Corbyn and anti-Semitism: Much ado about something else

The Labour leader’s opponents are using red herrings to ramp up pressure on him to resign.

Jeremy Corbyn shakes hands with Rabbi Mendy Korer at an anti-racism rally in London, Britain [Reuters]
Jeremy Corbyn shakes hands with Rabbi Mendy Korer at an anti-racism rally in London, Britain [Reuters]

The beleaguered leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has come under sustained attack since last week’s launch of a report into allegations of anti-Semitism in his party. The launch event saw a Jewish Labour MP walk out, and resulted in condemnation of Corbyn from inside and outside the party, as well as renewed calls for his resignation.

Britain’s current and former chief rabbis joined the chorus of condemnation, as did the Israeli embassy and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which describes itself as “the representative organisation of British Jewry”.

Corbyn’s own foreign secretary called Israel’s ambassador to the UK to apologise for any offence caused by the Labour leader’s comment at the launch event.

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Corbyn is accused of comparing Israel with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and even of anti-Semitism.

However, these accusations are completely groundless, leading to legitimate suspicions that this whole drama is being manufactured to serve the interests of his internal opponents and leadership challengers, as well as those who decry his long-held sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight.

Corbyn’s leadership

Before I am accused of being a Corbynista or a Labour stalwart, let me state that I did not vote for the party in the last general election, and I no longer think Corbyn’s leadership is tenable, but not because of the current uproar that is the subject of this article.

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So what was this apparently inexcusable comment?

Corbyn did not mention ISIL at all, and his subsequent clarification that he was not comparing Israel to a terrorist group has been largely and conveniently ignored by those with a vested interest in demonising him.

“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”

Corbyn did not mention ISIL at all, and his subsequent clarification that he was not comparing Israel to a terrorist group (“no, no of course I’m not”) has been largely and conveniently ignored by those with a vested interest in demonising him.

There are numerous “self-styled Islamic states or organisations” that differ from each other. Some of these states – such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mauritania – are internationally recognised and accepted as such. To assume that Corbyn’s comment referred specifically to ISIL is to equate all these various Islamic states and organisations with it. Is that not offensive to those tarred with the same brush?

More importantly, Corbyn was making a perfectly valid point, and one that is sympathetic to the Jewish community: no faith or people should be held collectively responsible for states or organisations that claim to speak and act on its behalf.

In Israel’s case, its apologists and anti-Semites are both guilty of conflating the country, its governments’ policies and founding ideology with Judaism for their own different reasons.

This is a huge and dangerous disservice to non-Israeli Jews, and points to the fact that Israel’s lobbyists cannot have it both ways, conflating country and religion, while condemning that very conflation, whenever it suits them.

Perfectly legitimate

Jeremy Corbyn poses with supporters after speaking at an anti-racism rally in London, Britain [Reuters]

Had Corbyn not mentioned Israel or Islamic states and organisations, his comment would have gone unchallenged. This highlights that vested interests are at play in this soap opera, because the principle on which his comment was based is perfectly legitimate.

In this regard, an arguably more farcical aspect of this fiasco is the walkout by Labour MP Ruth Smeeth after party member Marc Wadsworth accused her of “working hand in glove” with the right-wing Daily Telegraph against Corbyn.

Smeeth, a former director of the pro-Israel lobby group BICOM, accused him of “anti-Semitic slurs”, and called on Corbyn to “resign immediately”, saying his failure to intervene showed a “catastrophic failure of leadership”, and that “a Labour Party under his stewardship cannot be a safe space for British Jews”.

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This despite the fact that Wadsworth made no mention of her religion, and subsequently said he “didn’t have a clue” she was Jewish.

“I’ve fought against anti-Semitism and racism,” he added. “During the anti-apartheid struggle, I fought alongside the Jewish Board of Deputies. The Jewish people have an ally in me.”

As such, it should be Smeeth apologising for making a baseless, cynical and defamatory accusation. Racism of any sort should not be tolerated, but neither should false accusations of it. Hers is as preposterous as if she had been accused of attacking Wadsworth because he is black.

Her outrage may be due to oversensitivity, or it may have been a publicity stunt from someone who days before the report launch resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the shadow Northern Ireland and Scotland teams in protest at Corbyn’s leadership.

Certainly, media coverage of the launch was dominated by footage of her walking out, and her reaction was given undue prominence.

The pity about this whole drama is that it has eclipsed the launch of the much-awaited report on anti-Semitism, carried out by barrister and prominent civil liberties advocate Shami Chakrabarti. The report did state that “as with wider society, there is too much clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours” within Labour, and not just against Jews.

However, Corbyn’s comment and Smeeth’s walkout received more prominence than the report’s overall finding that the party “is not overrun by antisemitism”. That cannot have displeased at least some of Corbyn’s opponents, and those who manipulate the very real phenomenon of anti-Semitism for political ends.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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