Corbyn is likely not anti-Semitic. But his statement is symptomatic of the Labour Party's -- and, more broadly, the British left's -- Jewish problem.
"Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations," Corbyn declared Thursday. This was not merely an off-the-cuff remark. It was in a prepared statement and, ironically, it was delivered at the public introduction of a report on racism, particularly on anti-Semitism, in the Labour Party.
This report had itself been prompted by controversial statements about Israel made by senior figures in the party (most notoriously one by the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who claimed that Hitler supported Zionism
What Corbyn was trying to say was that Jews should not be held responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Nor should they have to take a stance on these actions -- which in left-wing circles means they should not be required to criticize or denounce Israel. This is an important point, and it is a sad fact that it even needs to be said. Unfortunately, for some time now, many Jews on the left -- whether in Britain or in the United States -- have been made to feel that they must be critical of Israel, or at least not openly supportive of it.
To be sure, most liberal and left-wing British and American Jews are critical of Israel for a variety of reasons, chiefly because of its policy toward the Palestinians. But one has to wonder why Corbyn could not have simply made this point, without making any analogy to Muslims and "self-styled Islamic states or organizations"? Why couldn't he have just addressed the specific concerns of British Jews and the issue of anti-Semitism on the left?
At best, Corbyn appears tone deaf to the feelings and sensitivities of British Jews, many of whom now regard his party as not only hostile to Israel, but also to Jews. The problem, however, goes well beyond Corbyn. The Labour Party, and the British left in general, is unwilling -- and perhaps unable -- to acknowledge that it has a Jewish problem.
The problem is not pervasive anti-Semitism, as some allege. It is more complex and more nuanced than that (although anti-Semitism still lingers on the far left, as it has always done). Fundamentally, the problem is that Israel has become a target of virulent, unrelenting and disproportionate left-wing criticism. Zionism has become such a dirty word on the British left that to be called a Zionist is effectively an insult, and in the minds of many leftists, to support Israel is equivalent to supporting racism and apartheid.
This demonization of Israel and delegitimization of Zionism makes Jews, most of whom support Israel in one degree or another (although not necessarily its government's policies) profoundly uncomfortable. As the world's only Jewish state, Israel has become an integral part of modern Jewish identity. Whatever their views about Israel's policies, the vast majority of Jews around the world support the state's existence, and worry about its security
When Israel is vilified, therefore, many Jews are likely to take this personally, as a direct attack upon their own belief system. Such attacks on Israel -- now increasingly common -- are often experienced by Jews as anti-Semitic, whether or not that was the underlying motivation.
To make matters worse, classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and beliefs do occasionally appear in contemporary left-wing discourse about Israel. Most notably, the conspiracy theory of a Jewish cabal exerting control over the politics of Western societies now resurfaces in the form of wildly exaggerated claims about the power of the pro-Israel lobby.
As long as the Labour Party leadership, and the British left more broadly, regard Israel as the embodiment of evil -- or even just a pariah state -- most British Jews will feel deeply offended and alienated. They will also probably find it hard to vote for the Labour Party in future elections. If nothing else, this should serve as a warning to the Democratic Party in the United States, which has recently been consumed with its own battle over Israel during the drafting of the party's election platform
Criticism of Israel is, of course, acceptable. But the left must be vigilant that anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism do not veer into anti-Semitism.