Anti-Semitism, British politics, and the indecency of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, leaves his home in London, Britain, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RC1AD4B28A90
Editor's note:

The British Labour Party is in the spotlight after several members of Parliament left the party, charging that its leader Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic. In a piece originally published with the Washington Post, James Kirchick explains the politics and argues that Corbyn is indeed the central problem.

Everything you need to know about the British Labour Party is contained in the fact that Luciana Berger is no longer a member and Alex Scott-Samuel is.

Two weeks ago Berger, a member of parliament, shocked the nation when she announced her departure from the country’s official opposition. The great niece of a postwar-era Labour government minister, Berger joined the party at age 15 and was parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. Standing at a lectern with several other former Labour MPs, she announced the formation of a new caucus called the Independent Group, established for those disaffected with the growing extremism of the country’s two major political parties. Labour, she said, had become “sickeningly, institutionally racist” under the tenure of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Specifically, it was anti-Semitism that drove Berger out. Last April, speaking in the House of Commons, Berger joined several other Jewish female Labour MPs in reading aloud some of the hateful anti-Semitic invective hurled at them by Corbyn’s supporters. Berger’s courage in speaking out only elicited more attacks, however, such that she required bodyguards at her own party conference later that year.

Now consider the fate of Scott-Samuel, chairman of the local Labour association in Berger’s constituency of Liverpool. Scott-Samuel has made repeated appearances on an Internet television show broadcast by conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier David Icke (recently denied a visa to Australia), on which Scott-Samuel has claimed that “the Rothschild family are behind a lot of the neoliberal influence in the U.K. and the U.S.” Naturally a fervent Corbyn supporter, Scott-Samuel has been a major antagonist of Berger ever since she began speaking out about the anti-Semitism, bullying and misogyny that has characterized the party ever since the hard-left backbencher unexpectedly won the party leadership more than three years ago.

“Until Jeremy Corbyn became its leader in September 2015, Labour did not have a problem with anti-Jewish racism,” Joan Ryan, who followed Berger in leaving the party, wrote recently. “Today, it is institutionally anti-Semitic” and “poses a danger to the cohesion of our society, the safety of our citizens, and the health of our democracy.” Mike Gapes, another former Labour MP, declared the party of which he had been a member for five decades “Unfit for government. And a Threat to national security.”

Corbyn is indeed unfit to be leader of the Labour Party, much less one of Europe’s largest military powers. He is a man who considers Hamas and Hezbollah “friends,” defended a luridly anti-Semitic mural in East London, and laid a wreath at the gravesite of participants in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. For these reasons and many, many more, more than 85 percent of British Jews consider Corbyn to be an anti-Semite; almost 40 percent say they would “seriously consider” leaving the country were he to be elected prime minister.

The majority of Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues agree that he should not be prime minister. In 2016, they voted 172 to 40 against him in a vote of no confidence. But the exigencies of the parliamentary system mean that as long as they stay in the party, Labour MPs will be working toward a Prime Minister Corbyn at the next election.

And what would it signify if, in the words of its own former MPs, a “sickeningly, institutionally racist” party that poses “a threat to national security” and is a “danger to the cohesion of our society” ever came to power? Britain would boast the dubious distinction of having the first anti-Semitic government in Western Europe since the Third Reich.

The crisis engulfing Labour is not just about Jews. Anti-Semitism is a societal cancer that eventually devours its host, a harbinger of irrationality, democratic failure, and other ominous trends. Britain’s official opposition party being overtaken by anti-Semites is worrisome enough. If this pernicious organization were to win power, the future health of British democracy itself would very much be in doubt.

For this reason, the nine MPs who quit Labour should be lauded for their honesty. Unlike their erstwhile colleagues on the opposition benches, who privately say that Corbyn cannot be trusted to run the country while publicly campaigning for a Labour victory at the next election, these courageous few have opted out of this dishonest and dangerous charade.

Corbyn is the problem, and a political party will not be able to extirpate its anti-Semitism as long as an anti-Semite leads it. For more than three years, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have observed Labour’s travails with disappointed bewilderment, failing to comprehend the clear connection between Corbyn’s hard-left politics and the miasma of conspiracism, illiberalism and anti-Semitism that invariably comes with it. A New Yorker article last year was emblematic, lamenting the repeated outbursts of anti-Semitism from Corbyn supporters but ultimately concluding that Corbyn himself is a “decent man.”

But a decent man would stop and ponder what it is about his ideology and political style that persuades so many of his supporters to heap vile, misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse upon one of his female colleagues. Not only has Corbyn not done this, he has also not even bothered to meet with Berger, his former shadow health minister, in well over a year.

The scourge of anti-Semitism has torn apart two of the most important progressive organizations in the West, the Labour Party, and the Women’s March. Anti-Semitic statements by leaders of the latter eventually caused it to splinter, with many local chapters distancing themselves from the national group. As for Labour, it will not be redeemed until it is Corbyn and his acolytes, and not Berger and her colleagues, who feel unwelcome.