GOP Islamophobia vs. U.K. Labour’s anti-Semitism: Spot the Differences

One party acknowledges it has a problem. The other does not.

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Donald Trump looks on as a supporter reaches for a sign that reads "Islamophobia is not the answer" at a rally in Oklahoma City, February 26, 2016.
Donald Trump looks on as a supporter reaches for a sign that reads "Islamophobia is not the answer" at a rally in Oklahoma City, February 26, 2016.Credit: Sue Ogrocki, AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition tweeted an article from the British newspaper, The Daily Mail. The headline declared that the Labour Party “is gripped by anti-Semitism allegations.”

Indeed, it is. As it turns out, on this side of the Atlantic, the Republican Party — to which the RJC belongs — is gripped by allegations of bigotry too: bigotry against Muslims. To judge the moral health of the two parties, it’s worth comparing how each has responded. 

The recent furor surrounding Labour Party anti-Semitism erupted on the morning of Wednesday, April 27. At 7:53 A.M., a blogger named Guido Fawkes revealed that an up-and-coming Labour member of parliament named Naseem (Naz) Shah had, before being elected, suggested on Facebook that Israeli Jews be moved to the United States. She’d also compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and Adolf Hitler. By 1:30 that afternoon, Shah had issued a statement saying there “is no excuse for the offence I have given, for which I unreservedly apologise.” She promised to “expand my existing engagement and dialogue with Jewish community organisations, and will be stepping up my efforts to combat all forms of racism, including antisemitism.” She also stepped down as the personal private secretary to Labour’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

That was only the beginning. The following day, Thursday, April 28, at 11:30 A.M., Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called Shah’s comments “offensive and unacceptable.” At noon, Shah published a second apology, this time in the Jewish newspaper The Jewish News. At 2:42 that afternoon, she offered a third “profound apology,” this time in the House of Commons. Declaring that “Antisemitism is racism, full stop,” she announced that “As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relations between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none.” It wasn’t enough. Roughly 90 minutes later, the Labour Party suspended her.

Unfortunately for Labour, a second furor broke out that very morning, when former London mayor Ken Livingstone, in defending Shah, suggested that Hitler had supported Zionism. By 1:30 that afternoon, the Labour Party had suspended Livingstone too. The day after that, Labour announced an inquiry into anti-Semitism within the party.

Compare that to the way the GOP has handled charges of Islamophobia. Last September, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said America should not elect a Muslim president. (It wasn’t the first time a GOP presidential contender had proposed a religious test for office. In 2011, then-candidate Herman Cain had vowed never to appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or to the federal bench). Many of Carson’s rivals voiced their disagreement. But only one, Lindsey Graham, called his comments disqualifying. The Republican National Committee said nothing. Carson didn’t apologize. To the contrary, his campaign boasted about how much money it had raised off the controversy.

Then, in December, in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Donald Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States for an unspecified period of time. Trump’s rivals criticized his proposal, as did House Speaker Paul Ryan and RNC head Reince Priebus.

But two of Trump’s top rivals, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, proposed a narrower religious test. The United States, they suggested, should admit Syrian Christians as refugees, but not Muslims. In February, when Obama visited a Baltimore mosque, he was condemned not only by Trump, but by his rival Marco Rubio. To this day, Trump has neither retracted his proposed ban, nor apologized for it. 

Obviously, the circumstances surrounding Labour Party anti-Semitism and Republican party Islamophobia aren’t the same. The Labour Party found it easier to punish Shah and Livingstone because Labour is more centralized. Members pay dues to join. There’s a history of suspending the memberships of people who violate core party beliefs. There’s no such mechanism in the GOP.

Moreover, Shah was a junior MP and Livingstone a former mayor. Repudiating them was thus far easier than repudiating Trump, Carson, Cruz, Bush or Rubio, who by the time they made their anti-Muslim statements commanded widespread national support. 

But that simply illustrates how much more dominant Islamophobia is in today’s GOP than anti-Semitism is in today’s Labour Party. The two Labour politicians accused of anti-Semitism were dispensable because they don’t wield much power. Trump, by contrast, is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. For the time being, he’s taken over the party. And Trump’s Islamophobia hasn’t hindered that takeover — it has facilitated it. According to polls, his proposed Muslim ban enjoys the support of roughly seventy percent of likely Republican primary voters.

All of which means that Republican Islamophobia has the potential to drive public policy in a way Labour anti-Semitism cannot. Even if Naz Shah still wanted to transfer Israeli Jews to the United States, she’d have no chance of making that the official position of her party, let alone of the British government. Some version of Trump’s Muslim ban, by contrast, could find its way into the GOP platform. The ban itself is surely unenforceable and unconstitutional. But in the unlikely event that Trump wins the presidency, his administration may try to implement it in watered down form.

The Labour Party may well have an anti-Semitism problem. But because British Jews are a well established, politically articulate minority whose support Labour dearly wants to have, party leaders are taking steps to address it. American Muslims, by contrast, are a largely immigrant and African American community that wields little influence, especially inside the GOP. Demonizing them is far easier. 

So the next time the Republican Jewish Coalition tweets something about Labour Party anti-Semitism, remember this: The RJC has never issued a press release condemning Trump’s Muslim ban. But last week it did publicly “congratulate Donald Trump on being the presumptive Presidential nominee of the Republican Party.”