Corbyn’s wilful indifference let antisemitism thrive in the Labour party

Rachel Cunliffe
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Can a man who defends an antisemitic mural lead a liberal mainstream party in 2018?

The week Jeremy Corbyn has had would have destroyed any other political leader.

When hundreds of people gather outside parliament to protest a politician’s prejudice, following an open letter from the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council saying he “personifies the problems and dangers” of antisemitism, you would think that his time would be up.

Unfortunately, this is Corbyn, and normal rules don’t apply. In the topsy-turvy world that is the Labour party at present, racism of any kind is always indefensible, unless it’s by Corbyn or his allies – in which case it isn’t racism at all, and the real villains are any critics who dare to argue otherwise.

Read more: Corbyn: I am "militant opponent" of anti-Semitism

At the heart of the recent scandal is a now-infamous mural that is unequivocally antisemitic. It depicts a group of Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of suffering humanity. In 2012, Corbyn left an online comment speaking against its removal. When this came to light, his initial defence was to claim free speech – an excuse that rings hollow if you remember that, in 2006, Corbyn joined Muslims to protest against satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

He then claimed that he hadn’t looked at the mural properly before commenting – an excuse his supporters have latched onto. This was an honest mistake, they say, and any attempt to hold Corbyn to account is no more than a political smear from people who do not want to see the great leader become Prime Minister.

This might be more convincing if hoards of Corbynistas weren’t as we speak attacking critics on Twitter – including Labour MPs – as “Tory Jews”.

And here lies the key to understanding Labour’s antisemitism problem.

To a certain kind of leftwinger, nothing short of swastika-clad neo-Nazis destroying Jewish-owned shops counts as antisemitism. This narrow definition has enabled some to turn a blind eye to the rising anti-Jewish sentiment in certain corners of the Labour party that has now reached boiling point.

Every party has fringe elements – individuals with extreme views and a fondness for conspiracy theories. In terms of antisemitism, this may manifest as Holocaust denial, or using thinly-veiled language about a “global conspiracy” of shady bankers who secretly run the world for profit.

The trouble with these fringe views is that, in the Labour party, they are no longer all that fringey. Ken Livingstone, former London mayor and longtime Corbyn-ally, will go on air to broadcast his unconventional take on the Holocaust at the drop of a hat. He was suspended two years ago for claiming that Hitler supported Zionism, in an attempt to defend the MP Naz Shah, who had come under fire for a meme she had reposted suggesting that the state of Israel be relocated to the US.

Two months later, the much-anticipated report by Shami Chakrabarti into antisemitism in Labour concluded that there was no problem. At the launch of the report, Corbyn compared Israel to Islamist terror groups, while a Jewish Labour MP walked out after being harassed by a Momentum activist, who allegedly accused her of being part of a “media conspiracy”.

This was nearly two years ago, but the fallout of the last week shows that Corbyn has learned little. He appears utterly perplexed by the wave of criticism against him. Labour are the good guys, after all. Racism is a problem for the right. If there are antisemites in the party – people who send Jewish MPs death threats, allude to the Blood Libel, and call for the destruction of the state of Israel – that is sad, but it’s not the responsibility of the leadership.

Except it is. The question for Labour supporters now is not whether Corbyn himself is an antisemite, but why so many in the party feel comfortable airing views that fit the textbook definition of anti-Jewish prejudice.

“Rightly or wrongly, those who push this offensive material regard Corbyn as their figurehead,” reads Sunday’s open letter. Which brings us back to the question of whether a man who defends an antisemitic mural can lead a liberal mainstream party in 2018. Racism exists everywhere, but this particular strand has been growing more vocal since Corbyn became leader.

And everyone involved in Labour – most crucially the leader himself – needs to start thinking hard about why.

Read more: Corbyn supporters organise an anti-anti-Semitism rally

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