Yes, there is more Corbyn could do to address anti-semitism in Labour. But he's not the only one who should think carefully about what comes next. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish community must not become a sacrificial pawn in Labour’s war

Community leaders should not double down and push for Corbyn’s removal—but think carefully about where the community’s interests really lie
September 9, 2018

The Labour party’s reluctant adoption of a new code on anti-Semitism is an opportunity for the party to rebuild its relationship with the Jewish community. But hard as it might be to accept, it is also incumbent on the Jewish communal leadership to have a long hard think about next steps.

While some prominent Jewish leaders appear keen to double down and push for Corbyn’s removal, this would be a terrible mistake. They need to get a grip—and not become a sacrificial pawn for a broader agenda which is not about Jewish concerns and interests in the UK.

The thrust of the anti-Semitism debate, which has bubbled away since Corbyn’s election in 2015, can be broken down to two quite simple propositions.

First, the concerns regarding anti-Semitism are real, as are frustrations at the shortcomings of the Labour leadership response.

Left-wing anti-Semitism has a long and nasty history—one that predates the existence of Israel or arguments surrounding modern Zionism.

The Labour leadership’s response to the more serious and genuine of the anti-Semitism accusations has not only been slow and cumbersome but also lacked in empathy or in conveying a sense of passion in fighting anti-Semitism.

While it is indisputably the case that in recent decades Israeli governments and their supporters have consistently instrumentalised what they describe as anti-Semitism in order to suppress and delegitimize criticism of Israeli policy and calls for justice for Palestinians, that cannot excuse a response on the left of simply ignoring anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish community is, on the whole, neither economically nor structurally disadvantaged as an ethnic religious minority, nor discriminated against by the state, does not reduce anti-Semitism to a mere nuisance factor.

Latent myths, stereotypes and prejudices about Jews which are normally simmering below the surface, can—and of course historically have—become all-consuming campaigns of vilification and ultimately horrendous violence and slaughter.

There is, though, a second element to the current reality, one that is less commonly or comfortably voiced. The mainstream Jewish communal leadership response has been so hyperbolic and over the top that it is not only unhelpful but risks becoming deeply counterproductive and self-defeating.

Three of Britain’s leading Jewish newspapers collectively called Corbyn an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country,” former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (who last year helped write US Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech to the Israeli Knesset celebrating Trump’s moving of the Embassy to Jerusalem) compared Corbyn to Enoch Powell, and ‘Corbyn must go’ petitions have rocketed around communal email listservs.

Existential threat? Enoch Powell? Really? To describe this as exaggerated is not to ignore real concerns, to victim blame, or to adopt the cowering crouch of the stereotype ghetto Jew. It is to look at the actual evidence and to conduct a realistic assessment of the threat posed by a possible Corbyn premiership.

In Corbyn’s most comprehensive response to date (and yes, there is still much room for improvement), he commits to root out anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, consult more extensively with the Jewish community, undertake an education and training programme throughout the party, deal faster with disciplinary cases and, as PM, to guarantee the security of all facets of Jewish life in this country.

It would be unrealistic and premature for the collective communal response to be immediate trust and a warm embrace. But to escalate the crisis, to refuse to put to the test important gestures of goodwill and to stone-wall attempts at dialogue and outreach is irresponsible. There are consequences to ratcheting-up the oy-vey-o-meter to eleven absent sufficient cause.

By insisting on being at the forefront of the broader effort to bring Corbyn down, the Jewish establishment is risking the genuine possibility of a backlash—one that could spin out of control irrespective of who leads the Labour party or the country.

The Labour NEC’s adoption of the IHRA definitions in full is a possible occasion to re-set, advance dialogue and further address real concerns. That, however, is most unlikely to happen. We are stuck in a vicious cycle, propelled by two forces that should not be, but are now driving events.

Anti-Semitism has become the Achilles heel of the Corbyn leadership project. A queue has formed when it comes to taking a lump out of Corbyn on the issue and Jewish communal interests are not necessarily first in line.

In some ways the community has lost control of the issue: they cannot be less Catholic than the Pope, and the tone is now set by people who are not in any way representing the Jewish community (even if some happen to be Jews themselves, like Margaret Hodge)—whether from the internal Labour opposition to Corbyn or from the other side of the aisles.

Some in the community may consider the Corbyn-slayer accolade a risk worth taking or even a badge of pride to parade—but those in powerful positions should be wary of assuming that there is a consensus on the matter or that the potential benefits outweigh the possible costs.

Individually, as Jews, we have a multitude of opinions on the political issues of the day— including the desirability or otherwise of a Corbyn premiership. But collectively should we allow ourselves to be used in this way?

Secondly, the sub-text for so much of this is, in the final analysis, Israel. Corbyn is a strong and principled supporter of the Palestinians and critic of Israel, a position consistent with his worldview across a range of issues expressed over decades. But this is where the relationship with the Jewish establishment hits zero-sum game territory.

For most Jews, and the entire establishment, Israel forms part of their identity and a connection exists between their own well-being and that of the Jewish state. Many Jewish leaders take that a step further, advocating for the core policies of the Israeli government of the day, often irrespective of how problematic and indefensible Israeli actions are.

Long ago the Jewish establishment drew a line within the community on fundamental dissent regarding Israel and Zionism. Those same dissidents happen to be the British Jews with whom Jeremy Corbyn is most familiar. Community leaders should not double down and push for Corbyn’s removal—but think carefully about where the community’s interests really lie. The Jewish establishment and the Labour leader were always on a collision course over Israel, and that is what the debate around the IHRA definitions has ultimately been about.

Yes, the Labour leader should take the time to better understand the kishkes, the guts of the British Jewish community, including the existential-level identification of so many with Israel, and that can be done without abandoning the commitment to justice for Palestinians. But it is wrong to depict this as a moment of truth for Corbyn only.

As the high holy days of the Jewish calendar approach, members of the Jewish community cannot shy away from making their own hard choices as to where the distinct interests of the community lay, independent of pressures and winks, whether those come from new-found friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party, from Tory grandees, or indeed from the state of Israel itself.