Opinion

Dial Down the Hysteria on anti-Semitism in Corbyn's Labour

There is vile and inexcusable anti-Semitism on the left, and efforts to deny it are shameful. But take it from a Muslim in Trump's America, British Jews don't face an existential threat from Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K's opposition Labour Party, speaks during the 'Labour Live' festival in London, U.K. June 16, 2018
Bloomberg

Is Jeremy Corbyn an "existential threat" to "Jewish life" in the UK? That was the rather extraordinary claim made in an unprecedented joint editorial published on the front pages of Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers last week.

In fact, it wasn’t just extraordinary: it was hysterical, offensive and plain wrong. Do you want to know what an "existential threat" to a minority community really looks like? Come to the United States, where I’ve lived since 2015.

>> Trump Says 'Islam Hates the U.S.', but Why Do Americans Hate Islam? | Opinion >> British Left's anti-Semitism Problem Didn't Start With Corbyn. It's Been Festering for a Century | Opinion

Donald Trump has suggested Muslim Americans are complicit in terrorist attacks; claimed "Islam hates us"; introduced a "Muslim ban"; and appointed dozens of anti-Muslim bigots to his administration.

Corbyn, of course, has neither said nor done anything comparable in relation to Britain’s Jews. Has he been slow to take action against a handful of anti-Semites inside his party? Yes.

Does he suffer from an "unconscious bias" on the left that doesn’t take allegations of anti-Semitism as seriously as it takes allegations of, say, Islamophobia? Probably.

Could he have been more forceful and proactive in denouncing left-wing anti-Semitism much earlier on? Definitely.

But does a Corbyn-led Labour government pose a threat to the very existence of British Jewry? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Again, that is not to say that there isn’t a problem of anti-Semitism on the left. The very next day after the joint editorial was published, a Labour councillor was suspended from the party after a post on his Facebook page called Jews blood-sucking "parasites." 

Earlier this week, a recording emerged of Peter Willsman, a Corbyn ally and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), angrily accusing Jewish "Trump fanatics" of fabricating evidence of anti-Semitism.

This is absurd. Even Momentum, the pro-Corbyn grassroots movement, has acknowledged "the anger, upset and despair within the British Jewish community at the numerous cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour party" and said they "should not and cannot be dismissed simply as rightwing smears nor as the result of conspiracies."

Leaflets for Momentum, the group set up to support U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at the Labour Party annual conference. Liverpool, U.K. Sept. 28, 2016
Bloomberg

Depressingly, the row over anti-Semitism in Labour has lost all sense of proportion and nuance; on the one side, those who cynically claim Corbyn is an "existential threat" to Jews and, on the other, those who shamefully claim allegations of anti-Semitism have been "stirred up" only to attack Corbyn and defend Israel. 

Yet there is no need to choose sides: you can commit to both defeating anti-Semitism and electing a Corbyn-led government. You can strive to protect both Jews and criticism of Israel.

How so?

First, listen to the victims of racism; in this case, the Jewish victims of racism. That three Jewish Labour MPs had to stand up in the House of Commons and recount the anti-Semitic abuse they were subjected to online, while complaining that they felt abandoned by their party, should be a source of shame for Labour.

So too should the fact that almost eight out of 10 Labour members say they think anti-Semitism allegations have been exaggerated to damage Corbyn. To quote my friend Rachel Shabi, a Corbyn-supporting Jewish journalist, "the number of people so doggedly telling Jewish people that they’re wrong about anti-Semitism" is "jaw-dropping." 

When Jews say they’re the victims of racism, believe them.

>> This Week UK Jews Bravely Stood Up to Labour's anti-Semitism. It Was a Tragic Failure | Opinion >> 'Traitors,' 'Enemies': The Corbyn Left Turns Conspiracist on Syria and anti-Semitism | Opinion >> It's Not anti-Semitism if You Just Hate the Bad Jews | Opinion 

Second, however, don’t listen to the right wing press. Are we expected to believe that conservative media outlets in the UK give a damn about anti-Semitism? The Daily Telegraph, which repeated far-right smears against George Soros on its front page? The Daily Mail, which published a now-notorious attack on Jewish refugee Ralph Miliband, father of Ed? LBC, which continues to employ former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as a presenter despite his on-air references to the "money and influence" of the "Jewish lobby"?

There is no contradiction: it is perfectly possible to acknowledge that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem while also pointing out that these particular media outlets have weaponized anti-Semitism to try and smear and discredit Corbyn.

Third, don’t lose sight of the bigger threat. How can Jews feel safe in a Europe in which the far right is on the march? Go to Poland, where the government has passed a law denying any Polish complicity in the Holocaust; or go to Austria, where there is a proposal to force Jews to obtain permits to buy kosher meat. In Germany, police statistics attributed  nine out of 10 anti-Semitic crimes in 2017 to "members of far-right or neo-Nazi groups."

The feelings of Jews matter - but facts matter, too. "Existential" threats to minority communities in Europe - whether Jewish, Muslim, gay or Roma - come from the far right, not the far left.

Fourth, stop conflating Jews and Israel. This point applies as much to defenders of the Jewish state as it does to anti-Semitic bigots. The joint editorial in those three papers lambasted Labour for making a (false) distinction between "racial anti-Semitism" and "political anti-Semitism targeting Israel."

A woman walks past a Jeremy Corbyn mural in Camden, London on Thursday, June 1, 2017
Frank Augstein/AP

This is positively Orwellian: political criticism of a state or ideology cannot be compared to or equated with racial or religious abuse. Much of the recent criticism of Corbyn has flowed from Labour’s refusal to incorporate all of the examples of anti-Semitism - especially those related to Israel - listed alongside the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.

Yet members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, including Labour centrists (and Corbyn critics) Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, proposed "additional clarifications" to the IHRA definition "to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine" in a landmark October 2016 report. Are they also "fucking anti-Semites and racists," to quote from Labour MP Margaret Hodge’s recent attack on Corbyn?

How about the late Hajo Meyer, the Auschwitz survivor and anti-Zionist activist who compared Israel to Nazi Germany - one of the controversial examples of anti-Semitism listed by the IHRA - at an event hosted by Corbyn in 2010 (for which the Labour leader was forced to apologize Wednesday)?

>> By Redefining anti-Semitism, Corbyn Sends U.K. Jews a Clear Message | Analysis >> How to Properly Protect British Jews From Labour's Institutional anti-Semitism | Opinion

Everyone needs to dial down the rhetoric. Accusations and counter-accusations do nothing to deal with the very real problem of anti-Semitism, which is vile, inexcusable and exists on the left as well as the right. Nor does the dragging of Israel into every debate, both by supporters and critics of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, whether it likes it or not, Her Majesty’s Opposition, to contra-paraphrase the Corbyn-supporting musician and activist Billy Bragg, has much "work to do" in terms of rebuilding relations with Britain’s Jewish community. Corbyn’s repeated apologies in recent months have so far failed to heal the wounds of the past few years.

Actions, though, always speak louder than words. Labour, a proud anti-racist party, has to now show not only zero tolerance for anti-Jewish racism - but also for the deniers and minimizers of anti-Jewish racism. There can be no "ifs" or "buts" when it comes to anti-Semitism; no excusing or trivializing. As Labour's new and much-maligned code on the issue makes clear, anti-Semitism "is racism" and is "unacceptable in our party and in wider society."

And in the words of shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, a close ally of Corbyn who has conceded that Labour has dragged its feet on this issue: "Jew hatred is race hatred, and one anti-Semite in the Labour party is one too many."

Mehdi Hasan is a columnist for The Intercept and a contributing editor to the New Statesman. Twitter: @Mehdirhasan