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September 12, 2018 11:31 am

Reflecting on the UK Antisemitism Debate

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld


British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past two and a half years, a major debate has developed about antisemitism in the British Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, is a supporter of murderous and even genocidal terrorists, as well as Holocaust deniers and distorters. He is furthermore an anti-Israel inciter and part-time antisemite. Many insights can be gleaned from the Labour antisemitism debate, and several are crucially important to the UK and the Western world at large.

The following is a listing of important issues that can be learned from the debate so far:

1. Corbyn’s extreme misdemeanors are not a hindrance to many British citizens who continue to support Labour. Some recent polls show that if parliamentary elections were held now, Labour would stand a good chance of winning. If the terrorist supporter Corbyn were to become British prime minister, this could undermine Western efforts to confront worldwide terrorism, including the terrorism that originates in Muslim societies.

It would be nearly impossible for Western countries to withhold all confidential information shared with the UK about terrorism and its perpetrators. This includes intelligence obtained from other countries. The fact that this implied terrorism risk has received so little attention in the British media or anywhere else is a subject for analysis in itself. If Corbyn becomes prime minister, this may force various Western countries to rethink what confidential information they are prepared to make available to British intelligence services.

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2. Former leftist leaders elsewhere, such as the late Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, and French President François Mitterrand, made extreme antisemitic remarks about Israel. Antisemites exist in a variety of European socialist parties as well. But never since World War II has there been anything like the broad exposure of antisemitism in a Western leftist party similar to that which currently exists in Labour.

4. The arguments of Labour defenders and whitewashers of Corbyn and Labour antisemites provide unique insights into British antisemitism. This may enable a better deciphering of antisemitism elsewhere in Europe, in particular in other parties. A significant percentage of Labour party members support this whitewashing.

5. Extreme antisemitic remarks by a number of elected Labour representatives were already made under Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband. These statements did not get much attention in the party or the British media.

6. Left-wing antisemitism usually expresses itself as anti-Israelism. The Labour party debate has shown how widely classic antisemitism can manifest itself in a social democratic party.

7. Even if the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) is fully accepted by the party’s National Executive Committee, the Labour leadership would probably still not be capable of adequately dealing with the large number of complaints about antisemitic statements of Labour members. The problem may be structural.

8. Several Jewish Labour parliamentarians and one non-Jewish MP have been subjected to attacks by left-wingers of the type usually attributed to extreme right-wingers, neo-fascists, or neo-Nazis.

9. The British Jewish community, which represents only 0.4% of the total citizenry, has traditionally tried to avoid frontal conflicts with powerful forces in British society. It has sought to advance its interests through developing good contacts with the authorities and other powerful bodies. The multiple facets of Labour antisemitism and the way it is being handled in the party have forced the Jewish community into open conflict with this major power. The lack of experience of British Jewry with this type of confrontation has made it impossible for them to develop a clear strategy.

10. The British Jewish community may well have to pay a price in the future for its confrontation with the powerful Labour leadership. That price is likely to be higher if Corbyn becomes prime minister. But even if he does not achieve this goal, his party leadership may still lead to a significant impact on British Jewry. Some indications can be seen from reactions of Corbyn sympathizers to an article by former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in which he stated that Corbyn is an antisemite.

11. A major discussion has been opened in the Jewish community about whether Jews can safely stay in Britain if Corbyn becomes prime minister. This development is unprecedented. It remains unclear, however, whether a Corbyn premiership would in fact lead to significant Jewish emigration from the UK.

12. Social democratic parties abroad have paid little attention to the antisemitic developments in British Labour. The Dutch Labour party (PvdA) has openly ignored them. The party’s chairperson, Nelleke Vedelaar, is a declared supporter of Corbyn. The party leader, Lodewijk Asscher, was warned about Corbyn’s antisemitism in an open letter from the pro-Israel organization CIDI but gave an empty answer. At Asscher’s invitation, Corbyn visited the Netherlands and spoke at a PvdA meeting at which there was a violent incident against a Jewish protestor.

In the course of time, additional insights resulting from the debate about antisemitism in Labour are likely to become clear.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ is a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in IsraeliWestern European relations, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism, and is the author of The War of a Million CutsBESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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