Friday, 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.


Fynemor in limbo said...

Thank you Mr Lustig. Well reasoned and logical. The current government in Jerusalem's version of 'Zionism' makes this veteran of a Zionist youth group (Habonim Dror) feel distinctly anti-zionist, but never (as you say) anti-semitic. I think part of the problem is the diaspora's traditional knee-jerk defence of Israel right (or ultra right) or wrong. Heightened anti-semitic attack figures don't help either.
However, I still wonder if there is something to it if someone of the pedigree of Margaret Hodge says it.

Peter Foges said...

Dear Robin, While I agree that the editors are indulging in hysterical hyperbole and moral blackmail -- as is mostly the case in discussions of Israel and antisemitism -- I cannot agree with your assertion that the creation of the Israeli State "may have been a mistake". Given the self contradictions of British policy in 1916-17 -- plus the the cynical wording of the Balfour Declaration -- and given Auschwitz -- I don't see how the creation of the state was either avoidable or wrong. The Zionists were going to take Palestine at any cost -- even at the price of committing original sin. The Jews deserved it. The rest of course is tragedy. Yours Peter Foges, (former Sussex, former BBC, now Brooklyn.

Gerry said...

As far as I recall there was no antipathy towards Israel in the fifties on the left - including the CP - on the contrary, in fact. I recall local film shows of trips to kibbutzim. Antipathy did not emerge until much later.

Francis Hayden said...

Very good, Robin.

Surely nobody could argue with the idea that ‘the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as other people’.

And yet, it seems to me that this egalitarian statement hides something darker.

What other ‘people’ might we be talking about and what kind of ‘self-determination’ might they have a right to?

My father’s family fought for Irish self-determination but that ran into the issue of who we mean by ‘Irish’ and what kind of ‘self determination’ Ulster Protestants would have.

If we applied the same thinking to the British People, what would that mean? Which British People? If Jews qualify for self-determination by their ethnicity, would we say the same about white Brits? Isn’t that the kind of self-determination that Tommy Robinson wants?

It seems to me that there are dark depths to that innocent word ‘people’ and Israel has built them into its very constitution.


Unknown said...

A good and interesting letter. (I am a Jewish Labour party member who supports Corbyn but does not think he does everything right all the time)

Anonymous said...

As a British Jew I am very afraid now. Not of Corbyn who may be hapless, but is, I believe honourable in his anti racism. No I am afraid that this controversy cooked up by Corbyn opponents will back fire on the Jewish community who will be blamed for unseating a democratically elected opposition leader. The historical falsehood of Jews unduly influencing political life will be repeated and thrown back at Jews for decades. We have a failing gvt. and we need the official opposition party more than ever. Whether you like the current leadership or not it is better that it is as robust as possible than destroyed by false allegations.

Tony Greenstein said...

Except that Zionism is NOT just the desire for a Jewish homeland. It is a political project whose aim was to establish that homeland at the expense of another people by striking up an alliance with one or other imperialist powers, Britain as it happened. Zionism drew its inspiration from the racial nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. Herzl got on famously with Edouard Drumont, the chief anti-Dreyfussard and then with von Plehve. A whole raft of German Zionists took on the colour of the volkish nationalists and this ideology infused the Zionist experiment. From the start Zionism, with its Jewish labour and land, was a racist movement.

It is simply not true that Zionism was and is Jewish selfdetermination. When did ZIOnists first describe themselves as such? They used to openly call themselves colonists. They've borrowed the zeitgeist of the moment. Yes it is antisemitic to blame Jews for what Israel does but if Israel calls itself the nation state of all Jews, not even its own Jewish citizens, then it is as reasonable to blame Jews as it is to blame British people for the occupation of Ireland. In any case the idea that Jews form one nation is an antisemitic one.

I agree with much of your article and believe Corbyn should have fought back against this false and defamatory narrative of antisemitism. We are seeing a massive campaign which is state backed.

Unknown said...

The Jewish people Really need to get behind Jeremy Corbyn. This Zionist operation will back fire! Every Palestinian murdered,Israeli crime will be blamed on the Jewish people.The general public know little nor care about Zionism. Most equate; Zionism = Jewish. The Jewish people will pay the price of the Zionists and Israel hubris. This is part of the strategy, the more anti Semitism that can be stirred up the better for Zionists, whether that is perceived or actual anti Semitism. is a win win an acceptable loss. If Jeremy Corbyn falls we will all fall, In my humble opinion.