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Posted on Aug 25, 2015

Tom Owolade: Corbyn’s supporters should be honest

Tom Owolade: Corbyn’s supporters should be honest


A cross-post by Tom Owolade

The charge levelled by many at Jeremy Corbyn is not that he is anti-Semitic. He himself has said little to draw that damning conclusion. The charge levelled, with evidence increasing by the day, is that he endorses anti-Semites and attends events organised by anti-Semites. The charge levelled, therefore, is he views anti-semitism as insufficiently worrisome, and, at times, views anti-Semites as even praiseworthy – particularly anti-Semites who hide under the cover of anti-Zionism. This is dangerous in itself. Racism, even when couched in terms that may draw your ideological sympathy, merits outright condemnation. Nothing else. This is especially true if your raison d’être is social justice and equality. Instead, opposition to Israeli policies – not in itself anti-Semitic, and at times morally justified – has blinded some people to clear expressions of bigotry. Corbyn suffers from this disabling myopia to a remarkable degree.

Those who defend Corbyn rely on two arguments: firstly, that guilt by association – attending the same event as anti-Semites – is an insufficient base on which to build an argument. Secondly, that opposition to Israeli policies doesn’t entail anti-semitism, and consequently those that criticise Corbyn are doing so from a position of bad faith; out of a wish to shield Israel from legitimate criticism or part of a general right-wing agenda. Both arguments are strawmen that rely on a misapprehension of most people’s motives and inattention to their arguments.

Owen Jones – perhaps the most staunch defender of Corbyn in the mainstream media – contends that guilt by association is a fallacious way of critiquing a political figure. I agree. But in his defence of Corbyn, he argues:

having spent his life attending more meetings and protests than virtually any other MP, he will have encountered and met countless people. I can’t remember people I’ve shared platforms with and met (which has led to many embarrassing moments in my case) and the idea an MP like Corbyn juggling his constituency and campaigning work and meeting the number of people he does will remember is pushing human capabilities to an extreme degree.

The problem, though, is the main charge levelled at Corbyn isn’t who he associates with; the main charge is who he endorses and publicly supports. Jones also argues:

And here is the problem facing Jeremy Corbyn. If he knew somebody had anti-Semitic views or indulged Holocaust denial, he would find their views utterly repulsive.

That may be the case. But when he called Hamas “a group dedicated to bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice”, was that an expression of ignorance on his part? Is he ignorant of the Hamas charter which calls for the destruction of Israel and the extirpation of her Jewish citizens? Perhaps he is ignorant of their suicide bombings and deployment of human shields – the pinnacle of suicidal martyrdom. Or rather, is their propagation of anti-Semitic canards, such as the protocols of elders of Zion, too discrete for his busy political gaze, too hidden under their righteous objective to end the occupation? (The occupation, not of the West Bank and Gaza, incidentally, but of the whole of Israel.)

He called them “a group dedicated to bringing about peace and social justice”. This is not an expression of diplomacy, a conciliatory measure to advance the peace process. This is an endorsement of a fascist theocratic group that supports everything a progressive should hate and hates everything a progressive should support.

He similarly extended this endorsement to Hezbollah. Whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, similarly seeks the massacre of Jewish citizens. Corbyn doesn’t engage with diplomacy towards ‘unsavoury characters’; he endorses fascists who share with him a hostility to western foreign policy and her allies. Guilt by association? No. What we have instead is guilt by affirmation.

The suggestion of guilt by association is used more explicitly, though, to defend the rallies that Corbyn attends. In August 2012 – and a few times since then – Corbyn spoke at an Al Quds day rally. The rally was created by the Iranian regime in opposition to Israel’s existence. Shouts of “Death to Jews” are routinely proclaimed. The banner of Ayatollah Khomeini is proudly displayed. Someone who is apparently dedicated to peace was attending a rally of hatred – where revolutionary violence and virulent anti-semitism is the main and not a side dish.

Note who else also spoke at that event. Neturei Karta – an extremist Jewish sect that views the holocaust was divinely mandated – were introduced as “the true Jews”. Stephen Sizer– a reverend that believes Israel was behind 9/11 – was similarly greeted with praise before he spoke. Also invited to speak was Sheikh Bahmanpour, a Shia cleric that believes Israel should be the destroyed and replaced by a shariah state.

What unites all these guests, what common thread is evident from them? Support for Palestinian rights? Perhaps. Would you, though, allow your support for Palestinian rights to be corrupted by attending events that demonise Jews? In other words, would your support for Palestinian extend to legitimising those who hate Jews? If not, Corbyn’s attendance of these rallies deserve to be viewed for what they patently are: legitimising people who hate Jews in the purported service of a progressive goal.

But to criticise Corbyn for attending this rally is guilt by association, so argue his defenders. How could he have known Al Quds day features anti-Semites? Corbyn’s defenders assume that the event just happens to have anti-Semites, as an unfortunate but unintended consequence of pro-Palestinian politics. How wrong. The wish to destroy Israel is animated by hostility to Jews and a wish to subordinate them to suffering and fear.

Imagine If you decided to speak at a rally organised by neo-nazis, with pictures of David Duke displayed proudly, and with a significant chunk of your fellow speakers sharing the neo-nazi ideology. Is to scrutinise you an example of guilt by association? Should we assume, as a politician of some 3 decades and a man dedicated to peace, you’re extremely ignorant of the anti-semitism at the core of neo-nazism? Corbyn’s defenders will now say the analogy I’m offering is hyperbolic.

For the claim of hyperbole to hold water you’d have to believe that calling for the mass murder of Jews, viewing the holocaust as a hoax, viewing the elders of Zion as real, and inviting to your event an assortment of well honed anti-Semites, has no significant similarity with virulent anti-semitism?

Even if they concede there is some significant similarity, they’ll argue that Corbyn’s main focus is pro-Palestinian politics and not the anti-semitism of the people who organised the event, and the majority of people who were invited. This will be conceding Corbyn knew about the anti-semitism, and views it as insufficiently worrisome. Would you, as a supporter of a party with a rich history of social justice and advocacy for equality, want to elect a man who thinks anti-semitism under the cover of anti-Zionism is justified? Many would, and it proves that many on the left don’t view anti-semitism as badly as they view other forms of racism. Jews – sorry, Zionists – are assumed to be privileged, and this privilege means they’re never the victims but only the victimiser.

A Zionist that screams anti-semitism at Corbyn is a Zionist that wants to protect the oppressive state of Israel. A Zionist that worries about someone who is enabling and legitimising the oldest hatred in our civilisation should shut the fuck up and think instead about austerity and our support for Saudi Arabia. This is what is being suggested. And it has flowered into such a foul spectacle that the word “Zionist” is spat out with the same malice that traditionally underpinned the use of the word of “Jew”: to denote a group allegedly dedicated to treachery and division.

The second defence of Corbyn is that criticism of him comes from a position of bad faith. It is argued that Zionists and people with an explicit right wing agenda conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with hostility towards Jews. They allegedly support this conflation because they blindly support the interests of western power. A recent article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offers the clearest attempt at this argument. Alibhai-Brown argues:

 Just as pernicious is the way Zionists use the charge of anti-Semitism to block probes into Israel’s oppressive practices, its weaponry, and its influence in Western parliaments. Some public intellectuals and politicians – who should have some understanding of nuance – have become propagandists for Israel, be the country’s actions right or wrong.

Most people critical of Corbyn don’t think criticism of Israel entails anti-semitism. Most people who are critical of Corbyn don’t even suppose Corbyn is personally anti-Semitic. The argument advanced against Corbyn is clear: it’s inappropriate to have as leader of the opposition party in a western democracy someone who endorses racists. This is not to do directly with Israeli policies. Endorsing Raed Salah – proponent of the blood libel, and someone who thinks Jews were behind 9/11 – should be viewed for what it is: an endorsement of a racist ideologue. It should not be viewed exclusively through the lens of Palestinian rights.

If someone called Nick Griffin “an honoured citizen”, and attended a conference that celebrated him, how far would you go to listen to the political context provided as justification before you call “bullshit”?

The implication obvious from this is that racism should concern only if it is perpetrated by those who are the oppressors. White westerners – and now Jews – are the oppressors; Palestinians, and Muslims more generally, are the oppressed. The oppressed cannot be racist. Any expression of alleged bigotry by the oppressed is an expression of a legitimate political grievance. Attempts to scrutinise such expressions must therefore come from a position of bad faith. Ergo, if Salah is racist, but he also hates the occupation, Corbyn’s endorsement of him is an endorsement of a legitimate political grievance. Bigotry is the burden only of the white westerner and its Zionist accomplice.

This argument is shoddy because it infantilises one group to excuse the hatred of another. We should view Palestinians as humans: this entails viewing them as capable of religious prejudice that should merit the opprobrium of leftists, usually the most sensitive to accusations of prejudice. This also entails holding Corbyn to account for doing the exact opposite. In indulging anti-Semitic reactionaries, from Hamas to Hezbollah and Raed Salah, in his effusive support of them, he is treating bigotry not as bigotry and, by doing that, he is betraying the dignity of Palestinians and the trust of Jews.

The argument that criticism of Corbyn comes from a position of bad faith fails to account for the fact that the people Corbyn supports don’t hate Israel but Jews – a distinction which, for them, is meaningless anyway. It fails to account for the fact that it is not just Blairites, neocons, and neoliberals who worry about a potential political leader palling with racists. People who think anti-semitism is worrisome in itself worry too – and so they should, for it is a matter of principle first and foremost.

What it irritates me most is the dishonesty with which Corbyn’s apologists have defended his links to racism. The charge is he endorses and willingly attends events organised by anti-Semites, not that he merely and accidentally associates with them. This charge is supported by evidence of him saying positive things about racists and attending events organised by groups ideologically committed to racism. Corbyn’s supporters should be honest: they should concede Corbyn supports anti-Semites. But they should then concede, that to them, this support doesn’t matter. They should be honest and concede that anti-semitism under the cover of anti-Zionism doesn’t matter to them, and is secondary to opposing austerity and opposing western foreign policy.

Let them then concede that parts of the left are now morally bankrupt on the issue of racism. They should admit that they’re diminishing the values they pretend to espouse. Let them concede all of that, and support the MP from Islington with a candid heart – but not, in reality, with an anti-racist one.

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