Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis hands Tories an easy ride
Considering the disarray in Britain’s governing Conservative Party, and the shambolic manner in which it is leading the country, it would not have been unreasonable to expect that its main political rival, the Labour Party, would by now have had the government on the ropes. Astonishingly, despite the calamitous handling of Brexit, the deterioration in public services and deep divisions within the Tories, not to mention the odd political scandal, both major British parties are still neck-and-neck in public opinion polls. There is no escape from the conclusion that a major reason for that is the on-going anti-Semitism row that has engulfed the Labour party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
By now the controversy on the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Labour has also become a vote of confidence in Corbyn’s leadership, judgment and his ability to steer the party out of a crisis. If he can’t show these qualities on an internal issue, as important as it is, how can he be trusted with handling the intricacies of running a major force in international relations? It is also his integrity that is coming under scrutiny.
It is a sad reality that, in the 21st century, any form of racism still exists and the debate — or lack of it — surrounding Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, as expressed for instance in former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent derogatory comments about women wearing burqas, is a case in point. Any form of racism and discrimination requires an instant robust condemnation and, in the case of political parties, a swift expulsion from their ranks. When mainstream politicians and parties don’t stamp out racism and xenophobia, they legitimize it for those who see it as a green light to spread their hatred.
Some of Corbyn’s contemporaries in the old left have never hidden their contempt for the idea of a Jewish state. For them, Israel has always been the product of European colonialism and not the legitimate manifestation of Jewish returnees to the land of their ancestors, from where their forefathers were exiled. However, whether they agree or disagree with these historical-political observations, they cross a line when they attribute the establishment of the state of Israel, and the international support it enjoys, to the anti-Semitic myth of Jewish control of the financial markets and the media by some sort of global cabal.
Corbyn conceded that he was wrong to support a graffiti artist who painted a mural in London’s East End portraying several apparently Jewish financiers playing a board game resembling “Monopoly” and counting money. The 2012 mural also was quite explicit that they were doing it by enslaving the masses. It had the most obvious hallmarks of classic and vile anti-Semitism. It is difficult to accept Corbyn’s apology as sincere, considering that it came only after he became the leader of the opposition with aspirations of becoming the next British prime minister. This sorry episode took place only a few years ago, when his views on such fundamental issues must have already been fully shaped.
Similarly, his silence when Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is compared with the behaviour of the Nazis raises question marks. As is the case with the mural, he distanced himself from these views only when he became leader of the party. I have been a critic of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians and its march toward the ultra-right for a long time. However, comparing the Israeli government to the Nazis is plain wrong and reflects intellectual laziness. It is easy to refute and is counter-productive, as it is a diversion from the legitimate and just criticism of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians.
Corbyn and some of his supporters brought with them to the leadership of the party a siege mentality that they carry with them from decades of being on the fringes of politics
It is needless to say, though still necessary to repeat, that not every criticism of Israel merits the accusation of being anti-Semitic: Most are not. No government is above criticism, and the current Israeli government has more than earned the extensive condemnation of its treatment of the Palestinians. Moreover, when the Israeli government or other Israeli or Jewish organizations label legitimate views as anti-Semitic, they do a huge disservice to the cause of tackling the hatred of Jews because of their religion and ethnicity. However, when legitimate concerns about Israel’s behavior are conflated with its right to exist, or when Jews in the diaspora are verbally and even physically attacked for supporting Israel, then a dangerous red line is crossed.
Corbyn and some of his supporters brought with them to the leadership of the party a siege mentality that they carry with them from decades of being on the fringes of politics. Hence, any criticism or critics are quashed for representing a conspiracy against them by the old elites. This has led to threats of disciplinary proceedings against those who feel personally aggrieved by the presence of anti-Semitism in the party, and the refusal to accept the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Corbynites should have supported this definition verbatim: There is nothing in it that should stop legitimate and constructive criticism of Israel’s policies. By refusing to accept it verbatim, Corbyn attracts criticism and suspicion for his true feelings about Jews and the existence of Israel.
If Corbyn doesn’t come clean and clear Labour of any remnants of anti-Semitism, he compromises his integrity and consequently might hand an easy victory to the Conservatives in the next election.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg