Last week, Peter Brookes tweeted his latest cartoon for The Times, commenting:
#Novichok not the only poison being spread around Britain. #LabourAntisemitism #Corbyn.
Referencing allegations that two Russian agents had been responsible for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4, the cartoon depicted a British policeman holding up mugshots of a menacing, bug-eyed ‘Jeremy Korbynski’ (wearing an ‘I Love Hamas’ badge) and a vampiric, evil-looking ‘Seumasov Milne’ (wearing a ‘Down With Israel’ badge), with the policeman saying:
THESE TWO MEN ARE SUSPECTED OF SPREADING POISON AROUND BRITAIN…
As Brookes made clear in his tweet, the alleged ‘poison’ Corbyn and Milne, Labour’s director of communications, are supposedly spreading is, of course, antisemitism.
We have always been struck by the sense of complete unreality surrounding this debate and decided to check when and how often Corbyn has been accused of antisemitism since first being elected as an MP in 1983.
Labour was defeated in the general election of May 7, 2015, causing leader Ed Miliband to resign. On June 3, the BBC reported that Corbyn had joined the contest to replace him. We monitored this period closely and it is simply unarguable that Corbyn was portrayed by journalists, and even party political foes, as a basically decent person. He was depicted as a left relic, certainly – irrelevant and ridiculous – but also as sincere and well-intentioned. There was no sense whatever in ‘mainstream’ media coverage that Corbyn was a malign individual.
In July, we conducted a ProQuest newspaper database search, which found the following hits for UK press articles mentioning:
‘Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘antisemitism’ before May 2015 = 18 hits
‘Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘antisemitism’ after May 2015 = 6,133 hits
None of the 18 mentions before May 2015 included any accusation that Corbyn was antisemitic. And it was not, as some people have claimed, that Corbyn, a leading anti-war MP, was unknown or unworthy of attention. ProQuest found 3,659 hits for ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ before May 2015.
Writing for the Medium website last month, Patrick Elliot described his own research confirming these results. Elliot noted that the first story ever to be published in a UK national newspaper with the words ‘Corbyn’ and ‘antisemitism’ in the same sentence appeared in the Guardian on August 13, 2015, reporting an accusation the previous day in The Jewish Chronicle. The voting process for the Labour leadership election began one day later, on August 14. Elliot wrote:
During the three years of Corbyn’s Labour leadership, the association of antisemitism with the Labour Party has been a relentless media narrative. The 2,087 articles published in that time have come at an average of nearly two per day.
Yet in more than six and a half years prior to his election, just 178 articles were published associating the Party with antisemitism, at an average of one every fortnight. Is antisemitism 25 times more prevalent in the Party now?
Freedland’s ‘Game Changer’
In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland – now into his fourth year of relentlessly attacking Corbyn – highlighted the Labour leader’s ‘2013 attack on a group of “Zionists” he’d encountered’. In fact, Corbyn did not ‘attack’ them; they had berated the Palestinian ambassador after he delivered a speech at a meeting in Parliament. Freedland noted that Corbyn said of these activists that despite ‘having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony’. Freedland explained the significance:
The implication of that remark is clear – and it has nothing to do with defending Palestinians. It’s that Corbyn sees Jews as fundamentally alien, foreigners who might live here a long time, might even be born here, but are still essentially other. People who will never be truly English.
Political analyst Alex Nunns had already exposed the fallacy of the same argument made in an article by Guardian columnist Simon Hattenstone, to which Freedland linked with the comment:
For many, including some [like Hattenstone] who’d long defended the Labour leader, that was a game changer.
Nunns pointed out the absurdity of Hattenstone’s logic:
This is an inversion of what Corbyn said. He compared a group of pro-Israel activists to the Palestinian ambassador whose talk they attended, saying the latter had a better grasp of irony. That only makes any sense if he was saying the activists WERE actually “properly English.”
Nunns spelled it out:
In clearer language, the point Corbyn made was: “Despite being English, these particular pro-Israel activists have a poorer sense of irony than the Palestinian ambassador whose speech they attended”.
Corbyn was making a wry comment about a non-native English speaker understanding nuances in the language better than native English speakers – the exact opposite of what Hattenstone/Freedland were suggesting.
The Guardian’s George Monbiot tweeted a response to Hattenstone’s piece:
It dismays me to say it, as someone who has invested so much hope in the current Labour Party, but I think @shattenstone is right: Jeremy Corbyn’s 2013 comments about “Zionists” were antisemitic and unacceptable.
This reminded us strongly of Monbiot’s investigation into a ‘malign intellectual subculture’ on the left, comprised of Edward Herman, John Pilger, Media Lens and others who were guilty of ‘belittling the acts of genocide committed by opponents of the western powers’. Monbiot was again dismayed:
And, to my great distress, as I rate him very highly, #NoamChomsky doesn’t come out of it too well either.
Monbiot confidently denounced Corbyn’s ‘antisemitic’ comments in several tweets. One day later, having learned of Alex Nunns’ analysis, Monbiot tweeted:
For fairness, here is another explanation of what Jeremy Corbyn said, which casts it in a very different light.
Was this Monbiot performing another of his famous U-turns? It’s difficult to say. Responding to the suggestion that he perhaps should have highlighted Nunns’ analysis, not Hattenstone’s, Monbiot responded with sarcasm.
Freedland went on:
Similar was the mural of hooked-nose bankers, counting their money on the backs of the poor. The artist himself said he had depicted Jews, but when Corbyn heard it was to be removed his response was “Why?” He literally could not see anything wrong with it. Again, that’s nothing to do with opposing Israel. That’s just old school antisemitism.
The key comment here: ‘The artist himself said he had depicted Jews.’
The deceptiveness of this version of events becomes clear when we look a little closer. Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook wrote in March:
Not that anyone is listening now, but the artist himself, Kalen Ockerman, has said that the group in his mural comprised historical figures closely associated with banking. His mural, he says, was about “class and privilege”, and the figures depicted included both “Jewish and white Anglos”. The fact that he included famous bankers like the Rothschilds (Jewish) and the Rockefellers (not Jewish) does not, on the face of it, seem to confirm anti-semitism. They are simply the most prominent of the banking dynasties most people, myself included, could name. These families are about as closely identified with capitalism as it is possible to be.
In his outstanding essay, ‘The chimera of British anti-Semitism (and how not to fight it if it were real)’, Norman Finkelstein, Jewish author of The Holocaust Industry and the son of Holocaust survivors, comments:
The degree of anti-Semitism infecting British society has been the subject of numerous polls over a sustained period of time. These surveys have uniformly, consistently, and unambiguously concluded that anti-Semitism (1) has long been a marginal phenomenon in British society, infecting under 10 percent of the population, (2) is far less salient than hostility to other British minorities, and (3) is less pronounced in the UK than almost anywhere else in Europe.
Finkelstein argues that Jews have considerable power within British society. Indeed, the intensity and longevity of the campaign targeting Corbyn’s ‘antisemitism’ in part reflect that influence:
Jews are incomparably organized as they have created a plethora of interlocking, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing communal and defense organizations that operate in both the domestic and international arenas. In many countries, not least the US and the UK, Jews occupy strategic positions in the entertainment industry, the arts, publishing, journals of opinion, the academy, the legal profession, and government. “Jews are represented in Britain in numbers that are many times their proportion of the population,” British-Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer notes, “in both Houses of Parliament, on the Sunday Times Rich List, in media, academia, professions, and just about every walk of public life.”
As Finkelstein says, ‘it cannot be right to deny (or suppress) critical socioeconomic facts’ of this kind. Noting them has nothing to do with ugly, racist fantasies about Jews controlling the world. He adds:
Jeremy Corbyn is the democratically elected head of the Labour Party. His ascendancy vastly expanded and galvanized the party’s ranks. Corbyn has devoted a lifetime to fighting racism; like eponymous labor organizer Joe Hill, where workers strike and organize, it’s there you’ll find Jeremy Corbyn. By British and even global leadership standards, he cuts a saintly figure. On the opposite side, mostly unelected Jewish bodies have dragged Corbyn’s name through the mud, slandering and defaming him. They have refused to meet with Corbyn, even as he has repeatedly extended olive branches and offered substantive compromises. Instead they issue take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums.
Finkelstein summarises accurately:
The transparent motive behind this cynical campaign is to demonize Corbyn, not because he’s a “fucking anti-Semite,” [the words of former Labour minister Margaret Hodge] but because he’s a principled champion of Palestinian rights’, although ‘a broad array of powerful entrenched social forces, acting on not-so-hidden agendas of their own’ are all seeking to destroy Corbyn.
Indeed, no rational observer can see this as anything other than an extension of the relentless establishment attack on Corbyn, the mild socialist threatening to let democracy loose from its box.
The objective of the antisemitism moral panic is obvious, writes Lindsey German of Stop the War:
removing Corbyn from the Labour leadership and his replacement with someone much more amenable to the needs of British capital, whether in the arena of foreign policy or in terms of domestic policies.
David Hearst, a former Middle East editor at the Guardian, concurs:
The Labour leader’s opponents don’t care about anti-Semitism. They’ll just do anything to remove Corbyn.
Hearst argues that Corbyn’s opponents are using:
the tactics of fascists – smearing, libelling, intimidating.
Unable to put up a candidate capable of defeating him by democratic means, at the ballot box, unable to attack him on his polices for which there is majority support in the country, Corbyn’s detractors have methodically and consistently set about the task of character assassination.
We asked Noam Chomsky for his view on these issues. He replied:
The charges of anti-Semitism against Corbyn are without merit, an underhanded contribution to the disgraceful efforts to fend off the threat that a political party might emerge that is led by an admirable and decent human being, a party that is actually committed to the interests and just demands of its popular constituency and the great majority of the population generally, while also authentically concerned with the rights of suffering and oppressed people throughout the world. Plainly an intolerable threat to order.
While much of the media focuses on alleged Russian attempts to undermine Western democracy, Asa Winstanley, an investigative journalist with Electronic Intifada, recently reported evidence that Israel is running a campaign to undermine Corbyn. Human rights activists have now lodged a freedom of information request under Israeli law, seeking to release documents about the campaign. Last year, Al Jazeera broadcast a four-part investigation titled ‘The Lobby’ into the Israel lobby’s activities in the UK. It revealed that Israeli embassy spy Shai Masot was working with front organizations in Labour to smear critics of Israel as ‘antisemitic’. Masot worked closely with two important pro-Israel groups in Labour, the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. The latter includes 80 Labour MPs. He has since returned to Israel.
In ‘The Lobby USA’, a follow-up to ‘The Lobby’, Al Jazeera also investigated the activities of the Israeli lobby in the US where it has been instrumental in smearing and silencing pro-Palestinian voices. However, the film was suppressed after strong Israeli pressure on Qatar, the state owners of Al Jazeera, and has never been shown. Electronic Intifada has now obtained leaked excerpts of the film. As Winstanley notes:
The film has been censored even though it addresses matters of considerable public interest, including covert efforts on behalf of a foreign state to spy on, harass or prevent Americans from engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.
The corporate media are playing a major role in this insidious campaign to stifle democratic choice. It is no surprise that Corbyn and his advisers are calling for big changes to the ‘free press’. In his recent Alternative Mactaggart Lecture on the state of the media, Corbyn noted that:
We must break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media. Just three companies control 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies control 81% of local newspaper circulation.
For all the worry about new forms of fake news, most people think our newspapers churn out fake news day in, day out. It’s hardly a surprise in the last 4 years one political earthquake after another has been missed by most of our media.
We need to set journalists and citizens free to hold power to account, by breaking the grip of tech giants and billionaires on our media.
Conclusion: Very, Very Serious Problems
Finkelstein accepts that Jews are subject to racial prejudice, but questions whether this ‘ranks a “very, very serious problem” in the UK’, as claimed. He places the prejudice in context:
Yes, Jews must endure the reputation of being stingy, pushy, and clannish—but Muslims are profiled as terrorists and misogynists, Blacks are despised as chronically lazy and genetically stupid, and Roma/Sinti are loathed as dirty beggars and thieves.
It really is remarkable that Corbyn’s speeches and off-the-cuff comments are being scoured far into the past in search of signs of racism when a far more lethal form of prejudice is clearly informing current US-UK foreign policy devastating entire countries. It is a prejudice that views the lives of brown-skinned people in Afghanistan Iraq, Iran, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere as far less important than the lives of white, European and US people.
In his book, A Different Kind Of War – The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, wrote that during ‘phase V’ of the Oil-For-Food programme, from November 1998 to May 1999, each Iraqi citizen received a food allocation worth $49, or 27 cents per day. Von Sponeck commented that ‘the UN was more humane with its dogs than with the Iraqi people’: $160 was allocated for food for each UN dog over the same period.
As a result, 500,000 Iraqi children lost their lives. The price was deemed to be ‘worth it’ by Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State. But what is really telling is just how little impact this mass death had on Western politics and journalism. The same is true of the one million Iraqis who died as a result of the 2003 invasion. It is true of the Afghan civilians forced to eat grass to survive in the wake of 9/11, when US threats to bomb Afghanistan, and then the invasion itself, shut down aid convoys. It is true of the horrendous impact of sanctions on Iran, renewed and worsened under Trump. It is true of the ongoing destruction of Palestinian society along with regular massacres, the destruction of Libyan society, the destruction of Syrian society, and so on…
The fact that none of this matters, that it puts not the slightest dent in the political-media enthusiasm for war, that it is not even considered relevant in a national discussion on racism, is itself the result of a deeply toxic racism. It is a form of cultural arrogance and contempt for human lives quite obviously deemed far less important, far less valuable.
The mostly fraudulent, politically expedient nature of the endless expressions of concern about antisemitism in the Labour party is indicated by the striking lack of interest in asking exactly what can be done about this kind of prejudice. It seems clear that stifling free speech, expelling party members and castigating the guilty does little to address the real causes of hatred and bias in the human heart and deluded mind.
Deeper answers lie, firstly, in understanding that racist prejudice is ultimately a function of individual and collective egotism – the desire to raise oneself above others, to perceive oneself as ‘special‘. An antidote to this illusion lies in recognising that happiness and suffering are equal – ‘my’ happiness simply cannot be deemed more important than ‘your’ happiness. Likewise, the welfare of ‘this’ group of people versus the welfare of ‘that’ group of people. The self-evident logic of this assertion can help equalise our perception of others – ‘their’ happiness is not worth less than ‘ours’, no matter how different from us they may appear to be.
We can also reflect on evidence indicating that treating others with generosity, kindness and compassion is extremely positive for our own welfare. This is not mere wishful thinking, modern science is catching up on the ancient assertion that caring for others is the basis and cause of genuine happiness. It turns out that happiness truly is not found in cynical selfishness, in viewing women, Jews, blacks, LGBT people, Muslims and so on as ‘lesser’ people. To view others this way is to burden ourselves with a closed, shrunken, miserable heart.
No-one should take any of this on trust, which is why a meaningful response to prejudice involves verifying the truth of these observations through introspection and meditation. It quickly becomes clear, for example, that thoughts of hostility and contempt for others are absolutely poisonous to our sense of well-being.