“Zionists” and “English irony”: Corbyn must now simply apologise

OK: some of the “antisemitism” stuff levelled against Corbyn has been exaggerated, misinformed and (sometimes) dishonest. But these comments from Corbyn five years ago are indefensible:

He has crossed a line here in a way that the examples in other disputes haven’t. As it happens, the offence isn’t any of the usual left-antisemitic tropes – rather what is apparent about this is how his comments are standard delegitimisation of migrants for not “fitting in”, for not “integrating”, for failing to “adopt English/British ways”. And in the scheme of things, compared to other such comments from Brexiteers and anti-migrant MPs, it’s relatively mild. Not the kind of thing that should, in itself, prompt anything more than a request for an apology (unfortunately the party HQ’s response has been to say, no, it’s not bad because he was talking about this specific group of pro-Israel activists, not making a general comment about either Zionists or Jews).

The truth is that it’s a typical example of the kind of mild ‘left’ antisemitism that was, and is, commonplace in the Stop The War/Counterfire/SWP/Tariq Ali milieu that Corbyn has been used to moving in and from which he’s received his political education: it’s now essential that he breaks with it publicly, once and for all.

Despite the bluster from Labour HQ this is new ground in how it crosses from politically contestable stuff to something that’s more unpleasant and racist. Corbyn must apologise and set about mending his ways immediately.

7 thoughts on ““Zionists” and “English irony”: Corbyn must now simply apologise

  1. Is it possible that the sham is finally over? The self- proclaimed anti-racist reveals his anti- Jewish beliefs – not for the first time- for all to see and hear. Does anyone believe that an apology can cancel out the insults? The message for Jewish voters is clear: don’t touch Mr Corbyn and the Labour Party with a bargepole.

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  2. “This was the anti-Semitism of Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie. It was T.S. Eliot’s “lustreless” Bleistein puffing on his cigar and Roald Dahl insisting that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.” The comments were more redolent of the genteel Shropshire manor house where Mr. Corbyn was raised than the anticapitalist resistance movements where he forged his reputation.”

    “Yi showin’ yir origins.” Corbyn’s remarks about English irony is about the only time he has sounded patriotic.

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  3. Daniel Randall of the AWL writes:

    In video footage from a speech at a conference in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn accuses “Zionists” of failing to “understand English irony”, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”, as well as of not “wanting to study history”.

    In context, it is clear his remarks refer to a specific group of Zionist activists, who tour meetings associated with the Palestine solidarity movement, often surreptitiously filming them and barracking speakers. It was undoubtedly not Corbyn’s intention for his remarks to refer to all Jews, or even, perhaps, all Zionists.

    Nevertheless, the remarks are appalling, and recycle antisemitic ideas. The “Zionists” are figured as a foreign other, failing to integrate into “Englishness”, echoing an aspect of antisemitic ideology which figures Jews as an alien or even parasitic element on the national body politic. By setting up an “us and them” dichotomy based on “Englishness”, Corbyn also effectively trades in a form of English nationalism.

    The conference at which the remarks were recorded also featured an array of other speakers with dreadful political records, such as Reverend Stephen Sizer, the 9/11 denialist and antisemitic conspiracy theorist who Corbyn has previously defended.

    Corbyn has since said that he would be more careful in making such remarks now, as the word “Zionist” has since been “hijacked” by people who “use it as code for ‘Jews’”.

    In reality, that “hijacking” took place a long time ago; certainly a long time before 2013. From the USSR and other Stalinist states’ antisemitic show-trials of the 1950s, such as that of Rudlof Slánský, which accused Jewish dissidents (real and alleged) of being “Zionists”; to the repeated and ongoing use of “Zionist” and “Zio” in fascist and neo-Nazi writing to refer euphemistically to Jews, decades of history make clear that much greater care than Corbyn has frankly ever shown is necessary when deploying such terms.

    For many, perhaps most, Jews alive today, some form of “Zionism” forms a part of their Jewishness. That is often not a “Zionism” in a worked-out or developed sense, but merely an instinctive affinity with Israel as the world’s only majority-Jewish state, a state seen as a “life raft” for Jewish refugees from genocide, with which many Jews have personal and family connections. When many Jews hear invective against “Zionists”, they feel themselves, not just right-wing Israeli nationalists, to be under attack.

    Socialists should have all sorts of criticisms of that consciousness. We should want to persuade Jews, and all people, to develop a universalist-humanist consciousness based on internationalism and solidarity, rather than instinctive nationalist or communalist affinities.

    But such persuasion and development is impossible without a sympathetic understanding of the historical roots of that nationalist impulse, in many ways entirely “rational” given the particular history of the Jewish people.

    That is a level of sensitivity and nuance of which Corbyn has so far not been consistently capable; he has spent much of his political life steeped in the two-camps dualism of Stalinist-influenced “anti-imperialism”, a schema in which “Zionism” is firmly part of the “imperialist” camp, and “Zionists” are therefore fair game.

    His remarks were not “racist”, nor illustrative of a racialised hatred of Jews on Corbyn’s part. But they do demonstrate a lack of understanding of the ways that antisemitism does not only manifest as racialised antipathy to Jews, but can take other forms, often politically, rather than racially, constructed.

    We can be almost certain that there are more “scandals” of this type to come. The media, and the right wing in the Labour Party, are not fabricating them to “smear” Corbyn, they are amplifying real issues; in effect, punching a bruise. Relating to the issue as if it is a mere PR scandal, requiring that the left improve its “optics” and “messaging”, cannot possibly fix the problem. A much more fundamental work of political-educational campaigning is required to dismantle the ideological infrastructure on which left-antisemitic ideas are based.

    The fundamental character of the problem also means that calls for Corbyn to resign are misplaced. The issue is much deeper than one individual; his resignation would accomplish nothing, and would set the left as a whole back politically. Corbyn is an expression of the left, as a whole, as it is – in large part politically distorted by Stalinism – and it is the left as a whole which needs transforming to unlock the real radical potential the new movements on the left of Labour embody.

    Corbyn should own his past mistakes, not as regrettable PR gaffes but as the products of mistaken political ideas, and take responsibility for educating himself and the movement around him about better ones.

    Those on the left now digging trenches over the issues, such as the Camden Momentum activists organising a lobby of the Labour Party NEC to demand that it refuse to endorse the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definitions of antisemitism, are perpetuating the problems.

    The IHRA definitions are not the holy text either its supporters or detractors claim — neither a surefire prophylactic against antisemitism, nor a writ that will, via some mystical power, censor and suppress legitimate expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians. In the current context it would be best for Labour to endorse the definitions, and continue political discussion around its own wider code of conduct.

    While it may feel uncomfortable, or even unseemly, to treat antisemitism as a matter for “debate”, these issues cannot be fundamentally and ultimately dealt with except by open debate and discussion throughout the movement, conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, through which the foundations of left antisemitism can be identified and challenged. The future political and moral health of the socialist left depends upon it.

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  4. “In video footage from a speech at a conference in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn accuses “Zionists” of failing to “understand English irony”, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”, as well as of not “wanting to study history”.

    In context, it is clear his remarks refer to a specific group of Zionist activists, who tour meetings associated with the Palestine solidarity movement, often surreptitiously filming them and barracking speakers. It was undoubtedly not Corbyn’s intention for his remarks to refer to all Jews, or even, perhaps, all Zionists.”
    “It was undoubtedly not Corbyn’s intention for his remarks to refer to all Jews, or even, perhaps, all Zionists.”

    We actually know that was not his intention. We also know that those who wish to defeat him will continue to trawl the records to quote more and more statements, made by someone who, at the time was just a left wing Labour MP.
    They will parade several Blairites and others to say how this proves that such remarks “proove” he was “not fit to be leader of the party”.

    There is another side to all this – the appalling suffering of the poorest elements of the British population and last but certainly not least, the Palestinian people who are in a desperate plight and whose actions against the Israelis are pointless desperate and completely understandable.

    We need to also point out that the actions certain Israeli diplomats who interference in British politics is against international law. Russians have been expelled for actions that while they have caused the injury or death of people who are British or under British protection, they have not interfered with British politics. The Israeli Embassy has done so.

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    1. “We actually know that was not his intention”: with regards to “Zionists” (even accepting that he didn’t use the word as a synonym for “Jews”), *how* exactly, do you “know” that, cathtanner? And in any case, do you not accept that the comments, even when taken in context, were spectacularly ill-judged, smacked of classic English middle class xenophobia (if not downright racism) and that Corbyn should simply have apologised as soon as they came to light?

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