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Corbyn and anti-Semitism

A demonstrator holding a painting saying"For the many not the Jew" as people protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour party in Parliament Square, London. Picture: Yuki Mok - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Israel is hated beyond reason by the Left because the Left craves an enemy whose evil is as great as their imagined capacity for good

There’s a principle of perpetuation in anti-Semitism, as there is in all racisms, which ensures that the more the despised object raises a voice in his own defence, the more he substantiates the original charges against him.

Knowing from experience that complaining of anti-Semitism will always rebound against them, Jews have for centuries kept their heads down and gone about their business. Which isn’t to say that has worked well either.

Where they are not scorned for going too quietly to their own destruction, they are feared for their uncanny self-sufficiency. And then there is the tedium of it all. When Jeremy Corbyn met Jewish leaders to clear the air the other day, one knew for a certainty that two things would follow. Nothing and boredom. Corbyn himself has a genius for both. According to accounts he apologised profusely for offences to his ‘Jewish brothers and sisters’ but when asked whether he would now act decisively to root out specific instances of offence, he shrugged.

Corbyn’s shrug will be familiar to anyone who has watched him questioned on television. It is part aversion – either to the question or the questioner – part a sort of uneducated, planetary indifference, and part conviction (also largely uneducated) of utter rectitude. Whereof I know myself to be right, thereof I need not speak.

As a tactic to discredit people who slither off the edge of one’s world view it is masterful. It makes their grievances appear pettifogging and their protestations predictable. In the face of such indifference, British Jews have done uncharacteristically well to have brought Corbyn and his party even to the present point of admitting there’s a case to answer. Yes, for lesser Corbynites like Ken (‘the Nazis were really Zionists’) Livingstone, and Len (‘anti-Semitism is just mood music’) McCluskey, it’s all nothing but a smear campaign, but Corbyn himself has wisely decided not to take that route. Call every concern a smear and you are soon in the smearing business yourself. But there is still a line in the sand which Corbyn will not cross. Let’s call it the Z line.

That the definition of anti-Semitism, as agreed upon by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, would prove problematic in any meeting Corbyn had with Jewish community leaders was never really in doubt, given that one of its examples of anti-Semitic discourse is ‘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’.

Even at his most ameliorative, Corbyn could not be expected to buy into that. ‘Anti-Zionism is not in itself anti-Semitic,’ he wrote on the very eve of the meeting. No matter that for a century or more historians, philosophers, poets and novelists have been discussing the nature of Zionism – its centrality to the Jewish imagination, its illusions and achievements, the importance of distinguishing consequence from intention – Corbyn has it sorted. ‘Anti-Zionism is not in itself anti-Semitic’. What, not ever? If there are many kinds of Zionism, as the great Israeli writer and peacemaker Amos Oz has argued, there must be many kinds of anti-Zionism. Too late: by the time 
you’ve demurred, the door has closed on you.

But let’s pull back from the Z line, briefly, to the entirely non-controversial assertion that criticism of Israel as a functioning nation is not in itself – necessarily – anti-Semitic. Just because you have a bone to pick with Israel doesn’t mean you hate Jews. Agreed. Witness that other great Israeli novelist David Grossman, who definitely doesn’t hate Jews, addressing the Israeli military: ‘Israel must constantly check to see when its force has crossed the line of legitimate and effective response. We should not forget even for a moment that the people of Gaza will remain our close neighbours and that sooner or later we will want to achieve good neighbourly relations with them. Therefore, stop. Hold your fire. Try for once to act against the usual response, in contrast to the lethal logic of belligerence. There will always be a chance to start firing again. War will not run away.’

Shorn of the abuse favoured by placard wavers and Tweeters, resisting references to colonialism, apartheid, ethno-nationalism and the like, indeed eschewing all rhetorical devices, this is nonetheless a severe commentary on the way Israel sometimes conducts its wars. What Jew, concerned for the welfare of Israel, never mind its neighbours, would trump up the charge of anti-Semitism to silence such criticism as that?

But still the old refrain. Over and over like some blocked aphasic tic – Jews cry anti-Semitism to direct critical attention from Israel, Jews cry anti-Semitism to direct critical attention from Israel, Jews cry anti-Semitism…

Tedious in itself, this tale told by an idiot presupposes the tediousness of the Jew, concerned only to conspire in a lie and blackmail whoever would expose it. Of those on whom this grinding narrative of endless repetition exerts an influence, one of the most eminent is the film director and close confederate of Corbyn’s Labour, Ken Loach.

In Belgium the other day to receive an award for his work in film – which he should not, in my view, be begrudged – Loach attempted to throw off the accusation of anti-Semitism levelled at him by the Belgian prime minister in a manner that mirrored exactly the blackmail of which he accuses ‘Zionist’ Jews – adducing as proof that he is no anti-Semite ‘the colonization of the Palestinian territories’, ‘unarmed Palestinians killed by the Israeli army’, ‘Israel’s failure to respect international law’, etc – as though Israeli criminality wipes clean the slate of everyone else’s conscience. By Loach’s demented logic, no man can be called an anti-Semite who hates Israel sufficiently.

For the more stolid and word-starved Corbyn, no man can be an anti-Semite who opposes Zionism, though a small number of anti-Semites, he concedes, occasionally leap opportunistically aboard. I would suggest he underestimates the number and the frequency.

For I, too, draw a Z line in the sand. Say what you like about the governance and conduct of present-day Israel, the deep-rooted longing and often desperate necessity for such a country, which is all that Zionism denotes, is not fair game unless the aspiration of every people to live in safety and determine their own lives is fair game.

Cruelties attend the birth of every nation. If we are to roll back one we must roll back them all. ‘If people call Israel nasty,’ Amos Oz said on Newsnight two years ago, ‘I to some degree agree. If people call Israel the devil incarnated, I think they are obsessed – they are mad. But this is still legitimate. But if they carry on saying that therefore there should be no Israel, that’s where anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism, because none of them ever said after Hitler that Germany should cease to exist, or after Stalin that there should be no Russia. Saying that Israel should cease to exist, or should not have come into being, this is crossing the line.’

The means whereby 19th and early 20th century Jews found the will to change their blighted fortunes and bring Israel into being was Zionism. It is immaterial that not every Jew felt or still feels that call. Many Jews are not Zionists, Corbyn says. So what? Fear needn’t be unanimous to be real. One safe Jew doesn’t make the world safe for all the others.

Walk away from Zionism by all means, but don’t discredit an urgency you happen not to share. Of the early Jewish anti-Zionists, safe in Vienna and Berlin, ‘many’ – to employ Corbyn’s statistical methodology – came to see matters differently as their comfortable worlds disintegrated and the 20th century descended in to hell. Only a fool would bank on exigencies not changing again.

A generous critic of Israel will weigh the good with the bad – what Grossman calls ‘the political, national, human miracle’ that is Israel with ‘the corruption and cynicism’ – and lament the blood spilt and the idealism lost along the way. If you ask why the far left – to which Corbyn’s cold soul has been in hock for decades – must hate and misrepresent Israel’s beginnings, when there is so much of the country’s present for it to get its teeth into, the answer can only be that it needs to understand Israel not as a falling off but as the fulfilment of an intention that was diabolic from the start.

The very word Zionism – and never underestimate the malign suggestiveness of the letter Z – performs that function, implying to those who don’t know its history and significance a deadly mix of ancient obscurantism and modern fire-power. Well done, those who have propagandised the word in that way. But believe it and you connive in lies.

Inordinate interpretations beget inordinate responses, and political parties are as much a home for immoderacy as religions. Israel is hated beyond reason by the left because the left craves an antagonist whose evil is as great as its own imagined capacity for good.

How uncomfortable a Labour government will make life for British Jews who aren’t anti-Zionists we have yet to see. But the problem doesn’t stop with us. Anti-Semitism is on the march again in Europe. Nations speak hate unto nations. A left-wing English anti-Zionism fuelled by medieval Jew-mistrust is the last thing a tinder-box Europe needs, inflamed as it is already is by a new sort of Jew-hating imported from the Middle East. Corbyn will shrug off such fears. But there are times when a shrug can be as potent as a salute.

Howard Jacobson is an award-winning novelist and journalist

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