On 28 August this year, the New Statesman published an interview with Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, in which he described Jeremy Corbyn, the country’s main opposition leader, as “an anti-Semite.”
By way of evidence, Sacks cited comments made by Corbyn in 2013, when the Labour leader and long-standing supporter of Palestinian rights allegedly criticized Zionists for failing to understand English irony. An editorial in the same issue of the London magazine claimed that “Corbyn’s remarks conflated a political position and an identity.”
Even the traditionally Labour-supporting New Statesman, then, was endorsing the anti-Semitism charge.
My initial reaction to these accusations was to dismiss them. How could anyone believe such nonsense?
I have known and worked with Corbyn since the late 1970s. I cannot think of any other prominent politician who, throughout their entire adult life, has worked as tirelessly against racism in every form.
But on reflection, I think a more considered response is necessary. We need to look carefully at any such allegations. Theoretically, at least, they just might be true.
Corbyn’s remarks were made in reference to an earlier speech by Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the UK. Hassassian spoke in the British Parliament on 15 January 2013.
We don’t have access to Hassassian’s entire speech but Richard Millett, a pro-Israel activist, recorded it at the time.
The Jerusalem Post also published an extract from Hassassian’s speech, which read: “We, the Palestinians, the most highly educated and intellectual in the Middle East, are still struggling for the basic right of self-determination. What an irony. How long are we going to suffer and be patient with Israel? You know I’m reaching the conclusion that the Jews are the children of God, the only children of God and the Promised Land is being paid by God. I have started to believe this because nobody is stopping Israel building its messianic dream of Eretz Israel to the point I believe that maybe God is on their side. Maybe God is partial on this issue.”
Once Hassassian’s speech was over, Millett confronted him over what he had just said.
Corbyn had chaired the whole event and so witnessed this confrontation from close quarters. In a speech a few days later, he then chose to defend Hassassian in the face of what he has since called “deliberate misrepresentations by people for whom English was a first language, when it isn’t for the ambassador.”
Corbyn’s comment was only a short intervention in a much larger event, an international conference in central London titled “Britain’s Legacy in Palestine.” That 19 January 2013 event was organized by the Palestinian Return Centre and its subject was one of Corbyn’s favorite topics: the shameful and often bloody history of the British Empire.
Corbyn then said:
It was Zionism that rose up and Zionism that drove them into this sort of ludicrous position they have at the present time. That, for example, the other evening we had a meeting in Parliament in which Manuel [Hassassian] made an incredibly powerful and passionate and effective speech about the history of Palestine and the rights the Palestinian people. This was dutifully recorded by the thankfully silent Zionists who were in the audience on that occasion; and then [they] came up and berated him afterwards for what he had said. They clearly had two problems. One is they don’t want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either. Manuel does understand English irony and uses it very, very effectively.
Some readers may disagree, but I find it impossible to read these words without concluding that Corbyn was referring to Millett and his fellow activists, not to Zionists in general – and certainly not to Jews in general.
In fact, Corbyn’s main target appears to have been just one person, as Millett himself confirmed when he told the Daily Mail that Corbyn was directly referring to him. In a video accompanying the web version of the article, Millett clearly stated that “three days after [the Hassassian] event in Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn said I have no sense of English irony.”
Millett is certainly an interesting character.
Another pro-Israel campaigner, Jonathan Hoffman, reported in 2017 that Millett had to be evicted by police when a pro-Palestinian meeting in Parliament “degenerated into chaos as the group of pro-Israel activists protested.” My friend Tony Greenstein has described on his blog how Millett was banned from Amnesty International events for harassing people.
So, to summarize, Corbyn’s apparent crime was to say that a rather aggressive pro-Israel activist didn’t understand “English irony,” whereas an Armenian-Palestinian born in Jerusalem, whose first language is not English, did. Maybe I’m missing something but I just don’t see how this can possibly be interpreted as anti-Semitism.
The attacks on Corbyn’s reputation in recent months are merely a culmination of a longstanding campaign against pro-Palestinian leftists in the Labour Party.
Tony Greenstein, Moshé Machover and Jackie Walker all identify as Jewish.
Greenstein was expelled from the party in February this year, in the wake of wholly unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism which were leveled against him back in 2016.
In a party of half a million members there are, unfortunately, bound to be some who are anti-Semitic, and the party certainly needs to deal with this genuine problem. But media coverage has repeatedly, and quite cynically, combined examples of genuine anti-Semitism with examples of criticism of Israel and examples of anger expressed at opponents of Corbyn who happen to be Jewish.
The media have concocted a whole narrative about a Labour Party anti-Semitism problem that bears no relation to reality.
Even the supposedly notorious case of the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, making a comment about Hitler supporting Zionism, was evidently not an example of anti-Semitism. Rather it was an example of clumsy language concerning a complex historical topic.
Of course, what really angered the pro-Israel lobby was the fact that Livingstone raised the issue of collusion between some Zionists and the fascist movements of the 1930s. As is so often the case, rather than face up to the historical facts, the pro-Israel lobby prefers to simply accuse its critics of anti-Semitism.
We also need to remember that all these attacks on the left happened before the Labour Party adopted the most worrying clauses in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition of anti-Semitism.” These clauses now mean that any historian or anti-racist activist in the Labour Party who describes the existence of Israel as an inherently “racist endeavor” – or anyone who draws “comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” – risks denunciation as an “anti-Semite” followed by expulsion from the party.
Now that Labour’s national executive committee has adopted the complete IHRA definition, it could well be open season on any of us who dare to criticize the evidently racist policies of the Israeli state.
Even before this policy change, a Labour activist, Stan Keable, was suspended from his job at Hammersmith and Fulham Council merely for having a political disagreement with a pro-Israel protester outside Parliament.
Such blatant assaults on free speech now risk becoming a feature of British politics.
Labour’s executive committee did include an addition to the IHRA definition that, it claims, ensures there will be no undermining of “freedom of expression on Israel.” But, to deny members the right to describe Israel as a “racist endeavor” or to say that certain of its actions are reminiscent of those of the Nazi era – as even some Israeli leaders have done – is evidently a denial of free speech.
So, who will decide what is more important: a ban on such criticisms of Israel or freedom of speech?
I assume the decision will be left to people similar to those who, in their wisdom, chose to punish Greenstein, Machover, Walker and Keable on such deeply spurious grounds.
So, despite the official claims that this addition on “freedom of expression” will prevent further purges within the Labour Party, it may well make little difference.
Labour’s finance spokesperson, John McDonnell, has stated that “it is anti-Semitic to oppose a Jewish state.”
This surely means that anyone who opposes the idea of a state that prioritizes one religion over another can be deemed anti-Semitic if they apply this basic secular principle to Israel.
Without the freedom to discuss the inherent racism of the Israeli project – and to discuss both its differences to and similarities with the various fascist projects of the 1930s and 1940s – we cannot begin to understand the plight of the Palestinians. That’s why the IHRA definition may well have a devastating impact on both free discussion and on pro-Palestinian activism within the Labour Party.
Worse than this, it will encourage the McCarthyite tendencies already appearing across higher education in Britain. Pro-Palestinian student activism has already been restricted and at least one academic conference has already been banned.
Labour’s acceptance of the IHRA definition can only encourage the pro-Israel lobby further in its determination to censor pro-Palestinian discussion and activism across Britain’s campuses.
Approximately 200 academics have signed a letter complaining that the IHRA definition “seeks to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism” and may restrict free debate on Palestine.
A well-known lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, commented recently: “A particular problem with the IHRA definition is that it is likely in practice to chill free speech, by raising expectations of pro-Israeli groups that they can successfully object to legitimate criticism of Israel and correspondingly arouse fears in NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and student bodies that they will have events banned, or else will have to incur considerable expense to protect them by taking legal action. Either way, they may not organize such events.”
Ever since this whole “anti-Semitism” controversy broke out in 2016, Britain’s establishment politicians and media have found it politically convenient to conflate the terms “Zionist” and “Jew.”
There is a vital distinction between these two terms. And it will be up to those of us who care about the truth, who care about Palestinian rights and who care about the threat of genuine anti-Semitism to insist on the distinction at every opportunity.
Chris Knight is a member of the editorial board of Labour Briefing, a publication based in London. He writes here in a personal capacity.