Corbyn’s supporters should be honest 

The charge levelled by many at Jeremy Corbyn is not that he is anti-Semitic. He himself has said little to draw that damning conclusion. The charge levelled, with evidence increasing by the day, is that he endorses anti-Semites and attends events organised by anti-Semites. The charge levelled, therefore, is that he views anti-semitism as insufficiently worrisome, and, at times, views anti-Semites as even praiseworthy – particularly anti-Semites who hide under the cover of anti-Zionism. This is dangerous in itself. Racism, even when couched in terms that may draw your ideological sympathy, merits outright condemnation. Nothing else. This is especially true if your raison d’être is social justice and equality. Instead, opposition to Israeli policies – not in itself anti-Semitic, and at times morally justified – has blinded some people to clear expressions of bigotry. Corbyn suffers from this disabling myopia to a remarkable degree. 

Those who defend Corbyn rely on two arguments: firstly, that guilt by association – attending the same event as anti-Semites – is an insufficient base on which to build an argument. Secondly, that opposition to Israeli policies doesn’t entail anti-semitism, and consequently those that criticise Corbyn are doing so from a position of bad faith; out of a wish to shield Israel from legitimate criticism or part of a general right-wing agenda. Both arguments are strawmen that rely on a misapprehension of most people’s motives and inattention to their arguments. 

Owen Jones – perhaps the most staunch defender of Corbyn in the mainstream media – contends that guilt by association is a fallacious way of critiquing a political figure. I agree. But in his defence of Corbyn, he argues: 

having spent his life attending more meetings and protests than virtually any other MP, he will have encountered and met countless people. I can’t remember people I’ve shared platforms with and met (which has led to many embarrassing moments in my case) and the idea an MP like Corbyn juggling his constituency and campaigning work and meeting the number of people he does will remember is pushing human capabilities to an extreme degree.

The problem, though, is the main charge levelled at Corbyn isn’t who he associates with; the main charge is who he endorses and publicly supports. Jones also argues: 

And here is the problem facing Jeremy Corbyn. If he knew somebody had anti-Semitic views or indulged Holocaust denial, he would find their views utterly repulsive.

That may be the case. But when he called Hamas “a group dedicated to bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice”, was that an expression of ignorance on his part? Is he ignorant of the Hamas charter which calls for the destruction of Israel and the extirpation of her Jewish citizens? Perhaps he is ignorant of their suicide bombings and deployment of human shields – the pinnacle of suicidal martyrdom. Or rather, is their propagation of anti-Semitic canards, such as the protocols of elders of Zion, too discrete for his busy political gaze, too hidden under their righteous objective to end the occupation? (The occupation, not of the West Bank and Gaza, incidentally, but of the whole of Israel.) 

He called them “a group dedicated to bringing about peace and social justice”. This is not an expression of diplomacy, a conciliatory measure to advance the peace process. This is an endorsement of a fascist theocratic group that supports everything a progressive should hate and hates everything a progressive should support.  

He similarly extended this endorsement to Hezbollah. Whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, similarly seeks the massacre of Jewish citizens. Corbyn doesn’t engage with diplomacy towards ‘unsavoury characters’; he endorses fascists who share with him a hostility to western foreign policy and her allies. Guilt by association? No. What we have instead is guilt by affirmation. 

The suggestion of guilt by association is used more explicitly, though, to defend the rallies that Corbyn attends. In August 2012 – and a few times since then – Corbyn spoke at an Al Quds day rally. The rally was created by the Iranian regime in opposition to Israel’s existence. Shouts of “Death to Jews” are routinely proclaimed. The banner of Ayatollah Khomeini is proudly displayed. Someone who is apparently dedicated to peace was attending a rally of hatred – where revolutionary violence and virulent anti-semitism is the main and not a side dish. 

Note who else also spoke at that event. Neturei Karta – an extremist Jewish sect that views the holocaust as divinely mandated – were introduced as “the true Jews”. Stephen Sizer – a reverend that believes Israel was behind 9/11 – was similarly greeted with praise before he spoke. Also invited to speak was Sheikh Bahmanpour, a Shia cleric that believes Israel should be the destroyed and replaced by a shariah state. 

What unites all these guests, what common thread is evident from them? Support for Palestinian rights? Perhaps. Would you, though, allow your support for Palestinian rights to be corrupted by attending events that demonise Jews? In other words, would your support for Palestinian extend to legitimising those who hate Jews? If not, Corbyn’s attendance of these rallies deserve to be viewed for what they patently are: legitimising people who hate Jews in the purported service of a progressive goal. 

But to criticise Corbyn for attending this rally is guilt by association, so argue his defenders. How could he have known Al Quds day features anti-Semites? Corbyn’s defenders assume that the event just happens to have anti-Semites, as an unfortunate but unintended consequence of pro-Palestinian politics. This is spectacularly wrong: The wish to destroy Israel is animated by hostility to Jews and a wish to subordinate them to suffering and fear. It is not a specific political dispute; it is blanket bigotry.

Imagine If you decided to speak at a rally organised by neo-nazis, with pictures of David Duke displayed proudly, and with a significant chunk of your fellow speakers sharing the neo-nazi ideology. Is to scrutinise you an example of guilt by association? Should we assume, as a politician of some 3 decades and a man dedicated to peace, you’re extremely ignorant of the anti-semitism at the core of neo-nazism? Corbyn’s defenders will now say the analogy I’m offering is hyperbolic. 

For the claim of hyperbole to hold water you’d have to believe that calling for the mass murder of Jews, viewing the holocaust as a hoax, viewing the elders of Zion as real, and inviting to your event an assortment of well honed anti-Semites, has no significant similarity with neo-nazi anti-semitism?
 

Even if they concede there is some significant similarity, they’ll argue that Corbyn’s main focus is pro-Palestinian politics and not the anti-semitism of the people who organised the event, and certainly not the anti-semitism of people who were invited. This will be conceding Corbyn knew about the anti-semitism, and views it as insufficiently worrisome. Would you, as a supporter of a party with a rich history of social justice and advocacy for equality, want to elect a man who thinks anti-semitism under the cover of anti-Zionism is justified? Or who can’t identify it when it’s in close proximity? Many would, alas, and it proves that many on the left don’t view anti-semitism as badly as they view other forms of racism. Jews – sorry, Zionists – are assumed to be privileged, and this privilege means they’re never the victims; only and always the victimiser.
 

A Zionist that screams anti-semitism at Corbyn is a Zionist that wants to protect the oppressive state of Israel. A Zionist that worries about someone who is enabling and legitimising the oldest hatred in our civilisation should shut the fuck up and think instead about austerity and our support for Saudi Arabia. This is what is being suggested. And it has flowered into such a foul spectacle that the word “Zionist” is spat out with the same malice that traditionally underpinned the use of the word of “Jew”: to denote a group allegedly dedicated to treachery and division. 

The second defence of Corbyn is that criticism of him comes from a position of bad faith. It is argued that Zionists and people with an explicit right wing agenda conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with hostility towards Jews. They allegedly support this conflation because they blindly support the interests of western power. A recent article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offers the clearest attempt at this argument. Alibhai-Brown argues

 Just as pernicious is the way Zionists use the charge of anti-Semitism to block probes into Israel’s oppressive practices, its weaponry, and its influence in Western parliaments. Some public intellectuals and politicians – who should have some understanding of nuance – have become propagandists for Israel, be the country’s actions right or wrong.

 Most people critical of Corbyn don’t think criticism of Israel entails anti-semitism. Most people who are critical of Corbyn don’t even suppose Corbyn is personally anti-Semitic. The argument advanced against Corbyn is clear: it’s inappropriate to have as leader of the opposition party in a western democracy someone who endorses racists. This is not to do directly with Israeli policies. Endorsing Raed Salah – proponent of the blood libel, and someone who thinks Jews were behind 9/11 – should be viewed for what it is: an endorsement of a racist ideologue. It should not be viewed exclusively through the lens of Palestinian rights.

 If someone called Nick Griffin “an honoured citizen”, and attended a conference that celebrated him, how far would you go to listen to the political context provided as justification before you call “bullshit”?

The implication obvious from this is that racism should concern only if it is perpetrated by those who are the oppressors. White westerners – and now Jews – are the oppressors; Palestinians, and Muslims more generally, are the oppressed. The oppressed cannot be racist. Any expression of alleged bigotry by the oppressed is an expression of a legitimate political grievance. Attempts to scrutinise such expressions must therefore come from a position of bad faith. Ergo, if Salah is racist, but he also hates the occupation, Corbyn’s endorsement of him is an endorsement of a legitimate political grievance. Bigotry is the burden only of the white westerner and its Zionist accomplice. 

This argument is shoddy because it infantilises one group to excuse the hatred of another. We should view Palestinians as humans: this entails viewing them as capable of religious prejudice that should merit the opprobrium of leftists, usually the most sensitive to accusations of prejudice. This also entails holding Corbyn to account for doing the exact opposite. In indulging anti-Semitic reactionaries, from Hamas to Hezbollah and Raed Salah, in his effusive support of them, he is treating bigotry not as bigotry and, by doing that, he is betraying the dignity of Palestinians and the trust of Jews.  

The argument that criticism of Corbyn comes from a position of bad faith fails to account for the fact that the people Corbyn supports don’t hate Israel but Jews – a distinction which, for them, is meaningless anyway. It fails to account for the fact that it is not just Blairites, neocons, and neoliberals who worry about a potential political leader palling with racists. People who think anti-semitism is worrisome in itself worry too – and so they should, for it is a matter of principle first and foremost. 

What it irritates me most is the dishonesty with which Corbyn’s apologists have defended his links to racism. The charge is he endorses and willingly attends events organised by anti-Semites, not that he merely and accidentally associates with them. This charge is supported by evidence of him saying positive things about racists and attending events organised by groups ideologically committed to racism. Corbyn’s supporters should be honest: they should concede Corbyn supports anti-Semites. But they should then concede, that to them, this support doesn’t matter. They should be honest and concede that anti-semitism under the cover of anti-Zionism doesn’t matter to them, and is secondary to opposing austerity and opposing western foreign policy. 

Let them then concede that parts of the left are now morally bankrupt on the issue of racism. They should admit that they’re diminishing the values they pretend to espouse. Let them concede all of that, and support the MP from Islington with a candid heart – but not, in reality, with an anti-racist one. 

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12 thoughts on “Corbyn’s supporters should be honest 

  1. Forget about the Jewish angle; anyone who thinks Hamas or Hezbollah represent ‘peace and social justice and political justice” has brain broken beyond repair.

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  2. Tom: yours is one of the best and most thoughtful anti-Corbyn pieces I’ve read. It makes many of the same points that my friend Alan Johnson (*not* the MP!) made to me. Here’s my reply:

    Dear Alan,

    Firstly, you are quite justified in drawing attention to what I’ve previously written about Corbyn’s attitude to a number of international issues (ie knee-jerk anti-Americanism) and – perhaps worse – his unsavoury “friends” and/or associates in the Palestine solidarity movement (anti-semites like Hamas and Hesbollah, the Jew-hating Islamist Raed Salah and the holocaust-denier Paul Eisen, for instance).

    These “friends” (Corbyn’s own description of Hamas and Hesbollah representatives when he hosted them in Parliament in 2009) are significant, disturbing and a matter that should be (and has been) raised by myself and others within the Corbyn campaign – and we will continue to raise these issues in the event that Corbyn wins.

    Are these concerns (as you and some other people I know and respect, have argued) sufficient to make support for Corbyn unacceptable or unprincipled? I’d argue not, and here’s why:

    We live and ‘do’ politics within a British labour movement that has some pretty awful political traditions within it: craven reformism, nationalism, various forms of racism, sexism and general backwardness. I’ve been on the knocker, over the years, for some truly dreadful people who happened to wear a Labour rosette. The mainstream left of the Labour movement is – in its way- just as bad. Influenced to varying degrees by Stalinism, it takes lousy positions on international affairs, often seems to operate on the bankrupt principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and has a long-standing tendency to allow its (correct) support for the Palestinian cause slide over into indifference to anti-Semitism. It also has a terrible habit (which I think at least partly explains Corbyn’s warm words to Hamas and Hesbollah) of being diplomatic towards people it regards as perhaps dodgy, but broadly “on the right side.”

    Corbyn is part of that left – as was Tony Benn, who we all supported when he stood for the Deputy Leadership against Dennis Healey in 1981. Like Benn (and unlike shysters of the Livingstone/ Galloway variety) he seems to be a decent and principled human being, despite his political failings and downright naivety on a range of (mainly international) issues..

    Yes, the British labour movement, including the “left”, has some rotten politics. But it’s our movement and in the assessment of Marxists and serious socialists, the only hope we have of building a decent, democratic society ruled by the working class. We work within that movement to transform it, so that society itself can be transformed. We are consistent democrats who relate to workers in struggle in their existing organisations – organisations that are infused with all sorts of Stalinist, bourgeois, reformist and other reactionary ideas.

    The Corbyn campaign is dominated by the politics that dominates the mainstream left in Britain – a soft Stalinism and incoherent “anti imperialism” that also dominates the Morning Star, the Communist Party of Britain, the SWP and Stop The War (the misnamed outfit still, unfortunately, supported by our union, Unite). But the rank and file people (many of them young and new to the movement) who’ve been enthused by Corbyn’s campaign have been attracted by his anti-austerity stance, his opposition to the neoliberal consensus, and his inspiring if not always entirely coherent message that a better, fairer and more equal society is possible. We cannot stand aside from this movement by abstaining or backing the wretched Burnham or Cooper. Just as serious socialists have always argued for active, positive engagement with the actual, existing labour movement as a whole, so we must argue for engagement with that movement’s left – and for now, that means support for the Corbyn campaign. That’s also the best way of making our criticism of his international policies heard by the people who need to hear it – his ordinary supporters, the young and not-so-young people he’s enthused and inspired and who make up the bedrock of his support.

    That’s why, Alan, despite the many harsh words I’ve spoken and written about Corbyn and the kind of politics he represents, I’m supporting him. And that, by the way, is my honestly-held personal opinion, and nothing to do with the AWL, for whom I do not speak on this matter. I don’t suppose we’re going to agree on this, but please feel free to come back at me with any further thoughts or comments.

    With best wishes

    Jim Denham

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      1. I wouldn’t support a politician that endorses and supports white supremacists; So I won’t support a politician that endorses and supports Islamist anti-Semites – or anti-Semites of any variety . There’s your rebuttal. Principles are important too. And if you come from a tradition that abhors racism, you should stick to that principle. Corbyn has a history of publicly endorsing certain kinds of racists, ergo I can’t support Corbyn.

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  3. Good piece again Tom.

    Something about this whole thing that bothers me is Corbyn’s response “I oppose all racism.” That is a laudable claim but as I think you argue effectively he does not seem to oppose all racism equally (and in fact, in regrettably predictable fashion, has a real tin ear for anti-semitism). But something else bothers me about this. Whenever a person online utters “All lives matter”, the internet bites its lip in faux embarrassment and proceeds to carefully (or probably more often apoplectically) explain (shout fearsomely) that in this case we are talking about racism against black people in America (I don’t know entirely how I feel about this but fine, it seems mostly reasonable if one removes the usual puritanical edge it is often accompanied by). Why then is it ok to counter specific claims of overfamiliarity with anti-semites with “opposing all racism” and then invoking the action of one’s mother. I wouldn’t wish to witch hunt Corbyn on the subject of the language he chooses to defend himself but I find it galling that he cannot simply say that no person denying the holocaust or wishing to eradicate the jewish state or invoking the blood libel (or indeed saying Israel loves killing children or etc.) is tolerable and it is completely regrettable to have ever been momentarily fooled into calling such people friends.

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