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Progressives Need To Face The Truth: Jeremy Corbyn’s Record On Anti-Semitism Is Bad.

When it comes to the furor surrounding British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed anti-Semitism, three unsettling things are true. First, Corbyn is not the major party candidate most complicit in bigotry. That ugly distinction goes to Britain’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Second, the British Jewish establishment has largely given Johnson a pass, which suggests — as does much other evidence — that its furious opposition to Corbyn stems as much from its desire to shield the Israeli government from criticism as from principled opposition to prejudice. If Corbyn weren’t passionate about Palestinian rights, he wouldn’t be under this much attack.

I wish I could stop there. Unfortunately, there’s a third truth, which progressives must not evade: Corbyn’s record on anti-Semitism is awful. Again and again, he has proved incapable of spotting — and confronting — Jew-hatred when it comes bundled together with sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

Progressives do not generally excuse people who amass long records of moral blindness in the face of bigotry. So we shouldn’t excuse Jeremy Corbyn. But before analyzing Corbyn’s sins, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the sins of his main opponent — and asking why they haven’t aroused a similar furor.


In 2005, Boris Johnson wrote that, “To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions.”

He also said that British Muslims should be made to “see that their faith must be compatible with British values and with loyalty to Britain. That means disposing of the first taboo and accepting that the problem is Islam.” Nor has Johnson’s hostility to Muslims eased since then. In a column last year about burqas, he wrote that it was “absolutely ridiculous” for women to “go around looking like letterboxes.”

If you don’t think that constitutes bigotry, just imagine if Corbyn had written: “To any non-Jewish reader of the Torah, Judeophobia — fear of Judaism — seems a natural reaction.” Or if he had called Judaism “the most viciously sectarian of all religions.” Or if he had said that ensuring that Judaism is “compatible with British values and with loyalty to Britain” requires “accepting that the problem is Judaism.” Or if he had called Haredi dress “absolutely ridiculous.”

Don’t get me wrong: Corbyn has said troubling things (more on that later). But even his worst statements aren’t as nakedly bigoted as Johnson’s. And, unlike Johnson, Corbyn has repeatedly apologized.

Corbyn also commissioned an inquiry into Labour Party anti-Semitism, something Johnson has refused to do when it comes to his Conservative Party’s Islamophobia.

Johnson has refused despite numerous episodes of anti-Muslim bigotry by Conservative candidates, a June poll showing that almost half of Conservative party members would oppose a Muslim being prime minister, and the insistence by one of his party’s most prominent Muslims that Islamophobia is “very widespread” in the Conservative party. “It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top.”

Despite all this, the British Jewish leaders who have excoriated Corbyn have given Johnson a relative pass. It would be one thing if they honestly admitted that the only bigotry that really bothers them is bigotry against Jews. But they haven’t said that.

They’ve framed their opposition to Corbyn as principled opposition to prejudice while paying far less attention to Johnson’s. In October, the newspaper of Britain’s Jewish establishment, The Jewish Chronicle, declared that, “There is racism on all sides of politics and it must be called out wherever it is found.” But the front page editorial that included those words didn’t call out Johnson. It consisted entirely of an attack on Corbyn. (While the Chronicle has criticized Johnson’s Islamophobia in the past, its much-discussed, pre-election editorial urging Britons to vote against Corbyn never mentioned Johnson’s bigotry at all).

In August, Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, called Corbyn’s 2013 comment that British Zionists “don’t understand English irony” the “most offensive statement made by a senior British politician” in more than fifty years. Evidently calling Islam “the most viciously sectarian of all religions” doesn’t count. And last month, Britain’s current chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, penned an oped declaring that “Hateful prejudice is always wrong, whoever the perpetrator, whoever the victim.” But like The Jewish Chronicle, he identified that “hateful prejudice” as stemming only from Corbyn. While Sacks and Mirvis have condemned Islamophobia in general terms, there’s simply no comparison between their harsh attacks on Corbyn and their comparative whitewashing of Johnson, who Mirvis has called a “friend and champion of the Jewish community.”

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that British Jewish leaders would be as vigilant in opposing bigotry against Muslims as they are in opposing bigotry against Jews. But their silence on Johnson’s Islamophobia is only one expression of their bad faith.

Trace the attacks on Corbyn by British Jewish organizations over the past several years and it becomes clear that no matter how many times he apologizes and no matter how many times the Labour Party investigates itself, the British Jewish establishment won’t be satisfied until he says Palestinians have no right to question Zionism.

Start with the British Jewish establishment’s response to the Labour Party’s 2016 inquiry into “antisemitism and other forms of racism” in the party. The commission’s vice-chair was Professor David Feldman, who directs an institute on anti-Semitism at the University of London. The resulting report found that while “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism” it had permitted an “an occasionally toxic atmosphere.”

The report recommended that the “word ‘Zio’ — an epithet ostensibly reserved for Zionists but often employed promiscuously against Jews — “should have no place in Labour Party discourse.” It declared that, “it is always incendiary to compare the actions of Jewish people or institutions anywhere in the world to those of Hitler or the Nazis.”

It also urged Labour Party members not to imply that “all or most Jewish people are wealthy” or that Jews are “likely to hold particular or any views on the subject of the Middle East” or “to doubt the political or national loyalty of a Jewish person on account of their actual or perceived connection to fellow Jews elsewhere around the world, including in Israel.”

Then-Mayor Borish Johnson after lighting a Menorah. London, 2008

Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, receives a Chanukah gift of a Mezuzah (a piece of parchment inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah) after he helped to light a sacred Menorah, marking Chanukah (Hanukkah), on December 22, 2008 in London, England. Image by Getty Images

The report may not have been perfect. But it’s impossible to imagine Johnson’s Conservative Party — let alone Donald Trump’s GOP — engaging in anything like this kind of self-criticism.

So how did the British Jewish establishment respond? The Board of Deputies of British Jews called the report a “whitewash.” The head of the British Zionist Federation decried its lack of “depth.” Why? Because “There was no serious discussion of how ‘anti-Zionism’ is now the focal point for contemporary anti-Jewish prejudice.”

In August of last year, when Corbyn wrote a column apologizing that “We were too slow in processing disciplinary cases of antisemitic abuse, mostly online, by party members” and vowing that “any government I lead will take whatever measures are necessary to guarantee the security of Jewish communities,” the Board of Deputies and Britain’s Jewish Leadership Council called his statement “ill-timed” (because it came out too close to Shabbat, as if observant Jews couldn’t read if afterwards) and “ill-conceived” (because, you guessed it, it didn’t equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism).

Then, the following month, Labour actually did define anti-Semitism as including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” (A mistake, in my view). But even that wasn’t enough. Why? Because Labour appended a statement insisting that this new definition of anti-Semitism “will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” This caveat, according to the head of the Jewish Leadership Council, proved that the party had acted “shamefully.”

It would be hard to find clearer evidence that, for many establishment British Jewish leaders, Corbyn will remain treyf until he agrees that Palestinian opposition to Zionism is a form of bigotry. But that’s an absurd demand. Virtually all Palestinians—even those who support a two-state solution on pragmatic grounds—are anti-Zionists. Why wouldn’t they be given that, for more than a century, political Zionism has aimed to create and entrench a state that privileges Jews over them.

Key early Zionists saw Palestinian anti-Zionism as entirely understandable. “Every native population in the world resists colonists,” wrote Vladimir Jabotinsky, Benjamin Netanyahu’s intellectual hero, in 1923. “That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing.”

In the guise of battling anti-Semitism, British Jewish leaders — like their American counterparts — want to define Palestinian politics as racism, which would open the door to criminalizing it, as is happening in the United States.

Slamming the Labour Party merely for declaring that its definition of anti-Semitism does not impede Palestinian rights or free speech gives the game away. The game is to ensure that Israel can destroy the two-state solution with impunity because calling for one equal state constitutes anti-Zionist bigotry, which — in an Orwellian twist — leaves supporting one unequal state that denies millions of West Bank Palestinians the same rights as their Jewish neighbors as the only non-racist option.

Were this the entire story, it would be tempting to rise to Jeremy Corbyn’s defense. But, sadly, just as paranoids sometimes really do have people chasing them, sometimes the victims of bad faith accusations of anti-Semitism really have been complicit in anti-Semitism. And that’s the case with the man who on December 12 will stand for British prime minister.


There are too many disquieting stories to wish away. In 2009, Corbyn — then a member of parliament — called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.” He did not merely acknowledge that, as a concession to political reality, the British government should deal with these movements because they wield influence in Palestinian and Lebanese society. He implied that they were ideological allies.

Corbyn did this even though Hamas had not yet revised its Founding Covenant, which cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and even though Argentine prosecutors had recently named Hezbollah as the perpetrator of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. Corbyn later apologized.

Were this Corbyn’s only such offense, it might be overlooked. But two years later, in 2011, he wrote the forward to a new edition of the British economist John Hobson’s classic 1902 study, Imperialism. In Corbyn’s forward, he never acknowledged that Hobson’s book claimed—in classic anti-Semitic fashion—that European finance was “controlled” by “men of a single and peculiar race.” Not a disqualifying oversight, certainly. But careless.

There was more carelessness the following year when Corbyn in 2012 publicly backed a Los Angeles-based street artist named Mear One who complained that authorities were removing a mural he had painted in London. “You are in good company,” Corbyn replied on Facebook, “Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.” But although Corbyn saw the mural controversy as an example of class struggle, that wasn’t why it was being taken down.

It was being taken down because its depiction of several, arguably Jewish-looking, bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of naked workers with the Eye of Providence (a symbol sometimes employed in anti-Semitic imagery) in the background struck many as anti-Semitic. Mear One basically admitted as much. “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are,” he explained. When Corbyn’s defense of the mural came to light in 2018, he apologized for not having examined it more carefully. More blindness when it comes to left-wing attacks on Jews.

That same year, Corbyn spoke alongside Sheikh Raed Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who the British government had tried to prevent from entering the country. Corbyn did not merely defend Salah’s right to enter the UK. He called him a “very honoured citizen” who “represents his people extremely well” but was being defamed by the “Zionist lobby.” Salah, Corbyn promised, would be assured a “very warm welcome” in parliament.

Corbyn heaped this praise on a man who after 9/11 asked, “Were 4,000 Jewish clerks absent [from the twin towers] by chance, or was there another reason?” In a 2007 speech, Salah suggested that listeners angered by Israeli misdeeds “ask what used to happen to some of the children of Europe, whose blood would be mixed in the dough of the holy bread.”

Noting that his comments never explicitly mentioned Jews, Salah insisted he wasn’t perpetuating the infamous “blood libel” that Jews use the blood of gentile children to bake matzah. But that argument didn’t convince a British immigration tribunal. Corbyn, in what was becoming a pattern, was more credulous.

It goes on: In 2012, Corbyn also vouched for Reverend Stephen Sizer, a Palestinian rights activist who had posted an article claiming that Jews perpetrated 9/11. Corbyn called Sizer’s post “a technical oversight” and noted that “The internet is a complicated piece of technology and with the best will in the world, imperfect links are made.”

But this wasn’t Sizer’s only “technical oversight.” According to a dossier prepared by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Sizer had linked to another article, written by another 9/11 conspiracist, which accused Israel of killing hundreds of scientists around the world by arranging plane crashes.

And when veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas insisted that Israeli Jews “go home” to Germany or Poland, Sizer effused “bring it on.” More recently, Sizer in 2014 spoke at a conference in Tehran described by Buzzfeed as including “several 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers, and anti-Semites,” and “which included panel topics that accused the Mossad of having planned 9/11 and claiming that the Holocaust is a “public myth.”

In defending Sizer, Corbyn employed the same logic he had used on behalf of Raed Salah. The attack on Sizer, he argued, was “part of a wider pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism.” Yet again, it seems not to have occurred to Corbyn that someone might be under Zionist attack and be an anti-Semite at the same time.

Then, in 2015, it was revealed that Corbyn had supported yet another activist who trafficked in anti-Semitism. That year, a man named Paul Eisen, who ran a group called Deir Yassin Remembered, wrote that for the previous fifteen years, Corbyn had donated to his organization and “attended every single Deir Yassin commemoration.”

Unfortunately for Corbyn, Eisen is a Holocaust denier who has written that, “Over the last 50 years, revisionist scholars have amassed a formidable body of substantial evidence, which runs in direct opposition to the traditional Holocaust narrative. ‘Where is the evidence,’ they say, ‘for this alleged gargantuan mass-murder?’”

When questioned about his association with Eisen, Corbyn acknowledged that “I did attend a number of events concerning Deir Yassin Remembered some years ago, I think two or three of them” but that “Fifteen years ago [Eisen] was not a Holocaust denier. Had he been a Holocaust denier, I would have had absolutely nothing to do with him.” Eisen may not have been a Holocaust denier in 2000. But he certainly was by 2013, when he and another self-declared Holocaust denier, Gill Kaffash, hosted Corbyn at one of their Deir Yassin commemorations.

By then, Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Committee had long since severed ties with Eisen over his Holocaust denial, and prominent anti-Zionists had denounced him in the press. Was Corbyn really unaware of this when he attended Eisen’s 2013 event? Perhaps. But as Jeff Halper, who quit Deir Yassin Remembered over Eisen’s Holocaust denial in 2005, told The Telegraph, “You should know what you are joining and what you are supporting.” Corbyn “should have been more critical.” Once again, Corbyn’s laudable devotion to the Palestinian cause led him to ignore evidence that some people who shared that devotion were hostile to Jews.

In 2013, the same year he attended Eisen’s event, Corbyn spoke on a panel sponsored by the Palestinian Return Centre. In his remarks, Corbyn referred to “Zionists” who had recently misinterpreted and berated a Palestinian speaker. Their behavior, he suggested, proved that despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives,” they “don’t understand English irony.”

To many observers, Corbyn appeared to be using Zionist as a euphemism for Jew. As Josh Glancy of the Sunday Times has noted, it’s unlikely he would have suggested that Christian Zionists don’t “understand English irony.” It’s the kind of insult generally levelled at cultural or ethnic outsiders. In fact, Corbyn’s comments violated the principles laid out in Labour’s own anti-Semitism report, which advised “critics of the Israeli State and/or Government…to use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse.”

When footage of Corbyn’s comments came to light, he insisted he had used the term Zionist “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people” But, nonetheless, he said he was “now more careful” in how he used the term.

Before dismissing these seven episodes as the work of right-wing Corbyn-haters, ask yourself this: Has Bernie Sanders—America’s most famous left-wing champion of Palestinian rights—been involved in a single incident that is anywhere near as egregious? If you want to know why 87% of British Jews, according to an October poll, consider Corbyn anti-Semitic, this is why.

Even if those British Jews are wrong, and Corbyn harbors no personal animosity toward Jews, it is beyond depressing that a man who portrays himself as a fierce opponent of all forms of bigotry has proven so unable to recognize and combat this particular species when it comes from his ideological allies.


In this bitterly polarized moment, some progressives may be tempted to downplay Corbyn’s misdeeds. After all, Johnson’s record of bigotry — let alone Trump’s — is worse. Moreover, holding Palestinians in the West Bank as non-citizens under military law and confining Palestinians in Gaza to an open-air prison that the UN says will soon be “unliveable” is worse than suggesting Zionists lack irony — far worse. Yet the British and American apologists for this systemic bigotry — bigotry that does not just offend but kills — rarely receive the level of scrutiny that Corbyn has endured since taking over the Labour Party. It’s infuriating.

But when fury excuses moral laxity, it becomes dangerous. Progressives don’t merely pride ourselves on being less bigoted than conservatives. We pride ourselves on opposing bigotry as a matter of first principle.

If progressives consider anti-Semitism as evil as any other forms of discrimination, which we must, we should ask how we would react if Jeremy Corbyn had amassed a record of associating with, and defending, artists who portray ugly stereotypes of black people or writers who dispute the facts of the slave trade or activists who peddle vicious myths about Muslims.

If progressives are less bigoted than conservatives, it’s not because of any inherent moral superiority. It’s because we are more vigilant. The left’s reaction to Corbyn is a test of that vigilance. Yes, he’s better than Boris Johnson. But he’s not nearly good enough.

Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.


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