Saturday 4 August 2018

Is Corbyn an antisemite?

I’m only stating the obvious: freedom of speech is arguably the very basis of democracy. The right to speak one’s mind freely is a fundamental human right.

Sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it?  That’s because these concepts are so often used, misused and abused in modern political discourse.  We are so often bashed on the head with the term ‘human rights’ (often by dictators for whom the term has no real meaning) that we’ve come to accept it without question.  In fact, not everything we feel entitled to do is a ‘human right’; and even when it is, that does not mean that such right is unconstrained.

Our unquestioned human right ends where it impinges on another human right.  At that point, the two clashing rights need to be balanced; which is just another way of saying they need to be curtailed.

Freedom of speech is no different.  A fundamental right it may be, but it is far from absolute.  In fact, it is strictly curtailed, even in a democracy.  Because words have consequences.  In fact, words can kill.  The Talmud sages put that observation in a statement that loosely translates as
"Life and death by the power of the tongue."
In modern political thought, the textbook example is shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre.  That ‘freedom’ is prohibited, because the ensuing stampede impinges on the right to live – and to live free of bodily harm.  For the same reason, incitement to violence (and not just the violence itself) is proscribed.

But the line is not drawn at bodily harm.  UK statutes outlaw speech that stirs up racial hatred (the so-called ‘hate speech’), even when the words did not actually result in violence.  That’s in recognition of the fact that not just people’s body needs to be protected, but also their spirit and dignity.  This is also why the UK has laws against defamation.

In both cases (hate speech and defamation), the law does not require proof of intent.  It is not concerned with the motivations behind the act, but with its (potential) consequences.

Having established that, let us now go to the (by now famous) fact that the UK Labour Party, while ostensibly agreeing with the Definition of Antisemitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), has deliberately not adopted the part which describes as antisemitic
"Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis."
Instead, Labour’s ruling body (the National Executive Committee – NEC) has introduced in its Code of Conduct the following statement:
"Discourse about international politics often employs metaphors drawn from examples of historic misconduct.  It is not antisemitism to criticise the conduct or policies of the Israeli state by reference to such examples unless there is evidence of antisemitic intent.  Chakrabarti [inquiry into antisemitism] recommended that Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular.  In this sensitive area, such language carries a strong risk of being regarded as prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Party within Clause 2.I.8."
Contrary to what some Party spokespersons claim, the Labour Code of Conduct’s statement does not ‘expand’ the Definition – at least not in this respect; in fact, it clearly contradicts the Definition: where the IHRA Definition declares the Israeli-Nazi analogy a [c]ontemporary example of antisemitism in public life”, the Code of Conduct says that[i]t is not antisemitism […] unless there is evidence of antisemitic intent”.  That’s not saying much: surely anything is antisemitism if there is evidence of antisemitic intent.  But I struggle to understand what such evidence would be and how it could be obtained.  And why would the Labour Code suddenly become concerned with intent, rather than the consequences of the act?

So, is the Israel-Nazi analogy (or “metaphor”, as the Code of Conduct so poetically calls it) antisemitism, or is it not?

To avoid being accused of circular logic, I will deliberately not rely on the IHRA Definition.  Instead, I will use a definition of antisemitism proclaimed not by a supporter, but by a critic of the IHRA Definition. Former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Sedley defined antisemitism as follows:
"Shorn of philosophical and political refinements, anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews. Where it manifests itself in discriminatory acts or inflammatory speech it is generally illegal, lying beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and of action."
Sedley, who is currently a Visiting Professor at Oxford University, is right to distinguish between immoral prejudice (“hostility”) and illegal acts, such as discrimination and hate speech.  But the fact that the former is allowed by law (i.e. it is within “the bounds of freedom of speech”) does not mean that it is acceptable.  Antisemitism is racism; profoundly immoral and therefore abhorrent.  If I were to use the ‘n-word’, I would not be imprisoned; but I would rightly be called a racist by every person of good character.

Neither the IHRA Definition, nor the Labour Code of Conduct deal with criminal offences; they are concerned with ethics, not law.

On the other hand, it is clear that in Professor Sedley’s view, discrimination and hate speech (whether they reach the legal threshold or not) are manifestations of antisemitism.  And therefore, they are in themselves evidence of antisemitism.

Those who insist that drawing the analogy is not antisemitic do so based on the assertion that Israel does similar things to those perpetrated by the Nazis.  For instance, Israel ‘occupies’ – and so did the Nazis; Israel ‘kills’ – and so did the Nazis; Israel ‘discriminates’, Israel ‘ethnically cleanses’, etc.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn compared the Israeli blockade of Gaza Strip with the Nazi sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad, which killed millions of people.

Let us move away from the debate of whether Israel actually does those things and whether some or all of them are justified in the circumstances.  Such debate would not only be endless, but also irrelevant.  Personally, I do believe that many of the accusations against Israel are at best distortions and at worst amount to hate speech.  However, that’s not my point here; my point is that, even if everything that Corbyn claims Israel does were true, the Nazi analogy would still constitute antisemitism – because it is employed in an incendiary and discriminatory fashion.

Because what is clear is that Israel is hardly the only country that perpetrates those things.  There are many territories that are ‘occupied’; more Palestinians have been killed by other Arabs than by Israel; extensive ethnical cleansing occurred in ex-Yugoslavia, Cyprus and in many other conflicts, etc.  Not one thing that Israel did and does is really unique; similar (and much worse) acts have been committed by other nations.

Yet the Nazi analogy is almost never employed in relation to other nations.  EU member state Croatia has an incontestable history of collaboration with the Nazi regime that far exceeds even Ken Livingston’s most outrageous accusations against ‘the Zionists’.  The establishment of modern Croatia involved war and the forced expulsion or flight of most of the Serbian population of that territory.  Yet Croatia is not accused of ‘behaving like the Nazis’ – not by Corbyn and not with his support, anyway.

In practice, Israel is the only entity against which that particular analogy is so often and so vigorously deployed.  It is hardly ever used with regard to Assad (who has butchered hundreds of thousands of people, including using chemical and incendiary weapons); or even with regard to Islamic State – a supremacist ‘Caliphate’ with global ambitions, guilty of exterminating entire populations.

Whatever one chooses to accuse Israel of ‘committing’ – the fact of discrimination remains: Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are more exercised about Israel than about any other topic in international politics – bar none; and the Nazi analogy is the obvious expression of that unparalleled hostility.

Why Nazis, though?  Of course, Nazis are themselves a “metaphor” of ultimate evil.  But it’s more than that.  It is not by chance that the event that Jeremy Corbyn facilitated in 2010 in the Houses of Parliament took place on Holocaust Memorial Day; it is not by chance that Jeremy Corbyn and his best mate John McDonnell also wanted to take out the term ‘Holocaust’ from the ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’.  This is not ‘just’ about the Nazis in 1930s – it’s of course about the Holocaust.  The Israel-Nazi analogy is employed not despite, but because Jews were the Nazis’ quintessential victims.  Israelis are compared to Nazis because they are Jews.

This has two subliminal motivations:

Firstly, for antisemites, the Holocaust has always been the ultimate reproach, the pointing finger exclaiming ‘this is what you did!’ and causing some nagging feelings of guilt.  The Israel-Nazi analogy is an attempt to push back against that guilt.  If Jews (or at least ‘some Jews’) can be shown to be ‘just like the Nazis’, then there is less of a reason to feel bad for harbouring feelings of hostility against them.

Secondly, the accusation of ‘behaving just like Nazis’ is likely to be more painful for Jews than for anyone else.  Being called a Nazi is a grave insult for any normal person; but for Jews, who lost a third of their number to Nazi crimes, it is devastating.  Arguably no other accusation can be equally shocking for a Jew.  Those who use that particular analogy do so knowing that it causes the ultimate, most unbearable type of pain and distress.


Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite; the Labour Party – with its current membership – is riddled with antisemites, including at its highest levels; the Code of Conduct condones antisemitic prejudice, even while paying lip service to anti-racism.

But it’s more than that: the Israel-Nazi analogy is not ‘just’ antisemitism; it is in fact Holocaust inversion – the ultimate, most pernicious form of Holocaust denial.  It does not deny that the Holocaust actually happened; but, by pretending that the victims can just as well be the perpetrators, it robs it of any moral significance; it kicks the Holocaust into the swamp of moral relativism, there to sink among other ordinary (and debatable) historical episodes.  Changing the name of the Memorial Day is part of the same pattern: the Holocaust thus becomes just a (non-particular) genocide in an ocean of genocides.

Jackie Walker (a devoted Corbyn friend and supporter)
claims that the Jews were responsible for the
Atlantic slave trade and for the ‘African holocaust’.
All this is not ‘just’ an attack on Israel, or an assault on Jews’ connection to the Jewish state; it is not even an ‘intellectual’ pogrom à la Bruno Bauer or Karl Marx.  No, it’s more than that: it is an attack on what it means to be Jewish in the 21 century; an onslaught upon the very soul of the Jewish people.


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  2. In my view, Corbyn defies easy classification when it comes to anti-Semitism. His attitude to Jews seems to depend entirely on where they stand in regard to Israel. He enjoys the company of those who see the country as “a steaming pile of manure” (witness his attendance at the Jewdas seder), and those like Holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer who condemn it as a reincarnation of Nazi Germany. So the question is whether someone who likes some Jews but not others can fairly be described as anti-Semitic.

    1. Tolerating (or even liking) some ‘good Jews’ is not specific to Corbyn, but common among antisemites. I’ve touched on this “paradox’ in a previous article (“Save the children”). Let me reproduce here the relevant passage in its entirety:
      My father was a teenager in pre-World War II Romania. One of his school teachers was a known member of the local fascist organisation – and a known antisemite. Not unusual in that time and place, yet my father must have been terrified. One day, in front of the entire class, the teacher asked my dad to stand up. “Joseph,” he thundered, “you are a Jew, aren’t you?” My dad nodded in meek admission of the crime. “I don’t like Jews,” said the teacher. “But that does not mean I don’t like you. You’re a good kid”.

      I keep remembering this story, because it is characteristic of the mindset of many antisemites. It is why the statement “Some of my best friends are Jews” has become not just a cliché, but almost a litmus test for antisemites. Most antisemites do not hate (or even ‘dislike’) every individual Jew. What they hate, dislike and fear is ‘the Jews’ – that vague but (in the antisemitic mind) omnipresent collective. It is that collective – and not the individual Jew – that is the ultimate, the quintessential ‘Other’. That’s why the ‘modern’ antisemites dislike, hate and fear the State of Israel: with its Jewish majority and character, Israel is the tangible, physical embodiment of that ‘Jewish collective’. That’s why antisemites argue that ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’: because they feel they can tolerate individual Jews – though not ‘the Jewish collective’.
      I don’t think Corbyn is different in that respect. He doesn’t mind Jews; he really doesn’t like ‘the Jews’.

  3. Surely, to substantiate a claim that Corbyn is not just an Israel hater but also a Jew hater one has to produce evidence of Jew hatred in contexts having no connection with Israel or Zionism. Where is that evidence? I also hesitate to accuse Corbyn of anti-Semitism in the light of well-known psychological research. The best known authority on the nature of prejudice, the late Gordon Allport, argued that “one of the facts about which we can be most certain is that people who reject one out-group will tend to reject other out-groups. If a person is anti-Jewish he is likely to be anti-Catholic, anti-Negro, anti-any-out-group.” Does Corbyn satisfy this condition?

    1. I totally disagree. You said yourself everything I need to know when you used the term “Israel-hater”. Why would a Brit *hate* Israel? We are not talking cogent criticism, but something that looks & feels like visceral hostility. Corbyn shows nothing remotely comparable against any other state. And it “ happens” to be against the Jewish state. In the post-Holocaust era, people like Corbyn will self-censor any external manifestation of hostility against Jews. Hostility against Israel or “Zionists” simply acts as a relief valve for antisemitic prejudice. IHRA recognises this and that’s why it includes manifestations of prejudice against Israel among the examples of “contemporary antisemitism”. With respect to G. Alport, I totally reject the thesis. It is modelled on far-right (ultra-particulariist) antisemitism & ignores the specific characteristics of far-left (ultra-universalist) antisemitism. If pursued to its logical conclusion, the thesis would mean that Corbyn (and anyone else) can say “I’m not an antisemite—look, I’m ok with blacks and Muslims!” Ludicrous!

  4. You ask why a Brit would hate Israel. That’s an easy question to answer. A Brit (or anyone else for that matter) would hate Israel if he or she believed that Israel was doing terrible things to the Palestinians that could not possibly be justified. If someone makes a criticism of Israel that you and I think is absurd, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that criticism is motivated by anti-Semitism; it could just as easily be motivated by ignorance.
    You also allege that Corbyn has never shown visceral hatred towards any state other than Israel. I think that if you check the historical record you’ll find he came down pretty hard on the apartheid regime in South Africa. You’ll also find that his views on the IRA have rather a lot in common with his views on Hamas. He regards both as his friends.
    As far as Allport is concerned he made no distinction between left and right anti-Semitism. He defined the latter simply as a dislike of Jews qua Jews
    His argument, if pursued to its logical conclusion, is precisely the opposite of what you claim. It is that you will never (in the real world) find someone saying “I’m not an anti-Semite – look, I’m OK with blacks and Muslims.” I repeat, he says that if you’re anti-Jewish you’re almost guaranteed to be hostile towards other ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. This applies to left-wing as well as right-wing anti-Semites. Take Karl Marx for example. Do you really think the only minority he held in contempt was Jews?

  5. You say: "A Brit (or anyone else for that matter) would hate Israel if he or she believed that Israel was doing terrible things to the Palestinians that could not possibly be justified." No, that is a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient. To *hate* Israel to the extent Corbyn does, while not *hating* any other state that did 'terrible things' to somebody in recent times -- and not be motivated by subliminal antisemitism -- a Brit would have to genuinely believe that the 'things' that Israel does to Palestinians are fundamentally more 'terrible' than anything else anyone else does to others. E.g. more terrible than what Assad does, more terrible than what the Sri Lankan regime did, etc etc etc (I could draw a very long list here). How likely is it that a relatively intelligent man (even if he genuinely believes everything he says about Israel's behaviour), would fail to realise that there were/are many other 'things' that are more 'terrible'? How likely is it that a man who sees complexity in other conflicts and demands absolute proof on other issues (Novichok, etc.) would fail to behave in a similar manner vis-a-vis Israel? Unless, that is, he harbours a subliminal prejudice that causes him to be more amenable to unconditionally believe 'terrible things' committed by Jews? Is it REALLY reasonable to believe that a political activist with a strong interest in human rights and peace has not seen anything that would cause him to *hate* between Apartheid South Africa decades ago and Israel? Not reasonable in my view.
    One of the reasons why antisemitism isn't a criminal offence is that it is impossible to prove beyond the proverbial shadow of a doubt without actually reading a person's mind (unless the person chooses to confess it -- which is unlikely in the post-Holocaust world). This is the type of evidence you require from me. But we are not in a court of law -- we are in the court of public opinion. In which circumstantial evidence (especially lots of) is acceptable for the purpose of opprobrium. Opprobrium is the punishment I ask for -- I do not suggest that Corbyn should be thrown in prison. For that purpose, his oft-repeated (and admitted) association with people with VERY questionable opinions is sufficient evidence.
    His views on IRA and N. Ireland are not in my opinion relevant to Hamas. IRA never wanted to destroy the UK. Therefore it is not comparable to Hamas, but with the most moderate Palestinian factions.
    I did not say that Allport made the distinction, I actually said the opposite. He did not make the distinction, which cause him to model his views only on far-right antisemitism, while ignoring the particular characteristics of the far-left variety. “I’m not an anti-Semite – look, I’m OK with blacks and Muslims” is precisely Corbyn's point when he rejects accusations of antisemitism by saying "I am an anti-racist". Karl Marx is anecdotal evidence here. I am not saying that there aren't people who dislike Jews as well as other 'out-groups'. I am just saying that -- whatever Allport argued -- the interpretation that a white person cannot really be an antisemite unless s/he is also visibly a white supremacist is bonkers. I believe that antisemitic prejudice is extremely 'adaptable' (which is why it survived for so long, despite traumatic events and huge changes in human society. For instance, it morphed from 'religious' into 'scientific'. It has now morphed into 'ideological' antisemitism. I am saying 'morphed', but what I really mean is that the self-justification/rationalisation changes, not necessarily the prejudice itself.

  6. I think it’s important to understand that people see the world differently. You and I might agree that what’s going on in Syria, Chechnya, Tibet, Myanmar etc is infinitely worse than anything going on in Israel, but other people, because of their ignorance, might see things differently. For example, they might regard colonialism as a particularly heinous crime and see the Jews’ invasion of Palestine and uprooting of the indigenous population (their phraseology, not mine) as a prime example. Zionism then becomes, in their eyes, a crime non-pareil and explains their obsession with Israel. The problem is ignorance, not anti-Semitism. And that’s why a Brit (and in my view, a not especially bright one) might have an all-consuming hatred of Israel. I recognise, of course, that criticism of Israel can be motivated by anti-Semitism. My point is that it doesn’t have to be – even when it’s extreme and so obviously based on lies.
    You say that anti-Semitism is not a criminal offence. Well, in effect, it is, in that anti-Semitic speech can, and often does, result in a charge of stirring up racial hatred. Prosecution lawyers seem to have no difficulty in establishing guilt beyond reasonable (not a shadow of) doubt. The type of evidence I require from you does not require mind reading. I ask only for examples of Corbyn’s anti-Semitism in contexts unrelated to Israel. That would lead me to conclude that he hates Jews and not just Israel – but I have yet to see it.
    I mentioned the IRA because many of Corbyn’s critics accuse him of an obsessional and singular focus on Israel. The truth is rather different. He has consistently opposed colonialism and supported anti-colonialist movements, even if some of those movements leave a lot to be desired in terms of their human rights record.
    Allport never said that people who are anti-Semitic have to be white supremacists. That really would be a daft claim bearing in mind that there are black Jew haters. What Allport argues is that some people have a prejudiced personality leading them, invariably, to hate a number of different groups. Do you think that Louis Farrakhan only hates Jews? You referred in your last post to circumstantial evidence. In my view the circumstantial evidence that Corbyn is not an anti-Semite comes from Allport’s empirically well-founded claim that people who hate rarely have a single target in their sights.

  7. I think we will have to agree to disagree at some point. One more attempt from me:
    Ignorance strikes me as a rather facile and fanciful excuse when it comes to a politician who's invested decades of his life in international politics. Of course, people "see the world differently", but there are objective parameters of human suffering such as fatality numbers (and many others, actually). The "colonialism" bit is another interesting excuse. There are strong arguments why Israel is not a colonial settler state, but they will be known to you -- hence I won't rehash them here. Let us instead accept, for the sake of the argument, that in Corbyn's view Israel is in that category. The example "anti-Zionists" love to quote is South Africa. But USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada are also in the same category. In fact, in these cases the dispossession and treatment of the (indisputably) indigenous population by (indisputably) foreign settlers have been infinitely more severe than in S. Africa, let alone Israel. Yet I did not hear Corbyn advocating with the same passion restitutional justice for the remnants of those indigenous people. The question about the "colonialism" theoryis, therefore: is this the cause of Corbyn's hostility -- or it's effect? I argue the latter, based on the balance of probabilities.
    Stirring racial hatred is NOT the same as racist prejudice. It is what we might call 'incitement'. This is easier to prove, but we are NOT talking about this, we are talking about prejudice. That's why I mentioned that I do not propose to throw Corbyn in prison. Still, even 'incitement' is not that easy to prove -- I think you will find that the number of actual convictions (or even trials) is tiny.
    I understood why you mentioned IRA. I can help you further by mentioning also PKK, with whom Corbyn had links. Although (you are right) Corbyn has in both cases been on the side of the "decolonisation movement", it seems to me that in neither case did his passion peak quite as much as in the case of Israel. At some point, he has even praised Erdogan for the "reconciliation" with the Kurds. I don't think he ever said a good word about Peres or Rabin? Why? You forgot not just PKK but also Hezbollah. Why are they a "decolonisation movement"?
    I am not familiar with Allport's work. It may well be that he tends to attribute everything to 'personality' and generalise, as a result of the field of science he is interested in. Your 'circumstantial evidence' is based on accepting the views (however 'empirically well-founded' of one scientist. On the other hand, you request from me evidence of antisemitism NOT related to Israel. But if (as I believe and as those who accept the IHRA definition believe) certain Israel-related views/actions are -- for some people, especially on the hard left -- the only way that the subliminal anti-Jewish prejudice is allowed to manifest itself, then such evidence will by definition never be available. If that's the only type of evidence that will satisfy you, then the upshot is that all sentences referring to Israel have to be erased from the IHRA Definition.
    There is also a second issue -- what has been called 'de facto antisemitism'. Given Corbyn's levels of hostility against Israel and Zionism (and your explanation about colonialism, etc.), it is inevitable that he also manifests hostility towards supporters of Israel and Zionism. Which is most of the British Jewish community. That would translate in effect in prejudice, even if one based on political differences, rather than racial or religious stereotypes.

  8. OK, Noru, let’s agree to differ, but here’s my final blast.
    First, ignorance. The fact that a politician has “invested decades of his life in international politics” doesn’t necessarily make him knowledgeable. It all depends on the nature of his investment. I’m sure that Corbyn has read a great deal about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Trouble is, I suspect he read (as we are all inclined to do) material that largely supported his prejudices. I’ll bet you a pound to a penny he reads the New Historians rather than Ephraim Karsh. He is thus ignorant not because he failed to do his homework but because he did the wrong kind of homework and acquired a distorted understanding of the issues.
    Secondly: Objective parameters of human suffering. Sure they exist but it’s human nature to disregard them because other issues are more important to us. I guarantee that if I tell you that two Jews were murdered in a terrorist attack in Israel and 25 non-Jews were murdered in a terrorist attack in Nigeria, you will be far more interested in the former. Indeed, the latter will barely register.
    Thirdly: Restitutional justice for indigenous peoples. Why is Corbyn silent? Simple, it’s because the indigenous peoples are silent. Believe me, if they started making a noise and engaging in acts of terror Corbyn would scarcely be able to contain himself. He’d be up in arms.
    Fourth: Corbyn’s passion over the IRA and Israel. I’m not sure you’re comparing like with like here. It’s much “safer” for a UK politician to get over-excited about Israel than about the Irish question.
    Fifth: Hezbollah. They are not a decolonisation movement but (in the eyes of anti-Zionists) a supporter of a decolonisation movement. Same thing as far as Corbyn is concerned.
    Sixth: Allport. His research findings have been replicated many times by many different scientists.
    Seventh: IHRA and manifestations of anti-Semitism. I don’t accept that hostility to Israel is the only way that some people can manifest their anti-Semitism. Some people show it in over the top hostility to schechita. Some will refuse to have Jewish friends or employees. If politicians, some will treat their Jewish constituents badly. Has Corbyn ever been accused of these misdemeanours?

    1. Ok, since it is so important to you to have the final blast. For the record, I think you give the guy waaay too much benefit of the doubt. But I’ll leave it there—we’ll agree to disagree on that. It’s kind of academic anyway. Whether by prejudice or ignorance, I think we can agree that the man is toxic. For Israel, for the Jewish community & (I believe) also for the UK.

    2. Dear Both, thank you for an informed, nuanced and civil discussion on around issues that (in my much less informed) opinion cuts to the heart of analysing Corbyn’s position. A rare departure from the usual standard of comments on the Internet! (Belated reply as I have only just stumbled on this blog, but not too late I hope to pass on my thanks).

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    4. Thanks Dan, glad you found the conversation useful.

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