OPINION: Jeremy Corbyn and defining anti-Semitism

OPINION: Jeremy Corbyn and defining anti-Semitism

Paul Gross reflects on how the Labour Party sees Jew-hatred, and what can be done to challenge its narrative

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn 

Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Jonathan Arkush’s parting shot as Board of Deputies president that Jeremy Corbyn “has views which are anti-Semitic” was met with a furious response from the Labour leader’s office and from prominent supporters. So let us examine the allegation and ask the question: “Is Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite?”

This is not a charge that should be made lightly. Anti-Semitism is not only a form of prejudice and discrimination, but one responsible for literally centuries of murder, torture, exile and, ultimately, the greatest crime against humanity in history.

The other side of that coin however is the false claim, regularly made, that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to stifle criticism of Israel. No one credible defines criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, but we can see this straw man employed time and again, most recently in the indignant protestations to Arkush’s remarks. The official response from a “spokesperson” for Corbyn included this remark: “Jonathan Arkush’s attempt to conflate strong criticism of Israeli state policies with anti-Semitism is wrong”.  The journalist Owen Jones, who has spoken out against anti-Semitism in the past but this time seems to have got the memo from Labour Party HQ,  tweeted:

“Jonathan Arkush smearing Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic – a smear he provides no evidence for except him being a critic of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, *which is not anti-Semitism* – is a disgrace, and undermines the struggle against actual anti-Semitism.”

Arkush did no such thing of course. What he did say in his interview with The Daily Telegraph was that “delegitimizing the State of Israel is anti-Semitic”. This is not a controversial position. In fact it is consistent with an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism proclaimed in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which represents 36 member states including the UK and most of Europe, Canada and the United States, Argentina and Israel.

One of the demands made by Arkush and his colleagues in their meeting with Corbyn last month was the formal adoption of this definition by the Labour Party in their soon-to-be-announced plan of action for dealing with anti-Semitism in the party. For Corbyn to do so he would have to effectively renounce decades worth of anti-Israel campaigning. His tenure as chair of the Stop The War Coalition – a collection of far-left apologists for Syria, North Korea and Iran – and his much-publicised associations with individuals like the Islamist Arab-Israeli blood libeller Raed Salah, and Hamas and Hezbollah, all speak to a position towards the Jewish state that is not so much critical as hateful. In 2012 he wrote a letter earnestly defending Reverend Stephen Sizer, in which he begs support for Sizer’s anti-Zionist activity, noting “just how much distance exists between anti Semitism [and] anti Zionism”. (When not “highlighting the injustices of the Palestinian Israeli situation”, Sizer hung out with Holocaust deniers and accepted an invitation to Iran – presumably to hear from the Ayatollahs just how they planned to eliminate the Zionist entity.)

Paul Gross is a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem where he writes and lectures on Israeli politics and history. The views expressed here are his own. He made Aliya from the UK in 2007.

Corbyn’s virulent opposition to Israel – and we can assume it is opposition to Israel itself and not merely “the occupation”, as he has chosen to partner with those who openly seek the extirpation of the Jewish state – has led him to promote and support unarguably anti-Semitic  groups and individuals. Indeed, purveyors of genocidal anti-Semitism.

But is all this enough to make Corbyn himself an anti-Semite?

Corbyn’s defenders will point out that he has many Jewish friends and associates.

A response to this defence brings us to a unique feature of anti-Semitism, formulated best by former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Anti-Semitism has survived and thrived as an age-hold form of prejudice because, like a virus, it mutates over time. So, in Sacks’s telling, anti-Semitism in mediaeval Europe attacked Jews on religious grounds. By the nineteenth century, when the Enlightenment and ‘reason’ had rendered religious discrimination morally suspect, racial anti-Semitism took hold and the new science of eugenics was embraced by those who wished to deny Jews rights and to depict them as a threat to society and civilization. The final mutation is national anti-Semitism: the denial of the right of the Jewish people to national sovereignty; the denial of the right of Israel to exist.

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The nature of this latest mutation is critical to understanding how someone with Corbyn’s attitude to Israel can also be genuinely attached to individual Jews. It is more similar to the older, religious anti-Semitism than to the racial variety which immediately preceded it. Jews could escape religious anti-Semitism by converting to Christianity, the pseudo-science of racial Jew-hatred allowed no way out and would ultimately claim the lives of six million people. National anti-Semitism does offer an escape route to Jews: disavow Israel and Zionism. Once a Jew joins the “Zionism-is-racism” crowd; once a Jew treats Israel as an international pariah and holds up every Israeli misdeed – real or invented – as proof of the country’s illegitimacy, then he or she is (pardon the use of the word) kosher. The good folk at Jewdas who believe Israel to be “a steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of” are excellent examples of ‘the right kind of Jew’ for Corbyn. The same may be said of the relatively new ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’, established as an Israel-boycotting alternative to the century-old Jewish Labour Movement, which has its roots not only in the British Labour movement but in Labour Zionism.

To end where we started then: is Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite? With his record the onus is surely on him to prove he is not. This is not an impossible demand. He could formally accept the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “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”. He could apologise for his past association with toxic anti-Semites and supporters of anti-Jewish terrorism, and denounce their views.

He could, but he won’t. And we should draw the appropriate conclusions.

  •  Paul Gross is a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem where he writes and lectures on Israeli politics and history. The views expressed here are his own. He made Aliya from the UK in 2007.
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