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.

Friday 6 July 2018

So who’s the real enemy of the people?

I want you to try to imagine that a foreign power has systematically, secretly and illegally been spending huge sums of money to weaken its overseas rivals -- including the UK -- and subvert their political systems.

Its aim has been to weaken their global influence and strengthen its own position. I also want you to imagine that there is substantial and increasing evidence that its efforts have been successful beyond its wildest dreams.

If you can, imagine that while one wealthy British businessman was spending more than £8 million to promote a policy dear to this nation’s heart, he was also being offered at least three potentially lucrative investment opportunities in its gold or diamond mines.

Imagine that at the same time, his main corporate asset was posting a loss of £32 million. And imagine, moreover, that a journalist who ghost-wrote a book for this same businessman, and who had access to forty thousand emails provided by him, concluded that he had been ‘shamelessly used’ by the foreign power.

What’s more, according to the BBC, a parallel campaign is about to be found guilty by an independent election watchdog of breaking the law on election finance by making an inaccurate return of campaign expenditure; failing to provide a complete set of invoices and receipts; and exceeding permitted spending limits.

I suspect that – in your imagination – this would all seem like a pretty big deal. Certainly something that would be all over the media, with teams of investigative journalists digging away to get to the bottom of it. 

I’m afraid I’m not done yet. I now need you to imagine that in a different country, a senior lawmaker has called a disruption campaign organised by the same foreign power extensive and sophisticated’, and said that its goals were to ‘undermine public faith in the democratic process’, to hurt one presidential candidate and to benefit another. (Guess what. Its favoured candidate won.)

A special prosecutor is already hard at work gathering evidence to see if crimes have been committed. Several arrests have been made, and the president’s former personal lawyer is the latest figure said to be ready to dish the dirt.

So let me now spell it out, to give your over-heated imagination a break. In the words of New York magazine: ‘In 2016, Vladimir Putin reaped two of his greatest foreign policy triumphs in quick succession. The United Kingdom voted narrowly to exit the European Union, advancing a longstanding Russian goal of splitting Western allies that have long been united against it. Later that year, the United States voted even more narrowly to elect Donald Trump president ... The more we learn, the more similar the pattern of behaviour in the two countries becomes clear, and the more suspicious the denials of Putin’s partners grows.’

By now, perhaps, your imagination has started to join up the dots. It will have no difficulty imagining that there are connections between the parties involved – that the British millionaire businessman, for example, is a vociferous supporter of, and has met with, the victorious US presidential candidate.

So why have I asked you to imagine all this? After all, if you have clicked on any of the links above, you will know that none of it needs to be imagined. There really is growing evidence that Russia has spent millions to subvert the democratic process in both the UK and the US – and indeed has tried to do so elsewhere.

But somehow, it hasn’t broken through into public consciousness yet – perhaps because Westminster correspondents are obsessed with the minutiae of Tory party Brexit-inspired meltdowns, and anyway, it’s July, the sun is shining, and both the World Cup and Wimbledon are on TV.

With one exception – the indefatigable Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer, who has done more than anyone to bring all this to light and was recently awarded the highly prestigious Orwell prize for journalism – much of the UK media seem to find it all far too complicated and arcane. It is frankly bizarre that there is so little coverage of what may turn out to be the most serious attack on Western democracies since 1945.

(Credit, however, to the BBC in Northern Ireland, where the Spotlight programme has been investigating the DUP's record £435,000 donation during the EU referendum campaign.)

My view is that if a foreign power illegally financed a campaign to take the UK out of the European Union -- and helped to elect the most dangerous US president in recent history -- then that’s something we need to know about. And if laws were broken in the UK, especially if they were broken by senior political figures (and their aides), prosecutions must follow. Anyone would think we just don’t care very much if someone illegally buys their way to a momentous political decision of their liking.

Did I hear someone say novichok? I think I’ll leave that one for now … although you may care to re-read my piece from last March on the subject.

One final point:  I should add that just about everyone alleged to be involved in the various events I have outlined above deny any wrongdoing.