Since his election as Labour leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has faced an unprecedented campaign of vitriol from the combined forces of the Jewish Labour Movement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, right-wing Labour MPs, and pro-Israel newspapers with mainstream press and broadcast media all too happy to jump on the bandwagon.
In response there has been an impressive show of solidarity from his supporters. Following days of manufactured outrage over comments made by Peter Willsman – Labour veteran and Corbyn ally – the hashtag #WeAreCorbyn trended at number one in the UK and number three worldwide. (Willsman’s crime: to demand evidence from those denouncing Corbyn for anti-Semitism.)
This reflexive defense of Corbyn shows the level of respect for his hitherto unwavering commitment to social justice and fighting racism. The invective against him has, however, also prevented any real examination of Corbyn’s positions on Palestine -– positions that are far less radical than often presumed.
More urgently at the present juncture, save for a few dissenting voices (such as The Electronic Intifada’s Asa Winstanley), he has also escaped opprobrium for manifestly failing to push back against the smear of anti-Semitism and for becoming increasingly apologetic for past solidarity with Palestine.
This can no longer be allowed to stand. The stakes are much too high.
Reports suggest Corbyn has capitulated to the demand that Labour incorporate into its Code of Conduct all four of the thus-far resisted “examples” of anti-Semitism devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This is despite Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) voting against this in mid-July.
Ostensibly, a Labour NEC working group is still “consulting” on the issue. However, Corbyn has preempted the final outcome. He has unilaterally announced Labour now has an issue with only “half of one [IHRA] example.” Worryingly, reports suggest Corbyn will seek adoption of the IHRA examples as early as 4 September, conveniently before the Labour Party Conference at the end of the same month.
These developments reveal the need for an urgent refocusing away from defending Corbyn to the real task at hand: exposing the manufactured anti-Semitism crisis and the IHRA’s assault on the right to criticize Israel.
Tragically, the fight over the IHRA now looks to have also become a fight against Corbyn.
Inadequate critique of Zionism
It is a matter of fact that no MP has done more to champion the Palestinian cause than Jeremy Corbyn. Such stalwart solidarity does however run alongside some far from radical political positions on Israel.
After Kate Osamor, Labour’s shadow development secretary, tweeted her support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights last year, Corbyn’s office felt compelled to declare this was not Labour policy and “Jeremy is not in favor of a comprehensive or blanket boycott” of Israel.
Not only does he oppose this most important lever of international pressure on Israel, he insists a Labour government would breathe life into the entirely fictive peace process in support of an equally fictive two state solution. Objectively speaking, these positions are dangerous and retrograde; a recipe for continued annexations and the very destruction of Palestine.
Worse, in his recent Guardian newspaper mea culpa on Labour’s “anti-Semitism problem,” Corbyn spoke of the historic contribution of Zionists and anti-Zionists to Labour as equally “honorable.” He attacked the left for its belief “in the 1970s” that “Zionism is racism.” This was just as wrong, he claimed, as asserting today that “anti-Zionism is racism.”
Such equivalences could be dismissed as unseemly pragmatism. However, when one takes Corbyn’s positions as a whole, his critique of Zionism is evidently far from internally consistent or rigorous.
A compromise too far
This may go some way to explaining why he genuinely seems to believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – that a compromise can somehow be reached over the IHRA examples. “Our actual differences are in fact very small,” he maintains. This is completely delusional. Worse, it misrepresents the constellation of forces waging war on Labour and the Palestine solidarity movement as acting in good faith.
The attempt to impose all IHRA examples is, by definition, an attempt to impose a single narrative over the entire Labour membership to eliminate the anti-Zionist tradition in the party altogether. The IHRA’s proscriptions simply do not permit recognition of Israel as an exceptional state, i.e. a structurally racist colonial-settler project wedded to the superiority of one ethnic group over another.
Those that seek to impose them aim to normalize and detoxify Israel while undermining Palestinian solidarity within the party.
A chilling vision of this can be seen in Corbyn’s most recent remarks on resolving the IHRA issue. He insists he is working on a formula to permit discussion of “relations between Israel and Palestine, the future of the peace process and, yes, criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government in the bombing of Gaza and other places.”
In other words, legitimate criticism of Israel will be criticism of this or that particular policy or action.
Illegitimate criticism will be questioning the foundational nature of Zionism, its historic and continued attempts to de-Arabize the land and “redeem” Palestine exclusively for the Jewish people.
Incredibly, Corbyn seems to have conceded the Jewish Labour Movement’s arrogant and chauvinist right to police the discursive boundaries of the conflict.
All four IHRA examples must be fought
This might seem unfair given Corbyn is still holding out on “half of one [IHRA] example” – calling Israel “a racist endeavor.” However, this phrase cannot so easily be cut from the whole. This first part maintains it is anti-Semitic to “deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination.” In other words, to contest the right of Israel to exist. This is far from innocuous given Israel is not a state of all its citizens.
Indeed, Israel’s new nation-state law is explicit: the right of self-determination in Israel belongs exclusively to Jews.
So whether we chop the statement in half or not we arrive at the same place – legitimization of Israeli racism and the second-class status of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. By extension, this example, in part or whole, affirms Israel’s right to shore up its Jewish character through immigration and naturalization policy while denying the right of return to Palestinian refugees.
Further, a perverse sleight-of-hand is at work when this example meets another seemingly conceded by Corbyn. The IHRA insist Jews have an unassailable right to be regarded as a national group (for the purpose of self-determination) – while at the same time insisting it is anti-Semitic to suggest Jews (outside Israel) are more loyal to Israel than “their own country.”
Adopting these two examples together severely constricts free speech. One is compelled to accept Israel as an extra-territorial state, belonging to Jews everywhere, while prevented from criticizing an Israel lobby for acting as an agent of a foreign state.
Corbyn also appears willing to accept it is anti-Semitic to make demands of Israel “not expected of other democratic nations.” This is the most absurd of the IHRA examples. At what point will the threshold of excessive demand be reached?
Incorporating this example will render questionable the motives of all those who commit themselves to the Palestinian struggle but who do not demonstrate equal zeal elsewhere. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement will surely be called into question as it selectively targets Israel for the very reason Israel is not like “other democratic nations.”
“One Nation, One State”
Lastly, Corbyn now seems to agree it is inherently anti-Semitic to “make comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is fallacious, as shown by the frequency of such comparisons inside Israel itself.
In 2016, official celebrations marking Israel’s 68th year used the slogan “Am Ehad, Medina Ahat” (One Nation, One State). Its anti-Arab subtext and echo of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” was widely noted. Days before, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff outraged the Israeli right by condemning “revolting” similarities between Israeli society and 1930s Germany.
In a speech for Holocaust Remembrance Day no less.
The Jewish Labour Movement’s objection to the Nazi analogy is certainly not on grounds of taste and decency. Witness Margaret Hodge MP’s outrageous claim that on receiving a disciplinary letter – for calling Corbyn a “fucking anti-Semite and racist” – she felt “the same fear” her father experienced when fleeing Hitler’s Germany.
Rather, banishing the analogy is a mechanism to sanitize discussion of Israel.
It’s not over yet
There is little time left to hold Corbyn’s feet to the fire.
The fight against the IHRA must be taken up as matter of urgency by all constituency Labour parties, in demonstrations and on social media. In terms of the latter, the principled and resolute Labour MP Chris Williamson and Jewish Voice for Labour showed the way, by backing a “Twitterstorm” on 20 August to retain Labour’s Code on Conduct.
Momentum members must isolate and denounce leader and NEC member Jon Lansman for lobbying for full incorporation of the IHRA examples. Floods of letters must be sent to the NEC and Corbyn himself.
Most importantly, Labour’s NEC must hear Palestinian voices. These have been thus far absent from its deliberations, and even its concerns, which have been entirely about Jewish and Zionist sensitivities.
Faced with this show of strength Corbyn may yet pull back from the brink and choose the right side.
Steven Garside is a member of the UK Labour Party and Palestine Solidarity Campaign. This article is written in a personal capacity.