Why Corbyn's Column on anti-Semitism Won’t Allay Jewish Concerns

There was nothing in the Labour Party leader's Guardian piece Friday that recognized the root causes of why British Jews are concerned

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Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. Labour Party, speaks at a launch event for the party's local election campaign in London, U.K., April 9, 2018.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. Labour Party, speaks at a launch event for the party's local election campaign in London, U.K., April 9, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Jeremy Corbyn let the latest crisis of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party escalate for over three weeks without making any attempt to address the Jewish community’s concerns. Finally, toward the end of this week, reports circulated of a planned speech to the Jews. It was to be held at the improbable venue of the Jewish Museum in Camden, north London; a small and elegant establishment, hardly the place for political speeches.

It seems that the plans for a speech have been shelved for now. Instead, late Friday afternoon, a column went on The Guardian’s website under Corbyn’s name headlined “I will root antisemites out of Labour – they do not speak for me.” Not only will the column do little, if anything, to calm the nerves of the great majority of Britain’s Jews, and of Corbyn’s non-Jewish critics in the Labour Party as well, it is likely to exacerbate tensions.

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For a start there was the timing. While the majority of British Jews aren’t strict observers of every stricture of Shabbat, the community has a strict no-business policy from sundown Friday afternoons. No executive of communal bodies, even if secular themselves, would address anything over Shabbat. Even the nominally independent websites of British Jewish media aren’t updated for the 25 hours until the stars come out Saturday night.

Whether or not Corbyn’s office was aware of this won’t change the fact that the timing of publication, to just before Shabbat, was deeply insulting to many British Jews. Another source of offense that was quickly realized upon publication was that entire paragraphs in the column had merely been copy-pasted from a previous column published in Corbyn’s name four months earlier in The Evening Standard.

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But even putting aside issues of timing and originality, the content of Corbyn’s column was insulting as well. Of course, he made sure to use plenty of nice words on how “Britain would not be Britain without our Jewish communities,” on how the country would be “unimaginable without the immense contribution made by Jewish men and women,” and on how Jewish members have been central to the Labour Party. But that isn’t something that any British Jews needs reminding of.

Total failure

There was nothing in Corbyn’s column that recognized the root causes of why British Jews, so many of them past and present voters and members of Labour, are so worried by Corbyn and his supporters. Indeed, the fact that after three years of his leadership of the party, Corbyn has yet again had to write in a national newspaper why his leadership isn’t a threat to the Jews of Britain is in itself shocking. But he failed totally to address that.

He referred to one of the main events of the current crisis – the refusal of Labour’s National Executive Council, under his leadership, to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism – as one “small” difference with the Jewish community. He set up a straw-man argument, saying that the changes his leadership had made to the definition of anti-Semitism were only done because the definition “has sometimes been used by those wanting to restrict criticism of Israel that is not antisemitic.” This was in complete contradiction to the fact that the IHRA definition categorically states that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism.

He wrote that he is confident that the differences “can be resolved through dialogue with community organisations, including the Jewish Labour Movement,” ignoring the fact that for months these very organizations were trying to hold such a dialogue but were shut out of the process.

Perhaps most significantly, Corbyn refrained from explaining just what those differences between the IHRA definition and the one decided on by his leadership were. To do so would have exposed him to some of the most recent facts to emerge, that he himself in the past equated Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis and endorsed events where the comparisons were made and there were calls to expel the Jewish Labour Movement (one of the party's oldest affiliated organizations) from Labour because of accusations of dual loyalties of its members toward Israel. These are specifically the examples of anti-Semitism in the IHRA definitions that were omitted by Corbyn’s supporters.

Corbyn did mention that there had been “examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers” seen by party staff, but British Jews once again don’t need Corbyn to tell them that these are prevalent. They need him to acknowledge all the times he has shared platforms with Holocaust deniers and defended them – as he condemned the painting-over of a mural of Jewish bankers in 2012 – and seriously apologize for all these. Once again he failed to do so.

Insulting omissions

Perhaps the most incongruous section in Corbyn’s piece was where he wrote that “in the 1970s some on the left mistakenly argued that ‘Zionism is racism’. That was wrong, but to assert that ‘anti-Zionism is racism’ now is wrong too.” He added that both Zionism and anti-Zionism are traditions that “have always had honourable proponents in our movement.” For four decades of activism, before Corbyn became leader, he was on countless platforms where Israel was called racist and those “honorable proponents” of Zionism were denounced in the most vile terms. Has he changed his mind on Zionism? Does he take a more balanced or nuanced view now as a leader?

For many Jews who took to social media to respond to Corbyn’s column, one of the most insulting omissions from the piece was the recognition that of all the daily incidents of Jews being criticized and attacked for speaking up against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party over the last three years, these have always been by his supporters. The headline may have included the words “they do not speak for me,” but in the piece he failed to say a word to any of his supporters, from anonymous tweeters to members of parliament and the National Executive Committee who have attacked the Jewish community viciously, ostensibly in support of Corbyn’s leadership.

It’s not just British Jews who will remain extremely perturbed after Corbyn’s column, probably even more so. Many non-Jewish party members and voters were distinctly underwhelmed. “This is utter rubbish,” wrote Emily Benn, a Labour local-council member and parliamentary candidate. "No responsibility taken for the Antisemitism and those antisemites he has supported for years. @uklabour has become an Insitutinally Anti-Semitic Party under Jeremy Corbyn. It will not change while he is leader."

Benn isn’t just another party member. In Labour terms, she’s near-royalty as the granddaughter of Tony Benn, the man who led Labour’s left wing in the late 20th century and was the mentor of many of Corbyn’s older supporters. Her tweet is indicative of how many in Labour don’t share the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s die-hard supporters and see the anti-Semitism crisis as just another symptom of how his leadership has pushed the party into the thickets of hard-left dogmatism.

Another major issue for them is the euroskeptic Corbyn’s lack of direction and leadership on the burning issue of Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union.

Next month, as parliament returns to London, the overwhelming majority of Labour’s MPs are expected to challenge Corbyn by voting to endorse the IHRA definitions in their entirety. This will be yet another sign of an upcoming split in the party over anti-Semitism, Brexit and other issues on which the MPs hold opposite views to those of Corbyn’s faction. His latest missive in The Guardian has done nothing to heal the divide in the Labour Party; it may have even widened it.

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