LONDON — It is sometimes difficult to keep pace with the twists and turns, revelations and accusations in the row over anti-Semitism that has engulfed Britain’s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But the newspapers and TV news reports made for an especially grim weekend for the leader of the Labour party.
One paper alleged that Corbyn privately refers to the veteran Jewish Labour parliamentarian Louise Ellman as the “MP for Tel Aviv.” Corbyn has denied the claim by a former aide.
At the same time, new footage emerged of another meeting addressed by Corbyn in which pro-Palestinian activists compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
At a 2012 event in London, he is reported to have applauded as a poem was read entitled “Love Letters To Gaza.” It included the lines:
“It is not now the Nazi state but Israel that blocks the seas./It is not Auschwitz that stops the ship that carries hope and messages,/But those that might have died there…./The victims are now the torturers.”
Last week, the Labour leader was forced into a rare apology after it was revealed that in 2010 he chaired an event on Holocaust Memorial Day — part of a tour called “Never Again — For Anyone” — which similarly drew comparisons between the Shoah and Israel’s actions in Gaza.
On Saturday night, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism published images of slides purportedly used at that event. They suggested that “Judaism has been substituted by Holocaust religion,” which claimed a “monopoly on suffering.”
According to the slides, under Israel’s “Holocaust religion,” a new Holocaust was being inflicted by Israel. They also labeled the Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel the “high priest” of the “Holocaust religion.”
It is, said Jonathan Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, “unimaginable that someone who was genuine in fighting anti-Semitism could not object to these slides.” If the pictures are accurate, he continued, Corbyn must explain himself.
It is unimaginable that someone who was genuine in fighting anti-semitism could not object to these slides. If these pictures are accurate @jeremycorbyn needs to explain himself. https://t.co/NajHcENQrJ
— Jonathan Goldstein (@jonnysgoldstein) August 4, 2018
Finally, Labour’s already tarnished commitment to tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks has been further undermined by reports that the party is clearing some accused of Jew-hatred by falsely claiming they cannot find evidence they are Labour members.
While the speed and number of disclosures is startling, the underlying narrative and pattern is not new. Indeed, it is almost exactly three years to the day since, as Corbyn emerged as the surprise frontrunner in the contest for the Labour leadership, the Jewish Chronicle posed a series of questions about his association with and support for “Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites.”
Since that moment, a steady stream of revelations, new incidents and seemingly calculated snubs has utterly corroded the once tight bond between British Jews and the Labour party. This, in turn, has further widened the breach between the community’s allies on the party’s moderate wing and the hard-left leadership.
Those tensions now appear close to the breaking point.
Watson’s incendiary ‘vortex of eternal shame’ warning
Since Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in last year’s general election, the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has largely kept his head down. The effective head of Labour’s depleted right, Watson has long had close ties to the Jewish community and is known for his pro-Israel views.
His decision to directly challenge Corbyn on Sunday in a highly critical newspaper interview, therefore, was a striking one and a clear shot across the Labour leader’s bows. Watson’s language — the warning that, unless it rids itself of anti-Semitism, Labour risks disappearing “into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment” — was incendiary, after Corbyn’s failed attempt to dampen the flames on Friday with an article published on the eve of Shabbat. So too was Watson’s call for Labour to drop its investigation into two MPs — Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin — who have been threatened with disciplinary action for speaking out against the party leadership.
Indeed, the war of words between Corbyn and his critics appears to be escalating. The chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, has written to the party’s general secretary, calling upon her to open an investigation into Corbyn’s past actions.
Ryan, a former minister under Tony Blair, said the news last week that Corbyn had claimed on Iranian state TV in 2012 that the “hand of Israel” was behind a jihadi terror attack in Egypt, was “ludicrous, grotesque and entirely unfounded in fact” and evoked a “sinister anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.”
Together with his meetings with convicted Hamas terrorists, Corbyn’s actions, she argued, constituted grounds for an investigation into whether the Labour leader had brought the party into disrepute — a disciplinary offense.
Corbyn, however, appears characteristically defiant. Prior to Friday, he had remained largely silent over the past three weeks as the row deepened following the refusal of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
The stormy response from the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council to Corbyn’s “ill-timed and ill-conceived” article on Friday evening underlines just how little trust most Jews have in the Labour leader.
As the two communal organizations noted, Corbyn’s hostility to the IHRA definition is “ideological.” It is not hard to see why the Labour leader has sought to “diminish” key sections of it — accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations; holding Israel to unique standards; claiming the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor; and comparing Israeli actions to the Nazis — which relate to how criticism of Israel is expressed.
A video released by the Labour leader on Sunday adopted a softer tone than his article on Friday. Corbyn apologized for “the hurt that has been caused to many Jewish people” and suggested that “if any part of our national community feels threatened, we must all ensure that these fears are put to rest.”
Nonetheless, few of his critics are likely to be convinced by such words.
The need to release the video echoes the crisis that precipitated the “Enough is Enough” demonstration in March following the revelation that Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural. It took three personal statements before the Labour leader settled on a form of words which looked like he understood the nature of the problem.
It is also unprecedented in recent British political history for a potential prime minister to have to issue declarations — as Corbyn did in his Friday article, in response to fears expressed in the UK’s Jewish newspapers — that his fellow countrymen and women would not be at risk if he entered Downing Street.
While there have also been reports that Corbyn may be preparing to give ground on three of the slurs listed in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (he is supposedly holding out on the right to claim Israel is a racist endeavor), this is no foregone conclusion.
There are few examples of Corbyn changing his opinion on any issue during the 35 years he has sat in the House of Commons. And, to the Labour leader and his hard left coterie, Israel is not simply any issue. Opposition to the Jewish state is core to their anti-Western, anti-imperialist worldview.
It was telling that in his article on Friday, Corbyn followed the words “this has been a difficult year in the Middle East” with just two examples: “The killing of many unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza,” and the passage of Israel’s nation-state law.
As political commentator Euan McColm wrote Sunday: “Corbyn spent his years of political obscurity associating with the sort of cranks who gladly spread conspiracy theories of an anti-Semitic flavor. Old tropes about bankers, and globalists, and the ‘Israeli lobby’ are the very definition of anti-Semitism. Corbyn, having lived comfortably among the sort of people who gladly spread this sort of hatred, cannot now deal with the problem. He is the problem.”
Who are the victims?
It is important to recognize, too, that the Labour leadership and its followers appear to view themselves — not Britain’s Jews — as the real victims in this row, unfairly smeared and slurred by their political opponents inside and outside the Labour party.
How else to explain the bizarre Twitter storm they engaged in on Thursday evening — #WeAreCorbyn — which saw thousands of Corbynites, including senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, tweeting their support for the Labour leader?
It was, suggested Rosa Doherty of the Jewish Chronicle, “literally one of the most insensitive things considering the last 48 hours,” and a clear indication of their lack of concern for a “minority community … at a time of deep distress and fear.”
The #wearecorbyn hashtag is literally one of the most insensitive things considering the the last 48hours. If you wanted to tell a minority community you couldn’t give a rats arse about them at a time of deep distress and fear then you’ve done that. Idiots. Don’t chat to me.
— Rosa Doherty (@Rosa_Doherty) August 3, 2018
Moreover, many of Corbyn’s hardcore supporters react with fury to any signs of what they perceive to be weakness or concessions.
The belated decision by the pro-Corbyn Momentum group to withdraw its endorsement from Pete Willsman, a member of the NEC who was recorded blaming “Trump fanatics” in the Jewish community for fabricating “duff information” about anti-Semitism in the party, may not ultimately hurt Willsman’s chances of re-election to the party’s ruling body. Instead, believes one party insider, the furor has turned into a way of mobilizing its supporters in the run-up to the ballot.
Ultimately, the row over anti-Semitism is simply the most toxic flashpoint in a wider battle: whether or not the ascendant hard left and moderate centrists can continue to coexist in one party. Increasingly, it appears that they may not be able to do so.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”