At present, two themes dominate British political news. One is Brexit, which never ends. The other is antisemitism in the Labour Party, which sucks up enormous amounts of media oxygen. It is not clear how much the public cares that much about either. Journalists talk of little else.
Over the summer, many an otherwise dull newspaper front page was filled with some explosive revelation about antisemitism in the heart of the Labour Party. In July, the party brought a disciplinary action against the Labour M.P. Margaret Hodge for having called the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, an antisemite. The action was dropped, but not before an uproar (which lasted into mid-September) broke out.
Then, on July 25, Britain’s three Jewish newspapers published a joint editorial warning that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pose “an existential threat to Jewish life.”
“The stain and shame of antisemitism has coursed through her majesty’s opposition since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015,” it said.
With the government in Brexit disarray, there is a clear and present danger that a man with a default blindness to the Jewish community’s fears, a man who has a problem seeing that hateful rhetoric aimed at Israel can easily step into antisemitism, could be our next prime minister.
Oy vey—after that the stories came fast and thick. We learned that, at a meeting of the Palestinian Return Centre in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn, then a mere Member of Parliament, had said that “Zionists . . . have no sense of English irony despite having lived here all their lives.” That remark, according to the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was the “most offensive statement” by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968.
Lots of people found it funny that Corbyn, a sour and humorless man, should have taken it upon himself to be an arbiter of irony. On social media, commentators snarked about how much the Jews had contributed to the rich tapestry of English-language comedy: Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Groucho Marx. Jonathan Lynn, the Jewish creator of Yes Minister, a classic BBC comedy about British politics, said, “Corbyn says I don’t understand English irony. My co-writer Tony Jay was only half-Jewish, so perhaps . . . he was able to supply some.” We all chuckled.
People were less amused to learn that Corbyn, a lifelong supporter of Arab causes, had attended a ceremony which honored the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich terror attack. A rather tedious debate revolved around whether or not Corbyn had lain a wreath for the Jew-murdering terrorists (he hadn’t), or whether he had been present when the wreath was lain (unsure).
All the while, an argument carried on over Labour’s refusal to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s guidelines as to what constitutes antisemitism. In protest, the popular Labour M.P. Frank Field, an evangelical Christian, resigned the whip. Labour then tried to draw a line under the argument by accepting the International Holocaust Remembrance antisemitism rule. But nobody believed that was the end of it.
That’s the trouble with the Labour antisemitism story: A bit like the Trump Mueller investigation, it rumbles on for too long without ever going anywhere. Aside from the hyperpartisans on either side of the political divide, nobody can be bothered to keep up. But the steady drip of stories suggesting the Labour leadership is prejudiced has led to a popular acceptance that they probably are. Some wisecracker said that Labour’s “for the many, not the few” slogan should be changed to “for the many, not the Jew.” The joke has stuck.
Yet Corbyn has faced down scandal after scandal without his leadership being threatened. In March, for instance, it emerged that, in 2012, he had sent a supportive message to the creator of an antisemitic mural, which showed a bunch of large-nosed gentlemen sitting around a Monopoly board of the world. This was too much, said everyone. But the artist insisted his creation was about “class and privilege,” not the protocols of Zion, Corbyn mouthed something about “regret,” and the story went away. Like all effective populists, Corbyn has mastered the art of the non-apology. He offers some vaguely contrite soundbite, but stops short of saying sorry, and eventually the news cycle moves on.
This has been going on for at least two years. It began in earnest in 2016, when the Labour Party was compelled to force out M.P. Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, after they were revealed to be fairly fanatically anti-Israel. Livingstone, a fairly odd man, believes that Nazis and Jews “collaborated” in the 1930’s, and that Hitler was a Zionist. In the wake of his departure, Labour set up an inquiry into antisemitism in order to scotch the idea that the party had moved to the Stalinist left and become a hotbed of Jew-haters.
The inquiry was quickly dismissed as a whitewash, and now, almost every day, Corbyn is accused of having antisemitic instincts, of obfuscating his antisemitic bias, or being suspiciously reluctant to tackle his party’s clear prejudice.
Corbyn grumpily rebuts these charges. He insists that he opposes “racism in all its forms,” and pulls a face like a grandfather trying to deal with a group of impossible children. This drives his critics crazy: They expect him to take such a serious allegation more seriously.
Corbyn’s fans, for their part, only support him more. Loyal as Trumpists, the Corbynistas say that the whole saga is a media-led witch hunt. This, in turn, only invites another round of accusations that Corbyn’s cronies believe the Jews control the media, and on and on it goes.
For all its noise, however, the Labour antisemitism fight never seems to make much impact on the polls. In July and August, if anything, the barrage of negative Labour news seemed to result in a slight uptick in the party’s polling numbers.
Does that mean Corbyn has tapped into some deep prejudice in the British psyche? It seems unlikely. Britain has historically been more accommodating to Jews than her European neighbors have been. Antisemitism doesn’t course through our blood—though it’s worth making the point that, in 2018, a bit of Jew-bashing goes down well with at least some of Britain’s 2.6 million Muslims. Or maybe that’s Islamophobic.
If anything, Labour’s success over the summer was more likely owing to the Prime Minister’s spectacular failings with Brexit. Or perhaps it is just a sense that the “Labour hates Jews” press narrative is, if not confected, then somewhat overblown. Momentum, the grassroots Labour Party movement, undoubtedly has been energized by Internet-enhanced conspiracy theories that the world is run by Rothschilds and the evil Jewish megarich. I suspect that Corbyn, in his heart, also conflates Jews with Zionism and Zionism with capitalism and capitalism with all that is wrong in the world. There is no doubt that, in his decades as a radical backbencher, he made common cause with terrorists (Hamas and the IRA).
But it should be obvious that Corbyn is not a rabid antisemite, and the endless attempts in the media to portray him as such end up making the public think that the hacks should give the poor old man a break.
So it seems rather foolish of the Tories to spend so much time briefing the media as to the latent extremism in Labour. British (small-c) conservatives don’t equate socialism with Venezuela, or criticism of Israel with antisemitism, at least not in the way that some on the American right do. The antisemitism row strikes a lot of people, perhaps wrongly, as a Westminster story: something that newspaper columnists hop up and down about, but which doesn’t really matter. And while the occupants of the so-called Westminster bubble obsess over left-wing antisemitism, they ignore the fact that a radically left-wing government is creeping ever closer to electoral victory. Try as one might, it’s hard to imagine a victorious Prime Minister Corbyn and his Chancellor John McDonnell suddenly rounding on Jews. But it’s quite possible to see them turning Britain into an economic basket case. The “existential threat” that Corbyn poses is to Britain more than it is to Jews.