Opinion

The Toxic Antisemitism That Trump and Corbyn Share

Jeremy Corbyn’s gone, but Donald Trump traffics in exactly the same selective antisemitism

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Corbyn’s gone, but Trump traffics in the same selective antisemitism
Corbyn’s gone, but Trump traffics in the same selective antisemitismCredit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

How pathetic is Jeremy Corbyn, the now former leader of Britain’s Labour Party? So pathetic that this week he actually gave a victory speech after 58 percent of 12,300 respondents voted for him in a Twitter survey ranking the "best prime minister Britain never had." 

If you’re surprised by this total lack of self-awareness in a man who less than nine months ago led his party to its worst defeat in parliamentary elections since the 1930s, you should read "Left Out" by journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, a fascinating, detail-packed account of Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. 

The book focuses on the 30 months between the 2017 election — which Labour also lost, but did much better than any polls or pundits had predicted, denying the ruling Conservative party its majority and bringing Corbyn to what seemed, for a short while, the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street — up until Labour’s wipe-out in 2019.

The pitiful sight of Corbyn this week celebrating his "win" in the tiny bubble of Twitter was a faint echo of that summer three years ago when Labour fleetingly held a flailing Theresa May on the ropes, and the unthinkable looked almost imminent. Pogrund and Maguire do an excellent job of picking apart the three massive policy failings that would render Corbyn unelectable

There was Corbyn’s inability to comprehend the antisemitism which had spread in Labor, especially among his diehard followers, and his unwillingness to deal with it. Not only did the overwhelming majority of British Jews see him, personally, as antisemitic, but many non-Jewish voters as well. 

Then there were his Cold War "anti-imperialist" fixations that made him incapable of criticizing Russia, after its spies used a nerve agent in a botched assassination on British soil. Corbyn went as far as to suggest that before rushing to judgment, a sample of the deadly Novichok be sent to Moscow for analysis.

Above all, there was Brexit, and Corbyn’s abject refusal to set out a clear position for Britain: either staying in the European Union or leaving it, which cost Labour millions of voters on either side of the debate. 

But perhaps the most fundamental conclusion from reading "Left Out" is that beyond these three corrosive issues, Corbyn’s "Project" was doomed, beyond anything, by the sheer incompetence of a man who simply could not make the most basic decisions necessary of a party leader, or even stick to his schedule — and the unbelievable level of factionalism around him, not least within his closest circle, which was constantly tearing itself apart. 

For most British Jews, Corbyn is swiftly becoming a bad dream. His successor Keir Starmer has embarked decisively and proactively on cleansing Labour from antisemitism. But there remain important lessons to be learned from this dark episode in the party which was historically a political home for many, if not most, Jews. 

Exit poll results projected outside BBC Broadcasting House in London shows Boris Johnson's Conservative Party's massive predicted win over Jeremy Corbyn's opposition Labour Party. December 12, 2019
Exit poll results projected outside BBC Broadcasting House in London shows Boris Johnson's Conservative Party's massive predicted win over Jeremy Corbyn's opposition Labour Party. December 12, 2019Credit: AFP

Many instances of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour have already been well-documented. "Left Out" unearths a few new ones, including a telling quote from one of Corbyn’s aides, who told shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, after she accidentally missed the deadline to table a parliamentary question on the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: "They’re saying the Jews have got to you." 

But there are two other passages in the book which offer particularly cogent accounts of Corbynist antisemitism, and its political milieu. 

In one, Andrew Murray, a communist activist, journalist and trade unionist, an old friend of Corbyn and one of his closest advisors, tried to explain how the former leader perceived antisemitism. 

"He is very empathetic, Jeremy, but he’s empathetic with the poor, the disadvantaged, the migrant, the marginalised, the people at the bottom of the heap," explained Murray in a candid interview with the authors. "Happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today. [Corbyn] would have had massive empathy with the Jewish community in Britain in the 1930s." 

Murray explained that people like Corbyn say that "Jewish migrants to Britain in the first half of the twentieth century – they lived in appalling conditions. They had it rough, they were attacked by the fascists. But, you know, that was then. The Jewish community’s moved on. It’s developed, it’s integrated."

From Corbyn’s perspective, he and his comrades could not possibly be accused of antisemitism, as they would have instinctively been on the side of poor migrant Jews under attack from the far right. But the majority of British Jews in their lifetimes had joined the middle-class, lead comfortable, well-integrated lives in Britain and, worst of all, supported Israel. 

They no longer needed, or perhaps even deserved, protection from prejudice and bigotry which, in their worldview, could only target struggling minorities. The story of antisemitism in Britain was, in their view, over. And Corbyn’s stance was constantly reinforced by like-minded and vocal Jewish comrades from a tiny group of hard-left anti-Zionist British Jews. 

A demonstration against anti-Semitism outside the Labour Party office in London on April 8, 2018.
A demonstration against anti-Semitism outside the Labour Party office in London on April 8, 2018.Credit: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP

The other passage relates to the summer of 2018, with the antisemitism furore in Labour raging, and the party debating whether it would officially adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism and its addendum, a controversial range of examples of antisemitism including equating Israel to "a racist endeavor." Corbyn was opposed, as he saw it as a limit to free speech on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

At one stage, nearly all of Corbyn’s political advisors were urging him to accept the entire IHRA working definition, without any caveats, because of the public damage his opposition was causing the party. But Corbyn continued to dig in his heels, until he was finally overruled by the party’s National Executive Council, even though it was dominated by his loyalists.

One exasperated aide explained to the authors that Corbyn stuck to his guns because that was the advice he was receiving from his band of diehard Marxist Jewish friends, who were constantly telling him: "Don’t give an inch, don’t give in, you’re right." 

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest to oppose war with Iran and the presence of western troops in Iraq. London, January 11, 2020
Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest to oppose war with Iran and the presence of western troops in Iraq. London, January 11, 2020Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

Some had themselves been suspended from Labour over allegations of antisemitism. But Corbyn continued to defer to them. They may have been a tiny group on the furthest margins, and even ostracized by the Jewish community, but they were his Jews and his arbiters of what was antisemitism. 

Fortunately, the British electorate doesn’t reflect Twitter. Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history; his followers no longer control Labour. But Corbynism remains a template for antisemitism in the twenty-first century, on the far right as well as the far left. 

It is an antisemitism which dare not speak its name; instead of openly reviling all Jews, it is selective in those it chooses to hate. It is an antisemitism that immerses and embeds itself in other ‘loftier’ causes, be they the intersectional struggles against racism, capitalism and Zionism, or against globalism, liberalism and the cosmopolitan elite. And it is the antisemitism that never has a shortage of "good Jews" to give it cover. 

Corbyn and the Corbynist project may have been relegated for now to the sidelines, but its type of conveniently selective antisemitism remains prevalent on both extremes of the political spectrum in the West. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump are seen during their meeting at the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Monday, May 22, 2017
From left: U.S. President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Monday, May 22, 2017Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Its most prominent exemplar is Donald Trump, a politician who, just like Corbyn, has plenty of Jewish supporters, donors and advisors, and in Trump’s case even Jews in his close family, but at the same time appeals openly to those who traffic in the crudest judeophobic conspiracy theories, who promotes some of those theories himself, and who shares real and social media platforms with those who voice and amplify that conspiracism. Exactly. Like. Corbyn. 

The main difference between Corbyn and Trump is not that they are seemingly opposite sides of the political divide, but that, unlike the unelectable former leader of the opposition in Britain, Trump has already been elected once as president of the United States.

"Jewish community leaders I talk to are petrified of another four years of Trump and the white supremacist antisemitism it would unleash," the boss of a major Jewish organization told me this week. But he wouldn’t dream of saying so on the record, in stark contrast to how prominent Jewish leaders warned of a Corbyn victory in Britain. 

Understandably, it’s a bit more difficult for the Jewish establishment to call out President Trump. But the Jews giving Trump’s antisemitism cover are far more influential and consequential than Corbyn’s Islington branch of Jewish Voice for Labour. After all, they include among their number the prime minister of Israel. 

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