Jeremy Corbyn’s record

Joseph Finlay

Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-racist, not an Antisemite


Joseph Finlay is the former Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and cofounded a range of grassroots Jewish organisations such as Moishe House London, Wandering Jews, Jewdas and The Open Talmud Project. He is a member of the Steering Group of JVL.

This article first appeared today, 26 March, as a blog on Jewish News.

I love stories. They’re wonderful things, helping us to understand the world around us, navigate our way through life and deal with the challenges that it throws up.

Stories don’t only exist in the pages of books, we also use them to understand real life. When there are so many facts  competing for our attention we use stories, or narratives, to explain what is really going on. When  new facts come along we slot them into our pre-existing narrative, saving us from having to examine them too closely. If the story is good enough, with real drama and plausible heroes and villains, it may well continue long after the facts cease to convince.

One of the most popular, and well covered stories of recent years, is that Labour is an antisemitic party.  Like all the best stories it started with small details, of lowly Labour members who had posted stupid and offensive things on Facebook. There was a dark guilt-by association sub-plot — as prominent Labour figures were criticised for having had fleeting encounters with people who had said offensive things. But this weekend has been the denouement of the story — the grand finale that we should have seen coming all long. It is no longer just that the leadership of the Labour Party has been soft on antisemitism – Jeremy Corbyn himself is, drumroll, an antisemite! Now the villain of the tale has finally been unmasked the coda is inevitable – Jeremy Corbyn will be forced out, the Blairites will return to great fanfare, and everyone will live happily ever after in a centrist Eden.

This story is now out of control. It is distorting, rather than helping us understand reality.

Most real life stories have a least a grain of truth in them and this one is no different. There have been a small number of Labour members that posted antisemitic items online, mostly some form of conspiracy theory, or crude and offensive language describing Israel. The Party has rightly taken action against these people. But these true aspects, have emboldened the storytellers to make ever more outlandish claims to the point where I now see Jewish friends saying ‘It could happen here’ — with the ‘it’ implying that we are inching towards Nazism in the UK. This is madness. Small incidents do not add up to this kind of metanarrative, However good the story (and scary stories are the most compelling) it has been cast adrift from the real world. We need to take a step back.

Firstly we need to restore some perspective. The Labour party has thousands of Jewish members, many Jewish councillors, a number of prominent Jewish MPs and several Jewish members of it’s ruling council. Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences.

So what, say those enraptured by the tale? That counts for nothing — the leader is an antisemite!

This too, is nonsense. Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983 – a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him,  As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. He is close friends with the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Group, from whom he has gained a rich knowledge of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund, and he has named the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists at the Battle of Cable as a key historical moment for him. His 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day statement talked about Shmuel Zygielboym, the Polish Bund leader exiled to London who committed suicide in an attempt to awaken the world to the Nazi genocide. How many British politicians have that level of knowledge of modern Jewish history?

There’s more. Jeremy Corbyn is one of the leading anti-racists in parliament – I would go so far to say that he is one of the least racist MPs we have. So naturally Corbyn signed numerous Early Day motions in Parliament condemning antisemitism, years before he became leader and backed the campaign to stop Neo-Nazis from meeting in Golders Green in 2015.

Because all racisms are interlinked it is worth examining Corbyn’s wider anti-racist record. Corbyn was being arrested for protesting against apartheid while the Thatcher government defended white majority rule and branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Corbyn was a strong supporter of Labour Black Sections – championing the right of Black and Asian people to organise independently in the Labour party while the Press demonised them as extremists. He has long been one of the leaders of the campaign to allow the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands to return after they were forcibly evicted by Britain in the 1960s to make way for an American military base. Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Who do you put your trust in — the people who hate antisemitism because they hate all racism or the people (be they in the Conservative party or the press) who praise Jews whilst engaging in Islamophobia and anti-black racism? The right-wing proponents of the Labour antisemitism narrative seek to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ minorities — they do not have the well being of Jews at heart.

Let’s return the story to the facts. Antisemitism is always beyond the pale. Labour, now a party of over half a million members, has a small minority of antisemites in its ranks, and it suspends then whenever it discovers them. I expect nothing less from an anti-racist party and an anti-racist leader. If the Conservatives took the same approach to racism they would have to suspend their own foreign secretary, who has described Africans as ‘Picanninies’ and described Barack Obama as ‘The part-Kenyan President [with an] ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. From the Monday club, linked to the National Front, to MP Aidan Burley dressing up a  Nazi, to Lynton Crosby’s dogwhistle portrayl of Ed Miliband as a nasal North London intellectual it is the Conservative Party that is deeply tainted by racism and antisemitism.

There are many threats to Jews – and we are right to be vigilant. These threats come primarily from resurgent nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and a Brexit narrative that seeks to restore Britain to a mythical age of ethnic purity. The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error. Worst of all, it’s a bad story that we’ve been telling for far too long. Let’s start to tell a better one.

Comments (10)

  • marion roberts says:

    Excellent article.

  • Steve Griffiths says:

    Excellent piece: thanks. I too know that Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-racist credentials go far back: and your points about hypocrisy on the part of the finger-pointers are very timely.

  • Graham skinner says:

    Absolutely brilliant article you are so correct in pointing out we’re anti Semitic talk is coming from.The right wing media along with the BBC are intent in trying to denounce Corbyn and the party as anti Semitic,they are so far from the truth,and cannot be bothered to read the facts which are easily available to everyone.

    I am not Jewish but feel that the Board of Deputies has been hijacked by this government and the right wing press,all they do is slander and manipulate the truth for their own gratification,and who suffers?

    This corrupt government needs to be voted out sooner rather than later,and we all must stick together irrespective of our different religions we are all socialists that is the important criteria in our lives,helping out helping our fellow man,truth will out in the end

    • Chris East says:

      I would say that the Board of Deputies has highjacked the government as they did when May had Saed Ralah imprisoned with no consideration of the facts.

  • Robert Hawkins says:

    It’s about time that the Labour party stated to fight back against this right wing plot. Can the JVL not make more noise, specially with the Board of Deputies. I may be a bit ‘conspiracy theorist’ here, but I wonder just how the members of the Board itself vote.

  • Donald King says:

    In fact, Michael Fallon called Ed Miliband a ‘back-stabber’ because he had ran for the Labour leadership against his brother after earlier saying that he wouldn’t. Whether Mr Miliband is a North London intellectual is purely a matter of opinion.

  • Jim Denham says:

    Corbyn’s letter to organisers of this evening’s protest. It’s pretty good (or at least heading in the right direction, and well away from the JVL response).

    “Dear Jonathan and Jonathan,

    Thank you for your letter to the Labour Party concerning antisemitism issued as a press statement last night.

    First of all, let me acknowledge the anger and upset that provoked it, and repeat my offer of an urgent meeting to discuss the issues you have raised as soon as possible.

    I stated yesterday, and repeat today, that I will not tolerate any form of antisemitism that exists in or around our party and movement. I am committed to eliminating antisemitism wherever it exists.

    As I told the Labour Party conference in 2016, antisemitism is an evil that led to the worst crimes of the 20th century. Prejudice and hatred of Jewish people has no place whatsoever in the Labour Party, and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure it is never allowed to fester in our society again.

    I recognise that antisemitism has surfaced within the Labour Party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples. This has caused pain and hurt to Jewish members of our Party and to the wider Jewish community in Britain. I am sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused, and pledge to redouble my efforts to bring this anxiety to an end.

    While the forms of antisemitism expressed on the far Right of politics are easily detectable, such as Holocaust denial, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes antisemitism in the labour movement. Sometimes this evil takes familiar forms – the east London mural which has caused such understandable controversy is an example. The idea of Jewish bankers and capitalists exploiting the workers of the world is an old antisemitic conspiracy theory. This was long ago, and rightly, described as “the socialism of fools.” I am sorry for not having studied the content of the mural more closely before wrongly questioning its removal in 2012.

    Newer forms of antisemitism have been woven into criticism of Israeli governments. Criticism of Israel, particularly in relation to the continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people, cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, comparing Israel or the actions of Israeli governments to the Nazis, attributing criticisms of Israel to Jewish characteristics or to Jewish people in general and using abusive phraseology about supporters of Israel such as “Zio” all constitute aspects of contemporary antisemitism. And Jewish people must not be held responsible or accountable for the actions of the Israeli government.

    The Labour Party has always opposed antisemitism, old and new, and always will. We are proud of our deep historical links with Jewish communities, and to have fought alongside generations of Jewish men and women against fascism, prejudice and discrimination. This is a part of our common heritage from which we will never be separated. But I acknowledge that antisemitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years, and that the Party has been too slow in processing some of the cases that have emerged. Early action has nevertheless been taken, and we will work to speed up procedures, to deal with cases of antisemitic abuse or attitudes.

    I am committed to making our Party a welcoming and secure place for Jewish people. Zero tolerance for antisemites means what it says, and the Party will proceed in that spirit. That demands among other things the overdue full implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report, including a programme of political education to increase awareness and understanding of all forms of antisemitism.

    The battle against antisemitism should never become a party political issue. It must unite all of us if we are both to honour the memory of the victims of the bestial crimes of the 20th century and build a future of equality and justice for all.

    In that spirit, I must make it clear that I will never be anything other than a militant opponent of antisemitism. In this fight, I am your ally and always will be.

    Best wishes,

    Jeremy Corbyn MP

  • Jonathan Goldfarb says:

    What an incredibly depressing and self-serving article. Jeremy Corbyn’s response above underlines the profound issues that brought us out to Westminster this evening, and which you shockingly downplay. I’ll reserve judgment on whether he himself is antisemitic but his response at the time to the mural can only make you wonder.

  • Chris East says:

    Tony Greenstein says that Corbyn is being too soft on the Zionists who are just laughing at him because they do not want a future PM who will not be pro-Israel. That makes sense to me.

  • Jonathan Goldfarb says:

    Viewpoints like those above were exactly why there was an urgent and vital need to be in Parliament Swuare on Monday evening.

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