U.K. Labour Party Flunks Anti-Semitism 101

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With the U.K. Conservative Party tearing itself to pieces over Brexit, you would think the opposition Labour Party, now five points ahead in preference polls, would concentrate all its energies and political firepower on one prize: power.

But instead of demonstrating vision on the biggest issue the country has faced in over a generation, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been embroiled in a bizarre but telling battle over anti-Semitism. If this is a glimpse of what a Labour-led government might look like, it’s as scary as Brexit.

Last month, Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee ignored opposition from Jewish leaders and members of its own party to approve a new code of conduct opposing anti-Semitism. The code was a bungled attempt to make up for a much-derided 2016 inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party that was seen as a whitewash.

The new code dutifully adopts the working definition of anti-Semitism from the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But it crucially omits four of the 11 examples of anti-Semitic behavior in the IHRA code. For example, it leaves out an item that defines as anti-Semitic the assertion that Israel’s existence is a racist endeavor. It also excludes comparisons of contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

The response was fierce. Sixty-eight rabbis signed a protest letter. The three main Jewish newspapers in the U.K. ran each other’s logos for the first time ever in a show of solidarity, along with a joint editorial saying that a Corbyn-led government would pose an “existential” threat to British Jewry.

The British author Ben Judah took note in The Atlantic of how unusual this show of community anger was:

For decades my community has been quiet and watchful, slow to place itself in the public eye. But last week, watching British Jews call out anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, I had to pinch myself. Were these really the Jews of Britain: publicly furious, outraged, venting their fear and disgust as they faced down what might well be Britain’s next government?

British Jews should be a natural constituency for a party that has a proud history of support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. But Labour is now driving Jewish voters away. In the 2017 election, Jews voted overwhelmingly for Conservatives (63 percent), with only around a quarter saying they voted Labour.

Outright anti-Semitism may not be widespread in the country as a whole — a 2017 report showed it to be much more prevalent in France — but much depends on definitions. With the coarsening of debate after Brexit and the growth of far-right extremist groups, disturbing attitudes are emerging.

Corbyn is part of the problem. He has insisted that his party wants to stamp out anti-Semitism in its ranks, but if taken at his word he seems clueless about how to change things. There have been a string of outrages followed by suspensions involving Labour MPs and activists, including former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was suspended after his bizarre claim that Adolf Hitler had been a Zionist before he went on his killing spree.

The left-wing Labour activist Gerry Downing was suspended for saying Zionists have played “a vanguard role for the capitalist offensive against the workers.” Christine Shawcroft, chair of the party’s dispute panel, had to resign after refusing to discipline a pro-Corbyn Labour candidate who wrote an article calling the Holocaust a hoax.

Corbyn himself doesn’t have much credibility on the issue. He was forced to apologize when it emerged that he had opposed the removal of a mural in east London showing a group of bankers, some obviously Jewish, playing Monopoly on the back of the world’s oppressed. He claimed that he hadn’t looked closely at the mural he was defending. On Tuesday, Corbyn apologized for hosting an event in 2010 where the actions of Israel in Gaza were compared to those of Nazi Germany, saying, “Views were expressed at the meeting which I do not accept or condone.”

The question needs asking: What were they thinking? If the painstakingly constructed Holocaust Remembrance Alliance code, accepted by dozens of countries and many more organizations, needed improving or tweaking, Labour’s executive committee is the last place anyone would go to have it done. It simply has no credibility on the subject.

Corbyn’s supporters complain that the reaction to the anti-Semitism code is overblown and reflects a desire to prevent a Labour election bid that might bring policies that Israel wouldn’t like (Corbyn, a longtime critic of Israel, has pledged to recognize a Palestinian state). Indeed, Labour executive committee member Peter Willsman was recorded suggesting that Jewish “Trump fanatics” had instigated the accusations of anti-Semitism. He has apologized, but has not been sanctioned.

The code controversy is confirmation of what has long been known about the eccentric Labour leader: that he finds it impossible to resist being rebellious, even to the point of absurdity, even when all reason dictates alternative action.

It suggests that he would happily drag the party into quixotic crusades rather than focus it on where the country needs leadership.

Drafting the new code should have been an easy win for him; a show of good faith and an act of healing. In fumbling it, Corbyn has managed to do the impossible: He has turned the conversation from Brexit, making the Conservatives seem unified and sane by comparison. He has reminded people why it’s so hard to imagine him running the country. And he’s reminded Jews of what they have to fear if that happens.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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