The antisemitism smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn is cynical political point scoring and the left must tackle the arguments head on argues Shabbir Lakha
Once again Jeremy Corbyn is under attack, and once again based on the charge of antisemitism. The lead story on the BBC yesterday was “Jewish groups attack Jeremy Corbyn over anti-Semitism” and on the Guardian it was “Jeremy Corbyn accused of being ‘figurehead for antisemitism’”.
The attacks on Corbyn are nothing new. In the last few weeks Jeremy Corbyn has been a Czech spy, a Putin stooge and orchestrator of a Stalinist purge for sacking Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet. The antisemitism smear is not new either, it’s been used on and off since Jeremy Corbyn first started gaining popularity in 2015.
The timing of this attack is unmistakeably designed to do some damage before the upcoming local elections. The usual suspects on the Labour right have been the most vocal in condemning Corbyn, as have the Tories and the media establishment. The increasingly ramped-up attacks against Corbyn mark the end of the (sort of) break in hostility since the embarrassing defeat his critics faced at the General Election last year.
The allegations are wholly cynical and aren’t genuine concerns on the part of the people throwing the mud. Labour right MPs haven’t suddenly become concerned for Jewish people. One of the clues to the disingenuous nature of the smear is that whilst Jeremy Corbyn is somehow conceived as the “figurehead of antisemitism” for a Facebook comment years ago, we have a Tory government in power that continues to ally itself with far right governments in central and eastern Europe and with the Trump administration supported by and giving a platform to antisemitic members of far right groups.
Furthermore, as the Jewish Socialists’ Group rightly point out in a statement published yesterday:
The recent extensive survey by the highly respected Jewish Policy Research confirmed that the main repository of antisemitic views in Britain is among supporters of the Conservative Party and UKIP.
This political context, alongside declining support for the Tories, reveals the malicious intent behind the latest flimsy accusations of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. These accusations have come from the unrepresentative Board of Deputies and the unelected, self-proclaimed “Jewish Leadership Council”, two bodies dominated by supporters of the Tory Party.
And then there’s Corbyn’s record as an anti-racist campaigner. He is practically the only MP to have supported all Early Day Motions condemning antisemitism, he’s actively campaigned against all forms of racism, not least antisemitism, and this should be stated and restated. While Labour MPs stood shoulder to shoulder with Tories and the DUP in Parliament Square yesterday evening claiming to oppose antisemitism, it was Jeremy Corbyn who spoke at the 80th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street in 2016.
As those leading the attacks against Corbyn gathered outside Parliament, it was Jewish and anti-racist activists that mobilised on short notice to defend Corbyn. The movements will always be crucial in defending him. We should recognise the difference it would have made if Jeremy Corbyn had spoken at the anti-racist demonstration just a week ago reiterating his commitment to fight racism and antisemitism.
We should also recognise that one of the reasons why they chose the antisemitism charge in particular and have been able to use and reuse it, is because the response from some of the people around Corbyn to the smears has been defensive and conceding since the beginning.
When it is so clear that the allegations are political and have no genuine concern for the welfare of Jewish people or fighting antisemitism, then the response to them should not be defensive. Parts of the left repeatedly doing so has only given the right more ground to launch further attacks from. Corbyn has apologised for his comment and rightly so, but we should also get on the front foot and condemn the weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism that the right have used as a political football as and when they feel like it for the last three years.
And at the heart of the smear is also the question of Palestine. One of the reasons why there is an impetus in making general allegations about antisemitism, albeit extremely flimsy, is because Jeremy Corbyn has been a life-long campaigner for justice for Palestinians. Anyone involved in the Palestine solidarity movement will not be unfamiliar with being labelled antisemitic for criticising the international-law-violating oppression of Palestinians by the State of Israel.
While the smears of the last week show the right attempting to regroup around attacking the left and what Corbyn represents, the charges levelled against him around antisemitism stem in large part from his support for Palestine. There has been an unrelenting attack on anti-Zionist activists in the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader and numerous people have been suspended or expelled – including Jewish members such as Moshé Machover and more recently Glyn Secker.
We should not be shying away from the matter or treating it as a “second-term issue”, like Trident renewal and the bulk of foreign policy questions have become for many on the Labour left and which has left the door wide open to more attacks. The only way to stop accusations of antisemitism being used as an attack is to win the arguments on why solidarity for Palestine is not antisemitic and where antisemitism is actually coming from.
By challenging the conflation of Anti-Zionism with antisemitism as well as the accusation that there is a special problem with antisemitism on the left or in the Labour Party head on, we not only counter the right wing attacks and leave less ground for future attacks on the same lines, we also take on conspiracy ideas in society and direct people’s anger at those who are really to blame.
It’s an example used perhaps too often, but Jeremy Corbyn’s speech after the atrocity in Manchester last year where he highlighted the role of British foreign policy in making Britain and the rest of the world less safe defied all conventional political wisdom, and certainly the strategy of the soft left. And yet it was in that moment, where Jeremy stuck most to his principles and didn’t back away from the difficult argument, that the public rallied behind him and up to 75% of people agreed with him.
We have to do the same around the question of Palestine and antisemitism if we want to get on the front foot against the attacks and pave the way not only for Jeremy to be in Number 10, but also to be the Prime Minister we know he can be - one who fights for peace and justice and against all forms of racism.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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