I love stories. They’re wonderful things, helping us to understand the world around us, navigate our way through life and deal with the challenges that it throws up.
Stories don’t only exist in the pages of books, we also use them to understand real life. When there are so many facts competing for our attention we use stories, or narratives, to explain what is really going on. When new facts come along we slot them into our pre-existing narrative, saving us from having to examine them too closely. If the story is good enough, with real drama and plausible heroes and villains, it may well continue long after the facts cease to convince.
One of the most popular, and well covered stories of recent years, is that Labour is an antisemitic party. Like all the best stories it started with small details, of lowly Labour members who had posted stupid and offensive things on Facebook. There was a dark guilt-by association sub-plot — as prominent Labour figures were criticised for having had fleeting encounters with people who had said offensive things. But this weekend has been the denouement of the story — the grand finale that we should have seen coming all long. It is no longer just that the leadership of the Labour Party has been soft on antisemitism – Jeremy Corbyn himself is, drumroll, an antisemite! Now the villain of the tale has finally been unmasked the coda is inevitable – Jeremy Corbyn will be forced out, the Blairites will return to great fanfare, and everyone will live happily ever after in a centrist Eden.
This story is now out of control. It is distorting, rather than helping us understand reality.
Most real life stories have a least a grain of truth in them and this one is no different. There have been a small number of Labour members that posted antisemitic items online, mostly some form of conspiracy theory, or crude and offensive language describing Israel. The Party has rightly taken action against these people. But these true aspects, have emboldened the storytellers to make ever more outlandish claims to the point where I now see Jewish friends saying ‘It could happen here’ — with the ‘it’ implying that we are inching towards Nazism in the UK. This is madness. Small incidents do not add up to this kind of metanarrative. However good the story (and scary stories are the most compelling) it has been cast adrift from the real world. We need to take a step back.
Firstly we need to restore some perspective. The Labour party has thousands of Jewish members, many Jewish councillors, a number of prominent Jewish MPs and several Jewish members of it’s ruling council. Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences.
So what, say those enraptured by the tale? That counts for nothing — the leader is an antisemite!
This too, is nonsense. Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983 – a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him, As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. He is close friends with the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Group, from whom he has gained a rich knowledge of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund, and he has named the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists at the Battle of Cable as a key historical moment for him. His 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day statement talked about Shmuel Zygielboym, the Polish Bund leader exiled to London who committed suicide in an attempt to awaken the world to the Nazi genocide. How many British politicians have that level of knowledge of modern Jewish history?
There’s more. Jeremy Corbyn is one of the leading anti-racists in parliament – I would go so far to say that he is one of the least racist MPs we have. So naturally Corbyn signed numerous Early Day motions in Parliament condemning antisemitism, years before he became leader and backed the campaign to stop Neo-Nazis from meeting in Golders Green in 2015.
Because all racisms are interlinked it is worth examining Corbyn’s wider anti-racist record. Corbyn was being arrested for protesting against apartheid while the Thatcher government defended white majority rule and branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Corbyn was a strong supporter of Labour Black Sections – championing the right of Black and Asian people to organise independently in the Labour party while the Press demonised them as extremists. He has long been one of the leaders of the campaign to allow the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands to return after they were forcibly evicted by Britain in the 1960s to make way for an American military base. Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Who do you put your trust in — the people who hate antisemitism because they hate all racism or the people (be they in the Conservative party or the press) who praise Jews whilst engaging in Islamophobia and anti-black racism? The right-wing proponents of the Labour antisemitism narrative seek to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ minorities — they do not have the well being of Jews at heart.
Let’s return the story to the facts. Antisemitism is always beyond the pale. Labour, now a party of over half a million members, has a small minority of antisemites in its ranks, and it suspends then whenever it discovers them. I expect nothing less from an anti-racist party and an anti-racist leader. If the Conservatives took the same approach to racism they would have to suspend their own foreign secretary, who has described Africans as ‘Picanninies’ and described Barack Obama as ‘The part-Kenyan President [with an] ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. From the Monday club, linked to the National Front, to MP Aidan Burley dressing up a Nazi, to Lynton Crosby’s dogwhistle portrayl of Ed Miliband as a nasal North London intellectual it is the Conservative Party that is deeply tainted by racism and antisemitism.
There are many threats to Jews – and we are right to be vigilant. These threats come primarily from resurgent nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and a Brexit narrative that seeks to restore Britain to a mythical age of ethnic purity. The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error. Worst of all, it’s a bad story that we’ve been telling for far too long. Let’s start to tell a better one.
- This article first appeared on 26 March as a blog on Jewish News
is the former Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and co-founded a range of grassroots Jewish organizations such as Moishe House London, Wandering Jews, Jewdas and the Open Talmud Project. He is a member of the Steering Group of Jewish Voice for Labour