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Does Labour have 'a problem with Jews'?

LAST SUMMER, SHORTLY AFTER JEREMY CORBYN joined the leadership contest, his enemies cast around for ways to undermine him but struggled to deliver their blows against a squeaky clean, honourable MP. Corbyn’s principled stands, though, included longstanding support for the Palestinians and opposition to the Israeli government. In a world where the terms ‘Israel’, ‘Jews’, and ‘Zionists’ are frequently confused, consciously or unconsciously, by both opponents and supporters of Israel, people hostile to Corbyn thought they had found a chink in his armour: Labour’s alleged ‘problem’ with Jews was born.

Struggling to find anything remotely antisemitic that Corbyn himself had said, his detractors produced a raft of smears and innuendos, mainly deploying guilt by association, such as the bizarre claim that he had consorted with and financed a Holocaust denier. Here is the actual story. Many years ago Corbyn was in the audience at a meeting/fundraiser for Deir Yassin Remembered, organised by a (then) plausible pro-Palestinian Jewish activist.

Some Liberal rabbis were there too that night – which Corbyn’s opponents don’t mention. Several years later, the meeting’s organiser revealed himself through his personal blog as a Holocaust denier. Without being clairvoyant,  Corbyn(and the rabbis) could not have predicted this. Still more smears surfaced. However, interventions by ‘Jews for Jeremy’, a Facebook group that enrolled hundreds of supporters in just a few weeks, helped challenge and discredit them.

But Corbyn’s enemies won’t let the issue die, and are now aiming at the Labour Party in general, citing alleged instances of antisemitism involving Labour members, and accusing Corbyn of failing to act on them.

The Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Jewish Chronicle, and individual Blairites joined hands as last summer’s main protagonists. In its murky past, the Mail supported Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler. Today it rails against migrants and refugees. In 2013, it used thinly veiled antisemitism against Ed Miliband, an irony apparently lost on Jewish Chronicle editor, Stephen Pollard.

This time around, the Evening Standard has led the pack, followed by Guardian/ Observer anti-Corbyn columnists, Jonathan Freedland and Nick Cohen.  The   Board of Deputies, which falsely claims to be the ‘representative’ body of British Jews, has waded in too. Its president, Jonathan Arkush, told the Standard that the ‘Jewish community could not trust Labour any more.’

Many left wingers dismiss the antisemitism charges as primarily a stick to beat Corbyn with. Others, though, see them as a device to taint growing support for the Palestinian cause at a time when Netanyahu’s government has lurched even further to the right.  The last Gaza War generated the largest ever pro-Palestine demonstrations in Britain, strongly supported by critical Jewish groups. Meanwhile the Tories are trying to prevent public bodies from supporting the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions campaign.

In truth the targets are both Corbyn and Palestine. The ardently pro-Zionist Board of Deputies, in particular, is using the Palestine issue to play party politics. Traditionally the Board observes impartiality with regard to mainstream parties. But during Arkush’s campaign to become Board president, he was criticised in the Jewish press for private emails stating that a Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election, would be ‘in the best interests of the Jewish community’.

Many people on the left don’t want to believe the antisemitism charges because of the cynical use to which they are being put. But this is a mistake. Antisemitism has deep roots in Britain.  This year the labour movement celebrates the 80th anniversary of the victory over Mosley’s fascists at the Battle of Cable Street.  Yet Mosley’s support came from all classes. The Jewish conspiracy theories that he and his European counterparts propounded in the 1930s have not been eradicated. Today the internet is awash with them and some, alleging Jewish power and nefarious influence, reappear in crude campaigning aroundIsrael and Zionism. I have sent many private messages in the last two years to socialist Facebook friends who have shared ‘anti-Zionist’ material that can easily be traced back to far right ‘Jewish conspiracy’ sites. The Palestinians need support and solidarity but not from antisemites.

Under pressure from within and beyond the Party to act on the charges, the Labour hierarchy has suspended and excluded several individuals around the country and launched an investigation into allegations of antisemitism within Oxford University’s Labour Club. John McDonnell, keen to root out antisemitism, and be seen to do so, has advocated lifetime bans and said Labour should take advice from the Board of Deputies and Jewish friends in dealing with such cases.

McDonnell is well motivated, but needs to know that the Board of Deputies is part of the problem, not part of the solution. There are many progressive Jewish groups and individuals, who are concerned equally about antisemitism and all forms of racism, who are better placed to advise him.

The Labour leadership needs to recognise that three very different categories of incident are being unhelpfully conflated.

The first consists of a very small number of real cases of antisemitism, maliciously expressed by Labour members. These must be exposed, not excused, and must be dealt with firmly.

The second category of incidents is trickier and larger: this is where genuine critics of Israeli policy unintentionally blur the distinction between Jews and Zionists, or between the Israeli government and Israeli people, or unconsciously borrow and apply traditional antisemitic tropes to Israel and its supporters. Their words are based on ignorance, not malice, which should be challenged by argument, not heavy-handed discipline. If it is not challenged, though, such ignorance will grow and spread.

The third category concerns incidents that are not antisemitic at all, but are simply forthright expressions of support for Palestinian rights, which condemn Israeli government policy and aspects of Zionist ideology.

All charges of antisemitism need to be properly examined, but only the first should be dealt with by bans. However, in an atmosphere where racism in British society is being cranked up, it is incumbent on principled socialists, who are anti-Zionist, to be as vigilant against antisemitism as they are against any other form of racism.

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