Jeremy Corbyn can’t pretend he has only just noticed

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The Labour leader refers to ‘pockets’ of antisemitism in his party but fails to say that for 30 years he was in them too


Hugo Rifkind, The TIMES, 26 March 2018


Did you know that Jeremy Corbyn’s mother fought at the Battle of Cable Street? I know it’s a well-kept political secret, a bit like that one about Sadiq Khan’s dad being a bus driver, or that other one about Theresa May thinking Brexit means Brexit and wanting to make a success of it, but apparently it is true.

Speaking two years ago at the 80th anniversary of that street fight (one of not more than a mere 300 or so times he has mentioned it in public), the Labour leader said that the fight, for him, had “a deep personal significance”. I wonder how it feels for him, then, watching the children of his mother’s brothers and sisters in arms heading to Westminster. To protest, this time, not against fascists but against him.

Since he became leader two and a half years ago, Corbyn has wrestled with a problem in his ranks without ever quite admitting it was really there. Antisemitism, when mentioned, was appended with “and other forms of racism” until the phrase became a joke. Shami Chakrabarti’s report into Labour’s antisemitism problem concluded that it didn’t really have one, before at the event literally launching the thing a Jewish Labour MP was harangued from the room.

Numerous party members have been suspended but the line has always been that they were cranks, representative of nobody but themselves.

This denialism has come from the top. When the (Jewish) Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote an article in 2016 headlined “Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem”, Corbyn was filmed calling it “utterly disgusting subliminal nastiness”. For him and his, they were the good guys. Thus the people criticising them were the bad guys. Never mind what so many of them seemed to have in common.

Something has shifted. Corbyn’s current antisemitism woes, based around a supportive 2012 Facebook comment about an antisemitic mural, are quantitatively different from those that have gone before. Partly, this is simply because it is him; not an ally or a person with whom he once stood on a platform, but Jeremy Corbyn himself. More than that, though, the focus is very narrow. The usual defence, that it is all secretly about Israel, cannot apply.

For many of Corbyn’s supporters, it is always about Israel. In their view, this stuff is whipped up by “Zionists” (who may be Jewish, but that’s irrelevant), who mainly oppose the Labour leader because of his views on Palestine. Then, they think, it is cynically “weaponised” by Labour moderates (who may also be Jewish, but that’s also irrelevant), whose real problem is actually that they don’t want Jeremy to lead us all, dancing gleefully, to a glorious, left-wing nationalised future. A bit like the way Moses led the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Although obviously not completely like that.

For many Jews, meanwhile, the exact opposite is going on. They think it is never really about Israel, even sometimes when it really is. More importantly, they think Labour’s cranks are not really cranks at all, but cracks, through which one can detect a hidden view of the Jew as a stateless parasite, a globalist vampire, a Shylock, a banker lizard, and all the rest. Which, in a nutshell, is exactly what the mural at the heart of all this was. The mural that Corbyn commented on, long before he was prominent enough for anybody to notice, and didn’t seem to mind at all.

What was he thinking? Apologising, six years on, he says he should have looked “more closely”. How closely do you need to look? Corbyn is also reported to have been a member of two Facebook groups, and perhaps a third, where such things were widespread.

Did he never look closely? Above his comment is one by Yvonne Ridley. This, presumably, would be the journalist Yvonne Ridley, who once wrote that David Miliband was “a gutless little weasel who lost more than his foreskin when he was circumcised”. She also used to host a show on the Iranian PressTV on which Corbyn was a guest. Did they never speak? When Corbyn speaks of the “pockets within the Labour Party” in which antisemitism has occurred, what he leaves out is that, for the first 30 years of his career, these were the pockets he was in.

If Jewish antipathy to Corbyn looks strong in public, it is a great deal stronger in private. This year, at an awards event organised by Jewish News, the comedian David Walliams caused a worried hush by declaring that the next award was to be presented by the leader of the Labour Party. When he then added “. . . from 1994 to 2007!” and Tony Blair walked on stage, the room erupted in cheers. How many other rooms in 2018 Britain would do this? Chiefly, I suspect, he was being cheered for not being Jeremy Corbyn; for not being the guy with the supporters who respond to Jewish fears, even now, with sniggering derision and Twitter hashtag games.

“Again and again, Jeremy Corbyn has sided with antisemites rather than Jews,” wrote Jewish community leaders in this week’s open letter. Has he not realised he is doing this? Rather than nebulously promising to fight antisemitism, Corbyn should ask himself why people who dislike Jews seem to think that his party is a party for them. He should ponder how anticapitalism has enticed those who hate successful minorities, and how antiglobalism has fostered distrust of the children of refugees. He should ask himself what his supporters think about kosher slaughter, or religious schooling, or male circumcision, and he should ask himself why.

It is a lazy fallacy that racism only exists on the right, and belatedly the Labour leader may be realising that he is in a place he does not want to be. He does not yet show any sign of comprehending how he got there.