The chief Rabbi’s intervention in support of the Tories and other attacks on Labour for antisemitism were absolutely predictable. The Tories and the Blairites within the Labour Party quickly realised after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader that the antisemitism slur was their most effective weapon against him.
This campaign actually started when Ed Miliband was Labour leader in 2010-15. Since Miliband is Jewish, the attacks were remarkable in that they operated at two levels—denouncing him for expressing any sympathy for the Palestinian cause or criticism of Israel and sometimes resorting to antisemitic innuendo against him.
But with Corbyn the attack has been full-frontal. This is because he is such a long-standing and consistent supporter of the Palestinian struggle. But it is also because he is the most left wing leader Labour has ever had, and stands for a substantial programme of economic and social reforms.
This latter factor is now the dominant one, especially after the publication of Labour’s ambitious manifesto, and so the antisemitism charge has gone into overdrive.
Of course, the accusations against Corbyn are utter nonsense. So why have they been so effective? There are, I think, two reasons. First, there is the role of the Labour right. Whereas the strongest Zionists were to be found on the Labour left when Israel was formed, now they are on the right. Moreover, as in the case of Tony Blair himself, support for Israel is associated with the drive forcibly to maintain Western domination of the Middle East.
Labour right wingers’ denunciations of Corbyn—massively amplified by the media—have given the accusations of antisemitism authority they would have otherwise lacked.
Some of the worst offenders have now abandoned the Labour Party that gave them a degree of social status, but they are still given media platforms for their nonsense.
Second, however, the campaign reflects a significant shift in favour of Israel and its supporters, not just in Britain but in other European societies. One feature of the mass anti-capitalist movements that started in Seattle 20 years ago has been the strength of the solidarity shown with the Palestinians.
In Britain, there were huge pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the time of Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon and the military offensives against Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014. It became a cliche to say that for many young people opposing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians had become the equivalent of the anti-apartheid cause for earlier generations.
It’s traditional to defend Israel by accusing the critics of antisemitism. Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine in 1983, accusing it of an antisemitic “blood libel”. It implied that, as Israeli defence minister at the time, he was responsible for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut in September 1982.
But the difference is that Israel has become a matter of identity politics. Jewish people in countries such as Britain are encouraged to see Israel as part of their identity, so that criticisms of Israel can be represented as a threat to them. This is the real basis on which Corbyn is pressured to apologise to British Jews.
This version of identity politics is reinforced by the increasingly strident identification of anti-Zionism and antisemitism by official institutions such as the European Parliament.
France and Germany, the dominant powers in the European Union, have been particularly active in this. Hence the spread of the extremely dubious and partisan “working definition” of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It’s symptomatic of the ruthlessness of Corbyn’s opponents that Labour’s unwise adoption of this definition hasn’t abated the campaign against him one whit.
Meanwhile, real antisemitism—that is, hatred of Jews on the basis of racist stereotypes—is growing. Politically it is nurtured, as ever, by the far right.
These days they tend to support Israel as a bulwark against Muslims, but antisemitism remains in the ideological mix alongside Islamophobia. But the Corbyn-hunters seem uninterested in this genuine threat.