The spectacular fuss over allegations of rampant anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is much less baffling when one realizes that the uproar is not so much about anti-Semitism as it is about defining Zionism. Corbyn’s enemies are thrilled to push any noxious label that undermines him as a real threat to the status quo. So we witness a parade of Tories, many unable to survive similar scrutiny, righteously condemning Corbyn.
Inside Labour, Blairite adversaries, such as MP Chuka Umunna, blithely ups the ante of accusations against Corbyn from anti-Semitism to “institutional racism.” These otherwise odd bedfellows are sure they hold a winning hand. Indeed, any naive reader may be forgiven for assuming that the Labour Party rallied nightly in white robes and pointy hats around blazing crosses in Trafalgar Square, and that someone should put a stop to it.
Contrary to media reports, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism was accepted by the Labour Party at the outset. Here it is: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The incendiary debate arose around four of the suddenly sacred eleven illustrative examples, all four verging on treating criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitism. Even the UK Home Affairs Select Committee, which the media often asserts endorsed the IHRA definition unreservedly, added concerned caveats that nothing in the controversial illustrative examples should be construed so as to inhibit free speech. Why? Because they can inhibit free speech.
Although Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC) finally gave in to all the IHRA examples, while tagging on a similar caveat protecting free speech, the row predictably has not subsided. One furious protester called that single caveat “sickening,” as if the NEC went a goose step further than the Wannsee Conference. Victory for the partisans clearly means submission to the dubious ‘illustrative examples’ plus ejecting Corbyn as Labour leader.
British novelist Howard Jacobson, who loathes leftists, sums up the key point in the anti-Corbyn case: “Once hold Jews to be racist, and Zionism a racist endeavor, then no anti-Semite can ever be racist himself.” If it were true that Labour deemed Jews as by nature racists then they would be raving anti-Semites. The trouble with the charge is that scarcely anyone in Labour, least of all Corbyn, asserts any such thing. For anti-Corbynites, however, even hinting that Israeli governments ever acted in a racist manner is surefire proof of anti-Semitism. Why?
What critics in Labour argue is that the founding of Israel was indeed racist, for how else do you proudly establish “a Jewish state for Jewish people”? This racist element is vehemently denied, despite ample evidence assembled by brave Israeli historians as to the terrible injustices of the nakba, the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948.
Many settler colonial states ~ the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and others ~ emerged in this same violent way yet no sane person anticipates their extinction. Dissenting voices, including those inside Israel, seek instead ameliorative changes in policy. So Zionism, for Labour critics, refers not to whether Israel should exist but to the unchecked reign of myopic nationalist policies. This is a vital distinction.
How one views the UK furor depends on how one defines Zionism. For Labour critics overall, Israel is here to stay and so their concern is whether policies can be channeled toward a just resolution with Palestinians. For Corbyn’s critics, however, knocking Israel is inseparable from antisemitic impulses they are convinced underlie them. Critics of Zionism thus are perceived as opposing Israel’s very right to exist, not just a set of policies. So these conflicting groups, sometimes deliberately, talk past each other when they talk about Zionism. This ambiguity in the definition of Zionism has been expertly exploited by anti-Corbynites.
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a fascinating 2017 report which clarified that “levels of anti-Semitism in Britain are among the lowest in the world.” An estimated 2.4 per cent of Brits, mostly rightwing, are hardcore anti-Semites; topping at 5 per cent if “soft” versions are added. Islamophobic Brits, by the way, are triple that number, yet 59 per cent of British Jews regard anti-Semitism as a problem anyway.
When they hear anti-Zionist comments they cannot help but hear anti-Semitism too because for them Zionism means preserving Israel, if not all its policies. Most British Jews consider Israel to be “a central part of their Jewish identity,” 70 per cent call themselves Zionists (however defined), and 64 per cent vote solid Conservative.
So even Labour under the previous Jewish leader, Ed Miliband, was scorned for reasons other than alleged anti-Semitism. One in 10 Brits, however, is strongly anti-Israeli with 56 per cent displaying at least one of a number of negative attitudes toward Israel. Finally, the report finds anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes are not the same, although strong anti-Israelis hold one or more attitudes that are deemed antisemitic.
The most common such attitude, held by half of leftist anti-Israelis, is that the Israeli state uses the holocaust to suit its own purposes. States are amoral. More than half of Brits (55 per cent), according to another report, support racial profiling of Muslims or Arabs with 72 per cent of Tories, who include the bulk of British Jews, heartily in favour. Some worried commentators lament that the obsession with anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism in the Labour Party harms the standing of British Jews with other British minorities with whom they should form common cause against discrimination. The costs have yet to be counted.
The writers are well-known commentators and the authors of Parables of Permanent War among other books.