Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, has caused uproar in Britain by admitting that four years ago he laid a wreath at a Palestinian cemetery in Tunis that contains the bodies of several alleged terrorists, including the mastermind of the Munich Olympic massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972.
Mr Corbyn’s admission has provoked new accusations that he is hostile to Jews and that anti-Semitism has now taken root in the Labour party. The deputy leader of Britain’s Labour party, the official opposition to the government, said recently that the party would “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment” unless it dealt robustly with anti-Semitism.
Such a charge, in an established democracy in the 21st century, seems startling. How could a party that for years campaigned for human rights, racial equality and an end to discrimination be struggling to throw off charges of anti-Semitism? Why are prominent British Jews now accusing the Labour leadership of tolerating and giving platforms to extremists who have used words and phrases about Jews and Zionists that many see as akin to the language used by the Nazis? Is Britain in the grip of a new wave of anti-Semitism, similar to that now being seen in France, Germany, Hungary and other countries struggling to contain populist and nationalist sentiment?
The row has been going on for several months and has become increasingly toxic. Jews in Britain now see the Labour party, especially its left-wing element, as institutionally hostile and compromised by anti-Semitism. Several senior Jewish members of the party have publicly denounced Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader. Other have left the party altogether.
The quarrel began soon after Corbyn, an old-fashioned left-winger, unexpectedly won the leadership of the party in 2015. For years he had been closely involved in the pro-Palestinian cause, and had strongly denounced what he and other left-wingers regarded as the racist and discriminatory policies of Israel. A number of senior Jews and pro-Israeli activists expressed alarm, saying that many of Corbyn’s remarks in the past had seemed hostile not just to Israel but also to Zionist supporters of Israel and to the Jewish community in Britain.
Then Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London and prominent left-wing Labour activist, made a speech in which he said that Hitler had supported the Zionist movement in trying to move Jews out of Europe and to Palestine. The remark caused deep offence. Livingstone refused to apologise, saying it was historically correct. Jewish leaders called for him to be expelled from the Labour party, but Corbyn refused to take action against him except suspend him briefly from membership.
This roused Jewish suspicions about Corbyn’s own motives. It was found that he had attended some pro-Palestinian rallies in the past together with people who were clearly anti-Semitic and had denounced all Jews, not just those supporting Israel. This prompted calls for Corbyn to distance himself from them and from his past activities. Again, he refused to do so – while insisting there was no place in the party for anti-Semitism.
The issue has been complicated by the strong hostility to Corbyn from many in his own party who believe he is too left-wing and is backed by a neo-Marxist group which is trying to dominate the party. This group, Momentum, is now trying to expel anyone holding centrist views or supporting the former Labour party leader and prime minister Tony Blair. Corbyn’s supporters say those criticising him are stirring up accusations of anti-Semitism in order to discredit him and use the issue to remove him as party leader.
Corbyn, meanwhile, has refused to take the opportunities suggested to mend fences with prominent British Jews. He has refused to meet senior Jewish leaders, and simply said the row was just a misunderstanding. Instead, he made the situation worse by meeting with a small group of left-wing Jews who were strongly critical of Israel. This group accused other Jews of trying to remove Corbyn as party leader.
This circular argument has gone round and round and become more bitter each time. Prominent Jews have been caught in the middle. Dame Margaret Hodge, a senior Labour member of Parliament and elderly daughter of Holocaust survivors, went up to Corbyn after a meeting and shouted at him that he was an anti-Semite and a racist. He was shocked but said little. But his supporters then began disciplinary proceedings against her and spoke about expelling her from the Labour party. This in turn infuriated other Jewish party members, who demanded that action to discipline Hodge should be stopped because it sent a signal that Labour was hostile to Jews.
The problem is that the issue has become mixed up with Israeli politics. Many left-wingers in Britain are critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the Israeli occupation. They argue that this does not mean that they are anti-Semitic. But pro-Israel supporters, including Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, often claim that all critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semitic.
Some pro-Corbyn Labour politicians have been caught in the middle. Jon Lansman, the founder of “Momentum”, is himself Jewish. He said: “It cannot possibly be anti-Semitic to point out that some of the key policies of the Israeli state, observed since its founding days, have an effect that discriminates on the basis of race and ethnicity”. He has also accused Corbyn’s enemies, including the deputy leader of the Labour party, of using the issue to damage the party.
Matters have been brought to a head by a deep disagreement on the definition of anti-Semitism. Does this mean that any criticism of Israel is offensive to all Jews? There is a generally accepted definition, however, drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This lays out the range of actions, insults and attitudes that are considered anti-Semitic, and the code has been accepted in full by the British government and by public prosecutors as well as by more than 100 local authorities.
The Labour party, however, has refused to adopt the code in full, because left-winger members say it restricts the freedom of an individual to criticise the actions of Israel. This in turn has caused a furious row with the Board Deputies of British Jews and almost all Jewish rabbis, who say that the party cannot know better than Jews themselves what constitutes anti-Semitism. They say the real reason that the party will not adopt the definition in full is because it would make some of the past statements made by Corbyn and his Marxist press adviser open to criminal prosecution.
All sides are now sending out angry tweets, blogs and recording videos. But Britain’s Jewish community is now particularly fearful as it believes anti-Semitism is rising across Europe. They look at the many attacks on Jews in France – the largest community in Western Europe – and the threats by Islamist extremists. They say that it is increasingly unsafe to be an observant Jew anywhere in western Europe now. And they point especially to the populist right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary, which have passed a number of laws that Jews say makes their position more insecure.
If indeed anti-Semitism is returning to Europe, Jews in Britain are especially worried that Britain, long a haven of tolerance, will see a similar hostile atmosphere. And they are fearful that the Labour party, in professing support for the Palestinians, will be used by people hostile to all Jews to drive Jews out of the party.
It is a dangerous moment for Labour. To be seen as openly anti-Semitic would be disastrous for its public image. Already it has suffered sharp falls in support in cities with big Jewish populations. Until this poisonous issue can be resolved, Corbyn will be seen as incapable of imposing discipline on his fractious party or of being seen as a democrat ready to become the next prime minister.