In video footage from a speech at a conference in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn accuses “Zionists” of failing to “understand English irony”, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”, as well as of not “wanting to study history”.
In context, it is clear his remarks refer to a specific group of Zionist activists, who tour meetings associated with the Palestine solidarity movement, often surreptitiously filming them and barracking speakers. It was undoubtedly not Corbyn’s intention for his remarks to refer to all Jews, or even, perhaps, all Zionists.
Nevertheless, the remarks are appalling, and recycle antisemitic ideas. The “Zionists” are figured as a foreign other, failing to integrate into “Englishness”, echoing an aspect of antisemitic ideology which figures Jews as an alien or even parasitic element on the national body politic. By setting up an “us and them” dichotomy based on “Englishness”, Corbyn also effectively trades in a form of English nationalism.
The conference at which the remarks were recorded also featured an array of other speakers with dreadful political records, such as Reverend Stephen Sizer, the 9/11 denialist and antisemitic conspiracy theorist who Corbyn has previously defended.
Corbyn has since said that he would be more careful in making such remarks now, as the word “Zionist” has since been “hijacked” by people who “use it as code for ‘Jews’”.
In reality, that “hijacking” took place a long time ago; certainly a long time before 2013. From the USSR and other Stalinist states’ antisemitic show-trials of the 1950s, such as that of Rudlof Slánský, which accused Jewish dissidents (real and alleged) of being “Zionists”; to the repeated and ongoing use of “Zionist” and “Zio” in fascist and neo-Nazi writing to refer euphemistically to Jews, decades of history make clear that much greater care than Corbyn has frankly ever shown is necessary when deploying such terms.
For many, perhaps most, Jews alive today, some form of “Zionism” forms a part of their Jewishness. That is often not a “Zionism” in a worked-out or developed sense, but merely an instinctive affinity with Israel as the world’s only majority-Jewish state, a state seen as a “life raft” for Jewish refugees from genocide, with which many Jews have personal and family connections. When many Jews hear invective against “Zionists”, they feel themselves, not just right-wing Israeli nationalists, to be under attack.
Socialists should have all sorts of criticisms of that consciousness. We should want to persuade Jews, and all people, to develop a universalist-humanist consciousness based on internationalism and solidarity, rather than instinctive nationalist or communalist affinities.
But such persuasion and development is impossible without a sympathetic understanding of the historical roots of that nationalist impulse, in many ways entirely “rational” given the particular history of the Jewish people.
That is a level of sensitivity and nuance of which Corbyn has so far not been consistently capable; he has spent much of his political life steeped in the two-camps dualism of Stalinist-influenced “anti-imperialism”, a schema in which “Zionism” is firmly part of the “imperialist” camp, and “Zionists” are therefore fair game.
His remarks were not “racist”, nor illustrative of a racialised hatred of Jews on Corbyn’s part. But they do demonstrate a lack of understanding of the ways that antisemitism does not only manifest as racialised antipathy to Jews, but can take other forms, often politically, rather than racially, constructed.
We can be almost certain that there are more “scandals” of this type to come. The media, and the right wing in the Labour Party, are not fabricating them to “smear” Corbyn, they are amplifying real issues; in effect, punching a bruise. Relating to the issue as if it is a mere PR scandal, requiring that the left improve its “optics” and “messaging”, cannot possibly fix the problem. A much more fundamental work of political-educational campaigning is required to dismantle the ideological infrastructure on which left-antisemitic ideas are based.
The fundamental character of the problem also means that calls for Corbyn to resign are misplaced. The issue is much deeper than one individual; his resignation would accomplish nothing, and would set the left as a whole back politically. Corbyn is an expression of the left, as a whole, as it is - in large part politically distorted by Stalinism - and it is the left as a whole which needs transforming to unlock the real radical potential the new movements on the left of Labour embody.
Corbyn should own his past mistakes, not as regrettable PR gaffes but as the products of mistaken political ideas, and take responsibility for educating himself and the movement around him about better ones.
Those on the left now digging trenches over the issues, such as the Camden Momentum activists organising a lobby of the Labour Party NEC to demand that it refuse to endorse the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definitions of antisemitism, are perpetuating the problems.
The IHRA definitions are not the holy text either its supporters or detractors claim — neither a surefire prophylactic against antisemitism, nor a writ that will, via some mystical power, censor and suppress legitimate expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians. In the current context it would be best for Labour to endorse the definitions, and continue political discussion around its own wider code of conduct.
While it may feel uncomfortable, or even unseemly, to treat antisemitism as a matter for “debate”, these issues cannot be fundamentally and ultimately dealt with except by open debate and discussion throughout the movement, conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, through which the foundations of left antisemitism can be identified and challenged. The future political and moral health of the socialist left depends upon it.