It seems longer than two years since Bradford MP Naz Shah was caught sharing anti-Semitic memes on Facebook and the Labour Party’s dark not-so-secret had its first major outing on the front pages.
Her response to the scandal was to “wholeheartedly apologise” and add, “I accept and understand that the words I used caused upset and hurt to the Jewish community and I deeply regret that. Anti-Semitism is racism, full stop. As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relations between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none.”
Her contriteness and willingness to engage with the issue won plaudits, including from Stephen Pollard, the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, who wrote on Twitter, “Important we take Naz Shah’s apology and wish to educate herself at face value — she could be a brilliant educator herself against Jew hate.”
Sadly, such hopes were quickly dashed by Ken Livingstone’s desire to talk about his favourite subject — and the constant stream of anti-Semitic episodes since, from vile Facebook groups, to holocaust denial by council candidates (and that’s just the last month), have been enough for two decades, let alone two years.
It was November 2015, six months before Shah’s apology, when Jeremy Corbyn was first asked for a response about his own Facebook activity, namely a post in which he asked “Why?” a blatantly anti-Semitic mural was removed, and said the artist was”in good company” alongside Diego Rivera — the Mexican artist whose 1934 mural was removed from the Rockefeller Center as it depicted Lenin. Finally on Friday, two years and six months later, after prompting by a Labour MP, he said via spokesperson:
“In 2012, Jeremy was responding to concerns about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech.
“However, the mural was offensive, used anti-Semitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it is right that it was removed.”
It was quickly pointed out that this statement did not make any sense, and that as far as it did, the Labour leader had defended it on free speech grounds despite agreeing it was anti-Semitic and should be removed.
Later, he tried again, saying;
“In 2012 I made a general comment about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech. My comment referred to the destruction of the mural Man at the Crossroads by Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center.
“That is in no way comparable with the mural in the original post. I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic.
“I wholeheartedly support its removal. I am opposed to the production of anti-Semitic material of any kind, and the defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form. That is a view I’ve always held.”
You can compare and contrast Shah and Corbyn’s responses. One was given almost immediately, the other two and a half years after initial questions about the offence. One contained an unconditional apology and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, the other, finally, after an initial botched attempt, regret, a denial that the view expressed reflected his actual one, and a myopic excuse that would’ve made Arsene Wenger proud.
Pollard, admittedly no friend of the Labour leader, knows what he thinks of Corbyn’s statement. But you don’t have to believe it to be an outright lie to see it as utterly defective and morally problematic.
Perhaps, if it were a one-off it would be understandable and justifiable. We have all posted things we regret on social media — although in my case they tend to be drunken links to Elton John songs rather than defences of racist art. Others may have only skimmed their history textbook containing examples of Nazi propaganda that look remarkably like the mural concerned, and be unaware of similar cartoons’ prevalence in the Middle East and their connotations. But Corbyn does not have these excuses, as this is by no means a first offence — or even a third or fourth one.
It is two weeks since he was forced to explain why he was a member of Palestine Live, a Facebook group filled with anti-Semitic comments and pictures, and claimed he was added without his knowledge, only made a few comments, and again, didn’t see any of the posts discussing “ZioNazis”, Mein Kampf and worse. It has since emerged that Corbyn was a member of a second anti-Semitic Facebook group, again apparently without his knowledge, and that he regularly interacted online with the founder of the first group.
Going back further, Corbyn wrote a letter defending Stephen Sizer, a former vicar who was disciplined by the church after citing holocaust deniers and suggesting Israel was behind 9/11. He also praised Raed Salah, convicted of propagating the blood libel conspiracy against Jews, and had a decade long association with Deir Yassin Remembered — an organisation founded by Paul Eisen, a Holocaust denier. We could go on, as there are other examples, but as Jeremy was also apparently unaware of Salah’s conviction and Eisen’s views, and once again “regretted” any misjudgement in all three cases, it’s perhaps unnecessary to go further to establish a pattern.
These don’t constitute a mistake, more a charge sheet. And the best answer we’ve got so far, after several years of asking, is that Jeremy has spent his life opposing anti-Semitism, but just never seems to see it when it’s in the same room, daubed on a wall or on social media.
Here we have a man who defines himself by his concern about the conflict between Israel and Palestine to the extent that he hosted a meeting in parliament for representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, but is unaware that it’s worth checking and calling out some of the company you keep. It is by the way, another of Jeremy’s “regrets” that he said he was “honoured” to host “friends” from those two organisations — both of which call for the killing of Jews. Regrets, he’s had a few. But then again, too few to mention.
But let’s take him at his word — that he opposes anti-Semitism but never seems to see it, mistakes it for something else, or, as when he quit his acquaintance’s abhorrent Facebook group after becoming Labour leader, walks away without saying a word or reporting the group. That isn’t opposing anti-Semitism — it’s enabling it.
Racists thrive on excuses and silence. These days, they will rarely admit to outright prejudice — instead finding excuses and rationalisations for it. They will find a legitimate cause for concern — jobs, or crime, say, and then view it through the prism of race and those they’ve dehumanised as at fault. Islamophobes will deny they’re prejudiced against Muslims (or, in fact anyone with brown skin who looks like they might be one), but will find themselves curiously interested in putting forward their own interpretation of Islamic theology and the threat it poses. In America, Donald Trump and many of his supporters deny they’re racist, despite winning the support of the KKK and constant attacks Hispanic people and African-Americans. There’s always an excuse, a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation — Donald doesn’t hate Mexicans — he just hates the criminal ones and is a little hazy on the facts. Anti-Semitism has its own tropes and history, but follows the same pattern. Israeli government policy, to which there are many legitimate objections, becomes the result of a sinister world-controlling lobby, a bizarre connection to Nazism, or even older vile conspiracies.
Silence about this behaviour helps normalise it as an acceptable part of our discourse. Quite rightly, Labour has a long record of calling out not just those who spew hatred, but those who stay silent or make excuses for it. We pour scorn on Republicans or Tories who have acted as apologists or gone strangely quiet about the racism in their midst.
Or at least Labour did. Because the same principle applies to anti-Semitism. Those who are silent, or make excuses for it, are complicit — and the leader has done both. And it is important to say, admitted to doing this, but “regretting” it later. On multiple occasions.
Yet Owen Jones, journalist turned Corbynite cheerleader in chief, described Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about the mural as a “relief”, and puts in a character reference for the Labour leader, writing, “I also know Jeremy Corbyn isn’t an anti-Semite or anything even close to that.”
Well it’s good his statement came as a “relief” to you Owen, because it didn’t seem to provide much for the Jewish community — with one reaction being:
“I am a 73 year old survivor of the Holocaust who is terrified of Corbyn moving into №10. My parents brought me to England in 1946 because they thought it was a safe and fair country. What would they say if they were alive to see this?”
In fact, his response has come as such a “relief” to the Jewish Board of Deputies that they’re planning to protest against the party. What “relief” can be had from Corbyn’s statement? That he isn’t actually a staunch fan of anti-Semitic art (something he was hardly going to admit even if he had a copy hanging in his allotment shed)? Because this isn’t the charge, and it isn’t the problem.
How did we get here? At a point where the Labour Party. THE LABOUR PARTY, has a leader who frightens a minority group.
The problem is that Corbyn is normalising and enabling this racism with his silence and the repeated excuses made by himself and his supporters. As stated, this is not a one-off issue. It is not a case of a glance at a Facebook post while “on the move”, as Tom Watson put it. It is a pattern of behaviour, well established and documented over years. One of at best, ambivalence, ignorance and silence about anti-Semitism, despite it often literally staring him in the face — at a public meeting, or among acquaintances and friends. Or of course, when a Jewish MP was abused at the launch of Labour’s report into anti-Semitism. She subsequently required police protection.
As with Trumpian scandals, the sheer volume of vile episodes has made them fall from our consciousness. But every time, Corbyn’s record is one of regret, abstract condemnation, excuse, and denial - but no admission of culpability or proper apology. Unlike Naz Shah, there has been no pledge to personally listen and learn from those now terrified that Labour is prejudiced towards them under his leadership. There has been no big speech admitting to past mistakes, and where he has morally and intellectually fallen short, and no specific condemnation of the things he regrets letting slide but now realises are unacceptable.
And there is real fear, and not just from Jews, about what Jeremy Corbyn is turning Labour into. Because when he is pulled up on these past offences — ones that he admits “regret” for, more excuses for anti-Semitism appear and it is further normalised. Those complaining are “filth”, the “Israel lobby”, and part of an international conspiracy to remove the Labour leader. Like it or not, with each incident that goes by with a defensive non-apology, and no proper admission that yes, Labour has a real problem and that he’s a big part of it, these people become more emboldened — and the worry is what happens when the stakes, and emotions, run even higher.
After nearly three years of obfuscation, regret and half-hearted explanation won’t cut it. They will not bring “relief” to anyone except the anti-Semites — who know they can carry on their abuse with little chance of outright shaming or censure, and now, thanks to Jeremy, have a ready made Wenger-style excuse the next time they share an anti-Jewish caricature.
Corbyn’s mealy mouthed condemnations of anti-Semitism in the abstract never register for a very simple reason — like many racists, those responsible don’t believe they are. They see their prejudice as rational and the poisonous caricature they’ve created as an enemy as real. Nazis are anti-Semitic they say, I’m just opposed to the Zionist conspiracy. He means the real anti-Semites, not me.
And, to be honest why should they believe they are, when the leader of the Labour Party, the proud anti-racist, seems not be able to work out what is anti-Semitic and should be condemned — at least until years after the fact?
Enough is enough. If Jeremy Corbyn continues to refuse to properly address his and Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, and his role in continuing to make it worse, then Labour members and MPs still possessing a moral compass should do it for him. Because by not doing so he continues to be an enabler for, rather than an opponent of racism — and unfit to lead Labour or Britain.
**Update: Since publishing this blog Jeremy Corbyn has given an apology for the “pockets of anti-Semitism” within Labour — but has not addressed his own personal conduct.