UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is exhibiting worrying signs of either wilful ignorance or genuine incompetence when faced with a form of racism making an unpleasant comeback all over Europe. Over the last few months he has found himself at the centre of a growing storm about antisemitism in the party, and accusations that he has done too little too late to get a grip on the problem.
Many of his critics believe antisemitism is the last acceptable form of racism for some on the far left and place him firmly in a group for whom a dislike of Israel seems to blur their judgement on antisemitic behaviour and comments.
You can usually judge a person by the company they keep, as much as their words and deeds, and in Mr Corbyn’s case trace his problems all the way back to his now infamous “our friends in Hezbollah” comment in 2009. Speaking about this to the parliamentary home affairs select committee in 2016 he admitted regretting his choice of words. The committee also questioned whether he was still friends with Hamas and Hezbollah, to which he replied: “No. It was inclusive language which I used which with hindsight I would rather not have used. I regret using those words, of course.” At the time of his unfortunate choice of words he was still a serial rebel against party policy and his current status as party leader was not a part of anyone’s wildest dreams, his own included, but unburdened by the responsibility of leadership he was probably being honest.
Whether they are or were friends, the crucial point for many in the Jewish community is that denying the right of Israel to exist, as both these groups do, is seen as antisemitism. For many critics of Israel this is a debatable point, and probably the point at which the argument about anti-Israel politics blurring into antisemitism begins.
Sending wrong signals
The next significant step towards the antisemitism whirlpool Corbyn is currently spinning in was the scandal of former London mayor Ken Livingstone and his comments about Hitler being a Zionist. During an interview with the BBC in 2016 Livingstone said: “Let’s remember that when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Even by Livingstone’s standards this was a surprise swerve into the undergrowth of nutty extremism and very poor taste, as well as being widely disputed by historians, and, given that Israel was created in 1948, historically inaccurate.
Some two years after Livingstone’s suspension from the party the inquiry into the affair has still not concluded and he remains a party member. Quite what the delay might be, apart from wait long enough and people might just forget syndrome, is hard to imagine. For believers in natural justice , and a Labour party devoid of all racism, this ongoing scandal is just more evidence that antisemitism and Labour are worryingly cosy bedfellows.
Following further accusations of anti-Semitism in the party, based on but not limited to the Livingstone case, an inquiry was set up in 2016 under the leadership of former civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti. No sooner was the ink was dry on her report she was offered and accepted a peerage, although any suggestions that this might be the reward for a kicking the dirt under the rug report were of course strongly denied. What is undeniable is that not all of her recommendations have been implemented and the airwaves have not been filled with her objections.
Leader not a reader?
In March this year questions were raised about Corbyn’s October 2012 Facebook post, responding to artist Mear One’s complaint that his east London mural was about to be removed. Labour MP Luciana Berger tweeted her concerns about the mural and her leader’s comments at the time supporting the artist’s objections.
While the artist strongly denies any antisemitic content or views, Corbyn now clearly believes the content was of an antisemitic nature and stated that: “”I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic. I am opposed to the production of anti-Semitic material of any kind, and the defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form.”
Such an apparent level of negligence, bordering on stupidity some might say, is either very worrying given his positon or just not plausible, adding to the suspicion of Jewish Labour party members and the wider community that with this much smoke there has to be some fire.
Time to decide, time to take sides
In recent weeks the pressure from within the party has grown, with several Jewish Labour members of parliament strongly criticising the party’s record and failure to take action against antisemitism. During a debate in parliament on 17 April some of these MPs, including Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, gave strong speeches detailing the extensive abuse they have suffered on social media and more generally, resulting in a standing ovation in breach of parliamentary convention. In the wider world objections have also grown, with the Israeli Labor Party cutting all links to its UK sister party for now.
Following a meeting between the Labour leader, members of the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews this Tuesday, conflicting statements emerged. Corby described the meeting as “positive and constructive”, but Jonathan Arkush representing the Board of Deputies disagreed, saying “there was no action to go with the words”. Both organisations wrote to Mr Corbyn last month, setting out action they would like him to take against antisemitism in the party, but feel that his unwillingness to agree to many of their suggestions represents a missed opportunity.
The anger and tension that this growing crisis in the party has created would be news at any time but given the recent indications of antisemitism gaining ground across Europe, including the murder of an elderly Jewish woman in Paris last month, and an attack on two Israeli Jews in Berlin last week, it has even larger significance. Everyone in Labour knew that Jeremy Corbyn was carrying excess hard left baggage when he won the leadership but virtually nobody would have expected suspected racism to be part of it.
If Tuesday’s meeting did not impress the seriousness of the situation upon Mr Corbyn perhaps he should listen to the words of the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who stated on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day programme last Saturday that “there is today almost no European country where Jews feel save”. He went on to say that “the hate which begins with Jews never ends with Jews”. The whole item is thought provoking and worth a listen but for me his closing thought summed up the current situation in the British Labour party and across Europe very well.
“Today I see too many good people doing nothing and I feel ashamed.”
Now would be a good time for Jeremy Corbyn to start actually doing something about this problem, before it does permanent damage to the party. Warm words will not win this war.