There is a familiar shape to controversies about Jeremy Corbyn that shows no sign of changing more than two years after he stepped down as leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn will make a statement that should be as provocative as observing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Members of the British commentariat will then work themselves into a lather of indignation that he could dare to say such a thing.
Interviewed by a Lebanese broadcaster, Corbyn was asked if the unrelenting campaign of slander directed against him had been linked to his support for Palestine:
I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that my clearly stated support for the rights of the Palestinian people to be able to live in peace, free from occupation, free from being under siege as in Gaza, and for those living in the refugee camps — particularly those in Lebanon but other countries as well — with the right to return, played a factor in all of this.
This was a characteristically mild statement of the obvious. From start to finish, the media narrative about Corbyn, Labour, and antisemitism relied on a conceptual framework that conflates effective support for Palestinian rights with hostility to Jewish people.
Since hostile critics of left-wing Democrats in the United States like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar rely on the same framework, as do the many detractors of France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the British case study should be a matter of general interest for the contemporary left. What follows is a brief but representative sample of the discursive tsunami that engulfed Corbyn and his supporters in the last few years.
A Cold House for Truth
In March 2016, the Guardian published a column by Jonathan Freedland with the title “Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem.” If we could identify any single article as the starting point for the whole controversy, this was it. According to Freedland, Labour was already “consumed” with disputes over antisemitism during the opening months of Corbyn’s leadership, to the point that Britain’s Jewish community was “fast reaching the glum conclusion that Labour has become a cold house for Jews.”
What evidence did he adduce in support of this dramatic claim? Freedland’s entire argument rested upon two planks. Firstly, Labour had recently expelled two members accused of making antisemitic remarks — not two hundred, or twenty, or even five, but two. Secondly, the party had recently set up an inquiry into allegations of antisemitism at its Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) leveled by the club’s former chair Alex Chalmers.
Jonathan Freedland did not tell his readers about the main reason Chalmers gave for stepping down: a move by the club to endorse Israel Apartheid Week. The Guardian columnist railed against “the belief that what Jews are complaining about is not antisemitism at all, but criticism of Israel,” without acknowledging that his chief witness made no effort to distinguish between the two in his resignation statement:
A large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews. The decision of the club to endorse a movement with a history of targeting and harassing Jewish students and inviting antisemitic speakers to campuses, despite the concerns of Jewish students, illustrates how uneven and insincere much of the active membership is when it comes to liberation.
His description of Israel Apartheid Week is clearly not one that its supporters would accept, nor indeed one that its opponents have been able to substantiate. Chalmers also accused Labour members at Oxford of “expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians,” without, however, giving any verbatim quotes from these alleged endorsements of terrorism, which one might have expected to draw considerable attention, at least in student circles.
None of this featured in Freedland’s article. However, he did refer to one hair-raising story that had not appeared in the original resignation statement: “The case of one club member who organized a group to shout ‘filthy Zionist’ at a Jewish student whenever they saw her.” An earlier article in the Guardian about the Oxford controversy, on which Freedland relied as a source, described this as an allegation. In Freedland’s telling, it became an established fact, without having passed through any process of verification. Neither the Labour Party’s disciplinary unit nor the college authorities could find any evidence to back it up.
It was on this slender basis that Freedland proclaimed Labour to be “consumed” with antisemitism under Corbyn’s watch. The greater part of his article addressed the question of when, exactly, criticism of Israel might become antisemitic:
Many Jews worry when they see a part of the left whose hatred of Israel is so intense, unmatched by the animus directed at any other state. They wonder why the same degree of passion — the same willingness to take to the streets, to tweet night and day — is not stirred by, say, Russia, whose bombing of Syria killed at least 1,700 civilians; or the Assad regime itself, which has taken hundreds of thousands of Arab lives. They ask themselves, what exactly is it about the world’s only Jewish country that convinces its loudest opponents it represents a malignancy greater than any other on the planet?
As a portrait of the British left, this did not even rise to the level of a caricature. We could easily rephrase Freedland’s point about the alleged double standards being applied to Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad in terms that supply him with his answer: Why does the Left not protest to the same extent against states that receive no material aid from the British government, and which have already been sanctioned by the UK and its allies in an attempt to change their behavior?
Freedland’s bridging sentence — “which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn” — strongly implied that his comments about a disproportionate focus on Israel held true for the Labour leader. In fact, Corbyn had a long record of advocacy on behalf of other peoples denied the right to self-determination as well as the Palestinians. Freedland’s own newspaper had published a report in 2014 on the first visit to Western Sahara by a British parliamentary delegation that included Corbyn as a member. There was abundant evidence of Corbyn’s support for the Saharawis, the Kurds, and the Chagos Islanders, reaching back for many years.
The details of Freedland’s article and the Oxford allegations upon which it rested would soon be forgotten as the focus of the British media shifted to fresh controversies. But in many respects it set the mold for what was to come.
“What Armies Do”
By the summer of 2018, Freedland’s approach had come to appear rather chaste. Having started off hinting that Corbyn had some kind of blind spot when it came to antisemitism, the critics of the Labour leader were now loudly insisting that he was a virulent antisemite and that his movement was an “existential threat to Jewish life in Britain,” as one highly influential statement put it.
This rhetorical escalation was a function of demand rather than supply. Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in the 2017 general election had generated a pressing need for attack lines. Figures like the anti-Corbyn Labour MP Margaret Hodge or the Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard soon realized that there was no upper limit to what they could say while still being taken seriously in the British media.
To the extent that it referred to evidence at all, this attempt to demonize Corbyn and his allies relied heavily upon the purported link between antisemitism and attitudes to Israel. Hodge launched her onslaught against Corbyn because Labour’s national executive was reluctant to adopt a particular definition of antisemitism that spells out in detail what people are allowed to say about Israel. Palestinians have repeatedly argued against the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition on the grounds that it will prevent them from speaking honestly about their own experience of violent dispossession.
An August 2018 article by the BBC journalist John Ware attempted to do precisely that. Ware referred to comments by Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne as an example of speech about Israel that the IHRA definition should make impossible:
In a 2002 Guardian article, Milne rightly said “the left . . . needs aggressively to police the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism taking into account Jewish sensitivities” only to then assert that “ethnic cleansing is not, of course, a new departure for Israel” because Israeli forces had “twice organised large-scale expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967.”
According to Ware, it should be obligatory to describe the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1947–48 as an exercise in “making borders more secure” and “expelling people feared to have become a fifth column,” which is simply “what armies do in desperate fights for survival” and is in no way racist. While the Arab states were “fuelled by a religious jihad,” Ware insisted, Israel’s leaders were concerned only with staying alive. As such, he believed that Milne’s article violated the IHRA definition and that anyone expressing such opinions had no place in the Labour Party.
Ware was not content to express this historically illiterate view of the Palestinian Nakba in his own right. He wanted acceptance of that view to be a necessary condition for taking part in mainstream political life — a condition that would certainly exclude the vast majority of Palestinians. Within months, the BBC assigned Ware to produce a documentary with the title “Is Labour Antisemitic?” It was no surprise that it proved to be such a tendentious and unreliable piece of work, relying on a set of claims that the barrister Martin Forde later found to be “wholly misleading.”
A Defining Moment
Ware’s article was a small but significant part of the overall picture. The Daily Mail journalist Emine Sinmaz — subsequently hired by the Guardian — contributed her own substantial daub of paint with an article that appeared shortly after Ware’s. She claimed that Corbyn was lying about his attendance at a 2014 memorial ceremony in a Tunisian cemetery.
Corbyn had gone to the cemetery while attending a conference in Tunis. The purpose of the memorial ceremony was to pay tribute to those killed by an Israeli air strike on the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in October 1985. The UN Security Council condemned the air strike, which killed at least sixty people, as an “act of armed aggression” that resulted in “heavy loss of human life and extensive material damage” and posed a “threat to peace and security in the Mediterranean region.” The British government of Margaret Thatcher supported this resolution, while the US administration of Ronald Reagan abstained to allow it to be passed.
None of this mattered to Sinmaz, who claimed that Corbyn had really been paying tribute to the PLO leader Salah Khalaf, giving him “fresh questions to answer about his alleged sympathy for extremists.” Sinmaz implied that the Labour leader could not possibly have been paying tribute to the victims of the 1985 bombing, since the monument was “15 yards from where Mr Corbyn is pictured” on the Facebook page of the Palestinian embassy in Tunis. The idea that Corbyn might have been capable of walking fifteen yards over the course of an afternoon seems not to have occurred to her.
The Mail article repeatedly asserted that Khalaf and other PLO leaders buried at the cemetery had been “linked to the Munich Massacre” of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972. It did not say what those links might have been or supply any evidence to support such claims. The rest of the British media was happy to take Sinmaz at her word and began speaking about “wreathgate” as yet another example of Corbyn’s “antisemitism problem.” By April 2020, one former Labour MP, Phil Wilson, could publish the following sentence in the liberal New Statesman and expect his readers to nod in agreement: “If you don’t want the press to write you are a terrorist sympathiser, don’t lay a wreath at the grave of a terrorist.”
At no point did the people who recycled these talking points stop to ask whether they had any basis for dismissing Khalaf as a “terrorist” with whom nobody should associate, other than the assertions of a Daily Mail journalist. The question of who helped organize the Black September operation in Munich remains highly controversial half a century later. Israel routinely claimed that PLO activists who had been assassinated by Mossad after 1972 were somehow involved in the Munich attacks, whether or not there was solid evidence to support this contention.
Let us assume that Khalaf was one of those who planned the operation. Does that mean he was an irredeemable “extremist”? Not in the eyes of the Israeli politicians who welcomed his videotaped call in 1989 for a permanent peace based on two states, Israeli and Palestinian, existing alongside one another.
Khalaf was one of the leading architects of the PLO’s peace strategy, repeatedly calling for Palestinian acceptance of an Israeli state, before Abu Nidal’s gang murdered him in 1991, acting on behalf of Saddam Hussein. Sinmaz and the Daily Mail appear to have taken some care not to identify his killers, who disappeared behind the protective veil of a passive-voice formulation, lest they interfere with the demonization of Khalaf and by extension the entire Palestinian national movement.
The commentators who took Khalaf’s status as a “terrorist” for granted would certainly have expected Palestinians to enter peace negotiations with Israeli leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, or even Ariel Sharon, even though they were responsible for violence against civilians on a much grander scale than the Munich attacks. Indeed, it is standard practice in the British media to refer to figures like Rabin and Peres as “peacemakers.” The double standard reveals a tacit belief in the racial inferiority of Palestinians. “Wreathgate” was a protracted orgy of anti-Palestinian racism that told us far more about Corbyn’s detractors than it did about the Labour leader himself.
Jonathan Goldstein, head of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), announced that the Mail story and Corbyn’s response to it was a “defining moment” that revealed his “great hostility towards Israel and, through Israel, to the Jewish people.” According to Goldstein, it showed that Corbyn was “not fit to be a member of parliament, let alone a national leader” and that there was “no real basis upon which any conversations can occur” between the Labour leadership and organizations like the JLC. He was right, in a way, so far as the last point was concerned — but it was the attitudes of Goldstein and his co-thinkers that made such dialogue impossible.
Dog-Whistles and Foghorns
By the second half of 2019, bigoted views of Palestinians were so pervasive in British public discourse as to pass unnoticed. The following example didn’t even cause a stir.
In September of that year, the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti was due to speak at a fringe meeting during the Labour conference in Brighton. There was an unexplained delay in issuing his visa for the event and Barghouti was unable to attend in person; he spoke via video link instead. Although the Home Office did not give any reason for the delay, Barghouti certainly believed that it was a political decision.
By that stage, the Home Office had earned an unenviable but well-deserved reputation for institutional racism, thanks not least to its role in the Windrush scandal. It was and is an integral part of the British state, which actively supports the oppression of the Palestinians. Since July 2019, Britain’s Home Secretary has been Priti Patel, who is an unusually strong defender of Israel, even within the Conservative Party: Theresa May forced her to resign from another cabinet position in 2017 after she held unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials.
It was entirely predictable that a department like the Home Office, with a boss like Patel, would stop Barghouti from traveling until it was too late for him to speak. That didn’t stop Joshua Garfield, a Labour councillor and leading member of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), from weighing in on his Twitter account. Garfield insisted that Patel wouldn’t “deny entry willy nilly” and that Britain’s security services must have known about Barghouti’s ties with “dangerous” organizations or identified him as “a risk to UK citizens.”
The Newham councillor found it “terrifying that individuals like this are promoted by Labour members under the guise of Palestinian activism.” According to Garfield, “most British Jews” believed that a Labour government headed by Jeremy Corbyn “would have granted a man like Bhargouti [sic] entry to Britain.” Yet any government that did so would not be taking “its duty to protect Jewish citizens seriously . . . do you see why some British Jews consider Corbyn to be an ‘existential threat’?”
The Home Office supplied its own commentary on this outburst when it finally issued a visa to Barghouti — too late for him to attend the meeting in Brighton, although it was mysteriously back-dated to September 19, the day before he had been due to speak. In doing so, was Priti Patel’s department neglecting “its duty to protect Jewish citizens”?
Garfield seemingly believed that Palestinian activists like Barghouti were irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, who could not be trusted to attend a conference on a lobbying mission without attempting to carry out a terrorist attack — against a synagogue, perhaps, or a Jewish school. To describe this as dog-whistle racism would greatly understate its audibility to the human ear. Like the vilification of Salah Khalaf, it conveys the message that Palestinians are primitive folk with no legitimate cause or even the right to be heard.
This is just a selection of the arguments and allegations that swirled around Corbyn and the British left from 2015 onward. The cases cited here all involve groups and individuals that were highly influential in shaping the public conversation about Labour and antisemitism during that period. We can now observe a similar playbook being deployed against left-wing Democrats on the other side of the Atlantic.
That is not to say that Corbyn or the new left-wing forces in the United States have faced such virulent hostility mainly because of their position on Israel. The guardians of conventional wisdom deem their positions on a whole range of domestic and (especially) foreign policy issues unacceptable. If Israel had never existed, they would still encounter the same kind of opposition, which in that scenario would be looking for a different set of attack lines.
This one happens to work very well because it can be used to stigmatize any form of meaningful solidarity with Palestinians — a position that is widely held in left-wing circles throughout Europe, North America, and elsewhere, for very good reasons. Once you have conflated support for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, you can easily find evidence of antisemitism pervading the modern left.
Strictly speaking, the pro-Israel activists who spearhead this effort are not being deceitful. They genuinely believe that Israel is essential for the safety of Jews everywhere in the world and have constructed a sanitized narrative of its modern history that blames the Palestinians for their own misfortunes. But the line between delusion and dishonesty is a hazy one at best, and the consequences are the same in either case.
Every year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) publishes a list of the world’s ten worst “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents.” In every year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the group found room for his party in its global survey: eighth place in 2015, second in 2016, tenth in 2017, back up to fourth in 2018, and finally number one in 2019, placing it above murderous attacks on synagogues and kosher supermarkets in Germany and the United States that had taken place that year. Even for those who knew nothing about British politics, a quick glance at the other nominees should have raised some immediate doubts about the SWC’s methodology.
In 2015, for example, ISIS ranked number two on the list, but the European Union was third, five places ahead of Corbyn, for having “chosen to label products from the Golan Heights and disputed territories on the West Bank alone.” The following year, it was the United Nations that pipped Corbyn to the top spot, with a dishonorable mention for Barack Obama as the enabler of its conduct: “The most stunning 2016 UN attack on Israel was facilitated by President Obama when the US abstained on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for settlement construction.”
The French government received the SWC’s 2016 bronze medal for having imposed new labeling requirements on products made by Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. In 2018, Corbyn ranked below the massacre of eleven US Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but above Airbnb, which had decided — temporarily, as it turned out — not to accept listings from West Bank settlements. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were fifth on the 2019 list, well ahead of Rick Wiles, a Florida-based pastor whose description of impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump as a “Jew coup” could only earn him tenth place.
The SWC is not a fringe organization, and its elision of “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents” is not a marginal perspective. Lumping politicians who have an excellent record of challenging racism together with Holocaust deniers and antisemitic mass murderers is both shameful and utterly reckless at a time when far-right, ultranationalist forces are gathering strength. The events of the past few years have already done incalculable damage to standards of public debate about racism in Britain, which will take a long time to repair. But the Left in other countries can still learn some important lessons from what has happened.