Corbyn Makes the Zionist Case. Netanyahu Harms It. How's That for Irony?

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to a question from the media at a political rally in central London

For the moment, the British Labour Party's anti-Semitism crisis is—well, not over or even recessed, but possibly on slightly lower volume. On Tuesday, the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) adopted the full definition of anti-Semitism that it earlier bowdlerized. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's attempt to add a long statement diluting the decision failed, in a body normally seen as under his full control.  

The NEC vote might fulfill the Hebrew proverb “A clever person climbs out of a hole that a wise man doesn't fall into.” It could start a process of reconciliation between Labour and Britain's Jewish community, help what is supposed to be a progressive party purge itself of its own bigotry problem, and allow Labour to get on with fighting the train-wreck Tory government. 

Or maybe not, especially if another controversial Corbyn video or Facebook post surfaces. Based on past experience, the odds of this are pretty high. Corbyn was a backbencher on the left fringe of his party—a fringe that apparently extends very far leftward—for a long time before his surprise rise to the top, and had the chance to say many things for which he now offers serial half-apologies. 

Corbyn's objection to the full definition of anti-Semitism as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was that it would stifle criticism of Israel and of anti-Zionist views. This was a difficult case to make. For one thing, the IHRA definition itself states, “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

For another—as former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown passionately made the case—the party's watering down of the IHRA paper ignored the views of the country's Jewish community and was the equivalent of “a document on sexism produced by men only.” 

Let me tiredly state the obvious: Criticism of Israel doesn't make someone an anti-Semite. Even the position that Corbyn sought to protect in Tuesday's meeting—describing “Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist”—isn't necessarily anti-Semitic. The same criticism, after all, could be made of the United States or Australia, those offspring of the British Empire. 

A semi-explanation that's been offered for Corbyn's own attitude toward Israel is that he comes from that corner of the left, frozen in time for at least 40 years and embarrassing to the rest of us, that neatly divides the world between Western imperialism (bad) and its opponents (good). So Israel is bad but Hezbollah is good. In that case, though, his view of foreign policy is so dangerously simple that you have to wonder if Prime Minister Corbyn's aides would feel the need to steal papers off his desk to keep him from signing them.

However, some statements by Corbyn and his earnest allies are more difficult to explain as anything other than very old-fashioned prejudice. And they lead to a couple of deep historical ironies about his attitude toward Zionism.

Back in 2012, for instance, Corbyn defended a mural, painted on a wall in London's East End, that showed a set of six men with oversized noses playing monopoly on the backs of brown people, with a sign nearby calling this the “New World Order.” Corbyn criticized a decision to paint it over after complaints. When a Labour MP challenged him earlier this year about the post, Corbyn said he regretted that he “did not look more closely at the image.” It might be more accurate to say he looked but did not see the problem until it was later pointed out to him. The mural, let's note, is not about Israel.

Another example: In July, one of Corbyn's allies, Peter Willsman, spoke at a meeting of the National Executive Committee, and dismissed charges of anti-Semitism in Labour. Willsman's explanation? “Some of these people in the Jewish community support Trump. They're Trump fanatics.” Willsman didn't recite the canard that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their home country. No, he accused them of being pawns of the deranged rightist president of the United States. The comment was apparently recorded on a committee member's phone. Willsman apologized. The NEC dealt with the problem by banning phones from Tuesday's meeting. 

And then there's the Corbyn video that surfaced a couple of weeks ago, in which he said that British Zionists “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, they don’t understand English irony either.” Corbyn's response to a storm of criticism: He said he was using Zionist “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people.” 

Let's accept for a moment that Corbyn really only meant supporters of Israel. His criticism of them had nothing to do with Zionist ideas. It was purely about them as people: Even if they've lived their whole lives in Britain, they don't get British culture and don't know British history. They are not of us. 

Unless you posit that somehow supporting Israel makes one forget British history and irony, the only explanation for why Corbyn thinks this subset of Jews is so un-British is that he thinks all British Jews are un-British. 

He's not saying this because he supports Palestinians, or because he's appealing to his base. He believes he's not racist. His bigotry comes so naturally that it's invisible to him. 

There really is a link to Zionism here, but not the one Corbyn sees. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, started out as what could be called an integrationist—a wholehearted believer in the promise of Jews integrating into liberal European nation-states. The Dreyfus Affair in France, the trumped up charges of treason against a Jewish officer, undid his confidence. Even France, motherland of the Rights of Man, didn't really accept Jews as French. The only way Jews could be full citizens of a liberal state, Herzl concluded, was to create one of their own. 

Herzl is not an exception but an archetype. The broken hope of integration drove Jews to Zionism in Berlin and Kiev, Baghdad and Benghazi. 

If Jeremy Corbyn truly wanted to wean British Jews from Zionism, the very first thing he'd want to do is silence any echo of a whisper of a suggestion that they cannot integrate into Britain. Instead, he shouts that suggestion and, along the way, makes them feel very foreign in Labour.  

In July, Britain's three competing Jewish newspapers ran the same front-page editorial warning that a Corbyn government would be “an existential threat to Jewish life” in the country. They stressed that until Corbyn, Labour was, politically, “the natural home” for Jews. A poll published this week found that nearly 40 percent of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” were Corbyn elected prime minister. 

Here, sadly, we come to another twist in the story. Finding a place to take you as an immigrant in our dark times isn't easy. If British Jews really find themselves emigrating, the natural destination would be Israel. 

Except, I'm pained to say, if you are a former Labour voter and you're looking for a liberal democracy, the current Israeli government has made Israel a very uninviting place. I'd love to have an influx of British former Labourites to join the resistance here in Israel, but I'm not counting on this being a preferred destination.

Corbyn is promoting Zionism. Benjamin Netanyahu is working against it.

I'd call that ironic. But what do I know about irony?

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