Although British local council elections are often dissected, like the American midterms, for possible clues to the next general election, it’s very rare for the media to focus on the result in a single borough. But that was what happened on May 3, when Labour failed to take Barnet, a borough on the northern edge of London that it should have won. The opposition expects to do well at this point in the electoral cycle, especially when the government is in trouble, and Theresa May’s Tory government is in very deep trouble indeed.
Having become prime minister two years ago when David Cameron resigned after the European Union referendum, which he had called needlessly but expected to win and then lost, May called an election last summer, again needlessly but expecting to increase her parliamentary majority. Instead she lost it; since then she has also lost four Cabinet ministers and such little authority as she possessed. Her Cabinet is polarized and paralyzed by Brexit, with Boris Johnson, the unprincipled mountebank whom she so rashly made foreign secretary, openly and insolently attacking her proposal for a new customs partnership with the EU.
With all of that, Labour ought to have won the borough—except that Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour leader, and Barnet has a large Jewish electorate. Two years ago, Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that “Labour has a serious anti-Semitism problem—and Jeremy Corbyn is failing to fix it.” Barry Rawlings, the leader of the Barnet Labour group, reckons that Corbyn still hasn’t done so. He blamed the electoral disappointment on “Labour’s own failure to deal with evidence of anti-Semitism by some members quickly enough and firmly enough.”
Needless to say, right-wing politicians and press have gleefully pounced on this discomfiture for Corbyn. And yet the really damaging evidence was heard from several Jewish Labour members of Parliament on a dramatic recent afternoon in the Commons. Dame Margaret Hodge is a much-respected veteran MP, daughter of Jewish refugees (twice over, fleeing Germany and then Egypt), and niece of an uncle murdered at Auschwitz. “I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew,” she said on April 17. “It feels that my party has given permission for anti-Semitism to go unchallenged.” More chilling still was Ruth Smeeth’s account. She said that she used to expect crazy Jew-hate mail from the right, but now it comes from the left as well, by way of social media: “Hang yourself you vile treacherous Zionist Tory filth, you’re a cancer of humanity…Zionist hag bitch Ruth Smeeth.” While Labour MPs loudly applauded Hodge, Smeeth, and their colleagues, Corbyn didn’t stay to hear the debate, which was an unmistakable condemnation of his leadership.
His utterances and sympathies, which nobody paid much attention to before, are now very awkward for him. One faintly ludicrous episode concerned a mural painted in the East End of London by a street artist from Los Angeles known as “Mear One.” It depicted a group of hook-nosed men, straight from anti-Semitic caricature, sitting around a large Monopoly board supported by bent-backed figures, presumably the toiling masses. In 2012 it was erased from the wall by the local council, whereupon Corbyn, still a backbench MP, complained on Facebook about its destruction. He had very likely never seen it, and when the image became widely known he had to disown it.
And so this current crisis was almost preordained from the moment Corbyn won the party leadership in September 2015, to widespread astonishment. He is sixty-eight and has been an MP since 1983, the same year that Tony Blair was elected to Parliament, and their two careers tell the story of their party. Once he became party leader and then prime minister, Blair moved steadily toward the right. He finally departed Downing Street after ten years whose main legacy is the Iraq War, before going on to make money with a shamelessness that has left his remaining friends dumbstruck, and his reputation in shreds.
By contrast, for more than thirty years as an MP Corbyn had never held any office, but had continually rebelled against his party, quite rightly so when he voted against the Iraq War. Corbyn’s becoming Labour leader was a repudiation of Iraq and of Blair, a repudiation with much public support, to judge from the great improvement in Labour’s performance at last year’s election: 12.8 million votes (40 percent), up from 9.3 million (30 percent) two years earlier, although that means that Labour must have picked up a substantial part of the previous vote for Ukip, the right-wing Europhobic party, whose work was done with the Brexit referendum.
But Corbyn has created insoluble problems. There’s very little new in his worldview. What’s new is the light his prominence has shone on it. For more than forty years he inhabited the outer fringe of the left, with comrades addicted to “the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting,” read or attended by almost no one, and so he finds it hard to concentrate on the way the outside world sees him. He has long lived in a milieu where it is de rigueur to acclaim the Irish Republican Army as freedom fighters (not a popular view in much of working-class England and Scotland, where many families have sons and cousins who served in the army in Northern Ireland) or to call Hezbollah and Hamas your “friends,” as Corbyn did.
Nor have Corbyn’s old friends been much help. The charge that the party is anti-Semitic was first made two years ago, after outbursts that the Labour MP Naz Shah had made on Facebook in 2014 about Jews and the State of Israel came to light, including a call to “relocate Israel to United States.” Ken Livingstone, the cocky and opinionated former mayor of London, then defended her comments, claiming that Hitler “was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Both were suspended from the party, and Corbyn attempted to defuse the situation by asking Shami Chakrabarti to investigate and report. She had won much praise in her years as director of Liberty, the British equivalent of the ACLU, but this was a serious mistake on her part. Her report was rightly dismissed as a whitewash, the more so when Corbyn recommended her for a peerage and made her shadow attorney general.
That criticism may have stung Lady Chakrabarti, as she now is: ten days after the Barnet election she said, “I don’t believe that Ken Livingstone can any longer be in the Labour Party,” and that his ravings were “really, really incendiary.” On May 21, Livingstone solved the problem, after a fashion, by resigning from the Labour Party. Corbyn said rather feebly that this was for the best, raising the question of why he had done nothing before then to discipline Livingstone.
Although Corbyn publicly condemns anti-Semitism, he’s supported by Momentum, a hard-left group, one of whose members, Marc Wadsworth, insulted Ruth Smeeth in a way she considered anti-Semitic at the launch of the Chakrabarti inquiry’s findings in June 2016. Wadsworth has now been expelled from the Labour Party. Momentum has also worked to take over local party chapters and then “deselect”—i.e., remove—sitting MPs. Three such MPs who have been threatened with ousting are Smeeth, Louise Ellman, and Luciana Berger, all Jewish women, who not surprisingly detect a hostility that goes beyond political disagreement.
More than that, an entirely proper concern with justice for the Palestinians has shaded into something darker. Corbyn gave an opposition post to Paul Flynn, an MP who had said in 2011 that Matthew Gould, the British ambassador to Israel, was unfit for the position because he had “proclaimed himself to be a Zionist,” and that an ambassador should have “roots in the UK” so that he “can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty.” Corbyn’s media manager is Seumas Milne, a fascinating figure, personally amiable but of a type—the Marxist bred in the heart of the establishment—more common in the 1930s than today. Apart from his sympathy for Vladimir Putin, Milne’s hatred of Zionism is so ardent that he tried unsuccessfully to remove Chag Kasher VeSameach (“A Happy and Kosher Holiday”) from a Labour Party Passover greeting, since the use of Hebrew might suggest Zionist sympathies.
None of these, not Flynn, Milne, Corbyn, or even Livingstone, would call a Labour MP a “hag bitch.” And yet, as a report unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee said in October 2016, Corbyn had allowed “institutional anti-Semitism” to thrive in the Labour movement and had allowed the party to become a “safe space for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people.”
As has long been known, anti-Semitism is the most protean of hatreds. It can be patrician or plebeian, aimed at Jewish financiers or at Jewish Bolsheviks, confusing all categories of left and right in the process. Men of the left like Proudhon and Bakunin used brutish language about Jews, and so did Marx and Engels. Hitler learned his politics in the Vienna fashioned by Karl Lueger, whose Christian Social—sometimes rendered as “Christian Socialist”—Party was anti-Marxist but also anticapitalist, and of course anti-Semitic.
During the Boer War plenty of English Liberals and socialists saw the Boers as the heroes—and the Jews as the villains. John Burns, a prominent leader of the nascent labor movement, told the House of Commons that the British army had become “a janissary of the Jews.” Edward Carpenter, the radical libertarian and defender of same-sex love, also said that the government was “being led by the nose by the Jews,” and J.A. Hobson, the socialist writer whose book Imperialism would be profoundly influential, not least for Lenin, told readers of the Manchester Guardian that Johannesburg was “essentially a Jewish town,” to an extent that had been concealed by those who, “as elsewhere, have Anglicised their names in true parasitic fashion.”
There were other traditions in England, of liberal internationalism and philo-Semitism, that now took the form of support for the Zionist cause, notably at the Manchester Guardian (after Hobson’s effusions) under its greatest editor, C.P. Scott. The MG warmly supported the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate, under which, from 1922 to 1948, the British governed the land between Jordan and the sea now controlled one way or another by Israel. So did the Labour Party. In August 1917, some three months before the declaration, Labour demanded “that Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that this country may form a Free State, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return, and may work out their salvation free from interference by those of alien race or religion.”
By 1920, the long-established Jewish Chronicle could say that “Jews have no better friends in this country than the Labour Party.” Labour hadn’t yet overtaken the Liberals as the main party opposed to the Tories, and few foresaw how soon it would be in power—still less that by 1929 a Labour government would collide with the harsh reality of Palestine, and with the consequences of the incompatible promises perfide Albion had made to Zionists and Arabs. By the time of its landslide victory in the 1945 election, Labour had become the party for British Jews as much as the Democrats were the party for American Jews. There were then no Jews on the Conservative benches, but twenty-six Jewish MPs sat for Labour. And Labour had gone into that election with an ardently Zionist manifesto, which not only advocated the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine but came close to advocating “transfer” or even ethnic cleansing: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in” (which was what happened in 1948, in a manner of speaking).
Those who think that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are identical might bear in mind that those remarkable words were written by Hugh Dalton, the clever, unlovable Etonian economist who became chancellor of the exchequer under Clement Attlee. The honorific position of chairman of the Labour Party was held at the time by Harold Laski, the political theorist and master of incomprehensibly convoluted prose mocked by Orwell; Dalton privately called him “an undersized Semite” and a proponent of “yideology.”
Once Attlee and his colleagues took office they found all over again that the Palestine conundrum was more insoluble than ever. A campaign of terrorist violence was waged by the Zionist ultras of the Irgun, and desperate Jewish survivors tried to escape from Europe to Palestine while the British tried to keep them out, lest their arrival should provoke another Arab revolt.
In 1946 a little pamphlet was published under the provocative title A Palestine Munich?, and a true period piece it is. Its authors were R.H.S. Crossman and Michael Foot, two clever Oxford men who were newly elected Labour MPs. Six years earlier, Foot had been one of the three coauthors, writing as “Cato,” of Guilty Men, the runaway British best seller of 1940, a deeply dishonest but very influential philippic, which created an indelible image of Neville Chamberlain and the other cowardly appeasers, and established “Munich” as a curse. Now Foot and Crossman pronounced that curse upon the Attlee government, for betraying the Zionist cause as Chamberlain had betrayed the Czechs.
What’s so remarkable from today’s vantage point is that Crossman and Foot were not only Labour men but very much on the left of the party. And yet that was unremarkable at the time. In late 1945, Orwell wrote that the liberal left—European Social Democrats and American Democrats as well as Labour—was “strongly committed to support of the Jews against the Arabs.” Then, with his usual perspicuity, he warned that there was more to it: “The Palestine issue is partly a colour issue,” in which “an Indian nationalist, for instance, would probably side with the Arabs.”
For nearly three decades after the birth of Israel in 1948 it was governed by socialists, with whom the Western social-democratic left felt a strong affinity. David Ben-Gurion was lauded by the New Statesman, and the left had then barely heard of the Palestinians. Memories of the Third Reich stifled anti-Semitism, not so much immediately—from my boyhood recollection, casual social anti-Semitism persisted in suburban London fifteen or more years after the war—as from the 1960s, with the Eichmann and Frankfurt trials, and growing consciousness of the Shoah. Then came the Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath: at first a glorious affirmation of Jewish power, but turning sour as the supposed Israeli David was increasingly cast as a Goliath who refused to relinquish the occupied territories, filled them with settlers, and oppressed the Palestinians.
Meantime Orwell’s prophecy had come true: nationalists not only in India and every Arab and Muslim country but throughout Asia and Africa did indeed side with the Palestinians. Afro-Asian sentiment was followed by the sectarian left in the West, which now turned tiers-mondiste and took up the Palestinians, along with the Vietcong and the black South Africans, as its new heroes. As the years passed, maybe old taboos weakened. It was not that consciousness of the Shoah faded, rather the opposite in popular culture. But on the left, and not only there, people tired of its invocation to justify whatever Israel did, or wondered why, as many have asked, the Palestinians should have to pick up the tab for Hitler. And the automatic charge of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel not only lost its force; it may even, as Tony Judt foresaw, have damaged the interests of diaspora Jews.
Even on the moderate liberal left, and in its press, enthusiasm for Zionism had begun to wane, something the Israeli historian Daphna Baram has described in her valuable book Disenchantment: The “Guardian” and Israel (2004). A first breach had come in 1956 with the Anglo-French intervention at Suez in collusion with Israel, which the MG denounced as “flagrant aggression,” to the anger of some Jewish readers and advertisers. And yet the paper—and for the most part Labour—continued to support Israel, weirdly so in the case of Harold Wilson. In 1981, five years after he resigned as prime minister, a zealous Zionist polemic called The Chariot of Israel appeared under his name, though very likely not written by him. The whirligig of time had just brought Michael Foot, of all people, the coauthor of Guilty Men and A Palestine Munich?, to the leadership of the Labour Party and, as a personal illustration of the new climate on the left, Wilson’s book was given a ferocious review, deriding the whole Zionist enterprise as a contemptible failure, by Paul Foot, investigative journalist, revolutionary socialist, and nephew of Michael.
After the 1982 Lebanon war, the fruitless and doomed peace process, the intifadas, and the long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, liberal as well as extreme-left opinion hardened against Israel. Tony Blair took Great Britain into the criminal and disastrous Iraq War despite the opposition of much of the Labour Party and much of the country. But although his prime ministership was at last ended by the Middle East, it wasn’t Iraq. It was the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006, and Blair’s refusal to move an inch from the Israeli and American position, that proved the last straw for his supine Cabinet, and he had to undertake to leave within a year.
Listening to what Hodge and Smeeth described, it seems superfluous or even offensive to ask how serious the problem really is. Two days after they spoke in Parliament, Lord Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, said on BBC Radio that “there is today almost no European country where Jews feel safe,” which is irrefutable as a subjective response. It’s true that although there has recently been some ultra-right brutality in Germany, most actual anti-Semitic violence in England as elsewhere in Europe comes now from radical Muslims, and by many measures, anti-Semitism is actually low and declining. But merely to say that is inadequate.
One ironical twist in the story is that in the years before and after Israel was born, its supporters were on the liberal left, as Orwell observed, while conservatives were much less enthusiastic, including British Tories, something the Zionist Churchill ruefully acknowledged. Today, the left has shied away from Israel, while Israeli liberals are disconcerted to find that its most committed allies are on the right, from American evangelicals, to the Conservative Friends of Israel in London, to extreme cases like Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French National Front, overtly anti-Semitic by any definition but who greatly admires the Israelis for the way they keep uppity Muslims in their place.
Most contributions to this debate are themselves inadequate, but then it has become almost impossible to address the question sine ira et studio, without name-calling and imputation of motive. At any rate, there is a spectrum. It begins with advocacy of a two-state outcome and condemnation of the Netanyahu regime, the settlements, and disproportionate force in Gaza: that’s the position of most Western democracies, if not of the Trump White House. Then there is principled opposition to Zionism, or regret that a Jewish state was created (which can scarcely be anti-Semitic in itself, as some have claimed, otherwise a majority of the Jewish people would have been anti-Semitic at the beginning of the last century, when most Jews were either indifferent or actively hostile to Zionism).
Next comes third-worldly denunciations of Israel as a colonial settler state, which is standard fare on the outside left, and shades into sympathy with Palestinian violence. On the more fanatical and incontinent reaches of the left there have been apologists not only for Hamas but for Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi when they were alive. And withal there is an increasingly frenzied and ugly atmosphere, with the anti-social media almost encouraging vile abuse from crazy misfits.
Along with those MPs and other British Jews who are so fearful, the rest of us have little reason for optimism at present. With the May administration making such a desperate mess of Brexit that the Tories look less and less fit for government, a serious opposition has never been more needed. But it has never been more elusive. Corbyn may sincerely believe that he isn’t anti-Semitic, and he no doubt dislikes that vile abuse. But he cannot be entirely acquitted of encouraging the atmosphere in which it has festered. He has made honest criticism of Israel harder rather than easier. And all of this business, however repellent, might soon look insignificant, as the Middle East drifts toward what could be a truly catastrophic war.
—May 31, 2018