Where Jewish Currents got it wrong

JVL Introduction

The US magazine Jewish Currents is generally good news.

So it was disappointing when it published a long, but unbalanced analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s failure as Labour Party leader.

It was even more disappointing when it refused to carry any critical rejoinders to that article. We gather, quite a few were submitted.

At the heart of the disagreement is Leifer’s view that Corbyn could simply have defused the antisemitism issue by offering assurances to the British Board of Deputies and British Jews more generally  – ignoring the absence of any evidence that communal institutions wanted to be reconciled.

The American online clearing house for “material of interest to people on the left”, portside.org, has carried a critical commentary which we repost here at the author’s request

Donna Nevel writes:

In a recent article in Jewish Currents by Joshua Leifer, “The Tragedy of Jeremy Corbyn,” he criticizes those from within the British Jewish community who attacked Corbyn while also perpetuating some of the same rhetoric and pitfalls as the community he critiques. While the author spoke to a number of people, he neglected to include some critical analysis offered by those closest to the situation in the UK and whose positions are different from what he put forth. He included a few quotes with these perspectives but a full story is missing. In a moment when the discourse around Palestinian rights and antisemitism is rife with conflation and omission, it’s critical to challenge this incomplete and distorted analysis.

The author writes that “With only a few words—“yes, I’m sorry”—Corbyn might have been able to avoid bad press in a crucial stretch leading up to the election. Instead, he launched into one of his characteristically long-winded disquisitions about his commitment to fighting antisemitism and “any other form of racism.”

But isn’t it also possible that Corbyn was acting in a principled manner and offering a thoughtful response. As Jewish Voice for Labour member Mike Cushman pointed out to me, “Corbyn was not prepared to do the normal politician schtick and make the statement that would win easy approval. He was long winded because he was trying to give a nuanced response to a complex situation.” This seems like a response to honor and to pay attention to, not to cite as a shortcoming.

The author also writes: “What if Corbyn’s leadership team had anticipated that they would need political capital to pursue an adamantly pro-Palestine politics and tried to address the fears of Jewish leaders in advance? What if, instead of retreating into defensiveness, they had moved to reconcile sooner with the British Jewish communal institutions where reconciliation was possible?”

Those of us who are active in organizations committed to justice in Palestine like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) are all too familiar with these critiques. What if we only tried to allay the fears of mainstream US Jewish organizations and learn how to talk to Jews, we are told. But talk won’t change those organizations’ determination to undermine all organizing for Palestinian justice. If you are a progressive Jewish group that addresses Palestine, and particularly if you support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), no amount of talk will help you avoid being attacked. The same is true in Great Britain. “There was and is no evidence,” Cushman notes, “that the communal institutions wished reconciliation – each move in their direction produced not appreciation but demands for further concessions. They wished not just to be heard on Labour policy, a reasonable request, but to have a veto on it.”

Cushman also added, and I think this is a critical point, “There was indeed a climate of fear among many British Jews, most of whom had no first-hand knowledge of the attitude of the Party towards Jews but had to rely on a steady stream of alarming and inaccurate reports which would have frightened anyone. It is one of the sins of those promulgating the untrue narratives that they made many members of the communities whose interests they claimed to be defending unnecessarily uneasy and reduced significantly their quality of life.”

Leifer continues in the same vein: “What if there had been better organized Jewish anti-occupation groups capable of disrupting the dominant narrative about Corbyn and Labour without replicating the escalatory dynamics that only worsened the problem?”  But Leifer has already made clear that there is a well-resourced right-leaning, virulently anti-Palestinian Jewish community that is more politically conservative than in the US. The majority of Jews in the US identify with the Democratic party. That is true of much of the Jewish establishment as well, albeit one that is wedding to their pro-Israel agenda. But in Britain the mass of Jews, over a long period, have quit the Labour party for the Conservatives and have no wish to see a Labour Government elected.

We know of course that one can be well organized and simply be up against a huge propaganda machine involving a well-resourced campaign and a media that shapes the narrative in ways benefiting the powers-that-be and working against those seeking justice. We know that politics is largely about power, and this premise that if they had simply done a better job of persuasion, things would have turned out differently totally ignores the power dimension and is naïve at best.

Similar reasoning is used when the author talks about Corbyn’s stand against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition that conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel: “Corbyn and the left’s initial failure to adequately address accusations of antisemitism meant that when he took a stand against the IHRA definition, he had no political room to maneuver.” But what did this have to do with maneuvering? There wasn’t a chance in the world any of these Jewish organizations were going to budge on the IHRA definition, which has become a tool to discredit supporters of Palestinian justice across the globe; that Corbyn stood up to them is a testament to his commitments.

The author also doesn’t explain the problems with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, which investigated allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party. Some of those problems are outlined here: 15 Reasons the EHRC Report can and should be challenged, and are essential to understanding what is really going on. For more information about the EHRC Report, you can also look here: Statements and articles on the EHRC report – a compilation. Jewish Voice for Labour has also detailed rebuttals of some of the most common false allegations.

These perspectives and analyses deserved far more attention and focus, and, while the voices of the Jewish establishment were critiqued, they were given much more authority than they deserved. If one is committed to challenging antisemitism together with all forms of injustice, this kind of misrepresentation does not further that goal.

Donna Nevel

[Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is co-director of PARCEO, a participatory research center. She is a team member of the Palestinian Nakba Project that develops curriculum for educators; is co-founder, with Elly Bulkin, of Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism; and was co-founder, with Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.]

Comments (6)

  • Margaret West says:

    Interesting article .. where the “I’m sorry” statement (or lack of ) appears to be crucial to the “Jewish Currents” critique.

    Of course Corbyn had ALREADY apologised for the problems in dealing with AS during his first year or so of office – yet the accusations still kept piling up.

    [Of course now we know WHY the disciplinary processes were poor ]

    The problem then lay with the current form of interview where a binary TRUE/FALSE answer to a question is expected when that question is ill-defined. So when Andrew Neil asked “Are you sorry…” the question was really a trap for it meant he was apologising for accusations which were not true. A quick way out could be to say “undefined” was the answer (or similar?).

    However in reality Corbyn was damned whatever he said ..

    A related comment – too many political interviewers currently favour a confrontational form of discourse. An example lies in asking binary TRUE/FALSE questions in cases where a nuanced “it depends what you mean” answer is appropriate.

  • Sheldon Ranz says:

    Having had the pleasure of knowing Donna and her husband Alan back in the day in New York, it doesn’t surprise me that she’s written this brilliant piece.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I am so pleased that there have been critiques sent in to Jewish Currents, and so sad that they have refused to carry any critical rejoinders. Also, glad to know, because I had been planning to write something, and now won’t waste my time!

    The question for me is why? Jewish Currents is a terrific publication, covering politics, culture, ideas, all with enormous sophistication, mostly well written, and it is always worth a read. The article by Joshua Leifer was, however, remarkably naive – how could a left Jewish political activist think that antisemitism wars are just about left insensitivity and community hurt? How could he ignore the power play – and the power disparities in our mainstream media – including the liberal like the Guardian, (and, I would argue, relatively speaking of course, the BBC)? Does he know so little about the religious and political demography of British Jews – so different from the US? And, perhaps worst of all – why be afraid of publishing rejoinders? Especially the very carefully thought through piece from Donna?

  • Max Joseph Joshua Cook says:

    Joshua Leifer has totally missed the point, Corbyn and others apologized to the Jewish communities over and over again it didn’t matter because organisations like BoD wanted more and more red meat (Corbyns resignation).
    I think Chris Williamson was right when he said “we apologized to much”, meaning that the right wing and LFI and BoD sensed that what they had started and the MSM continued day after day was working.
    I am ashamed of being a labour member right now because Starmer, Rayner and Evans and the other right wing MPs have handed our great movement into the hands of BoD and the Israeli government. Corbyn should NEVER have been treated like this especially with his PROVEN record on fighting AS and other racial and religious injustices.
    But somehow that didn’t seem to matter to any of the very poor actor’s in this very poor play.

  • Sheldon Ranz says:

    It appears that some of the new writers at Jewish Currents are smitten with Na’amod and other anti-Occupation groupings that keep their distance from Corbyn’s Labour Party.

  • steve mitchell says:

    I saw a group of British Palestinians interviewed on Channel 4 News [reposted here – JVL web]. They described their experience of life here. I was very moved by the programme. Channel 4 should be congratulated on letting viewers know Palestines exist. I expected a storm of criticism from the Right wing media.

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