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November 12th, 2019

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith

On 23 April 1977, the British far right and Neo-Nazi National Front decided to march from Duckett’s Common near the Turnpike Lane tube station in North London down Wood Green, a busy London High Road known for its diverse migrant communities of both Turkish and Caribbean origin, just around the corner from the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Stamford Hill. The fascists had planned to stir some provocation in the area and the proximity to the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday was no coincidence. But only a fraction of the twelve hundred National Front marchers made it to the concluding rally, because it was opposed by a far greater number of anti-racist opposition, including delegations from the local Borough of Haringey Labour Party, trade unionists, the Indian Workers’ Association, local West Indians, members of Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. 

While Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent composed of more radical elements in the crowd broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit. 81 people were arrested, including 74 anti-fascists. One of the organizers of the anti-fascist counter demonstration, later known as “The Battle of Wood Green” was one Jeremy Corbyn, then a Labour Councillor and a trade union official. The fascists never returned in significant number to the Borough.

40 years on, the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s biggest Jewish newspaper, in a front-page editorial directed at non-Jews, has pleaded with the public not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of “racist views”.

The Jewish Chronicle said that throughout his career Mr Corbyn had “allied with and supported antisemites,” and accused him of having “actively impeded action against racists.” The newspaper went on to highlighted a poll, which found that nearly half of the Jewish community said they would seriously consider emigrating if Mr Corbyn became prime minister.

This front page of the Jewish Chronicle is merely a follow up. In July 2018 we saw a joint editorial published with similar front pages for the Thursday edition of the three Jewish newspapers in the United Kingdom (The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph), warning that a Labour-led government would be an “existential threat” to the UK Jewry. The editorial continued attacking the Labour party’s decision not to fully absorb an internationally accepted IHRA definition of antisemitism into its code of conduct, and its wider record on the issue since Corbyn became leader in 2015. 

40 years ago, Mr. Corbyn would have never imagined that he would be the centre of such accusations. But the fact is that the UK’s Jewish community fears Corbyn and sees him as a real threat. How did this happen?

The conservative media, both in the UK and Israel, have long targeted Corbyn as an anti-Semitic far-left leader. In Israeli public opinion, shaped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his peers, any criticism of Israeli policies (mainly over the issue of the Israeli occupation and mistreatment of the Palestinians) is perceived as a so called “new form” of antisemitism. In a very unusual attack on an opposition leader of a foreign country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly criticized Corbyn’s participation in a memorial event in Tunisia in 2014. On the evening of 13 August, 2018, Netanyahu tweeted that “The laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorist who perpetrated the Munich massacre and his comparison of Israel to the Nazis deserves unequivocal condemnation from everyone – left, right and everything in between.” 

That was, of course, pure populist blunder, and it is almost ironic to hear it coming from Netanyahu, a man who aligned himself with some of the worst far-right, “old school” Anti-Semite leaders of eastern and central European countries, like Poland and Hungary. A man who said in front of the world Zionist congress in October 2015 that “Hitler only wanted to expel the Jews, but Jerusalem's Grand Mufti convinced him to exterminate them,” a claim that was rejected by most accepted Holocaust scholars.

Both the British and Israeli media was picking over the conflicting accounts of what Corbyn was doing at a Tunisian government-organized conference, which included a memorial for those killed in a widely-condemned 1985 Israeli air strike. It was alleged that Corbyn laid a wreath at the grave of a PLO leader who helped plan the killing of Israeli athletes forty six years ago, which Corbyn denied. It is important to mention that the said leader was Salah Mesbah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad ,who was Yasser Arafat’s second in command, who denied being involved with the black September attacks. 

It is also worth mentioning that Israel has signed a peace process with the PLO, and Netanyahu himself met Arafat and shook his hand. So how come Corbyn’s supposed laying of a wreath over the PLO second in command’s gravestone is an Anti-Semitic incident that deserves “unequivocal condemnation”? 

But this sort of rhetoric by conservative leaders (both Jews and Non-Jews) against Jeremy Corbyn has managed to convince the British Jewry that Corbyn poses a real “existential threat”. 

Since Mr. Corbyn‘s surprising victory in the Labour leadership contest in 2015, allegations of anti-Semitism have increasingly tainted his service. While some Jews accuse Mr. Corbyn of outright hostility, in spite of his continuous denials, others blame him for tolerating fellow left-wingers with more radical so-called anti-Zionist views. Is Corbyn anti-Semitic? Of course not. Being a staunch critic of Israel doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, and this confusion must be put to an end. 

The media was outraged when Corbyn challenged some of the IHRA definitions of antisemitism, especially the definition states that some criticism of Israel could be anti-Semitic, such as: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”. Several months later, the EU issued a new declaration questioning that very same definition (and, of course, enraging Netanyahu). 

Now, one can blame Jeremy Corbyn for many things: his lack of leadership addressing those allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party or how poorly he had dealt with disturbing comments made by high-ranking Labour party members, from the likes of Mr. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, or MP Naz Shah.

Livingstone stated in a BBC interview that, “When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews." And while Livingstone was suggesting that Hitler was a Zionist, Shah suggested that the whole state of Israel should “relocate to the United States,” adding: “problem solved.” It took Mr. Corbyn quite a while to react to those comments and to act accordingly. Still, he could not bring himself to expel Livingstone, his long-term ally, for his plainly offensive comments. Livingstone has since resigned. 

One can also definitely disagree with the way Corbyn has dealt with Brexit, but to blame him for any sort of racism and as a “threat” to Jewish life in the UK will be absolutely absurd. It will be absurd because the problem of antisemitism, real and terrifying as it is, is not unique to the Labour party. In fact, the problem is more severe in all the other parties running now for the UK general elections, but, somehow, nobody seems to talk about it. The antisemitism Barometer, a 2017 report, suggests that the problem is far worse among parties on the right.

The report suggested that 32 per cent of Labour supporters agreed with one of the anti-Semitic statements they were presented with. That is somewhat lower than Conservative supporters (40 per cent) and UKIP (which is now the Brexit party) with an average of 39 per cent. So, why does the press, both Jewish and non-Jewish, only targets the Labour party?  

On a personal note: After more than 6 years in Paris, I had moved to London about two years ago. I teach at a Jewish school, and I am a member of the local Jewish community. I know that they are truly worried about Mr. Corbyn’s-led Labour party, but I cannot understand how this came to pass.            

Addressing the ongoing saga of antisemitism, Corbyn opened his column in The Guardian, on Friday, 3 August, with these very words: “I have spent my life campaigning for recognition of the strength of a multicultural society. Britain would not be Britain without our Jewish communities. Our country would be unimaginable without the immense contribution made by Jewish men and women to every part of our national life. I do not, for one moment, accept that a Labour government would represent any kind of threat, let alone an ‘existential threat' to Jewish life in Britain.”

Image: Mark Holt

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