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Jeremy Corbyn in historical perspective

By Ben Cohen

(JNS) The era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition Labour Party in the United Kingdom mercifully came to an end two week ago, with the election of the more centrist-minded Sir Keir Starmer as his successor.

For Jews in Britain, especially, the four-and-a-half years that Corbyn spent at Labour’s helm was a nightmare. In the process, the problem of antisemitism in Britain gained an international audience as never before, with Corbyn and those around him coming to symbolize the attitude of the extreme left – contemptuous and suspicious in equal measure – to Jewish causes and concerns.

Now that his leadership is in the past tense, did we learn anything from Corbyn that we didn’t know already about the far-left’s hostility to Jews as a self-conscious collective? Was the antisemitism that marked the Corbyn era simply more of the same, uttered by more influential people with much louder voices, or did we encounter something new?

To my mind, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

When Corbyn took the stage at the United Kingdom’s annual Glastonbury Festival in 2017, reveling in the thousands of audience members chanting his name to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes, many commentators saw this rockstar moment as inaugurating a boldly new and potentially unstoppable Socialist opposition. But there was another way of looking at it – as the last gasp of the not-so-New Left of the 1960s, unexpectedly given a fresh lease on life thanks to a frightful political mess within the Labour Party that enabled Corbyn to win the leadership post at the 11th hour. 

Overnight, a man derided as a humorless relic of the Cold War – someone who had expressed sympathy for the IRA and the PFLP and sorrow over the Soviet Union’s demise – was poised to become the next prime minister.

Or so they said.

In the end, his rise was hardly meteoric, while his fall was quite spectacular. After four years of media headlines exposing the lurid antisemitism that had mushroomed among Corbyn’s supporters, the Labour Party performed disastrously in a December 2019 election it really should have won. Recall that at the time, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (Brexit) was in chaos and the bitterly divided Conservative Party had just replaced Prime Minister Theresa May with Boris Johnson. But whatever the doubts about Johnson and the Tories, the most brutal verdict of the electors was reserved for Corbyn, whose low ratings were mirrored in Labour’s own showing. On the morning after the vote, news reports emphasized that it had been Labour’s worst defeat since the election of 1935.

Antisemitism was always a persistent problem on the New Left, and as Labour leader, Corbyn legitimized that strain which codes its attacks with the words “Zionism” and “Zionist,” and which portrays the Palestinians as victims of a Nazi-style genocide launched by an apartheid state. But thanks to the internet, this salonfähig variant of antisemitism, whose advocates angrily denied that it was antisemitism, found itself in the company of Holocaust-deniers and assorted other conspiracy theorists more commonly found on the far-right.  

During Corbyn’s tenure, the Labour Party accumulated hundreds of internal complaints about antisemitism, of which a good number centered not on offensive speech about the Jewish national movement, but on more traditional antisemitic tropes, such as the alleged control exercised by the Rothschild banking family over the global economy.

Anyone who has studied the history of left-wing antisemitism will be aware that these seemingly counterintuitive associations have been made many times before by left-wing parties in various countries. In Labour’s case, however, there was a new mode of distribution in the form of social media. Each real-world instance of Labour antisemitism was echoed online many times over until it came to define Corbyn’s leadership.

Antisemitism was not the only reason why Corbyn and Labour lost the 2019 election, but it was certainly a factor. Across the United Kingdom, Labour Party workers reported on doorstep encounters in which Corbyn’s political war against Britain’s Jewish community was cited with bemused disapproval.

What of Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s successor? In the days that followed his election, Starmer underlined his determination to wipe away the “stain” of antisemitism from within the Labour Party.

He continued that an apology on its own, without corresponding action, would not be good enough, proposing a two-pronged strategy whereby Labour will deal “robustly and swiftly” with outstanding cases of antisemitism in its ranks, at the same time transforming its institutional understanding of what antisemitism is and how to fight it. Like Corbyn himself, Starmer seems to be saying that the fate of antisemitism in Labour’s ranks is to be consigned to history. We shall see.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

Main Photo: British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, May 12, 2017. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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