Religious leaders generally steer well clear of politics during election campaigns and nobody can remember when one ever before made such a hard-hitting intervention. But UK Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, felt compelled to call out — as ‘a mendacious fiction’ — Jeremy Corbyn’s assurances that the Labour party he leads has addressed all allegations of Jew-hatred.
And a day later, other faith leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Hindu Council UK rallied in support of Mirvis, acknowledging that members of Britain’s Jewish community are feeling fearful and insecure. But when pressed on the issue four times by the BBC’s tenacious Andrew Neil, Corbyn declined to offer any apology to Britain’s Jews.
The scandal of antisemitism that has dogged Labour over the past five years has been one of the most divisive issues to confront the party. Many place responsibility for this crisis squarely at the feet of Corbyn.
Soon after his election in 2015, stories about antisemitism and anti-Zionism within the party started to appear with increasing regularity. Accounts of antisemitic incidents at university Labour clubs emerged; as well as news of suspensions of some party members for alleged antisemitic language
Yet as the worsening crisis engulfed the party — and while Jewish support for the Labour party collapsed — Corbyn himself appeared reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any problem at all (although he eventually established an internal inquiry into antisemitism).
That inquiry gathered evidence selectively, and quickly cleared the party of any systemic wrong-doing. But the inquiry’s chair, human rights lawyer Sharmishta Chakrabarti, was compromised because she was subsequently nominated by Corbyn to sit as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.
Nor did the problem of antisemitism within Labour’s ranks disappear after Chakrabarti; indeed, it became more acute in early 2019 with the resignation of Labour MPs such as Luciana Berger and the suspension of another MP, Chris Williamson, for remarks he made about antisemitism.
Later in 2019, Berger’s resignation was followed by that of Louise Ellman who was reported to have said of Corbyn, ‘I see no indication that he recognises his responsibility for what is happening, or indeed wants to do anything about it. I see no recognition of his role in this terrible situation.’
A non-Jewish Labour MP, John Mann — who served as Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism — also resigned in 2019 citing Corbyn’s repeated failure to act against antisemitism which had effectively given ‘a green light’ to antisemites.
Corbyn has repeatedly professed to be opposed to all forms of racism. But a recent survey by the Jewish Chronicle shows 78 per cent of Jews think a no-deal Brexit is preferable to a Corbyn premiership — and the paper’s 2018 survey found 85.6 per cent of British Jews consider antisemitism to have significantly infiltrated all levels of the Labour party.
Yet Corbyn refuses to concede the existence of antisemitism within Labour ranks because he refuses to accept that opposition to racism does not preclude being antisemitic.
According to his world view, racism is about structural discrimination and the exercise of power over the marginalised. Since the state of Israel is deemed a racist endeavor, Corbyn cannot accept that a commitment to anti-racism and defence of the powerless against the claims of the powerful can be antisemitic. If colonialism is racism, it cannot be antisemitic to condemn colonialism.
As Labour’s scandal of antisemitism worsens, many Jewish leaders in the UK now consider the party a threat to Jewish life in the country.
So how is it that the Labour party, so long associated with notions of economic justice, fairness and equality — and also a long-time natural home for many British Jews — could become the conduit for such blatant antisemitic prejudice and discrimination levelled against Jewish people?
Antisemitism expert Dave Rich says one must understand that Corbyn is the product of a political culture whose deep roots can be traced back to the 19th century when Marxism posed what became known as ‘the Jewish Question’ about the economic and political status of Jews in European society.
This evolved into the overt antisemitism prosecuted by the Soviet Union in the 20th century, which included purges, anti-Zionist propaganda that alleged Jewish disloyalty and denied the right of the lawfully constituted state of Israel to safeguard the security of its borders and people. All these themes fed into the distinctive form of left-wing antisemitism now convulsing Labour.
Indeed, before he became leader, Corbyn was a frequent speaker at rallies denouncing the United States, NATO, Israel and even his own country. He has been a consistent critic of Israel and its successive governments, and a long-term supporter of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine which adopted a policy of installing a democratic secular state to replace Israel.
Corbyn’s failure to address the scandal infecting Labour and poisoning its electoral prospects has brought the party to the point where even its supporters believe the party to be systemically antisemitic.
According to Rich, Corbyn’s responses to the issue of antisemitism reveal ‘a pattern of thought and behavior that speaks to a deeper malaise that has been building within the British Left for decades. It reflects an antisemitic political culture.’ Not every party member is antisemitic; but the themes of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and anti-Zionism have all combined to provide fertile ground in which antisemitic attitudes within the Labour party have grown and festered.
Hardly a week goes by without another antisemitism scandal gripping the party. But as Britain prepares to go to the polls, the intervention of the Chief Rabbi in the midst of an election campaign could not have come at a worse time. The ugly taint of antisemitism infecting Corbyn’s Labour party may have yet to inflict its greatest damage.
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