On Monday evening in Parliament Square in London, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, the two main representative bodies of Britain’s Jews, held a solidarity event in protest of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. In particular, they are incensed by the attitude of Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
This is unprecedented. The Jewish community in a modern Western democracy is accusing one of the country’s largest mainstream political parties and its leader, who may well be the country’s next prime minister, of tolerating and enabling anti-Semitism. More remarkable is that it is happening in Britain, where the leaders of the Jewish establishment are notoriously timid and routinely shy away from any hint of controversy. And to the Labour Party, which historically fought against any racism or discrimination against minorities, and which only three years ago was lead by the Jewish Ed Miliband.
But it’s happening now. Many of Labour’s members, including prominent members of Parliament will be joining the protest this evening. They are shocked that matters have reached this point. But it was only a matter of time.
In the two and a half years since Corbyn was elected by a landslide as Labour leader in September 2015, there have been hundreds of incidents or allegations of incidents of anti-Semitism in the party.
Corbyn supporters have argued that there is absolutely no proof that Corbyn himself has ever uttered an anti-Semitic word, and that his political opponents have been cherry-picking among Labour’s 600 thousand members to find a few rotten apples with whom to smear their leader. That may be true, but it is also true that Corbyn, over his long career, seems to have had the misfortune of being friends and sharing platforms with a great many people who believe that Jews make use of Gentiles’ blood, and that Israel was behind the 9/11 terror attacks and founded ISIS. Many of these same people are not wholly convinced the Holocaust ever happened, and argue that, anyway, the real Nazis are the Zionists.
Just about every case of anti-Semitism that has emerged among Labour members during the last two and a half years has involved fervent supporters of Corbyn, including some long-standing allies of his. What’s worse, until he became the party’s leader, he never seemed to notice, even when they were posting anti-Semitic memes in Facebook groups on which he was an active member. At the time, he was just an obscure backbench MP, unfamiliar to the overwhelming majority of the British public. But as leader, he naturally came under closer scrutiny.
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Every time another case came to light, Corbyn denied ever having had any knowledge of anti-Semitism and refused to apologize for having been friends with so many anti-Semites. He insisted that he only knew the offending colleagues as fine, upstanding, human-rights activists. It took Corbyn a year to acknowledge that the party may have had a problem. When he finally commissioned a report on anti-Semitism “and other forms of racism” in the party, the product was a bland document, whose author was promptly awarded a seat in the House of Lords.
This has been the dismal state of affairs for two and a half years. Why is it that now, the patience of British Jews has run out?
This weekend, for the umpteenth time, Corbyn’s history of dubious endorsements of anti-Semites came back to haunt him. In 2012, American graffiti artist Kalen Ockerman painted a mural titled “Freedom for Humanity” on a wall near Brick Lane in London’s East End, a part of the city that was once heavily Jewish, and that is today noted for its street art. Ockerman, who goes by the name Mear One, created his his mural on a large brick wall. It depicts six elderly white men, some with what could be described as stereotypically Jewish features, playing a game of Monopoly on a giant board placed on the naked backs of a group of people of color. Over them hang an image similar to the Freemasons symbol of a pyramid with an eye embedded in it, as appears on the American dollar bill. To bolster the global conspiracy message, Ockerman also painted in a man holding up a sign with the message, “The New World Order Is the Enemy of Humanity”.
To many, the mural was blatantly anti-Semitic, and following complaints, the local council decided to cover the group of men at its center with white paint. Ockerman complained on his Facebook page about his art being censored, to which Corbyn responded, “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.” Corbyn was refererring to the 1934 incident, in which a work commissioned from Mexican artist Diego Rivera was removed from Rockefeller Center in New York for being “anti-capitalist.” Corbyn didn’t seem to mind that many Jews and non-Jews had felt that Okerman’s opus was anti-Semitic.
Fast-forward nearly six and a half years, to last Friday, when Luciana Berger, a prominent Jewish Labour MP, and others brought up Corbyn’s support of Ockerman’s work, demanding clarification. A spokesperson responded that “In 2012, Jeremy was responding to concerns about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech. However, the mural was offensive, used anti-Semitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it right that it was removed.”
The response was rightly ridiculed. If Corbyn is a purist about freedom of speech, then why does he think that it was right for it to be removed? If it is so offensive that it has no place in society, why didn’t Corbyn say so in 2012, instead of telling Ockerman he was “in good company”?
For once, even Corbyn, belatedly, was brought to understand how paltry his explanation was. A second statement was released, this time quoting him saying that “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on.” “Sincere regret” is not quite an apology, but Corbyn obviously felt it was sufficient. But it was even more insulting than the original response. Why on earth did Corbyn, unbidden, rush to support an image that many believed was anti-Semitic without looking at it “more closely” first?
I was Haaretz’s correspondent in London in 2012, and I covered the story. I interviewed dozens of residents of the East End, and while some insisted that the mural wasn’t about Jews, just “global bankers,” and some even acknowledged it was anti-Semitic but still wanted it to remain, there was no question that the controversy centered around the belief of many that it depicted anti-Semitic images of Jews. Even Ockerman himself said that, “The banker group is made up of Jewish and white Anglos.” He insisted, however, that his message wasn’t anti-Semitic, but merely “about class and privilege.”
Maybe that is what Corbyn thought as well. Perhaps he thought that someone who protests issues of class and privilege couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic. Corbyn is convinced he’s not an anti-Semite, but privileged Jews and Zionists are another matter. Perhaps he shared the views of his old friend and ally, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said in 2012 that, “as the Jewish community got richer, it moved over to voting for Mrs Thatcher.”
The flippant manner of Corbyn’s latest response leaves no room for doubt. If he was telling the truth and really had not gone to the trouble in 2012 of taking a closer look at a mural in a historic part of London that many claimed was blatantly anti-Semitic, before rushing to defend it, then he simply didn’t care and his sudden change of heart is at best insincere. Or he is lying, and he did check out the noxious work of art and still defended it. Either way, the Jewish community has had enough. And this time, the British media is taking their protest very seriously. The cloud of anti-Semitism over Corbyn’s Labour has been an ongoing crisis since his election as leader, but it has now come to a head.
There will be no happy end to this sorry saga. At 68, and after nearly half a century of political activism, Corbyn is too old and dogmatic to change. His attitudes can’t shift. In the some way he is incapable of acknowledging that Russia was almost certainly behind last month’s poisoning of a former double agent in Salisbury, even though his beloved Soviet Union was long ago replaced in Moscow by Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy, he is incapable of grasping that many of his fellow-travelers on the radical left are judeophobic. And many of those who now cling to Corbyn as their savior are equally incapable of hearing any ill spoken of him.
Last night, on Twitter, as Jewish party members spoke for the first time of their experiences of anti-Semitism in Labour, Corbynistas tried to get #PredictTheNextCorbynSmear trending. The irony that all the so-called “smears” against Corbyn had been accurate quotes of things he said publicly and willingly, simply escaped them. He has attained cult-like status among his believers, and if Jewish party members are enraged at his complacency regarding anti-Semitism, then they are saboteurs.
Whether or not Corbyn ever becomes prime minister, he is unlikely at his age to remain party leader for many more years. But even after he leaves, it seems inescapable that relations between British Jews and a section of British society that prides itself on being “anti-racist” have been poisoned for years to come.