Jeremy Corbyn after winning the Labour leadership election, 2015 [Getty Images]

The Neverending Story

This is not a story about Labour and antisemitism

The entire discussion surrounding antisemitism and the Labour Party has been in equal parts both frustrating and exhausting. Frustrating because anyone who is a leftist, who is committed to the values of equality, justice and peace, who abhors any form of racism including antisemitism, and is also a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, is forced into an awkward position when trying to defend his record due to the very nature of the issue. Exhausting because we have been having to adopt this position without any pause for the past six months now, to the extent that it has been just about the only story in the media related to Labour for the entire duration. And with the latest ‘Wreathgate’ scandal dominating headlines, the train shows no signs of stopping any time soon. While it would certainly be disingenuous to say that there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party or even on the left, and it ought to be the left’s duty to especially acknowledge and confront it, we have to be clear, that’s not what this was ever about.

The 2017 Antisemitism Barometer, a study conducted by the Campaign Against Antisemitism and YouGov from 2015 to 2017, found that the endorsement of antisemitic attitudes has been gradually decreasing among the British public over the recorded period of time, while anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise during the same period, at record-breaking numbers. The prevalence of prejudices was also found to be higher among Conservative voters (32%) than their Labour counterparts (30%). It is important to not draw too many conclusions from a single study of course, and in any case, any party which is committed to the values of anti-racism should have a zero-tolerance policy towards it. However, it is also impossible, as lamentable as it may be, to avoid some people holding those views in a party of half a million members. The same study also shows that the trust between the Labour party and the Jewish community is truly damaged, with more 82 percent believing the party to be too tolerant of antisemitism among its members, MPs and supporters, and more than two thirds agreeing with the statement “Recent political events have resulted in increased hostility towards Jews”. Interestingly, at the 2017 general elections, 60 percent of British Jews voted Conservative, while only 27 percent voted Labour. This of course begs to question — did they not vote Labour because of the perceived antisemitism, or is the perceived anti-Semitism the result of political partisanship?

As for Corbyn’s own views on antisemitism, his voting record in parliament should speak for itself. Here are a few examples. In 2003, he was one of the first MPs to sign Early Day Motion (EDM) 123, condemning antisemitic terror attacks on two Istanbul synagogues. In 2012, he was one of only 25 MPs to sign EDM 195, condemning the BBC’s plans to cancel a program specifically for the Manchester Jewish community. In 2013 he was one of only 33 MPs to sign EDM 1133, explicitly condemning antisemitism in sport, calling for the adoption of all means necessary to eliminate it. Furthermore, as an MP, he has had a long-standing history of engaging with and supporting local Jewish organisations, both religious and secular. And throughout his political career, he has been a dedicated campaigner against all forms of racism, whether protesting against South African Apartheid, or for the rights of POCs in Britain. Which is what makes the continued accusations of antisemitism aimed at him seem all the more baffling.

The Mear One mural in East London []

The current obsession started in March of this year when it was reported that Jeremy Corbyn had left a message on Facebook in 2012 in support of a mural in Hanbury Street, East London, which had been ordered to be removed due to its racist imagery. The mural in question, painted by US artist Mear One, depicted a cabal of older white men, many hook-nosed, sitting around a Monopoly board propped up on the backs of stooping faceless brown bodies emblazoned with the tagline “The New World Order is an enemy of humanity”, reproducing several classic antisemitic tropes. Many of these tropes are only evident on closer inspection, and only then in context with the wider imagery. Corbyn’s show of support in the name of free speech was certainly clumsy, and when the story surfaced, he promptly retracted his support and expressed apology.

Then a few days later, Corbyn as accused of being antisemitic for celebrating Passover with Jews. Those in question, Jewdas, a radical Jewish activist collective, are veterans of the North London leftist scene, many of its founders being long-time close personal friends of Corbyn. They draw on a long-standing tradition of radical and socialist readings of Judaism and have been ardent campaigners against fascism, antisemitism and imperialism, in particular against Israeli militarism. Corbyn attended their Passover seder not for a PR photo-op but as a friend, without any publicity, and yet the story was broken by the right-wing blog Guido Fawkes, and then run on just about every mainstream outlet. This backfired fairly spectacularly when the public seemed to reject the absurdity of the non-story and in the end Jewdas, previously a small local organisation ended up getting national exposure, and their Twitter following went from around 2,000 to more than 23,000 in a matter of days. Not only was it outrageous, as was rightly pointed out, to brand Jewdas as somehow the ‘wrong’ Jews, and ironically in itself highly antisemitic, but this is the point at which it became clear that this entire affair was never really about antisemitism to begin with.

The story reached fever pitch when in July, Labour refused to adopt the full definition of antisemitism as written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). The definition, which is fully adopted by 31 countries, as well as a whole host of local councils and government bodies in the UK, is comprised of 11 “contemporary examples of antisemitism”, while stating that there may be others. Labour accepted the definition in full with the exception of proposed amendments to three of the examples initially, mostly technical rewordings, which have by now come down to just one: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” Israel is, like the United States or Australia, a settler-colonial nation, and a legacy of British and French colonial rule in the Middle East. It is a fact that in 1948 the Arabs living in Palestine were displaced by force, and that to this day, the majority of Palestinians in the world live as refugees. Similarly to how we can have a discussion about the genocide of the Aborigines or the use of slavery in the founding of America, it is a perfectly legitimate discussion to be able to challenge the colonial history that is inseparable from the founding of Israel. Denying it would be denying the historical record. And as Benyamin Netanyahu passes the “Nation-State bill” through the Knesset, declaring that the right to national self-determination in Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people, this goes to only further illustrate the racist settler-colonial mindset that is behind much of Israel’s policies. Therefore, it was in fact a brave and necessary stance taken by Labour to challenge the definition because not doing so can undoubtedly lead to the further silencing of any criticism of Israel, which is already largely absent from the political and media mainstream.

Corbyn at the ceremony in Tunisia [Palestinian Embassy in Tunis/Facebook]

The most recent controversy regarding antisemitism and the Labour Party has been surrounding a 2014 event in Tunisia commemorating the deaths of at least 47 civilians, members of the Palestinian government-in-exile, who were killed by an IDF airstrike on a PLO headquarter in Tunis in 1985. Corbyn, still a backbencher at the time, attended the event as part of a British delegation who had been invited by the organisers in remembrance of an attack that was condemned by the entire international community, including the Prime Minister of the UK at the time Margaret Thatcher, the great champion of leftism. As a part of the ceremony, a wreath was laid at a monument which included the graves of Palestinians killed by Mossad agents in Paris in 1991 who were accused of organising the PLO terror attack on the Israeli wrestling team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. When a picture emerged of Corbyn with his hands on the wreath, what followed was another endless barrage of speculation about his support for terrorism and antisemitism. Now there is a point to be made here that well-meaning Westerners, particularly with a critical outlook on Western foreign policy, can and have been co-opted by people with insidious agendas, such as Amnesty International, and it is always important for any honest leftist to be vigilant of this. However, especially when dealing with international conflict resolution, it is impossible without having a dialogue between the two sides, and attempts to bring about reconciliation should surely be treated as such, and not met with hysterical overreactions.

The way the situation has been reported by the British press has been an unadulterated exercise in dishonesty and hypocrisy. Antisemitism is a very real thing, and a disease which needs to be fought at every instance, especially when the fascist far-right is on the rise all around the world, spewing a kind of hatred towards Jews which we have seen in very real terms lead to one of the worst atrocities in history. And antisemitic tropes and caricatures still live on in popular culture, often going unchallenged. Therefore, when David Baddiel, a man who defended right-wing YouTuber Count Dankula’s video of his pet pug doing Nazi salute when told the phrase “gas the Jews”, goes on the BBC to complain about antisemitism in the Labour Party, it does feel a little odd. When J.K. Rowling, creator of a universe in which hook-nosed goblins run the banks, makes similar accusations, the irony does seem a little lost. And let’s not forget that Netanyahu’s own government sells arms to actual neo-Nazis in Ukraine. All the while, Islamophobia runs rampant in the Conservative Party as Boris Johnson calls women wearing burqas “letterboxes”, and when questioned by journalists about it, offers them tea and biscuits, which they shamelessly lap up. Oh, Boris! What’s he like, eh?

In our post-truth, post-fact world, reality is itself in a state of constant flux. Facts and evidence matter little, instead what does is the construction of a coherent narrative. The rise of the far-right, particularly in Europe, has been largely fuelled by the fear of “Islamisation”, or a significant change in the demographics of Europe. The reality is that Muslims constitute around 5% of the European population. Yet this does not stop people from believing that we are only one more immigrant away from Sharia Law being enforced on the streets. Being non-Jewish, it is impossible for me to know the personal implications of antisemitism, a form of racism with a particularly long and sordid history, but having faced plenty of racism throughout my life I have a fairly good idea of what it means to feel socially ostracised, unwelcome, or even hated for completely arbitrary reasons like religion or skin colour. And it is clear that for many Jews in Britain, the trust with the Labour party is at an all-time low at present due to this ongoing story, something which the party must do its best to reconcile and rebuild. However, it is important to get a perspective on things. Repeatedly claiming something despite evidence only pointing to the contrary does not eventually turn it into a truth. No matter how loud you get. As Labour makes plans on mending the hurt in the British Jewish community, including adopting the full IHRA definition, many have rightfully expressed their concern at the silencing of the Palestinian cause. As the left, it is both possible, and indeed of vital importance to be ruthless against both antisemitism and Israeli militarism.

The most bizarre aspect of this entire story has been how little the polls seem to have been affected. The latest report from YouGov shows that the majority of the voting public has not been following the stories to start with, and even among those who have, for the vast majority, their opinion of Corbyn has not changed. Voting intentions also show that Labour and Conservatives are still both polling at or under 40%. For the political opponents of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which includes the establishment media, if the discussion turns to actual politics, then it is lost. The majority of the country support the policies of free university education, reinvesting in the NHS and renationalising the railways and utilities, so if the discussion is about that, support for Labour will only increase. Therefore, there must be a consistent line of attack, no matter how absurd it might get, whether it is alleging Corbyn to be a Czech spy or declaring that a man who has dedicated his life battling injustice and racism of all forms poses an existential threat to Britain’s Jews. If, after six months of this incessant campaign, public opinion remains largely unchanged, surely it’s time to try something new.

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Aranyo Aarjan

North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate