Extract – The Left’s Jewish Problem: A leader judged by lack of words and action

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Book extracts The Left’s Jewish Problem

Extract – The Left’s Jewish Problem: A leader judged by lack of words and action

In a newly-updated edition of his book, Dave Rich examines how the grip of Labour’s hard left have strengthened and why attitudes towards Jews have polarised politics

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Rarely has there been a moment when Labour, Jeremy Corbyn and allegations of antisemitism have stayed out of the headlines. Now, in his newly-updated edition of The Left’s Jewish Problem, author Dave Rich examines how the grip of Labour’s hard left have increasingly strengthened and why attitudes towards Jews and Zionism have polarised politics across the nation. In this extract, Rich looks at the problem of “institutional antisemitism” and questions Corbyn’s own responses to the left’s controversial “Jewish problem”…

It is not possible to change an organisational culture through procedural tweaks, or rule changes, or by hiring more staff to implement the same flawed processes.

It requires education, personal example, sacrifice and a willingness to listen to and work with an organisation’s strongest critics.

It needs difficult self-reflection and open acceptance of the problem and, as the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry pointed out, most of all it needs leadership; but in the midst of all this, the leader of the Labour Party has stood largely oblivious.

In December 2017, speaking at a reception of the Jewish Labour Movement to mark the festival of Chanukah, Corbyn declared without irony that ‘there is zero tolerance of antisemitism in the Labour Party and that is how it should remain’. The evidence repeatedly suggests otherwise.

Elsewhere, Corbyn has said that ‘no antisemitic remarks are ever done in my name’, even though so much of the antisemitism reported to his own party, or highlighted by his own MPs, is done in Facebook groups that bear his name, or in tweets that use pro-Corbyn hashtags.

By the middle of 2018, Corbyn had changed his public line, acknowledging that antisemitism was a genuine problem in starkly different terms from how he spoke about it two years earlier, but whether this was done out of genuine enlightenment or to try to stop negative headlines is questionable, as he still seems to lack either the understanding or the willingness to take the necessary steps to fix the problem.

This relates directly to the question of whether Corbyn is personally antisemitic. There is no doubt that he strongly and genuinely believes that he opposes all forms of racism. There is also no doubt that he has Jewish friends and comrades on the left going back decades.

He repeatedly condemns antisemitism in generic terms and pledges to oppose it. Nevertheless, his behaviour since becoming leader raises troubling questions.

It is hard to fathom how the leader of a political movement can be so slow to intervene and so apparently reluctant to take personal responsibility for solving the problem, if he is as personally disturbed by antisemitism as he claims.

Dave Rich

His public statements on the issue still suggest he sees this as a problem that affects other people, rather than something that has come from within his own political world.

There is a lack of the political and moral urgency that characterises Corbyn’s response to other injustices in the world.

Then there is Corbyn’s reaction to the antisemitic conspiracy mural in East London in 2012, which led some to suspect that he did not think the mural was antisemitic because he shares the prejudices it depicted.

There are his repeated calls for an inquiry into ‘pro-Israeli’ influence in British politics.

There is the underlying question of whether it is possible for Corbyn to have spent decades on the hard left alongside the likes of Ken Livingstone and Tony Greenstein, building campaigns and organising events with the kind of activists found in the Palestine Live Facebook group or, in years gone by, the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, without absorbing any of the hostile and prejudiced assumptions and stereotypes about Jews, Israel, Zionism and antisemitism found in those circles.

At the very least, it seems that he spent many years in those circles without challenging the antisemitism he surely encountered.

Ultimately, it is not possible to peer into somebody’s soul and discover with any certainty what they really think and believe about Jews. Perhaps even Corbyn does not truly know or understand his own deepest thoughts and imaginings about the cultural and political figure of ‘The Jew’.

All that can be done, as with any politician, is to judge him by his words and actions – and by his lack of words and actions. By this measure he has been found repeatedly wanting.

As the leader of the Labour Party, whose supporters have effective control of most of its decision-making roles and committees and who benefits from a huge army of loyal grassroots followers, Corbyn could lead the cultural change that the party and the broader left need to truly eradicate this antisemitism – if he chooses to do so.

The question is not whether he has the power to do it or whether, in theory, he would want to. The question is whether, as a lifelong product and leader of that same political culture, he is even capable of recognising that this is the choice he needs to make.”

  •    The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, priced £12.99 (paperback). Available now
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