It has been a long, hot summer. And with almost no air-conditioning, in Britain we have developed a new pastime. It’s called Corbynology.
During the Cold War, Kremlinologists pored over the actions of the Soviet leadership to guess what was going on in the opaque regime. And so, those trying to understand the latest developments in the Labour anti-Semitism crisis attempt to interpret the signals from its leadership.
New developments occur weekly. We had the spectacle of the Labour Party attempting to rewrite the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s anti-Semitism definition, taking out key examples and failing to consult the Jewish community.
Corbynologists have had their work cut out in guessing the Labour Party’s next move. This is in part because it is riven by divisions and power struggles.
The most interesting recent split has been between Momentum, the powerful grassroots group led by Jon Lansman, and the party leadership. Lansman is reported to be pressuring the ruling National Executive Committee to accept the full IHRA definition. Meanwhile, Momentum’s social media accounts are urging Labour supporters to take anti-Semitism seriously whilst Labour’s official accounts appear more focussed on protecting Corbyn himself.
Guessing Corbyn’s own thoughts is the Corbynologist’s greatest challenge. One of the features of his movement is distrust of the "mainstream media," and it is often the propagandist websites which have best access. Corbyn rarely gives detailed interviews and when he does he can be tetchy. In his three years of Labour leadership, he has only given a single interview to the Jewish press.
As Keith Kahn-Harris has pointed out, this opaqueness has caused anxiety in the Jewish community which is "[l]earning once again what it is like to be frozen out, to be a bewildered supplicant [and that] is a horrible adjustment to have to make."
This summer more troubling revelations have emerged from Corbyn’s past. This included photographs from 2014 of him appearing to place a wreath on the graves of men accused of the Munich Olympics massacre, which prompted his "present but not involved" defense.
"Wreath-gate" followed a familiar trajectory: A story appears. Social media erupts with counter-narratives, often originating from a network of Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Allegations of bad faith are common and anyone who is seen as "anti-Corbyn" is subjected to a torrent of abuse, sometimes anti-Semitic. Ultimately, people move on, usually bored, confused or intimidated.
Last week, another revelation emerged. At a 2013 conference commemorating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Corbyn gave a speech. He related an incident when the Palestinian Authority’s UK ambassador had spoken at Parliament. This was "dutifully recorded," said Corbyn, by the "thankfully silent Zionists in the audience" who "berated" the ambassador afterwards.
What came next has caused disquiet even amongst Corbyn’s supporters.
"They [those thankfully silent Zionists] clearly have two problems," the Labour leader said, "one is they don’t want to study history and secondly having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either. They needed two lessons, which we could perhaps help them with."
Many see the comment as an anti-Semitic slur, the classic accusation that Jews, despite living amongst us are not really of us.
Supporters said Corbyn was in fact referring to a single blogger, Richard Millett. It looked like another one when people would believe what they wanted to believe.
Then a missing segment was released. In it, Corbyn gives the clearest explanation yet of how he sees the British Jewish community.
The "progressive Jewish element in Britain...opposed [the Balfour Declaration] on the basis that it would only bring problems for a lot of Jewish people," he explained. Indeed, the progressive leadership in London was "actually Jewish trade unionists and Jewish people in the East End of London." So far, so good!
But then something bad happened.
"It was Zionism that rose up, and Zionism that drove them [i.e. the Jews] into this sort of ludicrous position they have at the present time." He then says, "for example," and leads into the anecdote about the "thankfully silent Zionists" who "don’t understand English irony."
This shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Corbyn was telling a story about British Jews, not just "Zionists." That they used to be good comrades, when they were poor socialists, but then Zionism rose up and "drove them" to somewhere else.
Corbyn’s views on Zionism and Jews are best understood in the context of Marxist revolutionary history.
The Soviets initially supported Zionism. However, that changed in 1967 when the official position became virulent anti-Zionism, tinged with anti-Semitism. Zionism was chauvinistic, racist and anti-Soviet, a front for neo-colonialism and supported by international Jewish power.
I am not convinced that Corbyn subscribes to the more extreme version - but it is helpful in understanding his views. He has spent a lifetime only speaking to those who share his worldview, which unfortunately means he has little access to or interest in competing narratives.
This is a huge problem for the British Jewish community as whilst our grandparents may have been "good Jews," we, apparently, are not.
Ultimately, Corbynologists will have plenty to do in the coming months; his leadership remains secure, despite occasional rumors of a breakaway by centrist Labour MPs. Meanwhile, the Jewish community will remain feeling anxious - and frozen out.
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