First off, let’s give some credit where it’s due: Corbyn’s article in Saturday’s Guardian is by far the best statement he has yet made on the subject of antisemitism within Labour and the fears of many Jews about the party under his leadership.
Let’s note what the article says, some of which is either new or expressed much more plainly than in previous statements from Corbyn and/or his office; he:
- acknowledges that there is a “real problem” with antisemitism within the party;
- says to some of his own would-be supporters, “You do not do it (“dish out antisemitic poison”) in my name … [you] have no place in our movement”;
- states that the party must show “a higher degree of empathy with the perspective of the Jewish community”;
- acknowledges that before deciding not to adopt all the examples of antisemitism accompanying the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, “the [Jewish] community should have been consulted more extensively at an earlier stage”;
- admits that Labour has been “too slow in processing disciplinary cases of antisemitic abuse”;
- recognises that “we haven’t done enough to foster deeper understanding of anti-Semitism amongst members”, noting that “Labour staff have seen examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers, conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel, and even one individual who appeared to believe that Hitler had been misunderstood.”
Will this be enough to start breaking down the disastrous and deep-seated lack of trust that mainstream Jews presently have in Corbyn?
Probably not: Corbyn’s background in the ‘New Left’ of the 1960s and ’70s, and its associated third-worldism and “anti-imperialism” means that he and some of his key allies (notably Seumas Milne), subscribe to an underlying attitude towards Jewish nationalism (ie Zionism) that has informed his entire political background and education, despite this latest attempt to conciliate mainstream Jewish opinion and to (quite rightly) disown the cruder manifestations of such “anti-imperialism”:
It consists of at least four key elements. Most of of them are to do with the Middle East, for obvious reasons:
The first is the argument that Israel as a uniquely reactionary state and Jewish nationalism is a uniquely reactionary nationalism. The Hebrew-speaking Israeli-Jewish nation, however you wish to term it, undeniably constitutes a “national group”, in the Marxist understanding of that term, as opposed to a narrow, exploiting settler-caste like the South African Boers. They are the only national group for which the far-left’s programme is that their state must be dismantled, rather than changed in some way, however radical. There is no substantial “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement, consciously aimed at isolating a particular state, directed towards any other country.
Secondly, the view that the Jewish presence in historic Palestine is entirely illegitimate, a product only of a colonial land-grab, and only resolvable either by the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population agreeing to be a subsumed as a religious minority in a wider Arab state, or by their forcible conquest.
A third element is the argument that a Jewish, or “Zionist”, lobby exerts an essentially controlling influence on American foreign policy or world affairs in general, or the media, or some aspect of the media.
Finally, the argument, or the implied demand, that Jewish people, uniquely amongst ethno-cultural groups, make a total break from certain aspects of their historically-developed and experience or risk being considered basically akin to racists.
It should be added, that rejecting these four mistaken positions in no way requires anyone to renounce solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, based upon the objective of a just two states solution.
Immediately, Corbyn needs to go further in reaching out to mainstream Jews: that means:
- heeding the good advice of people like John McDonnell and Jon Lansman who advocate compromise and conciliation and rejecting the confrontational approach of the likes of Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy (and her mouthpiece Skwawkbox);
- making it clear to mainstream Jewish organisations (which tend, at the moment, to be right-wing) that Labour has already adopted the IHRA definition and guidelines on antisemitism (it did so in 2016) and now seeks dialogue with them (and Palestinian representatives) to ensure that the guidelines are not used to suppress criticism of Israel;
- dropping the disciplinary actions against Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin (obnoxious as the latter may be);
- plainly and simply apologising for past misjudgements like calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends“, attending an event that equated Israel’s actions in Gaza with the holocaust and failing to notice the antisemitic imagery of ‘that’ mural;
- ignoring the dishonest and provocative advice of a tiny, unrepresentative minority of Jews (eg the so-called Jewish Voice for Labour) who consistently prioritise their own obsessional opposition to Zionism over combatting antisemitism (which, they sometimes claim, doesn’t really exist in the Labour party).
I hope Corbyn’s latest overture to the mainstream Jewish community receives a positive response: and I hope, equally, that he and the more responsible of his advisers realise they still have a long way to go before the majority of Jews in Britain once again come to regard Labour as no kind of threat to them, let alone as being their natural political home.