Friday 30 March 2018

Corbyn on anti-Semitism: shameless and incompetent

It takes a truly spectacular level of incompetence for an opposition leader to allow himself to be labelled soft on anti-Semitism.
What else can explain why it took Jeremy Corbyn no fewer than three attempts at issuing a statement of regret after it emerged that he had apparently supported an artist responsible for a grossly offensive anti-Semitic piece of public wall art in the East End of London?

Why else would he reply, when asked in a Jewish News interview whether he plans to visit Israel, 'At some point, yes, I will be in the Middle East,' so that it looked as if he was desperate not even to allow the word 'Israel' to pass his lips.

As it happens, I do not believe that Mr Corbyn is an anti-Semite. By which I mean that I don't believe he has an irrational hatred of Jews and all things Jewish. However, by his words and his actions (or, more often, his inactions), he has shown that he shares a mind-set that uncomfortably overlaps with those who really are anti-Semites.

In Mr Corbyn's case -- and in this, he is by no means alone, especially among those on the Left -- the thinking goes like this.

Israel is a major force of instability in the Middle East due to its fifty-year illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and its continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.

Israel was established due to the spread of a political ideology called Zionism, a racist creed that argues that Jews have more right than non-Jews to the land which they seized by force.

The vast majority of Jews are Zionists, and therefore, by implication, supporters of a racist ideology.

Conversely, anyone who supports the Palestinians must be an anti-racist, and therefore deserves to be supported, however much offensive nonsense they might spout about global Jewish conspiracies, the 'myth' of the Nazi holocaust, and how Mossad was responsible for 9/11. 

Any self-respecting anti-racist must also, therefore, be an anti-Zionist. QED. (Why else, when he insists that he has always opposed anti-Semitism, does Mr Corbyn also insist that he has always opposed racism?) Correctly, he argues that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same thing. Foolishly, he leaves himself wide open to criticism by consistently failing to make clear what the difference is.

Time and again, Mr Corbyn has found himself -- inadvertently, he insists -- in close proximity to the most obnoxious anti-Semites. He supported the East End wall artist without, he says, looking closely enough at his work. He belongs to closed Facebook groups on which all kinds of anti-Semitic garbage is spewed out because he doesn't have time to constantly monitor what is said there. It suggests a terrifying lack of concentration in a man who could soon be prime minister.

Time and again, those who swear allegiance to his cause slip across that line which they seem to have such trouble identifying. Christine Shawcroft, a leading member of Corbyn-supporting Momentum, and former chair of Labour's internal disputes panel, opposed the suspension of a local council candidate in Peterborough after he was accused of sharing on Facebook a piece of nonsense headlined 'International Red Cross report confirms the Holocaust of 6m Jews is a hoax.'

At Mr Corbyn's insistence, she has now resigned, although, bizarrely, it seems he's perfectly happy for her to remain a member of the party's national executive committee until the next NEC elections in June. As recently as last weekend, however -- yes, last weekend, not some time in the dim and distant past when no one seemed to bother about such things -- she apparently saw no reason why someone who shares Holocaust-denying drivel online should not stand for election under the Labour banner. Her excuse? 'I sent this email [supporting the candidate] before being aware of the full information about this case and I had not been shown the image of his abhorrent Facebook post.'

Well, excuse me if I don't buy it. Until this whole issue blew up in Labour's face, anti-Semitism among some of its members was so unremarkable that it routinely passed without comment. As recently as last Wednesday, a comment on a Facebook page called We Support Jeremy Corbyn referred to what it called 'the full onslaught of a very powerful special interest group [which] can employ the full might of the BBC to make sure its voice is heard very loudly and clearly.'

No prizes for guessing who the writer had in mind. Still, one anti-Semitic comment can hardly be evidence of a deep-seated problem, can it? Perhaps not, unless, as in this particular case, it was quickly approved by more than two thousand people, most if not all of them, presumably, supporters of Mr Corbyn.

The Labour leader insists repeatedly that not only is he a long-time campaigner against anti-Semitism but that he will not tolerate it in the party that he leads. I can't help wondering, however, why so many of his supporters seem not to believe that he really means it. Do they know something that the rest of us don't?

Perhaps they remember what he said in 2016, when he called an article by Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, 'utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness,' for having suggested that 'under Jeremy Corbyn the party has attracted many activists with views hostile to Jews.'

Which isn't quite the line he took this week in his letter to Jewish community leaders: 'I recognise that anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour party ... I acknowledge that anti-Semitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years ...'

So which is it, Mr Corbyn? For a man of supposedly rock-solid principles, you are proving remarkably flexible. Or perhaps you're just slow on the uptake. Either way, it's utterly shameful.

Labour MPs who backed this week's Westminster protest against anti-Semitism are now being engulfed by torrents of threats and abuse. If Mr Corbyn wants to lead a party that embraces a kinder and gentler form of politics, the message is definitely not getting through to his supporters.

Why not? Because they know what he really thinks. They ignore what he says under pressure from the 'Murdoch press' and the 'Tory BBC'; they prefer to believe what they read on those closed Facebook pages that he supports: that the Holocaust was a hoax, the six million didn't die, and the world is run by a secret cabal of wealthy Jewish bankers.

And in case you were wondering: I am the son of refugees from Nazi Germany; my grandmother was murdered by a Nazi death squad in 1941; and I am not a Zionist.

Friday 23 March 2018

The great blue passport farce

Perhaps I am a very bad person, but I really couldn't care less where my passport is printed.

What's probably even worse is that I don't care what colour it is either. What I do care about is that it gets me past the passport control barriers wherever I happen to be with a minimum of fuss.

I'm one of those sad people who keep their old passports. In my desk drawer there are eight of them, going back more than thirty years. Three are dark blue, five are burgundy. All bear those magisterial words inside their front cover: 'Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and Requires ... '

Civis Britannicus Sum. Whatever colour my passport is.

But please. Headlines suggesting profound national humiliation if our shiny new blue passports are made in France? Why is a mere symbol being elevated to such undeserved importance?  (In fact, it seems, the new passports might not be made in France, because Gemalto, the Franco-Dutch company that is reported to have been awarded the contract to print them, happens to have two plants in the UK.)

The Daily Mail was in full apoplexy mode on Friday morning: its question for 'Britain's ruling class' was 'Why DO you hate our country, its history, culture and the people's sense of identity?'  

This whole passport nonsense has become an absurd sideshow, a distraction from any serious debate about what kind of nation the UK wants to be post-Brexit. As no one bothers to point out any more, we could have had our beloved blue passports all along -- the switch to burgundy was a voluntary decision made independently by a UK government.  But hey, who cares about facts? So last century ...

Indignation is a highly selective emotion. I've just taken a look at the website of a well-known online retailer to see where Union flags are made these days. I'm sure some must still be made in the UK, but if you fancy a nice big one -- five feet by three feet -- for just £1.25, your best bet is to get it from a company called Zunyao, based in Dongguan, population seven million, in south-east China.

I must have missed the furious reaction from outraged nationalists at the idea that our iconic flag, symbol of all that is Great about Great Britain, is being made by -- gasp -- foreigners.

But it's not difficult to understand what's going on. Extricating the UK from the EU is turning into a never-ending nightmare, complex and confusing. It's so much easier to focus on the trivial -- our beloved passports made in France of all places! -- and direct all our anger at something we actually understand.

Economic nationalism is a funny thing, though. I've just taken a relative who was visiting from overseas to catch a train from London to Gatwick Airport, and I had to explain that she could choose from three different train companies which service the route, but that the tickets are not interchangeable.

And as if that isn't daft enough, the three companies -- Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express -- are all owned by the same parent company, Govia, which in turn is 35% owned by a French company, Keolis. Mon dieu, les Fran├žais sont partout!

Well, not quite partout. The bus which took us to the railway station was run by Arriva, which is owned by the German railway company Deutsche Bahn (in which, by the way, German taxpayers are the largest shareholders). Yet more foreigners.

The water in my taps flows courtesy of Thames Water, owned by a consortium made up of a Canadian pensions group, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the China Investment Corporation, and the Kuwait Investment Authority. The BT pension scheme also owns a bit of it.

So how, exactly, will our nation be humiliated if (repeat if) our passports are printed by foreigners? Did the Brexiteers really think that once we had broken free from Brussels-imposed tyranny, we would suddenly become self-sufficient in all essential goods and services?

For goodness sake, it's a passport, not the Crown jewels.

Please, people, can we be serious? Truly, this is politics as farce.

Friday 16 March 2018

We truly live in dangerous times

Is it just me, or are too many people still refusing to see what is staring them in the face?

Someone is waging war on the West. They are, if the latest reports are to be believed, hacking into the US energy grid. They are spreading fake propaganda in the hope of destabilising Western democratic processes; they are financing insurgent political groups; they run so-called 'troll factories' to swamp social media sites with anti-Western messaging -- oh yes, and they use chemical weapons on the territory of sovereign nations to try to eliminate perceived enemies.

Yes, President Putin, I'm talking about you. Can I prove that you are behind all of the above? No, because I am neither a police officer nor an intelligence analyst. Do I have good reason to believe that you are to blame? I do.

To establish that someone has committed a crime, it is useful to be able to show that they have the means, a motive, and the opportunity. So let's examine each in turn.

Means? We know that Russia has advanced cyber-warfare capabilities. In 2007, it all but paralysed Estonia by launching a massive cyber attack on its government and media websites. In 2014, Ukraine came under a similar attack. We also know that according to Facebook, in testimony to the US Senate, Russia-backed content reached as many as 126 million Americans during and after the 2016 presidential election.

We also know that the UK Electoral Commission is investigating whether Russia channelled funds, possibly illegally, to the pro-Brexit campaign. And of course, in the US, a special prosecutor is hard at work looking at links between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Motive? To weaken and destabilise Russia's European neighbours at a time when it looks to Moscow as if they are already deeply riven by internal disagreements (Brexit, refugees, the rise of anti-establishment sentiment). We know that as long ago as 2005, Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was 'a major geopolitical disaster of the century.' We know that he bases his appeal to Russian voters on building up an image as a strong leader, rebuilding a strong Russia. And we know there just happen to be elections this weekend.

Opportunity? A visit to Britain by the daughter of a reviled double agent. (One report suggests the nerve agent that was used to attack her father could have been placed in her suitcase.) A narcissistic, impulsive and ignorant US President in the White House who has a long history of wanting to do business in Russia, and on whom Moscow may well have deeply compromising material.

The former foreign secretary William Hague puts it in stark terms: 'Can it really be true that Russia is equipping itself to snap the undersea cables on which all our communications and finances depend? Afraid it is. Are they actually positioning themselves to hack into our vital national infrastructure and disrupt it? Looks like it. Can they possibly maintain Soviet levels of espionage and covert activity in our free European societies? You bet they can. Are they flying aggressive sorties to test our air defences? Yup. And surely they’re not developing new chemicals and deadly poisons as well? Of course they are.'

What do bullies do when they think they have the upper hand? They mock their opponents, laughing dismissively as they sit back to observe the impact of their attacks.

The Russian embassy in London: 'The temperature of Russia-UK relations drops to minus 23 -- but we are not afraid of cold weather.'

Russian TV presenter Kirill Kleimenov, who said he had some advice for 'traitors or those who simply hate their country in their free time': 'Don’t choose Britain as a place to live ... Maybe it's the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there.'

These are not the words of an innocent, injured party. They are the words of a gloating bully. Do we honestly believe that they would have been uttered had the tone not been approved by the Kremlin?

Perhaps you remember the heavily armed 'little green men' who suddenly appeared in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Were they Russian troops? Absolutely not, said Moscow. Except, of course, that they were, as President Putin happily acknowledged once the operation had succeeded.

I am genuinely puzzled that some people on the Left refuse to believe that Russia was responsible for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. It's as if they haven't yet noticed that Russia under Vladimir Putin has become an extreme nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic kleptocracy in which opponents are routinely murdered.

(When Putin was asked to comment on the US special prosecutor's decision to charge 13 Russians in connection with the Trump election collusion allegations, he said: ' Maybe they're not even Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews ...')

Why, some ask, would Russia have used a readily identifiable nerve agent to try to kill Sergei Skripal, when they could have shot him, strangled him or otherwise disposed of him in a far less noticeable manner?

The answer, I suspect, is that Mr Putin is a fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel, who left behind a calling card every time he went into action. The whole point of being brazen is that you must be visible. 'Hey, look at me, look what I can do. Bet you can't stop me.'

Not that Moscow has a monopoly on childish taunts. The UK's oh-so-grown-up defence secretary Gavin Williamson was reduced to similar playground language on Thursday when he delivered the unforgettable line: 'Russia should go away and shut up.'

In response, the Russian defence ministry called him a 'vulgar old harpy.' It's quite a picture, isn't it -- two nuclear powers, both with permanent seats on the UN security council, exchanging schoolyard insults. You can either laugh or cry -- the decision is yours.

The US, France and Germany have all backed the UK government's view that there is no plausible alternative explanation for the attack on the Skripals other than that it was authorised in Moscow. (France, remember, never bought into the Iraq WMD narrative, so it is significant that this time it accepts that the intelligence is more compelling than it was then.)

You want evidence, real, hard evidence, that Moscow is to blame? What in particular would convince you? CCTV footage showing a named, identifiable Russian administering the nerve agent -- with an official order in his pocket signed personally by Vladimir Putin?

Not in the real world, alas. But all the signs are that the attack was a deliberate act designed to highlight the weakness of the West -- and of the UK in particular, as it struggles to work out what sort of relationship it wants with its neighbours.

All the more important, then, for NATO and the EU to respond with a united front. Because if they don't, Mr Putin will have proved his point.

Let me be clear: I am not a warmonger, neither of the hot nor of the cold variety (for the record, I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003). But I do believe in clear thinking and clear speaking. As Philip Stephens put it in the Financial Times: 'Mr Putin’s goal is obvious enough — to destabilise and divide European democracies and chip away at the values that underpin the liberal order.'

We truly do live in dangerous times.