Peter Bradley revisits an article he wrote for a national newspaper 33 years ago about Labour’s issue with antisemitism – and suggests how Corbyn could deal with it today.
In 1985, when Jeremy Corbyn was still a relatively fresh-faced backbencher, I wrote an opinion piece which the Times published under the depressing headline ‘Why Labour is losing its Jews’. In it, I cited evidence of the kind of anti-Zionism prevalent on the party’s left which, in the words of deputy leader Roy Hattersley ‘spilled over into opposition to the Jewish community’ and was therefore ‘wholly unacceptable’.
Sadly, I could have written that piece yesterday. Even some of the dramatis personae are the same: Ken Livingstone, who featured prominently though not to his credit, was then in his pomp.
By the time I had joined Corbyn on the backbenches 15 years later, such an article would have been unthinkable: if antisemitism existed in the party, it certainly had no traction. By then, Labour had shed its unpopularity and convinced the electorate, after 18 long years in the wilderness, that it was a rational, inclusive and purposeful party of government.
Today, the wheel has turned full circle. Labour’s mass membership once again includes bulging pockets of those for whom an implacable hatred of Israel is central to their political identity.
It would be disturbing were Labour members not critical of many of the policies and actions of the Israeli government. After all, it is an increasingly strident and uncompromising rightwing administration. But much of the left’s hostility pushes so much further into terms and territory where lines become blurred and the fears and accusations of antisemitism begin.
So, if you are unsure where those lines are, here is a simple quiz which might help you locate them.
1. Are you anti-Israel?
a. Yes I am. It is a fascist state
b. No, but I do support the rights of the Palestinians and am opposed to the Israeli government’s abuses against them, as are many Jews and many Israelis
2. How strong is your objection to Israel?
a. Very, because Israel is the world’s single most repressive regime
b. I am equally committed to opposing all acts and agents of repression
3. Do you believe that Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is equivalent to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews?
a. Is it not obvious?
b. However objectionable some of the actions of the Israeli government, there can be no comparison in scope, scale or intent
4. Do you support Hamas?
a. They are the legitimate voice of the Palestinians and we should express our solidarity with them
b. No, at least not until they foreswear their declared aim of eliminating the state of Israel
5. Are you anti-Zionist?
a. Yes I am. Zionism is racism
b. I am critical of the views and actions of some Zionists but recognise that Jews have as much right to a homeland as Palestinians or any other people
6. Do you believe that Zionists have too much power and influence?
a. They control capitalism and the mainstream media and thus the world
b. No, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. We know where they lead
7. Do you believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated and/or exploited to serve Zionist/Jewish interests?
a. The Holocaust was a crime against all humanity but it is in the past. Now it is being manipulated to silence Israel’s critics
b. We all need to learn about the Holocaust, how it happened and why it makes the existence of a secure Jewish homeland so important
8. Are the Jews a cursed people?
a. Our religion teaches that they are
b. Of course not. But we need to be aware of the deep roots of antisemitism in some cultures and world religions, including Christianity
9. Do Jews have common features?
a. They have big noses, they’re greedy, mean, devious and clannish
b. No – and to suggest they do is plain and simple racism
10. Is antisemitism a problem in the Labour party?
a. It has been fabricated, exaggerated and weaponised by both internal and external enemies of Corbyn to undermine his leadership and Labour’s electoral prospects
b. Yes it is. The party needs to ensure that everyone knows where the lines are drawn and deal quickly and resolutely with those who cross them
How did you do?
If you are a member of the Labour party and did not spot the elephant traps, the problem is worse than we thought. And yes, of course, a multiple choice of two does not allow for much nuance. But nor does it allow for obfuscation. If you answered ‘a’ to any of the questions, can you not see that the alternative in no way abridges your right to criticise Israel but does so in terms which beg far fewer questions about what else you might believe?
The other article of faith which unites those on Labour’s ‘left’ is their unqualified commitment to its leader. It is Corbyn, not the discredited Livingstone, who provides the continuity between the problematic politics of the 1980s and the 2010s. Because long before he and Momentum redefined Labour’s mainstream, those were the people he knew, the principles he espoused, the associations which sustained him through 30 rebellious years on the backbenches.
That is not to suggest that Corbyn is in any way antisemitic, nor that he cannot be a good leader of the Labour party and even a great prime minister. But he has to make the transition he has not yet made. He has to speak truth not only to power but also to his own supporters. He has to free himself from those in his own entourage and among his own followers who would shackle him to past political indulgences. He must repudiate those who, when it comes to Israel and Zionism, cannot or will not distinguish between reasoned criticism and an intolerant dogma which, for some at least, is a proxy for or a portal to something altogether more repulsive and dangerous.
Only he can break the link. But to do so, he must at last venture out of his comfort zone and engage with those who are not signed up members of his support system.
It is a simple test. But those who fail it, fail the Labour party.
Peter Bradley is a former Labour member of parliament. He is currently director of Speakers’ Corner Trust, a charity which promotes free expression and public debate.
Photo: Stephanie Lloyd
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