by Rob Marchant
This week has marked the first anniversary of Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival as Labour leader. The week has been full of the now-customary gaffes and blunders, yes. But a more disturbing revelation was that about the obsession with “Zionism” at the heart of the Corbyn “kitchen cabinet”.
If one were to try and characterise the notable achievements of the Corbyn leadership in its first year – as the often-hilarious results of the #1yearofJeremy hashtag on Twitter showed, these were not always positive – perhaps the most disturbing is the almost complete alienation of the British Jewish community.
From the comments of Ken Livingstone about Hitler, to the suspension of 18 party members over anti-Semitism and the fiasco which was the party’s own report into the matter, Corbyn has shown, at best, a terrible tin ear for the subject, the effects of which may now tarnish the image of his party for years.
And so it was that, this week, we found Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne accused of removing the Hebrew from the leader’s Passover message, because it sounded “too Zionist”. This accusation was made both by Joshua Simons, a former advisor to the leader and also Dave Rich of the CST, an organisation created to help British Jews fight anti-Semitism. Although only Rich actually named Milne, he did so not on a specialist blog, but in the New York Times.
This is the level of obsession that the leader’s office has over matters which are anathema to ordinary people.
As it happened, this week also saw the publication of a book on the subject by Rich. “The Left’s Jewish Problem” actually name-checks Corbyn in its subtitle, such is his importance in having presided over its manifestation within Labour. The mere fact that such a book can be written at all should be setting alarm bells ringing all over the Labour Party.
Now, it is fair to note that anti-Semitism was on the rise on Britain’s left well before Corbyn’s leadership, as many commentators such as the Observer’s Nick Cohen have observed. As Corbyn himself points out, a number of the 18 expulsions were as a result of events which predated him.
But it is Corbyn’s “blind eye”, his association with known anti-Semites and his dogged insistence that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are entirely independent phenomena, which has surely first legitimised the demonisation of Israel to a much wider segment within Labour, and consequently fed a very small minority of actual anti-Semites amongst that segment.
Finally, let us think about this: if you do not believe anti-Semitism has resurged within Labour or, crucially, Corbyn-supporting organisations such as Momentum, and that this is all something blown up by the media or the party’s right, there is a logical corollary to this.
It is that Dave Rich, the CST, the Board of Jewish Deputies, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Chief Rabbi and a number of other Jewish-related organisations in Britain, who have voiced similar opinions, are all exaggerating.
It is something which Dave Hirsh of Engage, another organisation fighting anti-Semitism, has written about eloquently. Of all ethnic or religious minorities, it only ever seems to be Jews who are singled out for this accusation of bad faith.
Tellingly, he refers to this typical accusation as the “Livingstone Formulation”:
“One way of protecting this state of denial and of avoiding an engagement with the evidence of antisemitism is what I have called the Livingstone Formulation. It is a phenomenon by which people who raise the issue of antisemitism may be confronted by quick, angry and morally superior denial…The accusation is that Jews allege antisemitism, knowing that it isn’t really there, in a secret plan to try to silence criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. Jews are accused of the despicable tactic of playing the antisemitism card and so of knowingly crying wolf.”
Whilst earlier this year Ken Livingstone’s unacceptable views on Jews were laid bare for all to see, this piece was written in 2013. Was it Hirsh exaggerating about Livingstone, or was Livingstone simply a bad egg? The signs were there for those who chose to see them.
In a similar way, Corbyn chooses not to see the signs in his own party and supporter base.
Imagine you are, not a party leader, but the CEO of a big organisation. If you are its leader when something goes badly wrong, you take responsibility for it, whether you believe you have contributed to it or not, and do something about it. You owe it to your customers and shareholders, and they will rightly kick you out if you do not.
In normal political times, the same would apply to a party leader. If there is something badly wrong, you deal with it. You do not (a) deny it or (b) pretend that it is part of a wider phenomenon which is nothing to do with you.
But it seems that we have created a new rule for Labour leaders in 2016. At first we deny. Then we try and add the weasel words “and all other forms of racism” to make anti-Semitism seem part of a general trend on the far right, not the far left, and therefore not really down to Labour.
Then we pay lip-service, via the Chakrabarti report, to resolving a fundamental problem in the party, and it is a media disaster, widely seen as a whitewash. In doing so, we implicitly accuse British Jews of that ol’ bad faith again, and then are surprised when they turn away from us in droves, feeling they are no longer welcome.
How, just how, did it ever come to this?
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left