A long time ago on a South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg asked Ian Dury if the worst thing about being disabled was being patronised. No, replied the late and exceedingly great lyricist with a grin, the worst thing about being disabled is being disabled.
So it is, lest anyone be tempted to confuse what follows with a blithe dismissal of the scope of this problem, with Labour and antisemitism. The worst thing about it is the thing itself – the fact that a small but disproportionately loud portion of party members, their ignorant voices amplified by the loud hailers of social media, plainly do not care for the Jews.
This much we know beyond doubt, as we know that a section of the Tory membership, and all memberships, and indeed of every society on earth, share the prejudice. It is an awful if depressingly unsurprising fact of human existence that some people dislike Jews, just as some dislike black people and Asian people and ginger people and gay people and representatives of every imaginable group which is in some way, in any way, unlike their own.
For Jeremy Corbyn, this is a painful and troublesome condition which with courage and stoicism should, like Dury’s polio, be manageable. That it continues to prove otherwise may be only the second worst thing about antisemitism in Labour, but it is the most serious.
The messaging has been appalling for more than two years, and becomes more so by the week. If an opposition leader can’t handle as trifling and predictable a problem as this, how are undecided voters expected to trust him with the plethora of unforeseeable crises that explode in the prime minister’s face? If he appears paralysed by indecision over a piddling micro-difficulty, how would he cope with macro challenges like social immobility, child poverty and the broken housing market, let alone the aftermath (should it happen) of Brexit?
Yet another chance to close the issue down, or at least begin the process, presents itself. There have been plenty of these since Ken Livingstone’s historically demi-accurate but hugely disquieting portrayal of Hitler as a proto-Zionist in April of 2016. For whatever reasons – innate ditheriness, the shackles of tribal loyalty, the distaste that I and many other Jews share about successive Israeli governments’ treatment of the Palestinians – Corbyn has funked them all.
Now, in the form of one Peter Willsman, he has another. Textually, Willman’s address to Labour’s National Executive Committee, in front of Corbyn himself, was by no means a blatantly antisemitic rant. It wouldn’t satisfy the requirements of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism that Labour has foolishly rejected.
Tonally, however, his bellicose insistence that the problem of antisemitism exists nowhere but in the addled minds of paranoid rabbis, and his identification of those who claim otherwise as Jewish “Trump fanatics”, is disturbing enough for immediate disciplinary action. And here, as always at the more nuanced ends of the racist spectrum, tone is everything.
I absolutely understand, or think I do, Corbyn’s unwillingness to take a hard line. A man of iron principle, he is desperate to avoid what he regards as surrendering to those voices who conflate any and all criticism of Israeli policy with hatred of Jews. These voices are every decibel as deafeningly tribalist as those who depict justified concern about antisemitism as the synthesised outrage of Blairite anti-Corbyn conspirators.
About 15 years ago, Gerald Kaufman, a long-term and staunch supporter of the Jewish state, was manhandled in St John’s Wood synagogue after criticising the actions of its government. Max Hastings, author of books gushing with admiration for Israel and as fervent a Jewophile as I ever met, was attacked as an antisemite for doing the same.
Those who believe they defend Israel by treating its candid friends so despicably are drastically deluded. Nothing in that IHRA definition conflates honest criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and those who do so degrade themselves.
Plotting a course between the hysteria that plagues this argument at both extremes – from the horrors who pepper Jewish MPs with threats of violence on one side; from Margaret Hodge, and the three Jewish newspapers who foresee a Corbyn government as an “existential threat” to British Jewry on the other – isn’t easy. But leadership never is, and in the league table of challenges, sending out the clear message that you simply will not tolerate language which makes members of any minority uneasy and fearful is hardly challenging for a Champions League place.
Yet, somehow, Corbyn has allowed it to become a huge distraction from flaying this catastrophically clueless government alive over Brexit and so much else.
Since there are only about 300,000 Jews in Britain, and a majority of us vote Tory now anyway, the displeasure of the Jewish community is an exceedingly low tariff threat to Labour’s electoral chances. But there are several million goyim in marginal seats whose voting intentions will be shaped by the osmotic impression of which potential prime minister can best be trusted to sort out more colossal problems than this. The ceaseless background screech generated by this ridiculous row – one so preposterous that Boris Johnson saw fit to give Corbyn a kicking over antisemitism while consorting with, the, Lord have mercy, Steve Bannon – can only steer them in one direction.
This may be a bit Old Testament for his peacenik tastes, but if Corbyn has any desire to end this, he needs to sacrifice one of his own, yet even as Abraham was willing to give up his son to the Lord. Willsman may cut an unlikely Isaac in this analogy, but he’ll do.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
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