Until a few years ago, at the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington, DC, a gala dinner would be held for all the thousands of participants that began with an extraordinary display of political muscle: the roll call.
At center stage in the vast hall of the convention center in the US capital, two or three AIPAC bigwigs would excitedly read out hundreds of names — of the senior administration figures, the members of Congress, the ambassadors, and the other notables who were in attendance — and the crowd would clap and cheer. The process would go on for ages; there were so many such importantly titled people to be name-checked and applauded for having turned out to show their commitment to US ties with Israel.
As someone who spent the first 20 years of his life in Britain, I found this ostentatious demonstration of political clout shocking and somewhat disconcerting. Where I’d grown up, the Jews didn’t trumpet whatever influence they might have; they kept their heads down.
Many Jews have reached positions of prominence in Britain, and many prominent Britons have dedicated their energies to Jewish and Israeli causes. But while AIPAC’s annual power parade — discontinued in recent years, largely because it just took too long — underlined the degree to which millions of Jews comfortably lead proud and public Jewish lives in the United States, the 300,000 or so Jews in the United Kingdom have never taken their tolerated presence for granted.
Britain may soon elect a racist and an anti-Semite as its prime minister
Go back a century and you’ll find that David Lindo Alexander, the president of British Jewry’s representative body, the Board of Deputies, wrote a letter to the Times in the late spring of 1917 attempting to preempt the Balfour Declaration, in apparent terror that it would lead to Anglo-Jewry and other Diaspora Jews being required to relocate to Palestine. “The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine,” warned Alexander and a second prominent Anglo-Jewish leader in horror, “must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands, and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of these lands.”
Fast forward to the 1980s, and even with the philo-Semitic, staunchly pro-Israel Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, and the chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits as a key unofficial adviser, British Jewry’s ongoing insistence on trying not to draw attention to itself still held sway. This was exemplified by the extent to which the various ministers in Thatcher’s governments who happened to be Jewish — Keith Joseph, Leon Brittan, Malcolm Rifkind and Nigel Lawson, to name four of the most prominent — downplayed their Jewishness.
And yet, today, all that has changed. The Anglo-Jewish community is deliberately making headlines like seldom, if ever, before. It is organizing marches and demonstrations. It is holding gatherings outside parliament. Its leaders are giving dramatic interviews. Its newspapers are issuing warnings and demands. It has moved out of the shadows and into the glare.
And it is doing so because it fears that Britain may soon elect a racist and an anti-Semite as its prime minister.
Not a seeker of peace
Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party — which was once the natural political home of what was a working class Jewish community — is not a shoo-in to win the next elections. But since he led Labour to a far better than expected performance in last year’s vote, and since the governing Conservative Party seems determined to clear his path to 10 Downing Street — by tearing itself apart in a paroxysm of infighting and incompetence, largely over Britain’s decision to pull out of the European Union — the prospect of a prime minister Corbyn is thoroughly real.
Iranian ayatollah-style, Corbyn and his defenders in the Labour anti-Semitism row would have us believe that they loathe Israel but have nothing whatsoever against the Jews
Corbyn’s Labour has become a hothouse of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism — in its leader’s radical hard-left image. His defense and that of his loyalists, when accused of failing to tackle the blight, is to attempt to distinguish between the two: Yes, they proudly acknowledge, Corbyn and many others in Labour are deeply critical of Israel and its policies regarding the Palestinians, but the allegations of anti-Semitism are not merely unfounded but are being deliberately manufactured in order to silence their legitimate criticisms of the Jewish state.
Iranian ayatollah-style, they would have us believe that they loathe Israel but have nothing whatsoever against the Jews.
It is in this context that I found a throwaway mention last week to Corbyn’s sponsorship in the 1980s of a group called the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine illuminating and horrifying.
The official platform of this group declared its “opposition to the Zionist state as racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism.” A conference it held in 1984 demanded that the Labour Party’s key institutions “support the Palestinian people in their struggle for a democratic and secular state in the whole of Palestine.” (My italics.) In case anyone missed the point, the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine proclaimed in the materials that it published for that 1984 event that it sought nothing less than “to eradicate Zionism.”
According to Dave Rich’s 2016 book “The Left’s Jewish Problem,” Corbyn sponsored and supported this group “throughout the 1980s,” spoke regularly at its events, and personally chaired the 1984 conference. Rich, who also refers to the movement as the “Labour Committee on Palestine,” says it was headed by an anti-Zionist Jew named Tony Greenstein, who was expelled from the Labour Party six months ago for anti-Semitism. Rich notes that the 1984 conference was hosted by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. Livingstone, the former London mayor and longtime close ally of Corbyn, resigned from Labour three months ago, having been suspended from the party after declaring that Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Corbyn, who praised Livingstone’s decision to resign as “the right thing to do,” had hitherto rejected calls from MPs and Labour supporters to expel him.
The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and his loyalists seek to present Corbyn as a robust opponent of the occupation, a bitter critic of “illegal and inhumane” actions by the Israel army in Gaza, a supporter of boycotting settlement goods and reconsidering British arms sales to Israel, and a seeker of peace (even when reluctantly expressing regret for having called Hamas and Hezbollah operatives his “friends” as he invited them to speak in parliament in 2009, or when caught at a wreath-laying ceremonyin a Tunisian cemetery near the graves of Palestinian terrorists) … but anything but an anti-Semite and a racist.
Yet for years, he was active in an organization that, just like Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran, proclaimed the goal of ending Israel. As Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist who mentioned Corbyn’s role in the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine in an article last Wednesday, noted succinctly, Corbyn’s position on Israel/Palestine “was not that of a healing conciliator of two warring peoples, but rather ‘to eradicate Zionism.’”
Corbyn didn’t want to heal. He didn’t advocate a two-state solution. He wasn’t opposing specific Israeli policies. He wanted Israel not to exist.
To endorse a platform that demands the elimination of the world’s only Jewish state, which was revived in 1948 on the basis of a UN vote a year earlier, is anti-Semitism of the first order, prejudice against Jews. To advocate that the Jewish nation, uniquely, does not have any right to sovereignty, that its national movement should be eradicated — that’s discrimination and incitement. To assert that the Jewish people has no right to sovereignty in the only place on earth where it has ever been sovereign, never wanted to leave and always sought to return; to demand, that is, not that Israel live peaceably alongside a Palestinian state, but that it be fully replaced by a Palestinian state — this is unconscionable.
For the prospective prime minister of the United Kingdom to have stood up for such a position, for years, and thereafter to have met and praised members of terrorist organizations avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel, is untenable.
“Jeremy has a long and principled record of solidarity with the Palestinian people and engaging with actors in the conflict to support peace and justice in the Middle East,” a spokesman for Corbyn claimed Sunday, responding to newly published pictures of the Labour leader sitting on a panel at a 2012 conference in Doha with several Palestinian terrorists sentenced for murder. But supporting peace and justice was not what he was doing.
Taking issue with specific policies of an Israeli government is by no means necessarily racist; opposing Zionism in toto certainly is. Zionism champions a Jewish sovereign homeland; it does not require a Jewish homeland at the expense of the Palestinians; it does not contradict a two-state solution. Indeed Zionism’s hour of realization came with the UN’s adoption of a two-state solution in 1947 — the relegitimization of Jewish sovereignty and the intended establishment of a Palestinian state. This was a solution accepted by Israel’s Zionist pioneers but rejected by Arab leaders who, rather than endorsing a first-ever independent Palestine, chose instead to try to kill Israel at rebirth.
The heart of the crisis
In the great mass of articles about Corbyn and Labour anti-Semitism, I’m struck by the absence of headlines surrounding Corbyn’s years of support and activism for an organization that sought Israel’s demise — support and activism for which, as far as is known, he has never apologized. There was a piece in the Jewish Chronicle two years ago. References in Dave Rich’s book. Now, a passing mention in a Guardian column.
But Corbyn’s prolonged backing for the cause of Palestinian statehood “in the whole of Palestine” goes to the heart of the crisis surrounding his potential leadership of Britain. It underpins his embrace of terrorists, his failure to tackle Labour’s anti-Semites, and his resistance to Labour adopting the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Of course his party could not adopt the full IHRA definition; Corbyn has repeatedly breached it: Among the examples of contemporary anti-Semitism cited in the IHRA definition are “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” His activism on behalf of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine contravenes the former clause; comparing Israeli actions in the West Bank to the World War II Nazi occupation of Europe, as a 2013 video that surfaced this month showed him doing, breaches the latter.
In September 2016, during another spike of the Labour anti-Semitism crisis, he grudgingly allowed, apparently for the first time, that “Israel has the right to exist… under the agreement of the original borders of 1948” (whatever that might mean). But just a year earlier, he had achieved the quite extraordinary feat, during a 10-minute speech to a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel — his first appearance as party leader at an Israel-related gathering — of avoiding so much as uttering the name “Israel.”
“Say the word Israel. Say the word Israel,” a heckler demanded, in vain.
In 2011, in an interview with Iran’s PressTV, he lamented what he claimed was the BBC’s “bias towards saying that… Israel has a right to exist.” Presumably, in Corbyn’s view, a fair-minded and non-biased BBC would hold that Israel does not have the right to exist.
Just this month, in a Guardian column, he insisted that “in the 1970s some on the left mistakenly argued that ‘Zionism is racism.’ That was wrong, but to assert that ‘anti-Zionism is racism’ now is wrong too.” This in an article ostensibly intended to heal his ties with the Jewish community.
That’s who Anglo-Jewry is dealing with. That’s who has stirred the community from its don’t-rock-the-boat norm. Without the numbers, the clout or the confidence of American Jewry as exemplified by organizations such as AIPAC, Britain’s Jewish community has nonetheless seen no choice but to place itself, unprecedentedly, at center stage in a key political battle. That’s because Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour with him at its helm, are a threat to British Jews.
Jeremy Corbyn wrote in his August 3 Guardian column that “it is Labour’s responsibility to root out antisemitism in our party” and pledged to do so. But for Labour to root out anti-Semitism, it needs to start by booting out Jeremy Corbyn.