The controversy that started last week when someone dug up a five-year-old Facebook comment by Jeremy Corbyn on a picture of an anti-Semitic mural by an obscure London artist has not gone away. What is surprising is that he is still leader. The number of MPs who have spoken out is small; they have not threatened to defect to any other party or resign as of the next general election, or made a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership. There are a lot of supporters who have criticised his stance and called on him to take a stronger stand, but others who remain convinced that he can do no wrong and that this is all a conspiracy to undermine his leadership and others who believe it is quite consistent with his previous behaviour, that he may not be an anti-Semite as such but he does not mind rubbing shoulders with people who are. I have a couple of theories as to why the response to this has been so limited compared to even previous rows about the same issue.
First: the Labour MPs who are taking the strongest stance know they are in the minority within the party. They have tried to remove him once; their candidate lost by a large margin as Corbyn’s supporters are (or at least were) the majority of ordinary party members. There are no other strong parties for them to defect to; the Liberal Democrats are hugely weakened from the 2010-15 coalition and the subsequent devastating result in 2015 which was only slightly reversed in 2017 and not all of them represent constituencies where the Lib Dems were ever strong. The Tories, as already discussed, are far more tainted by racism than Jeremy Corbyn. There is no place for a Scottish or Welsh nationalist MP in a north London constituency and the Greens have yet to win a constituency beyond Brighton. There is simply nowhere for them to go.
Second, there have simply been too many “wolf cries” about anti-Semitism and there is fatigue to it; now that a genuine case has been unearthed, albeit from years ago, very many people are unwilling to listen. The previous cases involved hostility to Jewish individuals (e.g. the MP Ruth Smeeth) that was assumed to be anti-Semitic for whatever reason, or someone suggesting that Israel has no right to exist — again, years before they became an MP — because the difference between a ‘reasonable’, ‘moderate’ supporter of Palestinian rights and an “anti-Semite” is that the latter will suggest a solution to the Palestinian situation that does not (a) acknowledge that it’s all the Arabs’ fault and (b) leave Israel dominant. The anti-Semitism in the mural in this case would only have struck an educated person as such, and the artist’s explanation makes it clearer that this is what it was (in that the elderly stiff-collared figures were Rothschilds and the like) — there were no Stars of David or any other overt Jewish symbols, so it’s possible that at first glance it didn’t appear anti-Semitic.
Speaking as a Muslim, I would find it easier to condemn minor incidents of anti-Semitism if mainstream politicians would condemn and isolate those guilty of far more severe incidents of Islamophobia — notably, that of Boris Johnson who remains foreign secretary despite countless casual and premeditated incidents of Islamophobia and other racism over the years. It appears that this prejudice is considered a more serious and shameful matter than any other expression of prejudice at a time when Muslims have faced a long-running vilification campaign in both tabloid and (former) broadsheet newspapers and frequent undercover investigations to find out if prominent Muslims have opinions white people might not like, which do not have to be racist or in favour of terrorism; Channel 4’s Dispatches earlier this week ‘exposed’ Cardiff-based Muslim activist Sahar al-Faifi for suggesting that the government might have taken their eye off a particular terrorist for political gain. Muslims are being targeted with ‘investigations’ on prime-time TV calculated to foment suspicion, with front-page attacks on our culture and on individuals, and by organised gangs of football hooligans and by individuals ‘provoked’ by what they read in the papers and see on TV. There’s a Twitter thread going round with a ‘test’ of whether someone is an anti-Semite, and one of the criteria is that they will not condemn anti-Semitism without qualifying it with a comparison to the suffering of any other group; but it has to be looked at in the context of other prejudices. Anti-Semitism is not unique, it is not greatly unlike other forms of racism and neither have been its consequences. The mural Corbyn is being condemned for approving of uses stereotypes of a Jewish élite; much of the material targeted at Muslims refers to ordinary Muslims, not a few wealthy financiers.
Some of the most racist individuals in this country’s media and politics, and those who are at least tolerant of other prejudices, are among the first to identify and condemn anti-Semitism. Why is this? It’s clearly not because they’re against racism in general, except when it uses obvious nasty words (which gives the game away; best keep to euphemisms). It’s not even because of “where it leads” (i.e. the Holocaust); there have been two other genocides since (Bosnia and Rwanda) and the rhetoric used to justify both (e.g., blaming ordinary people today for historical grievances, comparing people to vermin and so on) was very similar to that of the Holocaust. It’s because they regard a prosperous, mostly white minority whose religious mainstream is closely linked to the Establishment both here and in the USA as less deserving of hostility than a more visible and obviously ‘different’ minority. This is not anti-racism. It is racism itself.
Finally, I have a suspicion that some expressions of anti-Semitism come from a desire to provoke and outrage polite opinion rather than out of a belief in what is being said. The Daily Mail, in their front page yesterday, proclaimed that British Jews had been “goaded beyond endurance by the rise of anti-Semitism in Labour”. There is a certain satisfaction in goading someone who is self-righteous, hypocritical or both and baiting a racist with the one form of racism he can’t stomach falls into that category. Of course, tu quoque or accusing your critic of being a hypocrite is not really a defence; someone else being racist does not make being a racist acceptable. But all the same, demands to condemn one particular form of racism ring hollow when they come from racists.
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