The most charitable explanation for Jeremy Corbyn’s inept handling of the British Labour party’s latest anti-Semitism row (which have become so numerous that one wag created a clock counting the “number of days since [Labour’s] last anti-semitic incident”) is that it once again demonstrates his indecisive leadership style. After it was revealed that MP Naz Shah had authored social media posts advocating the deportation of Israeli Jews to America, likening the Jewish State to Nazi Germany, and comparing Zionism to al-Qaida, Corbyn initially refused to suspend the lady from Bradford West. Only after members of his own caucus publicly demanded it did Corbyn finally cave and withdraw the whip.
Then came the defense of Shah by Corbyn’s longtime friend and ally, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone. In a truly weird, touring performance across several BBC programs meant to defend the disgraced Shah, Livingstone performed a sort of poor man’s impersonation of David Irving, claiming that Hitler was himself a Zionist. Digging his heels further, Livingstone claimed that Shah and other Labour figures accused of anti-Semitism have been smeared because “a real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel.” It takes one to know one.
Livingstone also said that he had “never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic” in his near half-century involvement with Labour, which is a bit rich coming from the guy who once claimed that the Conservative Party was “riddled with homosexuals.”
Like his belated punishment of Shah, Corbyn only reluctantly suspended Livingstone from the party. And as if to send a signal to what is clearly a significant, and growing, anti-Semitic constituency within his party, Corbyn simultaneously reprimanded fellow Labourite John Mann MP, the heroic chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism who publicly confronted Livingstone and accused him of being a “Nazi apologist.”
As Labour and the media debate whether or not there is an anti-Semitism “crisis” within the party, nearly everybody seems to agree on at least one thing: Jeremy Corbyn himself is no anti-Semite. This generousness extends even to Corbyn’s harshest critics. “It is not that Labour’s leadership is anti-Semitic,” opines the New York Times’ Kenan Malik in a piece titled, “The British Left’s Jewish Problem.” “There is no reason to believe Corbyn is an anti-Semite,” writes the Financial Times’ Robert Shrimsley in a column explaining why he can no longer vote for a Corbyn-led Labour Party.
On the contrary, there is every reason to believe Corbyn is exactly that.
As was well-known before he ever won the Labour leadership last fall with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Corbyn has a long and disgraceful history of associating with, promoting and defending anti-Semites. There was the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, to whose charity he had donated. There was his defense of the vicar, Stephen Sizer, who believes the Mossad perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There was his invitation to, and later praise of, the Islamist Raed Salah, who has repeated the blood libel. Don’t forget Dyab Abou Jahjah, with whom Corbyn shared a platform, utterer of the claim that Europe made “the cult of the Holocaust and Jew-worshipping its alternative religion,” or Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami, Palestinian terrorists who bombed the Israeli Embassy and the offices of a Jewish charity, for whose release Corbyn campaigned.
If so many of his comrades were defaming, condemning, and bombing any other minority group, no one would have any confusion whatsoever as to what to call Jeremy Corbyn: a racist. It is inconceivable that a Labour leader would contemplate being in the same room with, much less stand proudly alongside, someone who had voiced such calumnies about Muslims, the “new Jews” of the European left. Try to imagine if Prime Minister David Cameron had shared the stage, repeatedly and over many years, with British National Party leader Nick Griffin and other lesser-known demagogues of the far right, and campaigned on behalf of Northern Irish Loyalist militants. Not only would his political career rightly reach an immediate and ignominious end, he would go down in history as a vile enabler of fascist violence. But when the ideological tables are turned, with the political dissembler a leftist and the targets of the attacks Jews, there exists a great deal of hand-wringing in stating the blindingly obvious. As far as the British media and political class are concerned, the old saw about Jew-hatred apparently applies to Jeremy Corbyn: he cannot be an anti-Semite because he doesn’t hate Jews more than absolutely necessary.
Why the double-standard? As demonstrated by the latest chicanery with the National Union of Students, which actually debated whether to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and elected an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist as its president, a wide swathe of the left believes that it is only possible for Jews to be victims of racism when the perpetrators are the white far right. In fashionable left opinion, homely socialists with a penchant for jam-making and photographing manhole covers cannot be anti-Semites. Nor can Muslims, whose anti-Semitism—no matter how explicitly redolent of Nazi themes—is regularly excused as just an intemperate form of an entirely legitimate “anti-Zionism.” My Tablet magazine colleague Lee Smith calls this exclusively high threshold for what constitutes anti-Jewish bigotry “The Hitler Test,” by which “It’s only when [anti-Zionism] comes from someone wearing a swastika and who has the resources to slaughter Jews wholesale that they’ve crossed the threshold into ‘real’ anti-Semitism.” Livingstone explicitly verbalized this sentiment when he said that it was “over the top” to consider anti-Semitism on par with color-based racism, and much of the media validates this misrepresentation by claiming that his statements linking Hitler to Zionism are “offensive to Jewish people,” when they ought to offend every decent person, Jewish or gentile.
In an otherwise excellent column written just weeks before Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, the Scottish journalist Stephen Daisley declared that, “Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. How I wish that he were. How much easier it would make things. We could chalk all this up to the prejudices of one man and we could avoid the raw, awkward conversation we’re about to have.” Daisley didn’t excuse Corbyn; far from it. He argued rather that Corbyn was a “symptom and a symbol” of the left’s “anti-Semitism problem.”
But this too falls into the trap of seeing Corbyn as, at worst, a naïve, left-wing variety of the stereotypical British eccentric. Corbyn, according to this narrative, means well; he just isn’t very perceptive when it comes to the sensitivities of British Jews and, conversely, overly solicitous of radical Muslims whom he views as anywhere and everywhere oppressed by Western imperialism. To believe this explanation for Corbyn’s behavior, however, is to accept the false notion that British anti-Semitism manifests itself solely in the form of Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted thugs, or ageing Tory Lords trading Jew jokes in the backrooms of London’s most exclusive private clubs.
At some point, you earn a reputation for the company you keep and the environment your leadership engenders. It really doesn’t matter that Jeremy Corbyn (as far as we know) has not explicitly said anything anti-Semitic in the literal sense of the term. He has surrounded himself with, elevated, and shielded all manner of people who have, stubbornly backing down only when it has become politically untenable to continue defending them. All the while he denies that his party even has an anti-Semitism “crisis” in the first place. Like a stinking fish, the Labour Party rots from the head, and the head is Jeremy Corbyn.
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