supposed antisemitism crisis in Britain’s Labour party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader has erupted back into the headlines.
This time barely any effort has been made to conceal the fact that the accusations relate to the “danger” that Corbyn could soon win power, with Britain gearing up for a general election in less than a month.
This week Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, added his voice to argue in the Times newspaper that the opposition leader was “unfit for high office” – the first time a chief rabbi has ever sought to interfere in the outcome of a general election. Calling Corbyn “mendacious” and warning that the election result would serve as a measure of Britain’s “moral compass”, he urged the public to “vote with their conscience”.
His intervention followed a letter to the Guardian signed by a handful of public figures – many of whom are not Jewish – including John Le Carre, Fay Weldon, Simon Callow and Joanna Lumley, pressing voters to reject Labour on 12 December. They wrote: “The coming election is momentous for every voter, but for British Jews it contains a particular anguish: the prospect of a prime minister steeped in association with antisemitism.”
The left is not only highly resistant to antisemitism but recognises the crimes committed by Israel without holding Jews responsible
Calling on voters to listen to the Jewish community’s concerns, and prioritise them over the likelihood that it would give the Conservatives the chance to continue their austerity policies and push ahead with a hard Brexit, they added: “Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?”
Their remarks echoed those of Jonathan Romain, a senior rabbi in Maidenhead, the constituency of the recently departed Conservative leader Theresa May. In the pages of the Daily Mail this month, Romain pleaded with Jewish voters to choose any candidate but Labour’s because Corbyn “poses such a threat to Britain’s Jews”.
Like many others making this accusation, Romain left it for his readers to infer what precisely the supposed “threat” consisted of. But to aid them, he repeatedly referenced the fight against Hitler and the Nazis, as well as the Kindertransport that saved many thousands of Jewish children from extermination camps by bringing them to Britain.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard, who has spent most of his career working for right-wing tabloid newspapers, used his paper’s front page to warn readers – once again – of the Corbyn menace. He cited a poll last month that found 87 per cent of British Jews believed Corbyn was an antisemite. Some 47 per cent claimed they would “seriously consider” emigrating were he elected prime minister.
The survey has been widely quoted as further, irrefutable proof that Labour has become “institutionally antisemitic” on Corbyn’s watch. All the evidence shows otherwise, but facts have not held much sway in a debate driven chiefly by emotion and insinuation.
Facts have not held much sway in a debate driven chiefly by emotion and insinuation
Last month the Economist magazine, no friend to Corbyn or the Labour party, published a survey of British attitudes towards Israel and Jews, broken down into ideological factions.
It found that “very left wing” voters – the people who share Corbyn’s politics – were among the least likely to hold antisemitic views, even though they also had by far the most critical views of Israel. By contrast, supporters of the right were three and a half times more likely to express antisemitic opinions. The centre, representing the Liberal Democrats and the Blairite wing of the Labour party, expressed little antisemitism but also rarely criticised Israel.
The findings were clear: the left is not only highly resistant to antisemitism but recognises the crimes committed by Israel without holding Jews responsible. The Economist survey offered confirmation of Labour party records showing that instances of antisemitism among its 500,000 members were rare – at just 0.08 percent of the membership.
The evidence has, nonetheless, been overshadowed by the new survey suggesting that much of the Jewish community views Corbyn’s Labour party as plagued by antisemitism. Who, after all, wants to tell British Jews that they don’t know an antisemite when they see one?
The reality is that the main impression most British Jews have formed of Corbyn has been one presented to them by by a hostile media
But like a painting by an old master, layers of grime and dust have accumulated that need to be removed before we can see the true picture.
The reality is that the main impression most British Jews have formed of Corbyn has been one presented to them by the media – a media that is hardly dispassionate about Labour’s prospects. It is owned and controlled by large corporations that have benefited from decades of free-market fundamentalism Labour is now threatening to overturn.
Anyone who doubts the media’s ability to shape wider public opinion should remember its role in a strange electoral phenomenon long noted by psephologists. Many working-class voters prefer a Conservative government, even when it should be clear that their interests will be harmed as a result.
There is, after all, a reason why corporations are so ready to plough their money into propping up loss-making newspapers – and it isn’t out of concern for the wider social good. It is about maintaining a climate of opinion in which their right to make money is unimpeded.
Other Jewish voices
In contrast to the manufactured media consensus on Corbyn, an interview this month with John Bercow, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, was a reminder that there are contrary voices inside the Jewish community. After 22 years serving in parliament alongside Corbyn, Bercow observed of the Labour leader: “I have never detected so much as a whiff of antisemitism from him.” Nor, he added, from the Labour Party.
There are good reasons why more Jews may be reluctant to speak up on Corbyn’s behalf, however.
Last April, Jewish actor Miriam Margolyes found herself accused of antisemitism after she argued that the antisemitism complaints against Labour were being exaggerated to stop Corbyn from becoming prime minister. In a telling sign of how the climate against Corbyn is being manufactured by the media, a letter from prominent Jews and public figures in support of Corbyn, including Mark Ruffalo, Steve Coogan and Mike Leigh, could find a home only in the New Musical Express.
Corbyn has been one of the most outspoken and visible anti-racism campaigners in parliament for decades. In fact, it is his long-standing vocal support for oppressed ethnic and national minorities that lies at the root of the current antisemitism “crisis” in his own party.
The Labour leader has been a leading champion of the Palestinian cause, demanding that Israel end more than half a century of belligerent occupation that has oppressed Palestinians and is in clear breach of international law.
His activism long ago made him unpopular among many fellow MPs in his party, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are members of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) lobby. They have thrown their support fully behind Israel. LFI is one of the many organisations that connects the Labour party to Israel. All are anachronistic – remnants of a time when the British left treated Israel as nothing other than a sanctuary for Jews fleeing a long history of persecution in Europe.
But these Labour lobby groups reflected too a lingering European racism only too willing to overlook the legacy of Israel’s creation – the mass suffering of Palestinians ruled over by an unaccountable, brutal Israeli army.
It was Palestinians, not Europeans, who were made to atone for Europe’s racism towards the Jewish people. Corbyn acknowledges that historical fact. Most of his parliamentary colleagues refuse to do so. Some may even unconsciously resent him for highlighting their own hypocrisy and unthinking racism towards Palestinians.
It is important to remember that antipathy towards the Labour Party from many in the British Jewish community is nothing new – and long predates Corbyn’s leadership. Perhaps most revealing on this score was the dismal polling among Jews of Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, who is himself Jewish.
A Jewish Chronicle survey in early 2015 found that only 22 per cent of Jews intended to vote for Labour under Miliband’s leadership, compared to 69 per cent who backed the Conservative party.
Also, five times more British Jews thought Tory leader David Cameron was good for their community than Miliband. The reasoning of many was indicated by their answer to a further question: 73 per cent said the parties’ attitude towards Israel and the Middle East would be “very” or “quite” important in influencing how they voted.
A poll a few weeks earlier had noted that the overwhelming majority of Britons thought it irrelevant that Miliband was Jewish in deciding how they would vote. Paradoxically, it was British Jews who largely saw Miliband negatively in relation to his Jewishness.
‘No passion’ for Israel
Miliband was not accused of antisemitism – that might have sounded a little too improbable – but he was found guilty by a significant number in the Jewish community of failing to be a strong advocate for Israel. For example, he antagonised many with his criticisms of Israel when it launched an attack on a blockaded Gaza in 2014 that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including some 550 children.
Miliband was found guilty by a significant number in the Jewish community of failing to be a strong advocate for Israel
The Jewish Chronicle also noted how his reputation had been harmed with many British Jews by his support the same year for non-binding legislation calling for the UK to recognise Palestinian statehood.
As Israel’s Haaretz newspaper observed: “For British Jews therefore, there is a troubling question: Is Miliband Jewish enough? Does he have loyalty to the tribe? … The fact that British Jews have such little confidence in him is mainly due to his lack of passion for Israel.” This was made clear at a fundraising dinner by the Community Security Trust, a leading Jewish organisation, in March 2015. The audience noisily booed a video featuring Miliband.
The mood among many British Jews was articulated by another popular Jewish actress, Maureen Lipman. Appalled by Miliband, she renounced five decades of support for the Labour Party, saying he had shown there was “one law for the Israelis, another law for the rest of the world”.
In the run-up to the 2015 election, Lipman urged other Jews to vote for any party but Labour to stop Miliband becoming Britain’s first Jewish prime minister in more than 130 years. Perhaps hoping British voters suffered from collective amnesia, Lipman pulled the same stunt again last year, suggesting this time it was Corbyn who had made her a Tory.
This month she released a mock advert for Beattie, a character associated with her since the 1980s, urging voters not to back Corbyn or Labour. The video was heavily promoted by the Mail and Sun newspapers, the latter calling it a “blistering attack”.
Corbyn’s democratic socialism is the first serious attempt by Labour since the Thatcher years to try to reverse the enormous and relentless economic gains made by Britain’s corporate ruling class. And Corbyn’s much more outspoken position in support of Palestinian rights – no different from his backing for black South Africans under apartheid rule – is unprecedented for a leader of a major British party.
With a media-wide consensus on Corbyn’s antisemitism problem, it was inevitable that a significant proportion of British Jews would come to accept that Labour is indeed antisemitic. They have been living in a nationwide echo-chamber for the best part of four years.
An expanded definition
Unlike Miliband, of course, Corbyn has no ethnic card to play in his own defence. That has left him uniquely exposed. Once antisemitism was redefined by Labour’s adoption of the IHRA code, Corbyn’s decades of campaigning for justice for Palestinians easily became conflated with antisemitism. It has allowed his critics to reframe his decades of his anti-racism activism as proof of his racism.
Once antisemitism was redefined by Labour’s adoption of the IHRA code, Corbyn’s decades of campaigning for justice for Palestinians became conflated with antisemitism
In addition, for those British Jews who regard Israel as central to their identity, Corbyn’s record of vocal criticism of Israel has been perceived as an attack on who they are. Many have been only too ready to accept claims that his support for justice for Palestinian is rooted not in principle but in antisemitism.
The ludicrous lengths to which his opponents – whether in the pro-Israel lobby or in the media – have been prepared to go in malevolently expanding the meaning of antisemitism to harm him is illustrated by the reaction to his economic platform.
Labour’s history is rooted in socialism, redistributive policies, workers’ rights, and curbs on the capitalist class profiteering at the public’s expense. But now Corbyn’s criticisms of those who exploit workers, or accumulate vast wealth, or hide it off-shore where it can’t be taxed, are also being denounced as antisemitic.
The assumption of his critics – revealing their prejudices rather than his – is that Corbyn is referring to “Jews” when he speaks of bankers, capitalists, a corporate elite or the establishment. This process was tentatively started by Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, but has become commonplace since.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the financial crash last year, Corbyn warned that he would crack down on those responsible for nearly wrecking western economies by creating a giant Ponzi scheme that repackaged debt. He tweeted: “The people who caused it now call me a threat. They’re right.”
Pollard responded: “This is ‘nudge, nudge, you know who I’m talking about, don’t you?’ And yes I do. It’s appalling.” As writer David Rosenberg observed: “Stephen Pollard and Jeremy Corbyn. One of them seems to think all bankers are Jews. Clue: it is not Jeremy Corbyn.”
The fact that so many Jews now believe Corbyn and his party are antisemitic does not prove their beliefs to be true – any more than the fact that sections of the working class vote Tory means the party will take care of their interests.
Wildly inflated figures
Jews are as susceptible as everyone else to media propaganda and manufactured “moral panics”. And given their justifiable fears of a revival of antisemitism, they are likely to be even more open to manipulation by a media determined to block Corbyn’s path to power.
How effective this campaign has been outside the Jewish community is highlighted in a new book, Bad News for Labour.
Academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry have noted the astonishing power of the media’s wildly inflated claims against Labour to dupe the British public. This has been equally true of Labour Party members, even when the media’s claims conflict with their own direct experience.
One survey they undertook for the book shows that on average respondents estimated that 34 per cent of Labour members had been accused of antisemitism.
That was over 300 times larger than the true figure.
When asked how they arrived at such a huge figure, many cited the scale of media coverage. As Philo observed in one interview: “A recurring theme of their answers was the sense that it simply must be on a vast scale, given how much publicity there’s been around it – the sheer amount of fuss and coverage in the media, as they saw it, and the amount of money being put into investigating the issue.”
Respondents had been influenced, Philo pointed out, by headlines like “Corbyn’s antisemite army” or descriptions of Labour as “riddled with antisemites”. He also noted the role of the BBC, which is widely trusted, in bolstering the misleading coverage.
Its recent Panorama programme “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” presented 17 former Labour staffers attacking the Corbyn-led party. But the programme-makers failed to identify who these critics were. Many were in fact Israel lobbyists – one was even a former employee of the Israeli embassy in London.
While the show included one person replying to the complaints, it entirely excluded the many Jewish voices in Labour that defend Corbyn. Philo observed that both the BBC and Guardian, two media organisations often seen as offering a counterweight to the right-wing press, had repeatedly failed to address the evidence of whether Labour actually had an antisemitism problem.
“That is a key source of their power – they can impose silence and simply refuse to discuss their own role,” he concluded. Not surprisingly given the current climate, the Bad News book itself came under fire for being antisemitic in questioning the media’s antisemitism narrative. A book launch in Brighton had to be cancelled after a torrent of abuse from Corbyn opponents.
Rise of Jew hatred on right
Perhaps the greatest irony of the current calls from Jewish leaders and public figures to vote against Labour is that the only possible beneficiary will be the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, known for his dog-whistle racism.
The Tories have been moving relentlessly to the right in recent years and now emphasise a “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants and ethnic minorities.
After many years of media indifference, there are finally the first signs that the Conservatives may be coming under limited scrutiny for an Islamophobia long rampant in the party’s ranks. Even so, anti-Muslim racism among Tories still receives marginal coverage compared to the reporting of Labour’s supposed antisemitism problem. This is doubly misleadingly.
First, Islamophobia appears to be far more entrenched and widespread among Conservatives than antisemitism is in Labour. But equally importantly, and almost totally ignored, antisemitism too is a more significant problem on the right than the left, as the Economist survey starkly highlighted.
Remember, respondents on the right were three and half times more like to express hatred of Jews than the left.
That is reflected in the current rise in western societies of white nationalist movements that have been either maligning Jews or targeting them with physical violence.
British Jews have been persuaded that they have something to fear from a Labour government because Corbyn is a long-time critic of Israel. But all the evidence suggests that they ought to be far more frightened of the reawakening of a traditional right-wing bigotry towards Jews.
The media and Israel lobby may have been largely successful in recruiting British Jews and many others to their self-serving campaign to stop Corbyn becoming prime minister. But ultimately the Jewish community risks being engulfed by Britain’s expanding “hostile environment” if the Conservatives are allowed to remain in power and continue their drift rightwards unhindered.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.