Jeremy Corbyn and ’anti-Semitism’ – making sense of the hysteria

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Once again, a wave of hysteria concerning the British Labour’s alleged ‘anti-Semitic problem’ is at a high. The target has always been leader Jeremy Corbyn and his fierce critique of Israel, considered dangerous by the more conservative Blairites and those further right in the political spectrum. Labour has been fighting for its soul, with activists trying to defend their right to oppose Israeli policy, or even Zionism, without it necessarily meaning that they are anti-Semites. 

But it is of course the anti-Semitism accusation that is the most effective, and the conservative Jews are eager to make it stick. And now, international mainstream media is shamefully assisting – not only BBC and Washington Post, but also the Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz.

Amanda Erickson’s article in Washington Post Sunday is titled: “In a brutal open letter, Jewish leaders in Britain accuse Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism”. She takes the word of “Jewish leaders” for her opening sentence:

“The Labour Party has a long history of troubling behavior, according to Jewish leaders in Britain.”

She continues with an example:

“In 2016, former London mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended from the party after he said Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism in the 1930s.”

But what if that was largely accurate? Livingstone had said that Hitler was “supporting Zionism”, referring to the Transfer Agreement of 1933-39. But Livingstone’s words are being twisted again and again in a desperate attempt to avoid the very issue – that he was actually referring to a factual historical event, with legitimate appraisal of it.

Erickson refers to the current controversy:

“Then, on Friday, Labour lawmaker Luciana Berger, who is Jewish, challenged Corbyn’s office to explain something he had posted on Facebook in 2012. In the post, he was responding to Los Angeles-based artist Kalen Ockerman, who had complained that one of her [sic; Ockerman is a man] London street murals was being painted over in response to criticism that it was anti-Semitic.”

In his response, Corbyn wrote that Ockerman is in “good company”, comparing the case to the removal of Diego Rivera’s mural in 1934 (commissioned by the Rockefeller family in 1932) because it had included a picture of Lenin.

Indeed, the mural by Rivera had an addition that was not in the original sketch. The original sketch agreed upon was called ‘New frontiers’ and included three men clasping hands in the middle: a soldier, a worker and peasant. Rivera was nonetheless provoked in New York by leftist organizations and various communist groups that challenged him for “painting for Rockefeller”. So Rivera decided to go with it: “If you want communism, I will paint communism”, he said.

This is what Corbyn was referring to when he spoke of the company for the mural by Ockerman. He read it as a political statement – of the elite class oppressing the working class. And was he wrong to read it like that?

Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Haaretz on Sunday, calls Ockerman’s mural unequivocally “anti-Semitic” in his article subtitle. In order to bolster the claim, Pfeffer writes that Ockerman’s painted-over mural depicts “six elderly white men, some with what could be described as stereotypically Jewish features”. Pfeffer refers to his having been Haaretz’s correspondent in London in 2012, having covered the story. He writes that he had “interviewed dozens of residents of the East End, and while some insisted that the mural wasn’t about Jews, just “global bankers,” and some even acknowledged it was anti-Semitic but still wanted it to remain, there was no question that the controversy centered around the belief of many that it depicted anti-Semitic images of Jews”.

Now, let’s take a close look at that picture. Hooked noses? Mostly, not. And why is BBC also running this “hooked noses” rhetoric uncritically?

Kalen Ockerman mural in London that some have called anti-Semitic

Ockerman has identified the men it depicts as, from left to right, “Rothschild, Rockefeller, Morgan, Aleister Crowley, Carnegie & Warburg“.

Of the six men, only the first and last in the list were Jewish. One, Aleister Crowley, was noted for his anti-Semitic views.

So is this really about Jews as such – or about an elite class issue, wherein some people, the minority – happen to be Jews?

Corbyn, attempting to calm the waves, has expressed “regret” for not having looked at the painting properly before writing his message of support in 2012. But who is it who is not looking properly now?

The Skwakbox journalism site has challenged the BBC on its assumption of the ‘Jewish appearance’:

The idea that Jewish people look alike and that therefore you can identify a Jewish person by his or her appearance is a well-known antisemitic trope – as is the stereotype of ‘Jewish financiers’.

We asked the BBC about its assumption. The ‘response’ – though substantively non-responsive:

“Jo Coburn was offering the interviewee, Jenny Mason, the chance to comment on a mural which has been widely condemned as anti-semitic. Her reference to the appearance of the men in the picture was based on its crude use of anti-semitic stereotypes.”

We challenged the BBC’s failure provide a substantive answer about its assumptions, but the Corporation’s only further answer was:

“That’s our final response.”

Corbyn is now being trawled through the mud through protest led by the conservative Jewish organizations Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies of British Jews, who are calling him a “figurehead for an antisemitic political culture”:

“Rightly or wrong, Jeremy Corbyn is now the figurehead for an antisemitic political culture, based upon an obsessive hatred of Israel, conspiracy theories and fake news,” said Jonathan Goldstein, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council.  

It does not help that Corbyn has assured that he “will not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism that exists in and around our movement. We must stamp this out from our party and movement.” The conservatives and the Blairites have already sensed a weakness, in that Corbyn had expressed regret for not being critical enough then, and no one is looking at the mural anymore. Now it’s all about Corbyn being ‘soft on anti-Semitism’.

These pro-Israel Jews are basically trying to do to Corbyn what they have done to Naz Shah for her sharing of a meme posted by Norman Finkelstein in 2014. Finkelstein has said about that:

“[N]ow she’s being crucified, her career wrecked, her life ruined, her future in tatters, branded an ‘antisemite’ and a closet Nazi, and inflicted with these rituals of self-abasement. It’s not hard to imagine what her Muslim constituents must think now about Jews. These power hungry creeps are creating new hate by their petty machinations. As Donald Trump likes to say – it’s disgusting.”  

Anshel Pfeffer provides ominous predictions in his article: “The cloud of anti-Semitism over Corbyn’s Labour has been an ongoing crisis since his election as leader, but it has now come to a head. There will be no happy end to this sorry saga. At 68, and after nearly half a century of political activism, Corbyn is too old and dogmatic to change.”

Many are falling for this loose, imprecise and frankly McCarthyite form of accusation. And when even liberal outlets like Haaretz go with it, many are under the impression that maybe there’s something to it: maybe Corbyn is a ‘closet anti-Semite’ after all.

But this is all about one thing: assuring allegiance to a conservative agenda that cannot risk challenging Israel, and certainly not as the Jewish State. 

Some Jews are not going along with this – for example Jewish Voice for Labour. They have now praised Corbyn’s “consistent commitment to anti-racism” and condemned current right-wing attacks. They have called an emergency rally as a counter-demonstration, accusing the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council of “playing party politics” ahead of May’s local elections.

Once again, the ‘anti-Semitism’ card is being used to advance a conservative political agenda, so that there may be no risk of challenge to Israeli Apartheid. And don’t you dare utter the word– how anti-Semitic.

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The irony of the obsessive use of the “antisemitism” tool, a “nuclear” one at that to smother all criticism of Israel & Jews, is that it will generate more, real antisemitism. Those bigoted jerks who are doing their utmost to smear Corbyn & to have him sacked, are working against themselves & are doing the greatest damage to Judaism. Jewish Voice for Labour is an important counter-balance to that, but there is an urgent need… Read more »

An excellent summation.Overhanging all of this charade is a palpable sense of desperation on the part of Israeli Firsters/Zionists here in the UK that the next UK PM/Government could be horror of horrors openly and actively supportive of the Palestinians and might take some meaningful action to call Israel to account for its ongoing war crimes against them. The”rampant Anti – Semitism in the Labour Party ” brigade have worked themselves into a frenzy in… Read more »

Hi all. Been away a while…. ” his fierce critique of Israel” The thing is, his ‘critique’ really isn’t that fierce at all. I would say he’d be quite ‘moderate’ by the standards of this website, which itself isn’t all that ‘fierce’. From what I can gather, Corbyn believes in a two-state solution in line with international law, so not really radical at all. However, he has explicitly called out Israeli war crimes (without the… Read more »

There is no antisemitism in the Labour Party, maybe a few individuals, who infest every political party or business organization, hatred of Israeli policies against Palestinians and it must be said the impotent rage at our seeming inability to help the Palestinians and our rage at successive Israeli governments acting with impunity and their uncaring ability to inflict war crimes on the occupied Palestinian people, this anger is wrongly interpreted as aimed at people of… Read more »

There is also the matter of local elections in early May, including in London, where Labour are set to give the Conservatives a damn good thrashing. There will be no let-up in the right-wing attacks on Corbyn.