There can be no comparison between the minuscule antisemitic threat from the far right and the widespread legitimisation of antisemitism by the Corbynite leadership of the Labour Party.
The far right in Britain has never been of electoral significance. In the 1930s, marches by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists caused fear amongst the Jewish population of the East End. But it was never strong enough to contest a general election and did not win a single council seat. The British National Party gained two per cent of the vote in 2010 but has since virtually disappeared.
Those on the far right who took up antisemitism, such as Mosley, became political pariahs as a result, as are Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, and Tommy Robinson.
But Jeremy Corbyn is neither electorally insignificant nor a political pariah. He is leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, and could soon be Prime Minister. And, while the appeal of the far right has always been to a small number of the inadequate and ill-educated, Mr Corbyn has a far wider appeal, particularly amongst the young. Indeed, the antisemitism which he has so signally failed to combat seems stronger among students than the rest of the population.
In 2016, sadly, at Oxford, my old university, Alex Chalmers, the non-Jewish chair of the University’s Labour Club, resigned, because, he said, “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews”. He said “Jews”, and not “Zionists”. I suspect that someone wishing to make the case for Israel would find it easier in his or her local pub than at Oxford or other elite universities.
In Britain, traditionally one of the least antisemitic of countries, antisemitic tropes have become widespread on the left.
Jess Phillips, for example, a non-Jewish Labour MP critical of Mr Corbyn, has, in her own words, received “hundreds and hundreds of pages of abuse” with an “antisemitic undercurrent”. She is accused of being a “Zionist traitor, they say I’m taking shekels, that I’m Mossad — and I’m not even Jewish”. She has had to put nine locks on her front door to stave off physical attack.
Claire Kober, the former Labour leader of Haringey council, has declared that, “The levels of antisemitism I’ve seen in the Labour Party are just astonishing”. Dame Margaret Hodge, who fought off the BNP in her Barking constituency, has said that she finds much more antisemitism in the Labour Party than she did from the BNP. Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish Labour MP, has been the subject of over 25,000 incidents of racial abuse. Since she has not spoken on Middle Eastern matters, her crime is not “Zionism”; it is being Jewish. She has “on numerous occasions” raised the issue of racism “privately” with Corbyn, with no result. “My biggest issue”, she says, “is that he knows it’s happening and that it’s still happening”. Labour, she concludes “is no longer a safe space for British Jews”.
Of course, as Anthony Julius was reported as saying in last week’s JC, a Corbyn government would not legislate to take away the civil rights of Jews. But it would undermine their right to equal citizenship. Jews would be subject to further abuse and would be deterred from expressing support for Israel, while those who wish to see the state destroyed would be given full rein.
In the universities, Jewish and Israeli students would feel under even greater pressure. Indeed, Israeli students as well as academics would probably give British universities a wide berth, to the benefit no doubt of the universities of America. The political atmosphere would become increasingly unpleasant both for Jews and, indeed, for all supporters of Israel.
Politicians are teachers as well as educators. A Corbyn government would spread the lesson that Jews are not quite like other citizens, that they are in Britain on sufferance, as it were, to be tolerated as long as they are prepared to suppress their views. They will be found guilty of “Zionism” until proven innocent.
Sadly, a Corbyn government would face little resistance from Labour MPs. For, though most oppose Mr Corbyn, they have, with a few honourable exceptions such as John Mann, kept their heads down and would probably continue to do so.
The progressive intelligentsia who would be loud in their protests if, for example, a member of an ethnic minority in the Tory party had been the recipient — like Ruth Smeeth — of 25,000 incidents of racial abuse, and had complained to Theresa May with no result, is silent when it comes to antisemitism. The eerie silence of the Shadow Cabinet and the vast majority of Labour MPs is almost as sinister as the tolerance of antisemitism by the Corbynites. This silence endangers not only Jews but the very values for which the British Labour movement has hitherto stood. For, as Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has said, “Antisemitism is the world’s most reliable early warning sign of a major threat to freedom, humanity and the dignity of difference.”
How, then, are the Corbynites to be combatted? The efforts by the Board of Deputies and similar bodies to oppose it by meetings with Labour leaders, though well-intentioned, are almost certainly futile. There are no new arguments against antisemitism, a product of irrational emotion rather than reason, that have not already been deployed many times.
Instead of “dialogue” or being quieter about antisemitism and not making a fuss, it would be better to have nothing to do with those legitimising antisemitism.
That means having nothing to do with the Labour Party until the stain has been removed, however much one may endorse its social or economic policies.
I am not a member of the Conservative Party, nor indeed of any other, and have voted Labour in the past. But I cannot understand how any supporter of equal citizenship can support the Labour Party in its current state, especially when Conservative leaders, such as Theresa May, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid have shown themselves to be such good friends of the Jewish community.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College, London and was formerly Professor of Government at Oxford University