An eye-roll. That is how I greeted the tweet from Luciana Berger, Chair of Jewish Labour, when she posted a link to Jeremy Corbyn defending a mural in Tower Hamlets in 2012. I rolled my eyes, not because the mural, which could have been the book cover for the Elders of Zion, was so blindingly anti-Semitic; but because a man and a movement that could be minutes away from 10 Downing Street, had failed to notice. Again.
CST, a charity that protects British Jews from anti-Semitism and related threats, published a report that showed anti-Semitic incidents had risen by a third in 2017. The only thing surprising about the figures was their lack of surprise; the last few years have seen British Jews like myself become accustomed to a consistent, looming dialogue around anti-Semitism, with a regular drip-feed of scandal ensuring its semi-permanent place in political discourse.
However, this latest incident has caused a snap. Whether an inevitable consequence of a slowly rising tide, or the straw that broke the camel’s back, a community used to internalising its anxieties had suddenly had enough. A scandal that for the first time directly linked Jeremy Corbyn himself to anti-Semitic dialogues tore open tensions between the Jewish community and the Labour leadership, exposing the frustration and fear that many have felt for years by taking to the streets in Parliament Square. Whilst many Labour MPs spoke out, the issue was met with a defensive response from the hardcore Corbyn cabal. Despite Corbyn admitting the mural was anti-Semitic, a minority organised a counter-protest to the demonstration to decry ‘smears’ against the Labour leader; indicating how deeply this issue is engrained within sections of the left, and how unlikely it looks to dissipate soon.
Labour’s ongoing controversies over anti-Semitism are well documented. Ken ‘Zionist Hitler’ Livingstone remains a party stalwart, 18 members have been suspended for anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers are allowed to run as council candidates. Jeremy has built his reputation as a figure of unease amongst the community for referring to Hezbollah and Hamas as his friends, sharing platforms and Facebook groups where blatantly anti-Semitic views are shared like kosher candy. However, to dismiss these figures as a few bad apples, or a few “pockets” of anti-Semitic abuse, undermines the extent to which anti-Semitic ideas are passively permitted within the UK opposition. A dialogue about Palestinian solidarity has spiralled into an obsessive anti-Zionism that all too often expresses itself in the terms of classic anti-Semitism.
Whilst three quarters of incidents occur within far-right circles, the politics of anti-Semitism have become institutionally associated with a mainstream British party on the left; the vicious language of the bierkeller heard in the bistros of the intellectual left-wing. The growing salience of anti-Semitism have exacerbated as the far-left becomes further enshrined within institutions and organisations, as well as the leadership, of the Labour party. Bonded by opposition to Western and American power, anti-Zionism is a key marker of belonging, a lynchpin that offers a neat entry point into an anti-imperialist world view. In this ideological framework, Israel is a symbol for a century of failed foreign policy; hatred of America, opposition to Western interference in the Middle East, the power of global capitalism. Israel-Palestine has become more than a territorial conflict, but the epicentre of the battle between oppressor and oppressed, the coloniser and the colonised.
Whilst of course, it is important to hold and express valid criticisms of the Israeli government’s oppressive policies, more complicated to untangle is the belief that Israel’s existence itself is innately oppressive. This world view becomes troubling when it cloaks its legitimate criticisms of Israel in language which quietly segues into anti-Semitism. Conspiratorial, elitist, blood-thirsty, money-hoarding; the classic tropes of anti-Semitism are lifted from the history books and used daily to speak out against Israel, the ‘Zionist lobby’, Jewish control of the media, finance and political power. In circles where criticism of Israel is a frequent, almost obsessive, point of conversation, these tropes are used to an extent that they become routine; normalised to the extent that Jeremy Corbyn can spend a lifetime surrounded by them, without really seeming to notice.
When understood by this framework, Jewish people cannot fit the left’s model of a minority – Jews are seen as white-passing, disproportionately blessed with wealth and status, collaborators with Western power. This is how the anti-racist liberal left can find themselves intertwined with the oldest form of racism; how campaigners like Corbyn can dedicate a lifetime to opposing racial and religious discrimination, yet find themselves defending language once reserved to the depths of the far-right. It is why the images in the mural, of hook-nosed bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of dead bodies, which would have blended seamlessly on a Nazi propaganda poster, could not be seen as racist, because they don’t fit the definition of what Corbyn thinks racism is.
This is also why Corbyn’s ‘All Lives Matter’ approach to anti-Semitism has not and cannot tackle the roots of the problem swelling within his ranks. Whilst on multiple occasions, he has stated that anti-Semitism and ‘other forms of racism’ have no place within his party, he seems to be wilfully ignorant to how he is perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. His passivity in rooting out these ideas have allowed them to flourish in the crevices of social media, as he describes “pockets of antisemitism resurfacing in the party” like they aren’t the very pockets he’s been standing in. Every rushed response, every inept inquiry, has heighted the frustrations and anxieties of the Jewish community; who see through the glaring holes in each piecemeal apology and only feel more dismayed.
His actions have eroded decades of relationship between the Labour party and British Jewry – just 13% planned to vote for Corbyn’s Labour in 2017, and a new Jewish generation may be lost to the Labour cause for good. Once the default political affiliation for the immigrant Jewish community, the Labour party is now described by the Home Office select committee as a “permissive space for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people”. The responses to the latest in a winding series of anti-Semitic incidents has seen Corbyn’s supporters rally harder against accusations directed at their leader; with Jewish commentators and moderate Labour MPs accused of propagating ‘smears’. The sarcastic #PredictTheNextCorbynSmear topping the UK trending charts was a poignant example of what David Hirsch calls the ‘Livingstone Formulation’, in which making allegations of anti-Semitism are worse than being accused of them, in which direct quotes are repainted as smears.
This dynamic has etched antisemitism into the fabric of British Jewish experience, creating stitches difficult to untie. Tuesday’s demonstration saw Labour MPs like Harriet Harman, Chuka Umunna and John Mann joining in solidarity with the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies, promising to push the issue at the highest level. Will Labour continue to cling to its campaigner-in-chief, despite his dalliances with a murky world of conspiracy theorists? There is an imminent need for Corbyn to disengage and disavow the nastier elements of his base, making it clear that these views, and those who hold them, are not welcome in his movement. Aside from a dwindling and electorally insignificant Jewish vote, this will never be an issue that has a tangible impact in the ballot box. Antisemitism cannot continue to be just a “Jewish issue”; Labour members, voters and MPs must use their collective clout to push for real action from the leadership, if enough is really going to be enough.