As the British Labour party conference opens Sunday in Liverpool, the charge of anti-Semitism is the elephant in the debating chamber. Many in the leadership simply want the problem to go away, so that they can prepare for government as the ruling Conservative party ritually performs hari-kari over Brexit.
Whereas Jeremy Corbyn is seen by many Labour supporters as a political messiah, come to save the country and usher in a new fairer society, his stand on "Zionism" – which has increasingly become a term weaponized against British Jews - has become such a liability that his close colleagues have shunted him aside before further damage to Labour’s image and standing takes place.
Yet Corbyn cannot undo his past. His baggage of 40 years has come back to haunt him. Even for those who have previously given him the benefit of the doubt and not regarded him as anti-Semitic but simply an ideological anti-Zionist, his recently published comment to the hard-line Palestine Return Centre crossed a red line:
"They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either."
Even if he was irritated by the Zionist zealots who followed him to every meeting and even if he mangled his words, such a comment reflected the genteel, latent English anti-Semitism of Corbyn’s middle-class background.
Unlike his longtime comrade, the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s direct disparagement of Jews, which has "old" right-wing, working-class origins – he used to call Corbyn’s opponent, the veteran Labour stalwart, Margaret Hodge by her single name, Margaret Oppenheimer to her face – Corbyn was never as crude and blatant.
For many in the Corbynista camp, racism is tied to poverty, and solely directed at people of color. Well-to-do Jews in 2018, part of the capitalist elite, do not fit into this ideological structure. Anti-Semitism is a category of the past, perpetrated by the likes of the pre-war British Union of Fascists and of the Right, ingrained eternally in the Conservative party.
>> Jeremy Corbyn's 'Good Jews' Are Mostly Dead | Opinion
For the Corbynistas, the terms "Zionist" and "Jew" are separated – even though the overwhelming majority of British Jews identify with Israel. This view underscores the meaning of Corbyn’s proposed addendum to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism:
"Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict."
The implication is that Israel was born in sin, a racist endeavour to expel Palestinian Arabs, according to a premeditated plan for ethnic cleansing. As many historians including Benny Morris have shown, this was not the case.
It infers that the Jews therefore do not deserve a right to national self-determination because of the events surrounding the genesis of their state (the purported "another settlement" of the conflict being one without Jewish national self-determination.)
It elucidates and confirms Corbyn’s lifelong unwillingness to act as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed it places him, not in the Palestinian peace camp, but in its rejectionist wing – those who refused to support Arafat during the Oslo Accords in 1993.
One of the latest faux pas to have been reported was Corbyn’s attendance at a wreath laying ceremony in Tunis in 2014, where he appeared to be honoring the memory of Abu Iyad, earlier associated with Black September - perpetrators of the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes - but latterly with Arafat’s attempt after 1988 to seek a rapprochement with Israel.
Corbyn’s own account of his visit in the British Communist daily, Morning Star, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and innuendo, seemingly blaming the Mossad for Abu Iyad’s assassination in Tunis in January 1991. The general consensus is that the anti-PLO, anti-rapprochement Abu Nidal group was responsible for Abu Iyad's assassination.
Corbyn’s own grasp of history is fragile, and at best exceedingly simplistic. By framing his positions as "authentically" of the Labour Left, he glosses over decades of Labour policy which supported Israel's right to exist, was unafraid to invoke Zionism as the legitimate movement for Jewish national self-determination, and believed in a two-state solution.
Had he come of political age during the immediate post-war years, Corbyn would have found himself at odds with the Labour Left, which was passionately pro-Zionist. Its leader, Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service and a revered figure in Labour circles, threatened to resign from Clement Attlee’s government because of British conduct in Palestine.
A close friend of the Israeli Labour politician Yigal Allon, Bevan understood the deep desire of many Jews to leave the graveyard that was Europe in the aftermath of the Shoah. In early 1954 he visited Israel and later wrote:
"The immediacy of the remote past is an intimate reality…From Dan to Beersheba, the Jew can now make the journey – Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, all these and so many more belong to him in a special sense, for they whisper in his blood, and evoke memories of a time that was, before he was compelled to seek shelter in reluctant lands."
In the 1970s the Bevanites' sympathy for Zionism was challenged by a new radicalism that was far more hostile.
That Left was propelled by the supporters of Tony Benn, a Labour MP who had been an uber-Zionist in the 1950s and a regular contributor to the socialist Zionist Poalei Zion journal, the Jewish Vanguard. Yet Benn – like Corbyn, from a non-working class background – had moved further to the Left, espoused the Palestinian cause in an epoch of decolonization, and ended his days by attending Palestinian "right of return" rallies in Trafalgar Square.
The Bennites therefore formed the ideological bridge between Bevan and Corbyn – and gradually reversed the Labour Left’s benevolent attitude towards Zionists. The warmth of the post-Shoah years towards Jews had evaporated.
The rise of New Labour under Tony Blair after 1994 with its relegation of socialism and its embrace of market economics was regarded as heretical by Corbyn and the far Left (as "Thatcherism-lite"), and his sympathetic approach towards Israel and commitment to the two state solution frequently attacked.
Today, there is yet a further scramble leftwards within the Labour party. Even those who desire a turn to the Left, those adherents of pre-Blair, ‘Old Labour’, are now confronted by members of the extra-parliamentary far Left, who have entered the party since Corbyn’s election.
Jon Lansman, a veteran Jewish Bennite who has condemned anti-Semitism within the party and is a founder of the pro-Corbyn Momentum support group, withdrew from the contest for secretary-general of the party, once it was clear that Corbyn’s inner circle favored a trade union activist who was closer to the far Left.
The challenge facing the Corbynistas is how to maintain the current calm without diluting the hero-worship for Corbyn. Yet this is not straightforward. In parallel with Labour’s conference, the far Left will participate in Momentum's own congress, "The World Transformed," parading speakers who serially trot out the line that accusations of anti-Semitism are little more than a diversionary smear to oust Corbyn.
Debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict has in essence become symbolic of the clash between traditional Labour and the party’s new masters from the far Left – regardless of the complexities of Middle East politics.
Pro-Israel MPs have therefore become targets for deselection. In Israel, Netanyahu and his right-wing minions have opportunistically piled on to criticise Corbyn, to make a point about the broader left's criticism of Israel's occupation, while Joint List MKs and Gideon Levy have defended him, because they see only his anti-occupation stance – regardless of the realities of the British political scene.
Corbyn's ascent can be seen as a victory for a far Left vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once confined to the fringe: a vision that is anti-Zionist, challenging the right of the Jews to national self-determination, often sympathetic to a one state solution and regarding an absolutist Palestinian Islamism as progressive.
This is far from the much vaunted "peacemaker" status that his acolytes have conferred on him; it is far from the position of an overwhelming majority of British Jews. The gulf between the two sides is vast.
British Jews have remained resolute in their beliefs and refused to be docile. It may well be that this stubbornness has pushed some Corbynistas over the edge – from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. It has led others to the explanation that charges of anti-Semitism are fictitious and manufactured on the orders of Tel Aviv.
The recent outburst by Corbyn’s close aide, Andrew Murray – seconded by his union to spend part of his week advising the Labour leader – offering an explanation for the "endless agenda of attacks on the Labour leadership" is the latest in such bizarre comments, and manages to up the conspiracist ante further.
Murray, who only recently left 40 years of leading positions in the Communist party to join Labour, asserts that anti-Corbyn attacks are, in fact, the work of the British "deep state," informed by the fears of "the establishment at home and abroad" regarding Labour’s foreign policy approach, not least the popularity of its "support for the Palestinian cause."
The party slogan, "For the Many and not the Few" goes to the heart of Labour’s crusade for a fairer society. British Jews however hear it in a different context - and have argued, loudly, that the Few, the rights and protection of minorities and minority opinions, do matter. Until the Labour party leadership comprehends this vital point, the stand-off will continue.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor in Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London
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