Editor’s Note: John McTernan is head of political practice at PSB, a strategic research consultancy. He was a speechwriter to ex-British Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair and was communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” goes Robert de Niro’s monologue in Taxi Driver.
There have been many times in politics – and more frequently since the rise of social media – when that has felt like the most appropriate response to an outrageous statement. But never more so than when the 2013 remarks of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party, about British Zionists were revealed by the Daily Mail newspaper:
“[British Zionists] clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either… They needed two lessons, which we could perhaps help them with.”
My immediate thought was “Does he mean me?” I’m British and I’m a Zionist. I’m not Jewish – I’m actually a Scottish Catholic – but I am a Zionist since I fully support the right of the state of Israel to exist, the right of Jews worldwide to have a homeland and the right to self-determination.
The other words fit me too.
I’ve lived in this country for a very long time – most of my life in fact. And as a Scot, maybe I don’t really get English irony. But did he mean me? How can one get to the truth?
The police have a simple test. In any investigation, they say the most important question to start with is “Who are his friends?”
Well, who are Jeremy’s friends in this attack on Zionists?
“Go, Jezza!” went one tweet from an enthusiastic supporter who saw the news article as part of what he termed a “hysterical #Zionist media campaign.” Unfortunately for Corbyn, this enthusiastic supporter was none other than Nick Griffin, the former leader of the fascist British National Party and a man who calls himself a “Lifelong white rights fighter.”
To be honest, unfortunate isn’t the word – it is disgusting that the words of the leader of the Labour Party can be endorsed by such a man. And the nauseating thing is that this is not the first time.
Former KKK leader David Duke was effusive in his praise of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader:
“It’s a really good kind of evolutionary thing, isn’t it, when people are beginning to recognize Zionist power and ultimately the Jewish establishment power in Britain and in the western world.”
Anti-Zionism, I always thought, was the anti-Semitism of fools. But these words by Jeremy Corbyn show something far darker.
He certainly uses English idioms, but the one that is most contemptible of all – the lower middle-class racism that masquerades as false exasperation – is that people won’t just fit in.
They’ve lived here “all their lives.” They haven’t “studied history.” They don’t understand “English.” If Boris Johnson had used these words of Black or Asian Britons, then Corbyn would have been the first to be self-righteously tweeting. But he felt free to say them of British Zionists, and I am finding it very hard to believe that by this he did not mean British Jews.
Jeremy Corbyn claims he has an unblemished track record of fighting racism. These words contradict that. Read properly, they are terrifying. Some find the idea that British Jews need a lesson the most frightening of his comments. I disagree. Less often quoted is the part where Corbyn refers to “thankfully silent Zionists” – that is as sinister a statement as it is shocking.
David Duke uses the words Zionist and Jew interchangeably. It is, indeed, a distinction without a difference. No attack on Zionism makes sense when applied to non-Jewish Zionists like me. No wonder this is the hill on which Corbyn’s supporters are willing to die.
Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, they cry. And they have taken this all the way and used their votes on the Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee to keep it from adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism in full.
I often wondered why this was the pedantic battle they chose. I wonder no more.