Not a usual suspect – but suspect now?

Robin Lustig

JVL introduction

Robin Lustig, long-time Middle-East correspondent,  describes himself as a “pretty unlikely Corbyn supporter on this issue”.

He is quite clear, nonetheless, that “Arguing over definitions of antisemitism does not pose an existential risk to anyone. And it does the Jewish newspaper editors’ cause no good at all to claim that it does.”

Robin Lustig,
27 July 2018

Corbyn on antisemitism: more right than wrong?

I have a question for the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who this week – together with the editors of two rival Jewish publications – published a statement in which they claimed that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pose an ‘existential threat to Jewish life in this country’.

Their fear stems from the Labour party’s insistence that it does not wish to adopt as an example of antisemitism ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’

So my question is this: does he regard the statement ‘the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 may well have been a mistake’ as antisemitic? And how about this? ‘The Zionist dream of a homeland in which Jews could live in safety has turned out to be a chimera.’

Both statements, on the face of it, could be interpreted as denying Jews their right to self-determination. They would, therefore, fall foul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism which is at the centre of the row over the Labour party’s alleged failure to deal with the issue.

But as it happens, both statements are taken from an article that appeared in the Jewish Chronicle itself – an article that I remember well because I wrote it.

In my memoir, Is Anything Happening? (still available from all the usual places), I reflected at some length on my time as a Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem and my three decades of reporting from and about the region. My conclusion, in the book as well as on the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, was as quoted above.

So am I antisemitic? As the son of refugees from Nazi Germany, whose maternal grandmother was shot by a Nazi death squad in 1941 (the story is here if you’re interested), I think I’m a pretty unlikely antisemite.

I’m also a pretty unlikely Corbyn supporter on this issue – a few months back, I described his attempts to deal with it as having demonstrated ‘a truly spectacular level of incompetence’. Yet when it comes to definitions, I think he is more right than wrong.

Here is what the Labour party’s code of conduct on antisemitism says about its attitude towards Israel: ‘The party is clear that the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as other people. To deny that right is to treat the Jewish people unequally and is therefore a form of antisemitism.’

And it adds: ‘The fact of Israel’s description as a Jewish state does not make it permissible to hold Jewish people or institutions in general responsible for alleged misconduct on the part of that state. In addition, it is wrong to apply double standards by requiring more vociferous condemnation of such actions from Jewish people or organisations than from others.’

All of which strikes me as perfectly adequate. And if I were a member of the Labour party, I don’t think I would fall foul of its rules.

Nor would the Israeli-born musician Daniel Barenboim, who wrote the other day that a new Israeli law which states that ‘Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it’ is a ‘very clear form of apartheid’. Under the IHRA definition on the other hand (‘the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’), he would almost certainly be branded an antisemite. What, after all, is apartheid, if not a ‘racist endeavour’?

At the heart of the Labour party’s problems over all this lie the left’s five decades of antipathy towards the state of Israel, matched only by their antipathy towards the US. Ever since the 1967 war, when Israel seized control of the territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, as well as east Jerusalem, it has been seen by many on the left as an aggressive oppressor of the Palestinian people, to be condemned at every opportunity.

Given that Israel is the fulfilment of a Zionist dream (Zionism = a political ideology that supports the establishment of a Jewish homeland), if Israel behaves badly – so the argument goes — then it must be the fault of Zionists. And if most Jews describe themselves as Zionists … well, you can see where this is going.

Jeremy Corbyn and those around him have a long history of tolerating anti-Zionists who too often stray across the line into antisemitism. If they were better able to tell the difference, they could have avoided much of the current nonsense.

Even so, for Jewish newspapers to talk of an ‘existential risk to Jewish life in this country’ is to give new meaning to the concept of hyperbole.

As it happens, I have just been doing some research into my own family background. My paternal grandmother’s cousin, Julius Philippson, was an anti-Nazi activist in Berlin who was arrested in 1937, sentenced to life imprisonment and never heard of again.

Another of her cousins, another Julius, Julius Flesch, was also active in the underground, fled to Italy, where he was betrayed in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz where he died.

Arguing over definitions of antisemitism does not pose an existential risk to anyone. And it does the Jewish newspaper editors’ cause no good at all to claim that it does.

Robin Lustig is a journalist and broadcaster. From 1989-2012 he presented Newshour on BBC World Service and The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4. He studied politics at the University of Sussex and began his journalistic career as a Reuters correspondent in Madrid, Paris and Rome. He then spent 12 years at The Observer before moving into broadcasting in 1989. He has extensive experience of covering major world events for the BBC, and has broadcast live programmes from Abuja, Amman, Baghdad, Berlin, Harare, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Kabul, Kosovo, Moscow, New York, Paris, Rome, Sarajevo, Shanghai, Tehran, Tokyo and Washington. Among the many political leaders he has interviewed are Nelson Mandela, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Tony Blair. He has won a number of awards, including the 1998 Sony Silver Award for Talk/News Broadcaster of the Year. In 2013 he received the Charles Wheeler award for outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Dave says:

    Good piece, although I take issue with:

    “it [Israel] has been seen by many on the left as an aggressive oppressor of the Palestinian people,”

    It’s hardly just a left wing view given the 40 or more Un resolutions condemning Israel.


    “Jeremy Corbyn and those around him have a long history of tolerating anti-Zionists who too often stray across the line into antisemitism.”

    Really? The seems to be meme that’s become common currency but not evidenced.

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