Jeremy – seize the initiative!

Illustration: Ben Jennings

JVL Introduciton

In the Guardian today Gary Younge offers Jeremy advice on the speech he badly needs to make in order to seize the initiative.

Jeremy Corbyn needs to take on his critics with a major speech. Here’s what he should say

Labour’s leader should own his mistakes – but he has been on the right side of history more often than many of his critics

On 18 March 2008, during a media feeding frenzy about statements made by his radical Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, presidential hopeful Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia. His aim was to lay out his candidacy and experiences within the context of America’s racial history. Jeremy Corbyn needs to make a similar intervention over accusations of antisemitism. This is the speech he should, and could, give.

For as long as I can remember, anti-racism and internationalism have been a central part of my life. My parents met at a rally supporting Spanish Republicans who were fighting General Franco’s fascists – a crucial episode in the spread of fascism across Europe that saw Hitler’s rise and all the carnage that came with it. My politics were shaped by a leftwing tradition that had a clear notion that injustice could not be tolerated – and that principle was as crucial to defend abroad as it was at home.

So to be branded an antisemite – and the leader of an antisemitic party – after five decades of political activism is something I have had to take seriously, even as I have found it deeply distressing personally.

Antisemitism has a long, vile and violent history, not least in this country and this continent, where Jews were all too recently threatened with being extinguished as a people. Accusations of antisemitism should never be dismissed summarily, cavalierly or defensively – it is far too serious a matter for that. Such accusations should not be made opportunistically, baselessly or for crude political gain, either – it is far too serious a matter for that, too. Antisemitism is an evil in itself. Its gravity does not hinge on whether the accuser or the accused is Labour or Tory, Jew or gentile, Old Labour or New.

The left has an impressive history of fighting bigotry and racism in all its forms, and I am proud to have dedicated a significant section of my life to that struggle. I make no apology for that. It has been a struggle conducted both in parliament, where I was one of a handful of MPs who opposed the hostile environment policy that led to the ill-treatment of the Windrush generation, and in the streets, demonstrating with the Anti-Nazi League against the far right and neo-Nazis during the 1970s and beyond.

The left has a proud record of internationalism and I am proud to have dedicated a significant part of my political life to that also. I protested against Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds in 1988 while the Tory government endorsed selling him weapons; I marched against the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the Labour government joined the US. I was arrested for protesting against apartheid in 1984 when the British government still branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. I supported dialogue between Sinn Féin and the British state, a strategy that led to peace, while our government sought military victory, which escalated the conflict.

I make no apology for this either, even when there have been overtures I have made to groups or individuals that, when divorced from their historical context, appear unwise. Politics is about hard choices. You don’t make peace with your friends but with your enemies. I have been on the right side of history far more often than I have not been – and certainly far more often than those who seek to sully my name by distorting my past.

Labour does not have the antisemitism problem that many in the media and the political class accuse us of having

There is no contradiction in being a committed anti-racist and an internationalist – indeed they come from exactly the same belief: that everybody should be treated equally, that our human rights are indivisible and that discriminating against people is wrong, whoever you are and wherever you are. But there is a specific challenge when it comes to Israel and Palestine as it relates to antisemitism and British Jewry.

There is no shortage of people, on every side of the Middle East conflict, who have blood on their hands. But it is my sincere belief that it is not a conflict between equals. Israel is a regional superpower backed by the west and armed to the teeth that occupies the West Bank and is building settlements on Palestinian land, in defiance of international law. It recently passed a law that makes Israeli-Arabs second-class citizens. Like most people in Britain and around the world we support the Palestinian right to create their own state.

British Jews are not homogeneous. They have a range of views on everything, including the Middle East. That said – and for understandable reasons, particularly relating to the Holocaust – even though many British Jews are critical of Israeli policies, the vast majority feel a close affinity with the country.

So my history of pro-Palestinian activism, which I have always been very open about, is a source of legitimate tension with many British Jews. Reasonable people can disagree on both the origins and the potential solutions to the conflict in the Middle East – that disagreement does not make either me or the Labour party antisemitic.

The challenge has come in navigating that tension with sensitivity while establishing a clear, coherent and robust distinction between criticising Israel and criticising Jews. Over the last few years it has become painfully clear to me that some on the left have not always risen to that challenge.

The left in general, and Labour in particular, does not have the antisemitism problem that many in the media and the political class accuse us of having. There is no poll or survey that supports the notion that antisemitism is rife on the left or, indeed, any worse than it is among Conservatives.

Yet we do have a problem. Antisemitism is a hardy virus and it would be a grave mistake to assume that we are somehow immune from it. There are some on the left who seek to hold Jews accountable for what Israel does. That is wrong. Some believe that because Jews are overwhelmingly white and some are wealthy, antisemitism is somehow less worthy of our concern than other forms of discrimination. They are wrong. Some believe that because so many of the attacks on Labour under my leadership have been baseless that all of these accusations are baseless. They are wrong. In the words of the great African-American writer and activist WEB Du Bois: “Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasised that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in.”

I take responsibility for this. When accusations have been made we have, at times, been too slow to respond or have responded evasively. We could have worked harder to engage with Jewish communities. It makes me cringe to know that, on a handful of occasions, I shared platforms with people who have made reprehensible statements and failed to challenge antisemitic remarks others have made in my presence. On at least one occasion I failed to recognise what I now see were clear antisemitic tropes in a mural. I deeply regret the offence this has caused. There are many things I am attacked for having done that I make no apology for. But these apologies I own. They were my mistakes. And the apology comes not from a point of weakness but strength because I can do better.

The Labour party isn’t perfect. But it’s still the party of justice, equality and inclusion. It’s the party that has sent more women, black, Asian and Muslim MPs to parliament than any other. It’s the party that introduced the first Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, hate crimes legislation and commissioned the Macpherson report. That is our history. That is our tradition. Those are not only our founding principles but our guiding principles. And that will be our future.

Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist

Comments (9)

  • Simon Dewsbury says:

    an article which I (largely) don’t disagree with too much. But it’s interesting that it’s the first time that Gary Younge has commented on ‘antisemitism’ in the many months that this has been going on. Has the Guardian realised the harm it’s doing to itself and is trying to row back a little by actually allowing alternative viewpoints? Or does it think that the battle to install the full IHRA is won and it can ‘breathe out’ a bit. Either way I am not going to forgive it lightly.

  • Rick Hayward says:

    There are few more admirable journalists than Gary Younge.

    But I believe that he is falling into the ‘mea culpa’ trap in an honest attempt to reach a conciliation with those who have no investment in such a path.

    The basic facts are in the last paragraph :

    “The Labour party isn’t perfect. But it’s still the party of justice, equality and inclusion.”

    … which doesn’t exclude the possibility genuine (as opposed to fake, politicaly-inspired accusations) of antisemitism – but denies the propaganda of ‘existential threat’ and its ‘endemic’ nature.

    More importantly, the Party has attempted a balanced working definition to counter any real antisemitism. In the analysis of known cases, it has been those falsely accused that have been the main victims in this noisy shouting match.

  • Danny Nicol says:

    A good piece but he asserts that ‘the vast majority’ of Jews have a ‘close affinity’ to Israel. As a researcher I see difficulties in establishing all that. Who would be the sample? Members of ‘the community’ alone would give a distorted picture. So how would a survey identify Jews like me and the likely readers of this website to ask? Questionable whether the Census identifies Jews or could do so, given racism fears and the backdrop of the Holocaust. It raises questions of research rigour and research ethics. So I think the author should have worded that sentence more cautiously.

  • frank says:

    Norman Finkelstein’s rebuttal of Hodge’s insane rant.

  • Jaye says:

    Interesting article and some sensible statements but Corbyn’s views are not that moderate unfortunately.

    Danny – do you really challenge that ‘the vast majority’ of Jews have a ‘close affinity’ to Israel? I would say vast vast based on the hundreds/thousands of Jews that I have been acquainted with from all parts of the community and non-affiliated. Israel is in our blood, our history, our prayers, our hopes. Israel might not be perfect but love of Zion is central to most Jews and that’s why it’s likely to hurt when we perceive it is wronged or does wrong.

  • frank says:

    Jaye. “Corbyn’s views are not that moderate unfortunately”
    Please explain that statement with some evidence please.
    Or are you just a troll who never offers any evidence.

  • ray visino says:

    I don’t think that mural was antisemitic at all. There were two Jewish bankers among six depicted, playing monopoly on the backs of the toiling workers. They all had stylised or cartoonish faces including Warburg and Rothschild. It had nothing to do with antisemitism, it was powerfully anti-capitalist.

  • Jaye says:

    Calling others trolls is a bit of a giveaway Frank, as is the requirement to submit a research paper to you on every obvious statement or observation. Let’s start with the earth is round.

    You made this same “evidence” challenge to me on Winstanley’s article on hasbara and you haven’t disputed the evidence I pointed to there. And for balance, which is one of the elements sadly missing from most articles on this site, you should perhaps call for “evidence” on every absurd statement thrown around in articles and comments here; but you probably agree with every anti-Israel generality so they get a pass from you.

  • frank says:

    Jaye. and yet you still offer NO evidence for your statement. Just some rambling attempt at obfuscation.

Comments are now closed.