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Red Yellow Journalism

When it comes to covering Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism, mainstream outlets are having a hard time telling the truth

James Kirchick
December 06, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

According to a report published earlier this month, 84% of British Jews feel that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a “threat specifically to Jews.” Two-thirds of Labour supporters hold at least one anti-Semitic view, the frequent, public expression of which since Corbyn’s ascension four years ago has caused the party to come under investigation by Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (making Labour the only political party, after the avowedly racist British National Party, to face such an inquiry). Most chilling is a poll commissioned by the Jewish News finding that half of British Jews would “seriously consider” leaving the country if Corbyn becomes prime minister after next week’s general election. In the words of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism’s Gideon Falter, “British Jews are considering leaving the country on a scale unprecedented since medieval times.” This is a very disturbing moment for British Jewry, but it is also, I might argue, an even more threatening moment for Britain itself.

Which is why I am baffled that The New York Times, which prides itself on fearlessly reporting the truth, would in this case overtly and obviously obfuscate it.

Last month, in a piece titled, “At Odds With Labour, Britain’s Jews Are Feeling Politically Homeless,” Times London correspondent Benjamin Mueller portrayed a community torn equally between the party that has long been its traditional political home (Labour) and one that represents a “little England” nationalism historically inimical to progressive Jewish values (the Conservatives). “Online and over Shabbat dinners, arguments about the election have grown bitter,” Mueller reports. “Those grudgingly planning to vote for Labour have been called traitors to the community and self-hating Jews. Anti-Corbyn die-hards, on the other hand, have been branded the handmaidens of a hard Brexit.”

There is no such division within the Jewish community: 94% of British Jews will vote for any party but Labour next Thursday. For those Jews who cannot stomach a vote for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit Tories, the Liberal Democrats offer the option of unambiguous support for continued European Union membership without the rank stench of anti-Semitism. Last year, the country’s three Jewish newspapers—each representing different political and communal traditions and constituencies—all published the same, front-page editorial warning that a Corbyn-led government would present an “existential” threat to British Jewry. The old joke about two Jews, three synagogues really does not have any pertinence when it comes to the matter of how the British Jewish community sees Jeremy Corbyn.

To depict this remarkable display of unity as somehow less coherent than it actually is, Mueller quotes a founder of a Corbynist AstroTurf group, hastily manufactured in the past few months, called Jews Against Boris. A photograph taken at one of the group’s meetings illustrates the piece.

Less than a week after this story was published, Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s chief rabbi, published an extraordinary and unprecedented intervention in the Times of London. “The overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” stemming from the prospect of Labour forming a government, he wrote. Though the name Corbyn never appeared in the piece, Mirvis left no doubt whom he held responsible for the rot: “A new poison—sanctioned from the top—has taken root in the Labour Party.” Mirvis’ warning received ecumenical endorsement from the archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the U.K.’s Hindu Council, who, in addition to blasting Labour’s anti-Semitism, noted that the party had become anti-Hindu under Corbyn to boot.

In response, Mueller wrote a piece claiming that Mirvis’ call “instantly generated fierce debate among British Jews.” Citing (with Trumpian flourish) “some people” who “warned that Rabbi Mirvis had sidestepped a greater threat posed to Jews and other British minority groups by Prime Minister Boris Johnson,” Mueller again quoted Jews Against Boris, this time in the form of a tweet. (Jews Against Boris does not seem to have much of an apparatus or popular support beyond its Twitter account, which has all of 3,304 followers.)

By writing of a British Jewish community that is painfully divided over Labour anti-Semitism, The New York Times, whether wittingly or not, is playing into the Corbynist narrative that the whole, four-year-long saga of Jeremy and the Jews is just another partisan issue. And if that is the case, if complaints of anti-Jewish prejudice within Labour ranks are like party political disagreements over National Health Service funding or railway nationalization, then it is a short journey to the belief that those expressing concern about said anti-Jewish prejudice are not sincere actors but rather cynical, right-wing agitators drumming up outrage against a thoroughly decent, “lifelong anti-racist” whose only sin is that he cares too much about the Palestinians.

As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains its leader, the Labour Party will remain institutionally anti-Semitic. This is due to the simple fact that Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. One does not hobnob with Islamists for three decades, host a show on Iranian state television, defend a ghoulish mural lifted straight from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and deride “English Zionists” for lacking a “sense of irony”—to list just a few of Corbyn’s greatest hits—unless his mind is contaminated with the virus of anti-Semitism. Corbyn is also a politician—someone with substantial power, who is vying to have exponentially more of it. The New York Times was once a place that prided itself on holding leaders accountable for their lies and bigotries. Seeing it instead play into a powerful politician’s hand by presenting a grossly inaccurate picture of the embattled minority which he and his supporters have bullied for four years … well, it’s all too much to bear.


Which leads us to the Times’ chief competitor in the pursuit of truth and justice, The Washington Post. In a tweet highlighting the paper’s story on Mirvis’ article, the paper’s Twitter account declared that Labour “has been hit by claims of anti-Semitism because of strong statements on Palestinian rights.” Bombarded with criticism, the Post apologized for the tweet, correctly noting that “anti-Jewish statements” by Labour members “should not have been conflated with statements on Palestinian rights.”

Concerns that the paper might have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism, however, were bolstered by a glowing profile published earlier this week of former CIA agent and current Democratic congressional candidate Valerie Plame. In the course of some 3,000 fawning words, writer Jada Yuan gushes that Plame “looks astoundingly good, at 56, as if the high-altitude desert air has preserved her skin since the day she arrived here 12 years ago.” What she studiously avoids to mention is Plame’s 2017 endorsement, via Twitter, of an article titled “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars,” which advocated both prohibiting Jews from “national security positions involving the Middle East” and publicly identifying them in media appearances “kind-of-like a warning label on a bottle of rat poison.” This article was published on the website of a Holocaust denier, Ron Unz, of which Plame was apparently a longtime, avid consumer, having shared several of its pieces on Twitter.

The inability of highly educated, well-intentioned, decent people to recognize and acknowledge anti-Semitism that doesn’t come dressed up in jackboots and a swastika is a transatlantic affliction. Even Richard Evans, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Nazi Germany and star witness against David Irving, had to be carefully and gently talked out of supporting Corbyn, whom, irony of ironies, was praised by Irving two years ago as “a very fine man.” Writing in London’s The Spectator, the Scottish journalist Stephen Daisley observes that “the Corbyn moment, counter-intuitively, is not the story of far-left anti-Semitism but of liberal collaboration, of those who know in their gut this is wrong but deploy a series of strategies to avoid, minimize, invert, excuse and deny what is happening.” The same could be said about left-wing anti-Semitism in this country, as moderate liberals trip over themselves to safeguard the reputations of characters like Linda Sarsour and Ilhan Omar.

Progressive Jews and their allies find themselves in a trap: The more they call out the anti-Jewish bigotry in their midst, the more they are condemned as special-pleaders, “neocons,” and deviationist wreckers. Some choose the easier path and remain silent, a tiny group of insecure sycophants assist the anti-Semites in the pathetically unrealistic hope they alone might be spared once the revolution comes. “It’s one of my biggest worries,” a co-founder of Jews Against Boris admits to Mueller. “That Labour will lose and everyone will blame the Jews.” Even some of Corbyn’s own Jewish enablers tacitly acknowledge the party’s institutional anti-Semitism. Why can’t our leading newspapers do the same?


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.