LONDON — The last 48 hours have seen Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party reach crisis point.
The patience of Jewish civil society has finally snapped, leading to an unprecedented statement issued on Sunday accusing the Labour leader of siding with anti-Semites “again and again,” and an extraordinary rally outside Parliament on Monday. The issue has prompted the rarely outspoken leadership of Anglo-Jewry into highly unusual overt public action.
Meanwhile, moderate Labour MPs, appalled by the revelation on Friday that Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural, have voiced their anger and shame with a depth of feeling previously unseen.
The Labour leader, charged Dame Margaret Hodge, a highly respected and veteran former Labour minister, had become “the poster boy of anti-Semites everywhere.”
John Mann, a fellow Labour MP and the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, branded his own party “rotten to the core” and suggested it was facing an existential threat. Labour, he Tweeted on Monday morning, “ceases to have a reason for existence if it cannot stand up against discrimination and racism.”
On Monday evening, with barely one day’s notice, some 1,500 people converged on Parliament Square to declare “Dayenu.” The protest was organized by the usually understated Anglo-Jewish leadership. It was addressed by the Labour MPs Wes Streeting, Luciana Berger, John Mann and Louise Ellman. And it made front page news in several British dailies on Tuesday.
Dozens of their colleagues joined the crowd to show their solidarity with the Jewish community; even some members of Corbyn’s own Shadow Cabinet Tweeted their support.
In the words of one excited rabbi, this was Corbyn’s “Watergate moment.”
Certainly, the Labour leader has appeared to be under pressure on the issue like never before. Since Friday evening, he has issued three personal statements as he desperately tries to stop the crisis spiraling ever-further out of control. In the latest, issued Monday as protesters began to gather, he pledged to be “a militant opponent of anti-Semitism,” telling the community: “In this fight, I am your ally and always will be.”
I have written to the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council. I will never be anything other than a militant opponent of antisemitism. In this fight, I am an ally and always will be. pic.twitter.com/QhQnFEpplU
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 26, 2018
That third statement was, though, a reflection of Corbyn’s political tin ear. His admission that “anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples” stood in stark contrast to his words just hours before, which half-heartedly apologized for “pockets” of anti-Semitism within the party.
It would, however, be a mistake to confuse the outpouring of anger — and Corbyn’s new attempts to show some form of contrition — with any loosening of the Labour leader’s vise-like grip on the party or a fundamental change in his worldview.
Indeed, what appeared at first glance to be a shift in Corbyn’s position — his admission that “newer forms of anti-Semitism have been woven into criticism of Israeli governments” — was simply an indication of how slow the Labour leader has been to understand and grasp the problem of left-wing anti-Semitism.
So, yes, hearing Corbyn say that “comparing Israel or the actions of Israeli governments to the Nazis, attributing criticisms of Israel to Jewish characteristics or to Jewish people in general and using abusive phraseology about supporters of Israel such as ‘Zio’ … constitute aspects of contemporary anti-Semitism,” does have a certain novelty value.
But it is worth remembering that even the much-criticized Chakrabarti inquiry that examined the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party — and was widely viewed as a whitewash — made precisely these points. The fact that it has taken two years for Corbyn to utter them is therefore not the breakthrough it might at first appear.
Not a Watergate moment
It is difficult to think of a single issue — not least his vociferous and long-standing antagonism towards Israel — on which Corbyn has shown any signs of new or fresh thinking since he entered parliament 35 years ago.
Thus, as Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said of the Labour leader’s statement on Monday evening: “The words are fine, although belied by his entire political career.”
The words are fine, although belied by his entire political career. Actions now…https://t.co/JwWyOJSyIG
— Stephen Pollard (@stephenpollard) March 26, 2018
What has also not shifted, moreover, is the power dynamic within the Labour party itself. Despite the calls for him to address the parliamentary party’s weekly meeting and explain himself, Corbyn made clear he had no intention of doing so. (In the end, Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement on Britain’s dispute with Russia made this a moot point, forcing the Labour leader to remain in the chamber.)
This was a reflection not simply of the contempt in which Corbyn holds most Labour MPs, but also a recognition that his fate does not lay in their hands.
That was graphically demonstrated two years ago when, in the wake of his disastrous performance during the EU referendum campaign, Labour MPs overwhelmingly passed a motion of no-confidence in him, triggering a leadership challenge. The result of that election, which saw Corbyn re-elected with a higher share of the vote, considerably strengthened his position.
His control was further solidified when, defying widespread predictions of electoral Armageddon, Labour managed to deprive Theresa May of her parliamentary majority in last June’s general election.
The central case against Corbyn made by many moderate Labour MPs — that he was leading the party to disaster at the polls — was disproved.
The resulting uneasy truce between the Labour leader and many of his backbenchers has been shattered over the past four weeks by Corbyn’s repeated refusal to unequivocally blame Russia for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury (the Labour leader’s disdain for Israel is matched only by his sympathy for Russia); his handling of Brexit (Corbyn is a long-standing opponent of the EU and seems determined to offer only a marginally watered-down version of May’s “hard” Brexit); and the reigniting of the long-simmering row over anti-Semitism.
Corbyn’s power rests instead with his ongoing popularity among Labour party members (many of whom joined to support his leadership bid in 2015) and the support of the trade unions, principally the staunchly anti-Israel Unite union.
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has repeatedly made clear that, in his view, allegations of anti-Semitism within the party are simply “mood music that was created by people trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.”
Last week, one of Unite’s senior officers, Jennie Formby, was elected Labour’s general secretary, giving the hard left control of the party’s machine and London headquarters for the first time.
The notion that charges of anti-Semitism have been “weaponized” by Corbyn’s “Blairite” opponents in the party — an epithet that has long lost any meaning and is applied to anyone who shows a scintilla of doubt about the Labour leader — is widespread. So, too, is the idea that Corbyn’s Labour critics are working hand in glove with right-wing newspapers to dislodge him.
Such an outlook is not confined to the margins of the far-left. Chris Mullin, a left-winger whom Tony Blair regarded as sufficiently mainstream to ask to serve as a minister in government, exemplifies how Labour’s center of gravity has shifted since Corbyn became leader.
In a series of incendiary Tweets yesterday morning, Mullin first charged that “Jewish leaders [are] ganging up on Corbyn.”
“Far less anti-Semitism in the Labour Party than in other parts of society and in some other political parties. Suspect it has more to do with criticism of Israel than anti-Semitism,” Mullin continued.
He followed that Tweet with another declaring: “I am not a Corbynista, but I can see what’s going on here. Sorry to see that some of my Labour colleagues have fallen for it. Anyone in doubt should read this morning’s Tory press.”
Sorry to see Jewish leaders ganging up on Corbyn. Far less anti-semitism in the Labour Party than in other parts of society and in some other political parties. Suspect it has more to do with criticism of Israel than anti-semitism.
— Chris Mullin (@chrismullinexmp) March 26, 2018
Like Donald Trump’s supporters in the US, many “Corbynistas” simply do not believe — or do not care about — the charges leveled against him, simply viewing them, as one of Corbyn’s most vociferous media cheerleaders put it, as “smears.”
The isolated British Jewish community
No other minority group could expect the avowedly anti-racist Labour party to treat its concerns in the manner with which some of Corbyn’s supporters have responded to those of the Jewish community.
As Blair McDougall, a former special adviser in the Blair-Brown governments and a parliamentary candidate in 2017, suggested: “The chorus of voices… telling Jews they’re wrong [or mendacious] on anti-Semitism shows how far away from serious the party is about challenging the internal problem. Treat it as you would other forms of racism.”
The core test of Corbyn’s commitment to be a “militant opponent of anti-Semitism” will be his willingness to emphatically call out, and take robust action against, those among his supporters who are guilty of it, as well as those who suggest that the whole crisis has been somehow manufactured.
The fact that the tiny pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour — a group which has derided the “myth of anti-Semitism in the Labour party” and the “anti-Semitic smear campaign” supposedly waged against the Labour leader — chose to hold an ill-tempered counter-demonstration in Parliament Square was telling. So, too, was Corbyn’s unwillingness to ask them to call it off.
In the choice between his supporters and being the ally of the Jewish community he on Monday promised to be, Corbyn seemed to fall at the first hurdle.
Journalist and writer Robert Philpot is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.