Why I defend Jeremy Corbyn on anti-Semitism

A cover of the book Imperialism by JA Hobson, with a picture or painting of a man working on a large sculpture of a lion. Underneath the title the text reads: Introduced by Nathaniel Mehr, with a foreword by Jeremy Corbyn MP.
Cover of a recent edition of JA Hobson’s Imperialism

Two things happened last week which gave rise to a lot of opinionating on the current state and future of the Labour party. One was another ‘revelation’ about Jeremy Corbyn displaying anti-Semitism, in this case writing a foreword to a 2011 edition of a book with a few anti-Semitic passages. The other was a round of local elections, mostly for district councils in England though with a few unitary authorities, in which Labour lost 84 council seats and suffered a net loss of control of six councils (in practice, they lost one to the Tories and ten to no overall control, while gaining two from the Tories and three from NOC) while the Tories lost 44 councils and 1,330 council seats. In the same elections, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats gained 10 councils and 704 seats and the anti-Brexit Green Party gained 194 seats while UKIP suffered a net loss of 145 council seats, being left with only 31. (The ‘Independent Group’ and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party were not running.) While this could be easily interpreted as evidence of widespread repudiation of Brexit, politicians have as ever interpreted them to mean what they want them to mean, with Theresa May claiming that it is a message from “the people” to politicians to get on with Brexit. Labour supporters, as ever, have taken to spinning a loss as a victory.

The work to which Jeremy Corbyn wrote a foreword, Imperialism by J. A. Hobson, is not one I am familiar with, but on hearing the claims, it seemed obvious that the book was written a long time ago when most people, including some whose ideas are still influential or whose legacy is widely celebrated or whose foundations are still in existence, had views that would be condemned now. It’s well-known, for example, that some thinkers who are regarded as progressives were strong supporters of eugenics, the idea that certain categories of human beings should be discouraged or actively prevented from having children, including disabled people whose impairments were, or were thought to be, hereditary but also including a host of other people presumed to be genetically inferior. This was ultimately discredited by association with Nazi eugenics (though it persisted in law in some countries into the 1970s) and the same can be said about anti-Semitism; however, casual expressions of anti-Semitism can be found in a lot of classic works of English literature, many of which are still taught in schools and colleges around the world including here. When we were taught philosophy at sixth form in the 1990s, the obvious racism in Friedrich Nietzsche’s comments about the Jews (“a people ‘born for slavery’, as Tacitus and the entire ancient world said”) was remarked on but when we saw it in Jane Eyre (“Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land?”), as I recall, it was not. There is currently a campaign to tear down statues of men who committed crimes in the service of Empire and who profited from the slave trade from public spaces and the grounds of major colleges, which has been resisted by many pro-establishment writers with jibes about snowflakes trying to make academia a “safe space” and barely concealed resentment about ‘ingratitude’ or ‘uppityness’.

I have not read the book, so I do not know how much of the book’s content consisted of anti-Semitic statements; a letter in the Guardian last week from Donald Sassoon, emeritus professor at Queen Mary, University of London, claimed it was ten lines out of some 400 pages while Jonathan Freedland claimed that there were “pages and pages” of it. The Morning Star noted that Gordon Brown had cited the book in a Chatham House speech in 2005 and that Tony Blair had noted his importance in the early history of the Labour party by saying that he was “probably the most famous Liberal convert to what was then literally ‘new Labour’”. That others are racist is no excuse to be racist, of course, but it is odd that people have suddenly noticed the anti-Semitism in Hobson’s books when it provides a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with, and if you are willing to vote Tory (or at least in a way that lets a Tory in) despite the racism from some of their senior figures, including one tipped to be leader or prime minister, you need to ask why you care about this type of racism but not that. A common complaint is that people on the Left who are keen opponents of other racism have a “blind spot” about anti-Semitism and would not excuse the same comments being made about Black people, but as Prof Sassoon points out in his letter, nobody seems to have noticed other racist material in the same Hobson book: musings on the “lower races” (Black Africans) and what to do with them.

In the headline to Freedland’s article, he or his editor wail that Corbyn either does not understand anti-Semitism or he does not care. But the answer is more likely to be a third possibility, which is that he does not accept the definition of it that is in vogue right now: that it involves anything which diminishes the standing of the state of Israel, which diverges from Israeli narratives about their conflict with (i.e. oppression of) the Palestinian people, which does not accept Israelis’ right to dominance over them, as well as any questioning of claims from Jews that something is anti-Semitic or (in the light of dissent from secular Jews or people of Jewish origin) the right of the ‘mainstream’ pro-Israel religious Jewish establishment to dictate who we consider a Jew (a right not extended to other minorities, including Muslims as I have previously explained). We sometimes see demands that we show enormous sensitivity to their feelings because of things their teachers and parents and grandparents taught them about persecutions Jews experienced in other countries decades or centuries ago, such as that they always had a bag packed in case the majority population turned on them; one article demanded that we not use the term ‘bloodthirsty’ to describe Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially children, since this ‘echoes’ the blood libel of Jews killing Christian children (this originated in England, but most people here have never heard of it; I only learned about it as an adult). Yet they demand that Palestinians (it ceased to be an Arab-Israeli conflict a long time ago) be expected to continue suffering so that Jews can dominate somewhere, regardless of the fact that Israel keeps electing governments that support settlement expansion, protect abusive settlers, harass Palestinians in the West Bank on a day-to-day basis and oppose a just peace.

Picture of a white woman wearing a green headwrap putting her face up to the window of a home, which has been reinforced with a metal wire fence, repeating the word "sharmoota" (whore) to the female Palestinian occupant.
An Israeli settler woman abuses a Palestinian woman in her home by calling her “sharmoota” (whore) repeatedly. (Source: B’Tselem.)

I should add that non-Jewish Zionists are every bit as self-righteous and dogmatic about policing how other people talk about Israel or Israelis as Jewish ones are. The other day, the Corbynite activist known as Rachael Swindon tweeted a video of what were claimed to be Israeli police abusing Palestinian schoolchildren; the video had actually been shot in Guatemala. If such a mistake had been made about any other country, it would simply have been pointed out; with this, there were demands for apologies because it was assumed that the intention must have been anti-Semitic, or it was deemed racist because it was about Israel. Given that there is plenty of real footage about Israeli soldiers and settlers abusing Palestinians, including children, why are people professing to be outraged that someone circulated one by mistake?

This is not to say that there is nothing to criticise Jeremy Corbyn or his followers for, but most of the anti-Semitism claims are exaggerated or wilfully misinterpreted and unlike in the Conservative party, they concern low-ranking officials rather than MPs or anyone with leadership or ministerial prospects. My experience of them is that they are at worst cult-like, and at best too devoted to him to see any wrong in his actions and, coming back to these elections, they cannot call a spade a spade. They will present a trivial gain (such as in a parish council election) as if it were a great triumph and will present losses, especially if they are smaller than expected or smaller than someone else’s, as gains. There is a kind of “magical thinking” that holds that words or ‘attitudes’ can turn defeats into victories or make victories more likely if people only believe. For example, I saw Aaron Bastani hype up a result in Christchurch, Dorset, in which two Labour candidates won less than half the number of votes as the winning independent candidates, and claim “Labour will get that into four figures next time”. Although Labour did gain seats in areas they had not previously done (e.g. on some councils in West Sussex), they scored a net loss even though it was a smaller one than the Tories’ who are taking the blame for the ongoing Brexit debacle. The only parties to gain were the Liberal Democrats and Greens, both unequivocally anti-Brexit while Labour sits on the fence. As these were district council elections (districts are responsible for housing, planning and refuse collection; counties cover education, libraries, transport and social care) turnout was low and these are an easy target for protest votes. In general elections, people are more likely to vote for candidates who can win, which is usually the Tories, Labour or a smaller party with a strong local or regional base. Sadly, one thing Remainers may not foresee is people who voted to stay in 2016 changing their minds out of faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed plans for, and ability to deliver, socialism outside the EU, despite no such plans having been made available for public scrutiny.

However, the agitators within the Labour Party, those who have left and those sniping from outside do not simply want to remove Corbyn from the leadership; they want to make it impossible for anyone to express a view about the state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian native people that is inconvenient or damaging to the standing of Israel. The “exposes” have been targeted at people at every level of the Labour party for making statements which, if they were about any other country, would not be classed as racist and rarely called for the state of Israel to be abolished or destroyed but accused it of meddling in other countries’ affairs or used ‘intemperate’ language to describe the violence they saw on TV or in videos. There is also an ongoing movement to demonise the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement as anti-Semitic and people have had visas withdrawn in some countries or been threatened with losing their jobs for participating, or for refusing to sign agreements not to participate. Again, BDS is not aimed at destroying Israel; it is aimed at forcing Israel to the negotiating table to secure a just peace, not a Bantustan surrounded on all sides by a hostile Israel. This is not about combating racism; it is about protecting an oppressive, racist regime which is regarded as a western ally. It is no surprise that partisans of Tony Blair, of the Labour party of the Iraq war, compulsory ID cards, the “foreign criminals scandal”, of Jack Straw of “get rid of the squeegie merchants and winos” and the niqab ‘controversy’ fame, are the ones pushing this agenda. I saw the campaign being described on Twitter as an attempt “by racists to smear anti-racists as ‘racists’” and it is hard to disagree with that, whether they all realise their attitudes are racist or not.

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