JVL Introduction

‘”I only wish people who disagree with Corbyn dealt with his policies and cease this ridiculous hunt for possible antisemitism in everything he does,”writes Donald Sassoon.


Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Donald Sassoon, Letters, The Guardian
2 May 2019


The campaign about antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour party is getting absurd (Corbyn urged to explain his praise for antisemitic book, 2 May). Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study has been taught for years in universities up and down the country (I taught it myself). No one has ever felt the need to highlight the 10 lines or so, in a book of 400 pages, which are antisemitic, but Corbyn was expected to do so.

Anyone who had not heard of this text would be forgiven for thinking this is antisemitic text. It is not. It was an extremely influential study of imperialism (it even influenced Lenin) and has always been read as such. I do not remember any article in scholarly journals making a point about that paragraph on the Rothschilds and the “race” which, Hobson claims, was so influential. The paragraph is completely marginal to the text. Far less marginal are Hobson’s comments about the “lower races” (ie black Africans) and what to do with them – also very common at the time (Part 2, Chapter 4). So why expect Corbyn (did he really read the entire book, it’s heavy going, believe me) to even mention that passage?

Should everyone who discusses Virginia Woolf point out that in a letter she notes how perturbed she was at sitting next to Sir Philip Sassoon, described as an “underbred Whitechapel Jew” and reflecting “How I hated marrying a Jew – how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental jewellery, and their noses…” (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. IV 1929-1931, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1979, pp.47, 195). Beware Woolf scholars who fail to mention that: the anti-antisemitic police may be after you. And how about Sidney Webb, one of the founders of the Fabian Society, when secretary of state for the colonies in the 1929 Labour government, explaining that he was pleased that there were “no Jews in the British Labour party” and that while “French, German, Russian Socialism is Jew-ridden. We, thank heaven, are free”, adding that was probably the case because there was “no money in it”.(Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism: The History of a Divorce, Manchester University Press 2012, p.20). And even Theodor Herzl, the “father” of Zionism, when describing an elegant soiree at the Berlin home of a wealthy businessman in 1885, lamented the presence of “Some thirty or forty ugly little Jews and Jewesses. No consoling sight”. (Amos Elon, Herzl, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1975, p.69)

I could go on but won’t. I only wish people who disagree with Corbyn dealt with his policies and cease this ridiculous hunt for possible antisemitism in everything he does.

Donald Sassoon
Emeritus professor of comparative European history, Queen Mary University of London