UK Labour’s Corbyn debacle is a blueprint for mainstreaming antisemitism
Late last month, British Jews were vindicated after facing years of abuse for calling out antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s U.K. Labour Party. An independent human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, published a report which found “unlawful harassment” including “using antisemitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of antisemitism were fake or smears.” Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party the very same day it was published.
But the victory was short lived. On Tuesday, less than three weeks after Corbyn’s suspension, the Labour Party decided to reinstate him. And though Labour leader Keir Starmer insisted that Corbyn would not be allowed to sit as a Labour MP in Parliament, Corbyn’s supporters remain more committed than ever to him — and more committed to ignoring the antisemitism problem in the party.
Corbyn’s reinstatement was the culmination of a revolting, weeks-long defense of Labour’s institutionalized accommodation of antisemitism. It began with Corbyn himself, who was less than remorseful when the report was published. While he paid some general lip service to the problem, saying “one antisemite is one too many,” he quickly pivoted to discrediting the report, insisting that “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons.”
He was immediately joined by prominent people and organizations, who jumped to champion Corbyn as the victim of an unfounded political attack as soon as he was suspended. Some went so far as to dismiss the Corbyn suspension as a Zionist conspiracy by the “Israel Lobby,” apparently insensitive to the irony of perpetuating the very antisemitism they were being called out for. At a rally in support of Corbyn, activist Salma Yaqoob asked, “Who owns the media?”
Naturally, to his many devotees, the news of Corbyn’s reinstatement in the Labour Party was greeted with joy and relief.
The irony is that the very act of treating reports of antisemitism as unfounded, conspiratorial schemes is both antisemitic and part and parcel with what the EHRC report documented as a Labour problem. That the party has caved to Corbyn’s supporters is the ultimate proof that the party is all too willing to accommodate antisemitism.
The one bright spot in all of this was Starmer’s commitment that Corbyn would not be reinstated into the parliamentary Labour Party. “Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in response to the EHRC report undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour Party’s ability to tackle antisemitism,” Starmer said in a series of tweets. In Parliament, Corbyn will have to sit as an independent.
Unsurprisingly, Starmer’s announcement sparked immediate backlash. Labour MP John McDonnell tweeted that the decision was “just plain wrong” and “will cause more division &disunity in the party.”
Apparently, for him and the other Corbynites, the party’s antisemitism is not the problem so much as Starmer’s attempts to address it.
Also disconcerting was the fact that the Corbyn defense wasn’t limited to the far-left. The Guardian published an article that played up how “unusual” the EHRC report was and noted only negative appraisals of the EHRC’s reputation, reading as an attempt to undercut its findings on antisemitism. That this came from one of the U.K.’s most widely-read papers highlights how the hostility towards acknowledging antisemitism has become mainstream.
What could explain this response? One explanation is the blind devotion to Corbyn. His supporters’ insistence that there is no antisemitism to see here shows how strong the cult of personality surrounding him is.
But I think there is another force at play: Antisemitism is growing in acceptability. As a result, antisemitism isn’t a good enough reason for a leader to lose his power.
Being fervently “anti-racist” in these circles doesn’t require you to treat concerns from Jewish members with the same credence as those from other groups. Too many believe that they are so committed to anti-racism that any allegations of antisemitism must be misconstrued or merely anti-Zionist. To them, if the antisemitism in question isn’t coming from right-wing white supremacists, then surely it can be explained away as the overblown complaints of hyper-sensitive Jews.
Corbyn’s reinstatement is a reminder of how people convinced of their own righteousness are loathe to let go of their own hate.
It’s a problem that is far from exclusively British. In America, we’ve seen similar deflections of antisemitism allegations, often accompanied by claims that the accused is completely anti-racist; just look how much they’ve done for other marginalized communities — as if that gives them a free pass to denigrate Jews.
Showing firm intolerance for antisemitism is more needed than ever, as the recent FBI hate crime statistics remind us; of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in 2019, 60.3% were directed against Jews. Antisemitic hate crimes rose 14%.
We — and by “we” I don’t mean Jewish people or left-leaning people but simply all people — cannot excuse antisemitism just because we agree with the perpetrator on other issues.
Antisemitism should be non-negotiable in any party or space.
Corbyn’s reinstatement reveals the Labour Party’s commitment to accepting and justifying antisemitism. It’s a disturbing global lesson that no country can afford to ignore.
Emily Shire is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, and Salon. She is also currently pursuing her J.D. at Yale Law School.