you can argue that all of these people are nuts and nobodies, and you’d probably be at least half right. Yet it is worth studying the views of nuts and nobodies, even so, because unlike hardened political sophisticates, they speak without filter. Downing, for example, ended up on Daily Politics last week, and laid out his world view on a plate. Israel’s impunity while committing “heinous crimes” against Palestinians, he told Andrew Neil, was because of “the number of millionaires and billionaires of Zionist persuasion within the American ruling class and within the European ruling classes in general”.
It’s worth thinking about that phrase, “Zionist persuasion”, tortured as it was. Mr Downing insisted it didn’t mean “Jews”. Surely, though, it has to mean something. At a most generous interpretation, perhaps it simply refers to support of the existence of Israel. Only why, in that case, is it a “persuasion” at all? Why not just a view? Would international Kurdism also worry Downing? Or Chechnyism? Or what about United Kingdomism?
Or, is there something special about support for Israel (among these semi-fictional billionaires who may or may not be Jews, but let’s face it, probably are), which means it will always be an overwhelming priority? A covert priority? A priority that exists, for want of a better phrase, über alles? This is the fear. It’s not about the overt bigotry of the streets, because that’s a long way off. It is about antisemites who are frankly too antisemitic to comprehend that they’re antisemites at all. It’s about the growth of a creeping presumption, mainly on the left, that Zionism is among the greatest of all global malignancies, and that Jews, unless they explicitly state otherwise, are in it up to their necks.
If this is a world view, grassroots Corbynism is riddled with it. If the actual Labour leadership stands apart, then I’m far from clear what they think instead. Yesterday, Corbyn himself tweeted in defence of Berger, and I bet he meant it, too. Is there nothing here, though, that nags at his conscience? It is riot the fringe, unfiltered paranoias of hate that bother me so much, whether they happen online or at Oxford University. It is the thought of politicians, now wholly in the mainstream, who must have spent a lifetime witnessing such views evolve in newsletters and north London meeting halls, and don’t seem to have minded in the slightest. That does bother me. It bothers me a lot.