This is a cross-post from Exit, Pursued by a Bear
‘My brother once told me that nothing someone says before the word “but” really counts.’
– Benjen Stark, Game of Thrones
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite.
Alright, it’s a cheeky way to begin a post on such an important issue, but disclaimers are important too; not just to protect my fledgling blog against the grasping fingers of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne, but because I genuinely believe it’s an important caveat for what follows. Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. Like all right-thinking people, he finds Holocaust denial a horrific distortion of the historical record, engaged in by the lowest, meanest characters imaginable; on a personal level, he has a record of opposition to racism of which any Member of Parliament should be proud. But, as I’ve been reminded on so many occasions by the kinds of people who now likely tweet #JezWeCan, anti-racist intent is not enough to exempt one from unconscious biases. In Corbyn’s case, the unconscious bias is not antipathy to any colour or creed – far from it – but rather too much sympathy towards what Diane Abbott recently described as ‘liberation movements’, to the exclusion of critical thought or self-examination.
The seemingly endless clown car of disclosures about unpleasant individuals for whom Jeremy Corbyn has gone to bat has given rise to a battery of bad excuses, not all of which I have time to dissect here. You will hear it argued, for instance, that Corbyn’s dubious associations aren’t worth discussing, because right-wing politicians and governments also associate with unpleasant characters. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has done me the favour of publishing a prime example of such whataboutery in the Independent, to save me going digging for one: ‘He got to know Tamil Tigers, and South American rebels during the era of vicious dictatorships – as did Ken Livingstone and others. So what? Those on the right have their own relationships with unspeakable types.’ (Please note, readers, that Corbyn’s attempted defender has implicitly conceded there that her subject has ‘relationships with unspeakable types’. With friends like these…)
True, politicians from all over the political spectrum occasionally end up in the news for unwittingly, or wittingly, associating with or otherwise lending credence to unsavoury characters: just to pick the first recent-ish example that comes to mind, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s decision to appear as guest of honour at an event hosted by the Traditional Britain Group. It’s surely interesting, though, how quickly the bar falls from ‘He’s better than all the others!’ to ‘He’s no worse than all the others!’ when Corbyn’s judgement is called into question. Similarly, I suspect that if a prospective Conservative leader had ever referred to a man who speaks about the ‘great crime’ of homosexuality as an ‘honoured citizen’, and shared a panel withanother man who describes homosexuals as ‘AIDS-spreading fagots’ (illiterate original spelling preserved), I suspect those elements of the left that are presently lined up behind Corbyn wouldn’t be quite so forgiving. As well they shouldn’t.
I pay Ms Alibhai-Brown the most back-handed compliment I possibly can when I say that her Independent article isn’t the worst defence of Corbyn I’ve seen this week. That honour goes to the aforementioned Diane Abbott, who in attempting to stand up for her friend and fellow Labour MP paints a picture of a man who has been a Member of Parliament for longer than I have been alive and in all that time has not developed the faintest glimmer of critical thinking skills; who in his youthful sixty-year-old zeal apparently accepted affiliation with the occasional anti-Semite as an occupational hazard. ‘Jeremy is hyperactive, so for every one event another left MP will do, Jeremy will do three,’ Abbott said. ‘If you get involved with liberation movements, there will be points at which there will be people around who are less than savoury.’ That sounds to me like a very good argument against such indiscriminate bandwagon-jumping, but I’m sure Abbott didn’t intend it that way. The cause of social justice, apparently, doesn’t allow its crusaders to occasionally slow down and think about what the people they’re siding with are actually saying.
The backstop argument, when all else has failed, is that Corbyn believes in engaging all sides of a conflict in dialogue – no matter their views – in the interests of peace. It is, of course, true that forging a lasting peace in societies riven by war and identity-based hatreds often involves engaging in dialogue with people whose past views and actions would normally put them beyond the pale: in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, in Cambodia, and in a dozen other countries within the past fifty years, extremists and perpetrators of division have been appeased and compromised with in the interests of ending conflict. The extent to which those with odious views should be engaged with for the greater good is, rightly, a subject of enormous debate, and I’m not going to settle it here. All I intend to do is demonstrate that this line of argument, when employed by Corbyn and his supporters, is specious at best, and deeply disingenuous at worst.
Putting aside the implication that, since 1983, Corbyn has regarded himself as some sort of unofficial arm of the Foreign Office, Corbyn’s record demonstrates that in his thirty years as a Member of Parliament, he has been anything but an impartial mediator. He has spoken out in defence of Gerry Adams, but never, so far as I’m aware, in favour of Ian Paisley; he has welcomed Hezbollah MPs into Parliament, but I suspect you’d struggle to find a picture of him sitting next to a Lebanese Phalangist; and finally, and perhaps most hypocritically, hemeets with representatives of Hamas, but supports boycotts of Israeli academics whose universities engage in weapons technology research. Crucially, Corbyn doesn’t endorse the wholesale shunning of Israeli academics that the BDS movement calls for, objecting that this would deny a voice to anti-Zionists such as Ilan Pappe. Those Israelis who agree with Corbyn, therefore, are to be offered a platform, and those insufficiently devoted to the cause of Palestinian liberation are to be denied one, even as Hamas – who construct and wield weapons far more lethal than the tasers Corbyn refers to as sufficient to justify a boycott – are lauded as ‘friends’.
And, if we’re to accept that Corbyn finds the views of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah repellent, but nevertheless manfully swallows his disgust for the sake of global peace, what explains his engagement with individuals who hold no political office and wield no authority; the powerless loudmouths, contrarians and bigots whom Corbyn has praised or defended over the course of his Parliamentary career? For the sake of fairness – and, frankly, because I can make my case without going there – I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Corbyn when he says that his affiliation with Paul Eisen, noted Holocaust denier, took place years before Eisen’s appalling views were widely known.
But what can have possessed him to write in defence of Stephen Sizer, the Church of England vicar who posted on his Facebook a link to a website promoting Holocaust-denial and Jew-hatred, arguing that those who wouldn’t accept that this had simply been an unfortunate ‘technical oversight’ were ‘individuals intent on discrediting the excellent work that Stephen does in highlighting the injustices of the Palestinian-Israeli situation’? (Sizer later posted another article on social media perpetrating the modern-day blood libel that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although Corbyn, to be fair, criticised Sizer for thiswhen pressed by the Jewish Chronicle, he apparently continues to regard Sizer’s initial circulation of anti-Semitic material as ‘a different matter altogether’, rather than the first indication that he was defending the wrong person.)
Dyab Abou Jahjah, similarly, holds no public office (although his entertainingly hagiographic Wikipedia profile informs me he once founded a political party in Antwerp), and I feel justified in saying that prospects of Arab-Israeli peace probably don’t depend on the buy-in of the world’s fourth most famous foreign-born Belgian. Is the minor amount of influence that Jahjah could plausibly bring to bear on the cause of global peace worth associating with a man who – deep breath – called the killing of British soldiers fighting abroad ‘a victory’;describes assimilation of Muslims into Western cultures as ‘cultural rape’; and once spoke about the ‘sweet revenge feeling’ he felt on the day of 9/11? Or is it more likely the case that Corbyn did no research on somebody he was due to sit alongside, trusting in the inherent rightness of the anti-imperialist cause to see him through, and now finds it outrageous that anyone thinks he should have asked the most basic of questions about what Jahjah really stood for?
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite, and I believe that he genuinely finds the more immoderate allegations made against him shocking and offensive; I doubt that he’s used to defending himself against accusations of racism, which might explain why he and his supporters are so bad at it. But Corbyn’s record, as has been evident since he arrived in the House of Commons as a fresh-faced thirty-four-year-old in 1983, is that of someone who regards anything and anyone that brands themselves as anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist as virtuous by definition. Someone who’s bought so hard into the cliche that criticism of the actions of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic – which, like most cliches, is true – that it’s become a shield against ever having to consider that anyone who criticises Israel might not be a persecuted victim of powerful media forces; might not be a brave iconoclast speaking truth to power; might, in fact, be nothing more than an anti-Semite.
Someone whose experience of sticking up, again and again and again, for the kinds of people whose views simply do not deserve defending has never led him to question whether there might be a fundamental flaw in his worldview. Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ And, similarly, to share a platform with one anti-Semite may be regarded as a misfortune.
To share a platform with two…