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Why Gideon Levy's Attack on Jews Who Fear Corbyn Is So Disturbing

Unpacking the strange and dishonest claim that a conspiracy by 'disloyal' Jews is behind Labour's anti-Semitism crisis – and that it's all about the occupation

Azriel Bermant
Azriel Bermant
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Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigns outside Finsbury Park station in north London on December 2, 2019
Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigns outside Finsbury Park station in north London on December 2, 2019Credit: AFP
Azriel Bermant
Azriel Bermant

It's hardly controversial to note that Jeremy Corbyn has been a longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause, and that he has never sympathized with the right of Jews to national self-determination.

But these well-known facts are, for many Corbyn supporters, proof that accusations of anti-Semitism within the party are really overhyped criticisms of Corbyn’s policy on Israel-Palestine, "framed" in the language of anti-Semitism.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

When Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, felt compelled to make an unprecedented election-time intervention to criticize Corbyn, because he could no longer ignore the fear and alarm within his community, many of the Labour leader’s supporters pushed the line that the Chief Rabbi’s attack was wholly motivated by Labour’s support for a tough position against Israel’s occupation, recognition of a Palestinian state and an embargo on arms sales to Israel.

When Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy announces that "the Jews of Britain" reject Corbyn because they "want a prime minister who supports Israel – that is, supports the occupation," and "The new and efficient strategy of Israel and the Zionist establishment brands every seeker of justice an anti-Semite," he is reiterating the claim that the Jewish community is solely motivated by their hysterical opposition to a pro-Palestinian political leader.

That has, he claims, led them (in close concert with Israel’s state "propaganda machine") to target Corbyn, "taking out a contract" on him, no less.

This is all nonsense. It is as if previous UK governments have never embargoed arms sales to Israel, or supported Palestinian independence.

The Lord Chancellor criticizes the UK's arms embargo on Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War

During the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, British governments were unwilling to sell arms to Israel. Most controversially, it was a Tory government, led by Edward Heath, which prevented arms reaching Israel during its hour of need in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. In 1980, Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin wrote to Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher urging her to reconsider Britain’s restrictions on arms sales to Israel. She rebuffed him.

During this period, Britain acquiesced in the Arab boycott of Israel, and refused to sell it oil. This policy was motivated largely by the need to stay on good terms with the Arab world. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization of the UK community, was very unhappy with this policy - but there was no intervention by the then Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. On the contrary, he was a great friend and admirer of Thatcher.

A survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) covering 2014-2018 indicates that 64 percent of Israel’s weapons purchases in that period have come from the United States, with a further 27 percent from Germany and 8.9 percent from Italy. Germany provides Israel with its fleet of submarines, which are essential for Israel’s security.

Now were Germany to stop arms sales, this could be harmful for Israel’s security, but a British arms embargo, in comparative terms, would be little more than a slap on the wrist. However, Israel might well over-react to any such move by Britain, if Israel’s responses to the actions of BDS activists is anything to go by. That would be a gift for those radical left-wing supporters and associates of Corbyn who are viscerally hostile to the State of Israel.

Other European countries, such as Sweden, have formally recognized a Palestinian state, and yet we haven’t heard Jewish leaders condemn the Swedish government for promoting anti-Semitism.

A pro-Palestinian supporter wears a Palestinian and Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, just before a vote passed recognizing the State of Palestine. October 13, 2014Credit: Reuters

The British parliament voted to recognize an independent Palestinian state in 2014. The sky didn’t fall in.

Many Jewish supporters of Israel in the UK - and many Israelis themselves - support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. At the same time, many British Jews are unhappy about Labour’s hostility towards Israel.

None of this explains their current anxiety and anguish, none of it proves Levy’s contention that UK Jews are "intentionally" blurring the line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions, nor does it have much relevance at all to the well-documented anti-Semitic abuses within Labour, the Holocaust denial and violent threats that has led to the party’s investigation by the Labour-established Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The answer lies elsewhere.

There is a far more nefarious narrative at play in terms of accusing UK Jews of conflating any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The suggestion is clearly that the real loyalties of UK Jews lie with Israel, that accusations of anti-Semitism are just cover for their nefarious activity as Israel’s shills, and that UK Jews act as Israel’s propaganda agents in seeking to shut down debate on Israel.

Numerous members of the Labour Party have accused Jews of acting in concert with the Israeli state, with being more loyal to Israel than Britain, and holding them collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. The anti-Semitic claim that Jews have dual loyalties is not a new one. That is why it is so deeply disturbing that Levy backs this charge, writing, "Are the Jews of Britain conditionally British? To whom is their loyalty?"

As Jack Omer-Jackaman has pointed out in his insightful new book, The Impact of Zionism and Israel on Anglo-Jewry’s Identity, British Jews, like their American counterparts, have been accused of harbouring dual loyalties for decades. In his words, "Zionism provided succour to the Jew-baiter’s portrayal of the Jew as an inherently disloyal alien."

There is every reason to believe that this could be exacerbated under a Corbyn government, with fears that Jews could be blamed by association for the actions of Israel. Try and imagine for a minute what could happen if there were renewed hostilities in Gaza, or a third Israel – Hezbollah war. You don’t have to be paranoid to fear that amid dangerous rhetoric and incitement, Jews could be targeted if events in the Middle East were to get out of hand.

Again, Gideon Levy proves himself no ally. He declares (quite wrongly, both morally and historically) that Israel’s occupation is "the strongest motivation for anti-Semitism today." The insinuation that those who support Israel under these conditions is inviting an anti-Semitic backlash.

A Labour government is obviously entitled to review policy towards Israel and to criticize the Israeli government. It would be strange if it were not to do so, in light of some of the actions and policies of Israel’s government in recent years. Yet questions will be asked over Corbyn’s motivations, and the Labour leadership only has itself to blame for this.

Unquestionably, for a large number of Corbyn’s associates and supporters within the Labour party, Israel has served as a convenient stick with which to attack Jews. It is this which explains why Chief Rabbi Mirvis felt the need to intervene.

There is one more issue relating to Corbyn’s particular worldview which could have a drastic impact on UK Jews, not to mention the wider British public. That is Corbyn’s woeful credentials on national security.

He retains his lifelong hostility to NATO; he was signally unwilling to condemn Putin’s Russia despite Moscow’s chemical weapons-assassination attack on British soil; he infamously described Hamas and Hezbollah as "friends." Astonishingly, he continues to insist that the Islamic State terrorist leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been arrested rather than being shot, despite wearing a suicide vest. He questioned the evidence of British intelligence services that Iran was behind the attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, in June 2019.

When he was asked recently during a BBC interview how he would keep the British people safe, he talked eagerly about "inequality in our society and the injustice that comes from that." He discussed how ISIS was created and funded, but offered precious little substance or insight into his national security policies.

Corbyn's foundational mantra is that British foreign policy has "exacerbated rather than resolved" the problems of terrorism. It is a familiar line from the "anti-imperialist" left that is willing only to blame the West and its allies, and removes agency and ideology from terrorists themselves.

This is wrong on so many levels. Corbyn has consistently condemned the use of military action by Western powers, yet is always tight lipped when British adversaries resort to force, exemplified by his silence over Russia and Iran’s bloody military interventions in Syria. Furthermore, it flies in the face of substantial scholarship, such as that of radicalization expert Shiraz Maher, that shows ISIS terrorists are motivated primarily by hatred of disbelievers, a militaristic theology, and not foreign policy.

Corbyn points to the second Iraq War as ground zero for contemporary terrorism - but the 9/11 attacks occurred two years previously, as did the formation of al-Qaeda, and plenty of current-day terrorism, emerging from the Middle East or not, has no causal link to Iraq at all.

Such a twisted and incoherent understanding of security and counter-terrorism should be a source of great anxiety for all UK voters, but there will surely be direct implications for Britain’s vulnerable Jewish communal institutions. It is this, above all, which should terrify British Jews.

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is "Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Twitter: @azrielb

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