If public opinion polling is to be believed, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party stands a good chance of being asked to lead the next British government.
If that happens, will British voters have chosen an anti-Semite to lead their country?
At one time, such a question would have been unimaginable. But ever since Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time socialist and back-bencher member of Parliament, shocked the political world in 2015 by winning a Labour party leadership election, the evidence of his anti-Semitism — and that of the party he leads — has become a stench too powerful to ignore.
Over the years, Corbyn has publicly supported an Islamic preacher who said Jews use the blood of non-Jews for their religious practices. He maintained a decade-long relationship with an anti-Israeli group led by, and inundated with, Holocaust deniers.
He was the member of multiple Facebook groups suffused with anti-Semitic messages. In 2012, he offered public support for a British artist who created a mural depicting a group of large-nosed, suit-clad bankers playing a game of Monopoly on the backs of poor people.
He’s regularly appeared with members of the terrorist group Hamas, who along with another terrorist group, Hezbollah, he’s referred to as “friends.”
And in recent weeks, pictures emerged of him laying a wreath at the tombs of Black September terrorists in Tunis who were responsible for the torture and massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“There is nothing left to say on Labour’s anti-Semitism row,” wrote Helen Lewis, an editor at the UK’s New Statesman last month. “If you don’t think there is a problem by this point, then surely nothing can change your mind. In fact, you are the problem.”
Yet, Corbyn has adopted the public defense of deaf, dumb, and blind. He hadn’t looked closely at the anti-Semitic mural in question. He was “present” at the wreath-laying, but not “actually involved in it.” “Had I seen” anti-Semitism, Corbyn says about those Facebook groups, “I would have challenged it straight away.” And the excuses go on and on with no real contrition.
His obstinacy has been matched within Labour, which not only has failed to mend fences with the British Jewish community but has also fanned the flames.
Last month, as the crisis was reaching a boiling point, Labour petulantly rejected a definition of anti-Semitism issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) and publicly endorsed by 68 British rabbis. It was an act that led a prominent Jewish member of Labour, MP Dame Margaret Hodge, to call Corbyn a racist to his face and spurred the UK’s three leading Jewish newspapers to jointly publish a front page editorial warning of “the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.”
Many within Labour – and among Corbyn’s supporters — have argued that the anti-Semitism row is part of a larger effort by conservative “Blairite” members of the party to take down the left-wing leader they couldn’t defeat at the polls.
Even more insidious are the accusations of Peter Willsman, a Labour member and Corbyn ally, who was captured on audio suggesting that Trump-supporting Jewish “fanatics” were “making up duff information” and were responsible for Corbyn’s political problems. This has become a variation of a now prominent and disturbing argument on social media: charges of anti-Semitism against Corbyn are merely a smokescreen by Israel’s supporters intended to discredit a strident critic of the Jewish state’s policies toward the Palestinians.
As Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted, it’s created a toxic environment in which “Jews express their disquiet” and “are not greeted with empathy and solidarity from the army of self-described anti-racists. Instead, they face an online horde shouting in their faces, accusing them of dishonesty, of smears, of ulterior motives and hidden agendas, of shilling for an Israeli government many of them oppose.”
Indeed, many of Corbyn’s harshest Jewish detractors are also regular critics of Israel’s current government and are public proponents of a Palestinian state. They have good company among Diaspora Jews. Few of them, however, have taken the same path as Corbyn: repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland or offering praise to its most depraved opponents.
Indeed, any lingering doubts about Corbyn’s true feelings should be put to bed after a video emerged last week of Corbyn speaking at a London conference in 2013. At the event, in which an anti-Semitic vicar named Stephen Sizer was a speaker (Sizer has suggested that Israel was responsible for 9/11), Corbyn praised a speech he’d recently heard from the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Britain. He then addressed what he called “thankfully silent Zionists” who had berated the speaker after his remarks and then said of them, “They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either.”
Corbyn’s conflation of Jews and Zionists is of a piece with the classic anti-Semitic trope of questioning the true loyalty of Diaspora Jews. Far worse, however, is Corbyn’s suggestion that British Jews have failed to assimilate into British society. They are in effect, says Corbyn, an alien culture. As Jo-Ann Mort, a writer and strategist active in the Jewish community, said to me, Corbyn’s not just “questioning the patriotism” of British Jews. He’s questioning their “Britishism.”
Quite simply, if there existed a fraction of the evidence above of Corbyn associating with homophobes, Islamophobes, or misogynists — and using such racially insensitive language about Muslims or other groups — it’s unimaginable that he’d be able to keep his job as Labour leader. But it seems that when it comes to anti-Semitism, a different set of rules apply — both in Britain and in the United States.
It is striking that there has been little criticism of Corbyn among his American boosters. One of the British leader’s loudest American supporters, and perhaps the most prominent Jewish politician in America, Bernie Sanders, has repeatedly praised him for taking on the Labour Party “establishment” in the United Kingdom and for promoting a “very progressive agenda.” But when it comes to his anti-Semitic connections, Sanders has been silent. (Sanders’ office did not respond to an e-mail request for comment).
As much as one might applaud Corbyn’s embrace of far-left policies, it’s no longer possible to ignore the dangerous implications of him becoming prime minister. It would represent both a deflating moment for world Jewry and an empowering one for anti-Semites.
Donald Trump’s election offers a disturbing cautionary tale. Though his campaign statements were not nearly as outwardly anti-Semitic as they were bigoted toward blacks and Hispanics, there was in 2017 — according to a report put out by the Anti-Defamation League — a nearly 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the previous year. It seems American anti-Semites were seeking a leader to validate and excise their bigotry.
A Corbyn victory could have a similar galvanizing effect — but unlike in the United States, the threat to Jews would come not from the right but from the left. British Jews already have little reason to look confidently to UK conservatives for support, particularly after the immigrant bashing Brexit campaign. But if a left-wing anti-Semitic candidate were to ascend to Britain’s top political job, it would send a clear and disturbing message to the British Jewish community: “No one has your back.”
Earlier this month, the aforementioned Dame Hodge, who lost much of her family during the Holocaust and is now facing a disciplinary hearing for speaking critically of Corbyn, spoke precisely of this fear. “I kept thinking what did it feel like to be a Jew in Germany in the 30s,” she told Sky News. ”It reminded me of what my dad used to say . . . ‘You’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door Margaret, in case you ever have got to leave in a hurry.’ ”
Jews of a certain generation will recognize this admonition. They may also recognize the response to Hodge’s comments, which was vile criticism and mocking on social media for allegedly exaggerating the threats facing the British Jewish community.
Up to this point, outrage over Corbyn and Labour’s anti-Semitic scandal has been largely restricted to Jewish commentators, particularly in the United States. But the ostracizing and demonization of a minority community by the left is an issue that should enrage every progressive, Jewish or gentile.
That this hasn’t happened, and that so many on the left both in Britain and the United States have cheered on the rise of Corbynism – oblivious to his obvious anti-Semitic connections – may lead to a defining and disturbing moment for Diaspora Jews. The time has come – indeed, it is long overdue – for the progressive left to speak out for them and against Jeremy Corbyn.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.