The second sentence of the editorial published last week, jointly, by the three main British-Jewish newspapers, is breathtaking. It warns of “the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.” It sounds totally over the top. An existential threat?
But then you look at the logos of the three newspapers, and remember these are the respected mouthpieces of the established Jewish community in the United Kingdom.
These are newspapers whose journalists feel they have a weight of communal responsibility on their shoulders. Some would argue they sometimes feel that weight too heavily. But they certainly understand that responsibility means you don’t just go around hurling that kind of accusation against the leader of the main opposition party and perhaps the next prime minister.
The Jewish community’s problem with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ongoing for three years, from the days of his first leadership campaign in the summer of 2015.
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Every time another crisis occurred, another of his old comrades abusing Jewish figures, or his past support for terrorist organizations and anti-Semitic murals came to light, there was a flurry of condemnations, promises that the Labour Party would review its guidelines for excluding anti-Semitic members. There were some half-hearted explanations from Corbyn (never an apology), a tense meeting with the Jewish leadership, and nothing changed. So why is he now being seen as an “existential threat”?
The latest crisis is over the definition of anti-Semitism that Labour has adopted as part of its official guidelines. The party refused to accept the full definition of anti-Semitism as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and which has been accepted by a wide range of organizations, political parties and government agencies in Britain and other countries.
Instead the party, in a vote by its National Executive Council, on which Corbyn and his supporters have a majority, voted for a different version, which omitted a number of examples of anti-Semitism included in the IHRA definition.
Under the IHRA definition, it is considered anti-Semitic to deny the Jewish people their right to self determination by calling Israel “a racist endeavor” and to compare Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Labour omitted these examples and also changed the wording on allegations of “dual-loyalty” made against Jews, from being anti-Semitic to being simply “wrong.”
Perhaps most crucially, the new Labour definition says of a number of examples that they are not anti-Semitism “unless there is evidence of anti-Semitic intent.”
Corbyn supporters insisted that the changes were necessary because it was necessary to make sure that party members could continue criticizing Israel without being considered anti-Semites. This totally ignored the fact that the IHRA definition clearly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
“The changes Labour made to the IHRA definition are very clearly intended to cover nearly every kind of statement ever made by a Corbyn supporter and by Corbyn himself,” said a senior executive in a Jewish organization. “This is a tailor-made definition designed to let any Corbynist off the hook, unless clear intent of anti-Semitism can be proved. And how do you prove someone’s intent?”
But for many Jews, it wasn’t just the definition itself, after all definitions of what exactly is anti-Semitism are always problematic. It was the high-handed way in which the Jewish community, which has never been so united over one issue, was treated when it attempted to convince Labour’s leadership to adopt the original IHRA definition.
This joint stand came in the shape of entreaties from all the major Jewish organizations, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and an unprecedented letter signed by 68 rabbis, including non-Zionist Haredi ones, as well as progressive rabbis, some of them veteran members of Labour themselves.
None of these appeals changed a thing and the drafting of the definition was done without any meaningful consultation with the Jewish community, who the definition is ostensibly meant to protect. Instead, the clear message sent to the community was that it was drafted to protect Corbyn supporters who are suspected of anti-Semitic statements, and not the other way around.
It was perhaps inevitable that a man who spent his entire political career on the fringes of the “anti-imperialist” radical left and who had even been a paid commentator of the Iranian regime’s Press TV propaganda channel, would be carrying a baggage of dubious associations with all manner of conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers.
But once he was thrust, unexpectedly onto center-stage, Corbyn, whose mantra, whenever confronted with his own past statements and those of his allies, is “I’ve fought racism all my life,” was always somehow given the benefit of doubt. He personally couldn’t be an anti-Semite, after all, it was just his ideological “blind-spots.”
What seems to have shattered the hopes of British Jews that somehow the leader of Britain’s largest political party (in terms of membership) and potentially its next prime minister, would make an effort to build bridges, is the fact that with the new Labour definition of anti-Semitism, he hasn’t even pretended to make an effort to listen to them.
Instead, the party mechanism has begun disciplinary measures against Labour members of parliament of Jewish origin who strongly criticized Corbyn and the decision. In recent weeks, despite the issue occupying headlines in the British media, Corbyn has refused to even speak about it in public. Neither has he said a word to rein in the nasty tide of anti-Jewish sentiment coming from his supporters on social media.
Britain is currently undergoing its deepest crisis since the end of the Second World War. The country is deeply torn over the result of the Brexit referendum and the still unclear plans of the Conservative government for leaving the European Union next year.
It’s not just Prime Minister Theresa May who is finding it impossible to articulate a coherent policy with a party that is split down the middle over Brexit. Within Labour, Corbyn, who many believe is secretly happy to be leaving the EU as well, there are growing voices for a second referendum, which Corbyn has ruled out.
The fact that at such a critical time for Britain, Labour, which could be soon fighting another election campaign and maybe forming a government, has chosen to fight a battle with the Jewish community, beggars belief.
That it was so important for the party’s leadership to draft their own separate definition of anti-Semitism in the face of such concerted opposition and the concern of nearly the entire Jewish community, is what has left so many Jews feeling not just let down by the party they once belonged to, but struggling for explanations, other than the most sinister of motives on Corbyn’s part.
The problems of some 300,000 Jews, less than half a percent of the population, don’t seem very important in comparison with what Britain is facing. They shouldn’t be. Corbyn and his colleagues could have allayed the concerns of the Jewish community, but decided it was more important for them to redefine anti-Semitism for themselves.
An “existential threat to Jewish life” in a western country in the 21st century doesn’t have to mean that the next government of Britain will draft its own version of the Nuremberg Laws. For the Jewish community, which has worked for centuries to attain equality and protection, it is enough for the party which may be soon be in government to send it a clear message that its leadership is simply not interested in their most fundamental concerns.
Jews today have a secure and prosperous life in Britain, in a large part thanks to the fact that successive governments, for at least half a century, have made it clear that they are respected both as individuals and as a community. Jeremy Corbyn has just sent a clear message that this will not be the case if he forms a government. The concern and anger of British Jews is understandable.
Disclosure: The writer is also a correspondent for the Jewish Chronicle