"Whataboutery" on either side is no excuse - you cannot defend against a charge of Anti-Semitism in one party by pointing to Anti-Semitism or Islamophobia in another, or vice versa. I may come back to the issue of Islamophobia in another piece but this post is about Anti-Semitism.
If you had asked me four years ago whether any of Britain's major parties have a serious problem with racism of any kind, I would have found the idea so ridiculous that I would probably have laughed. I am not laughing now.
There are two possible reasonable reactions among anyone who is not an Anti-Semite to the video evidence which emerged this month of Jeremy Corbyn's 2013 speech to a meeting convened by the Palestinian Return Centre. On one interpretation it was bad, on the other it was very bad indeed.
Corbyn praised a speech he had recently heard by the Palestinian ambassador to the UK Manuel Hassassian at a meeting in parliament, which he described as an “incredibly powerful” account of the history of Palestine.
Corbyn then said:
“This was dutifully recorded by the, thankfully silent, Zionists who were in the audience on that occasion, and then came up and berated him afterwards for what he had said.”
“They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either. Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively. So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”
Even if you accept the defence which has been offered by Corbynistas that this was a reference to the specific individuals and "Zionist" was a description of their views and not code for "Jews," this was pretty bad - and not just because one of the people who supposedly "don't want to study history" apparently has a masters degree in that subject. I gather from Daniel Sugarman in the Jewish Chronicle that the group of individuals referred to as Zionists are in fact of Jewish origin. As he wrote,
“Whether Jeremy Corbyn knows this or not is, to be clear, not the real issue. Because from his language, it's clear that to him, to be “Zionist” in this country means to be foreign, out of place here.
To say, about a group of people who “have probably lived here all their lives” that “they don't understand English irony,” is to define them as foreigners. Not just foreigners, but Bad Foreigners. They don't fit in here. They don't belong. If you watch the video, in the next breath, Jeremy Corbyn turns towards the Palestinian envoy to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, and says “but Manuel does understand English irony.”
For Corbyn, the Palestinian envoy to the UK is the “good foreigner” - he understands, he gets it, he's one of us - while the “Zionists”, who have “probably lived here their whole lives”, are not. They clearly just don't understand what it means to be English.”
That is the kindest interpretation. Those who think his comments conflated "Zionists" and "Jews" tend to be even more critical.
Simon Hattonstone, who up to this point had defended Corbyn against all previous allegations of Anti-Semitism, explained why he cannot defend this speech in the Guardian here:
"If there were ever a clear example of somebody conflating Zionist with Jews, this appears to be it. Let’s play the traditional “swap the minority” game. Instead of “Zionists” let’s make it, say, Muslims or African-Caribbeans or Asians or Irish needing lessons in history or irony. Not nice, eh?
"And what exactly does he mean by Zionists who have spent all or most of their lives in this country? Today the party insisted that Corbyn had been quoted out of context and that he had been referring to “Jewish and non-Jewish activists”. Maybe. But it sounds pretty much like he was talking about British Jews to me."
"Let’s look closely at the words used by Corbyn: these British Zionists don’t study history, and they don’t understand irony (ironic coming from one of the greatest literalists British politics has produced). In other words, they are uneducated, they have failed to integrate or assimilate, they are outsiders, they don’t belong, they need to be taught a lesson. Sorry, Jeremy, this is the language of supremacism."
Chaminda Jayanetti has written a good article in Prospect magazine called
“Are they Zionists?”: Understanding the left-wing blind spot on anti-Semitism,
which seeks to explain how people who are convinced that they are passionately opposed to all forms of racism may take their opposition to Zionism
(and let me be clear, opposition to Zionism and making the same sort of criticism of Israel which you would make of any other country can be perfectly legitimate and is not always necessarily racism,)
to a point which can develop into a blind spot which prevents them from seeing that "Anti-Zionism" can also be a cover for racism against Jews.
Not all Anti-Zionists are Anti-Semites. But almost all Anti-Semites describe themselves as Anti-Zionists - and frequently claim to be "anti-racists" as well!
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told the New Statesman that he found Jeremy Corbyn's 2013 remarks on “Zionists” to be “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.”
Labour has a problem with Anti-Semitism which, in Her Majesty's official opposition, is sufficiently serious that it is a problem for Britain too. They need to resolve it. It is very difficult to see how this can be done under the present leadership.