The sense of insult many British Jews are feeling right now over the situation in the race for the next leader of the Labour Party is hard to describe.
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“It’s like everyone has gone crazy,” says one senior figure in a major British-Jewish movement, a life-long Labour supporter and member of the party, who preferred not to be named due to her position, which does not allow her to speak comment on party politics. “There’s this massive groundswell of suspicion toward the political establishment which is making so many people blindly support Jeremy Corbyn without taking any notice of what he really stands for.”
Why is Corbyn riling the Jews? Well, there’s his hyper-critical views on Israel, of course. But, at least on the left side of the political spectrum, most British Jews are used to making the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. Mainly since they’re pretty critical themselves. What they can’t understand is why the hundreds of thousands of Labour members, who, according to the polls, are planning to vote for Corbyn as leader (the postal voting begins already this week), just don’t seem concerned about the reports that he has repeatedly endorsed and embraced known anti-Semites, blood libellers and Holocaust-deniers.
Ordinary, decent Labour members are apparently about to vote uncritically for a man who hasn’t felt a need to address these associations, which would have fatally tainted any other prominent politician – certainly one likely a month from now to emerge as the leader of the country’s second-largest party and its candidate for prime minister in the next elections in 2020.
Corbynmania has surprised Britain, but in retrospect, it is isn’t that hard to explain. Dispirited after a second consecutive election defeat, which saw Labour lose all but one of its seats in its strongholds in Scotland, and a mauling in other traditional heartlands, but for parts of London – a young generation engaging for the first time in politics, seeks a radical change.
The alienation from what is increasingly seen as a disconnected political class and mainstream media is not unique to Britain by any means. The fact that most analysts believe the British public rejected Labour in the general election three months ago, because it was already too far to the left and wasn’t seen as responsible enough to take charge of the national economy, hasn’t registered with them.
Corbyn is seen as a plain-speaking spokesman for the disenfranchised, preaching the politics of redistribution, equality and nationalization, devoid of all personal ego – so different from his dissembling and uninspiring rivals in the leadership race. In retrospect, his attraction both to young voters and veteran lefties who felt for years that Labour had gone way too far to the center in its efforts to woo what they see as the right-wing press, makes perfect sense.
Corbyn, a veteran member of Labour’s far-left fringe, was never supposed to be a frontrunner in this race. He didn’t even have the necessary number of nominations from parliamentary colleagues to become a candidate. But 13 of them agreed to nominate him at the last moment in order to “broaden the debate.”
As a frontrunner now, however, he is coming under a level of scrutiny that he would never have been subjected to on the back benches. And as reports come out about how he was a frequent guest (and even for a short while a presenter) on Iran’s Press TV, home to a malodorous assortment of conspiracy theorists and racists; how he's a fan of the equally sinister Russia Today network; how he wrote letters in support of a vicar who had been censured by his own church for anti-Semitic statements; and how he supported an investigation into “pro-Israel lobbying groups” and allegedly donated money to a notorious Holocaust-denier – the Jews in Britain are asking themselves: Why are we the only ones bothered by this?
Last Thursday, The Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s main Jewish newspaper (and the oldest Jewish newspaper in the world) published on its front page a list of seven questions to Corbyn regarding his associations with anti-Semites, to which he has so far not deigned to respond.
The questions are beginning to seep into the left-leaning mainstream press. They were the subject of articles in The Guardian and Independent on Friday, but it is still mainly Jewish writers and commentators who are pushing such issues on social media, and getting torrents of anti-Semitic abuse from Corbyn’s supporters in return.
There have been so far no suggestions that Corbyn himself is anti-Semitic in any way. He refused to give interviews to Jewish media but turned up two weeks ago at an election hustings at the Jewish cultural center JW3, along with the other candidates. He spoke there proudly of how his mother had fought British fascists alongside Jews in the famous Battle of Cable Street in 1936. But when asked why the Stop The War Coalition, of which he is chairman, sponsors the annual Iranian Quds Day march in London that calls for the destruction of Israel, he hemmed and hawed.
Corbyn seems oblivious to anti-Semitism when it comes from the left or is manifested within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this, he isn’t so different from many of his colleagues on the far left. They share a perspective on foreign policy in which the United States and the West in general are responsible for the wars of the past half-century, and in a more narrow British context refused to condemn Irish nationalist terrorism.
It is Corbyn’s blind spot vis-a-vis racism on the left, and in groups opposed to “American imperialism,” which is bothering mainly the Jewish community, but precious few outside it. Not even his rivals for the leadership have brought this up, for fear of alienating hundreds of new party members.
The response so far from the Corbyn camp to the JC's questions, besides the deafening silence from the candidate himself, has taken three additional forms. There have been those who characterized them as a “smear campaign,” partly because some of the allegations against Corbyn originally featured in the anti-Labour Daily Mail.
Others went on the attack, blaming previous Labour leader and prime minister Tony Blair of palling up to dictators himself, and of course of committing war crimes by joining the war in Iraq. And for some reason they also claim that since Israeli leaders, according to them, are guilty of war crimes, those accusing Corbyn have no standing.
Why British Jews should find it offensive, to say the least, that they can’t ask a potential British Labour leader awkward questions because of the alleged actions of Israeli politicians, is beyond the Corbynites. And then there has also been the racist vitriol on social media, particularly Twitter.
Nearly all the more respected public figures arguing in favor of Corbyn’s election are normally beyond even the slightest suspicion of any form of bigotry or racism. At least they have been until now. Neither is there any reason to believe that the great multitude of his supporters, perhaps over a quarter of a million people eligible to vote in the Labour election, are tainted themselves.
There are some extremely nasty things being said on social media, including not just judeophobia but filthy misogyny as well, toward two of the other party leadership candidates: Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. But there is no reason to assume these trolls represent more than a small minority of Corbyn's supporters. But how then to explain the Corbynites’ massive blind spot with respect to his own blind spot?
Traditionally, a majority of Jews voted Labour, seeing the party a natural ally of hard-working Jewish families and a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism, which was more likely in the previous century to come from the far right. As Jews became more middle class, they identified with Margaret Thatcher – herself a huge admirer of the Jewish community and the MP representing the heavily Jewish constituency of Finchley, and her aspirational message – and many shifted to the Conservatives. And then there was the growing feeling that at least parts of Labour were closer to the pro-Palestinian movements, and less sensitive to anti-Semitism there. Under prime ministers Blair and Gordon Brown, who were also very close to the community and supportive of Israel, this fear was less pronounced. Ironically, it was under a Jewish leader, Ed Miliband, when those fears came to the fore.
The son of Marxist atheists, Miliband wasn’t seen as attentive to the community’s concerns. He was slow to react three years ago to remarks made by Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, a leading member of the far-left wing, which Corbyn is also part of, that the Jews don’t vote Labour because they are “rich.” Miliband, unjustifiably, was also seen as unsupportive of Israel for pushing through a parliamentary motion to recognize a Palestinian state.
According to one survey carried out before the general election earlier this year, only 22 percent of Jews were planning to vote Labour. If Corbyn leads the party in to the next election, the percentage of Jewish Labour voters will probably be down to single digits – but this should not be about how many Jewish votes the party gets.
Israeli officials and diplomats who closely follow European politics are unperturbed about the rise of Corbyn. They share the assessments that he does not have a remote chance of ever being elected prime minister, and since Israel’s ties with the serving British government have never been stronger at all levels – a development that perpetuates the Conservative hold on power is good for Israel.
Some see the Corbymania as vindication of what they have long believed, that the European left is rife with anti-Semitism, and it is only now it is coming to the surface. Others hold an opposite view; that the radical left changes its tune once it achieves a rare position of power.
The prime example cited by the Israeli officials is Greece’s ruling Syriza, a party which not only numbers Marxists and former communists in its ranks, but also members who have openly flirted with anti-Semitism. However, fears that relations which had blossomed under former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras would take a nose-dive under his successor, Alexis Tsipras, have so far proven unfounded. Senior Greek ministers have continued to visit Jerusalem regularly – Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias was there during the referendum over Greece’s answer to the terms of the financial bailout in last month’s debt crisis. A few weeks later Israeli attack helicopters carried out one of the Israel Defense Forces' largest-ever overseas exercises in the Greek mountains.
Security and economic ties between Israel and Britain are so strong, the officials reckon, that Corbyn and his cohorts won’t change that. But this really is not about Israel either.
Britain is suffering from a prolonged double trauma of national insecurity following the discredited way in which it joined the United States in the Iraq War, and faced financial meltdown in the economic downturn of 2008. It extricated itself from both those crises, in many ways in much better shape than other Western countries and better than many Britons, particularly on the left are willing to give themselves credit for. But the result has been an intense bout of isolationism.
The only foreign policy-related issue which was mentioned during the election campaign was the question of whether Britain should remain within the European Union. And while the Scottish Nationalists lost last year's referendum over an independent Scotland, their party won all but three of the constituencies in the general election, leading to widespread speculation that another referendum will be held before long.
With Britain in such an inward-looking mood, the fact that Corbyn favors leaving NATO at a time when Russia is once again menacing Europe, should be a glaring red light. That he thinks that Poland should not have been allowed to join NATO and rather made do with the same kind of international agreement which promised Ukraine it’s territorial integrity, and was broken last year so blatantly by Russia – this should be in itself a sufficient reason for him not to be taken seriously as a potential prime minister.
Nearly all the debate over Corbyn’s manifesto have been over his economic policies and whether they are throwbacks to the early 1980s or brave new ideas. The judgement that he is either – due to his naiveté, or Marxist dogmatism – too extreme a politician to lead a mainstream party in a Western democracy is rarely made.
It’s simply unfair, and yes, insulting, that like so many times in history, the thankless role of canaries down the mine, detecting political extremism and tolerance towards racism, is once again being thrust upon the Jews. Ultimately, this is what is happening now in 21st-century Britain.