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This Seder was no political error by Corbyn

This is less about antisemitism than it is about rows, writes Daniel Finkelstein.

    Jeremy Corbyn pictured in April 2018
    Jeremy Corbyn pictured in April 2018 (Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images)

    Did Jeremy Corbyn make a political error having a third-night Seder with Jewdas? By trying to answer this question I think we can learn a lot about the politics of Labour antisemitism. So let’s spend a bit of time picking it apart. Spoiler alert: the answer to the question is going to be no.

    Let’s start here. Jeremy Corbyn does not want to have a row about antisemitism. He wants it to go away. This is less about antisemitism than it is about rows. He doesn’t want rows while he is trying to fight a local election.

    In the past, he has hasn’t needed to do much because, although it was a nuisance, the rows fizzled out of their own accord. Now the row isn’t fizzling out as quickly so he had to promise to act. And that promise will last as long as the chance of a row lasts.

    He can’t stop the rows or be acknowledged as acting without publicly accepting that there is a problem. And therefore he has done so. Allowing everyone else in a leadership position to follow suit. But that all leaves a huge hole. And in that hole sits Jeremy Corbyn himself.

    Here is the problem. The antisemitism row started because of people who came into Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn. And it involves repeated episodes in which Jeremy Corbyn himself was personally and directly involved.

    This, even at the expense of rows he does not wish to have, Mr Corbyn cannot acknowledge or accept. He cannot. And so neither can anyone else.

    Hence we end up with the bizarre position that Labour acknowledges it has a problem, accepts it hasn’t acted, apologises for its behaviour, realises that this has only happened since Mr Corbyn became leader, but is absolutely furious with anyone who points any of this out.

    Yes, it may be true, but “don’t you weaponise it”. You are absolutely right, “but stop smearing Jeremy Corbyn”.

    Which brings us to Jewdas.

    For many Jews, it was a mistake to have a Seder with a fringe group who regarded the recent demonstration as a “smear” and who laugh at the mainstream Jewish communal bodies. But this misses the point. Or, in fact, three points.

    The first is that Mr Corbyn does not, indeed cannot, accept that there is a contradiction between claiming to take the issue seriously and arguing that it was a smear. He’d have to accept his own responsibility, acknowledge the mistakes he personally made. And he is not willing to do that.

    The second is that Mr Corbyn’s politics haven’t changed just because there is a row. That’s the reason why he was in those Facebook groups and supported Stephen Sizer and called Hamas “friends”. It’s what he thinks, too. So this wasn’t some sort of gaffe, it was a statement of his politics, a deliberate one.

    He is leader of the Labour party because of those politics, because the membership now supports them and not despite those politics.

    Mr Corbyn has always opposed Labour’s accommodation with the so-called mainstream of any kind because he doubts it is the mainstream. He divides the world between the oppressors and the oppressed. Jewdas he sees as for the oppressed, while the Jewish communal bodies, erm, aren’t. Like Israel.

    And then there is this point. Even at the level of base political calculation this wasn’t an error either. The antisemitism bit of the antisemitism row probably won’t have a big political effect. People’s understanding and interest in it is pretty limited. I still expect Labour to do very well in May’s local elections.

    And, in so far as voters are interested, a confusing row about whose Seder he should attend is hardly likely to stir the political blood outside the community. We all understood clearly the message he was trying to send, but try explaining that to anyone else and it’s a bit niche. In fact, his attendance is likely to help him move the topic on, as everyone gets tangled up in the subtleties of different Passover messages.

    So I don’t think this a political error. It’s quite smart, actually. Just as long as we now know what we are up against.

     

    Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

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