Antisemitism’s Implausible Denial
It was an awkward moment on BBC television. An articulate, well-educated Jewish couple, Mark Lewis and Mandy Blumenthal, told viewers that antisemitism has become so aggravated in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party that they had decided to leave Great Britain and move to Israel.
The BBC host, Victoria Derbyshire, was not impressed. Expressing astonishment at the couple’s assertions, Derbyshire pressed on, asking what evidence they had of Corbyn’s antisemitism. Derbyshire followed up with a series of Corbyn quotes, listed by time and place, that antisemitism was “unacceptable” to him; that he was a “militant opponent” of antisemitism; that this kind of prejudice was “repugnant” to him; and that he was sincerely “sorry for the pain” that had been caused to Jewish people.
With that, Derbyshire attempted to close the point, asking, “you do accept” that he is “trying to make progress” in combating antisemitism, don’t you? Lewis and Blumenthal resisted by patiently describing the day to day realities of hostility to Jews in parts of the UK. But it made no difference.
For some viewers, Derbyshire had succeeded in picking though the right statements to dispel any connection between Corbyn and antisemitism. Corbyn’s more extensive history of antisemitism was clouded over, enabling him and his apologists to invoke the time-honored dodge of “plausible deniability” — a public relations ploy used by intelligence services to avoid blame for covert sabotage carried out against enemy states.
The Labour leader’s path to plausible deniability is his distinction between “Jews” and “Israel.” Israel is Corbyn’s bogeyman; he blames it for “settler colonial” oppression, stealing other peoples’ land, and bombing innocent civilians. For at least a decade, Corbyn has kept these charges alive by embracing Israel’s alleged “victims.” The most nefarious episodes include a wreath laying in Tunisia for the Munich murderers, and a welcome in the House of Commons for his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah.
For most people, Corbyn’s double-speak is all very implausible, and his sniping at Israel is abhorrent. After all, the origins of Jewishness lie in Israel. This tiny country is the sole Jewish sovereignty on the planet, and now houses a majority of the world’s Jews. The sanctimony that seeks to create a division between Jews and Zionism can only be motivated by malice. One would not dare claim to be for Catholics while demanding the eradication of the Vatican.
Nevertheless, some people accept the plausible denial argument because they either want to believe — or do actually believe — that Jewishness is altogether apart from Israel. Under a “not all Jews are Zionists” cover, Corbyn has been able to exploit these vulnerabilities. Labour’s leader made the most of the opportunity last Passover, when he dropped in on a “Seder” held by a radical leftist faction with the provocative appellation of “Jewdas.”
Having branded Israel a “steaming pile of sewage” and having taken an extraordinary interest in mocking Judaism, Jewdas could only please Corbyn’s followers. While its freakish persona might easily have been dismissed, Corbyn made the most of his visit by pitting a handful of Jews against the rest, portraying Israel as a pariah state and offering up some ugly caricatures of it.
When Labour was asked to vote on accepting the definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Corbyn and his allies swung into action. His tactics called for splitting the Jews into Zionists (bad Jews) and anti-Zionists (good Jews), thereby sustaining plausible deniability. “We are not against Jews in general,” goes the logic, “just against those who support a foreign power and who hold ‘dual loyalties.'” The ruse accounted for Corbyn’s July success in deleting IHRA examples of antisemitism that involved mention of Israel.
One excised clause dealt with “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” by claiming that “Israel is a racist endeavor.” Another excised clause cited the unacceptability of applying “double standards” to Israel for behavior not expected of other democratic nations.
Corbyn’s foray generated a backlash that stunned the party. In the face of widespread uproar, Labour’s executive committee finally incorporated the excised examples. The concession, however, was less than half-hearted. Under continuing pressure from Corbyn, the party adopted a parallel resolution allowing for the “freedom of expression” on Israel and the “rights of Palestinians.”
The addition was suspiciously unnecessary, because the preamble to the IHRA definition clearly recognizes that, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” If anything, the resolution gave Corbyn’s hard left a path to calling Israel a “racist endeavor,” to say nothing of the “double standard” such a charge entails.
Thirty-one nations have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and know full well that it does not curb legitimate criticism. But Corbyn has managed to prevail. For anyone with a discerning eye, antisemitism is now baked into the party’s mentality. The question is not whether the anti-Israel/antisemitic drive will intensify, but how much Corbyn will scorch those who defend Britain’s Jewish community. The only recourse is to reject gratuitous and insulting resolutions, and make sure that Corbyn is never elected to lead the UK.
H.V. Savitch is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC) and Emeritus Brown and Williamson Distinguished Professor at the University of Louisville. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.