You would have had to been sound asleep to have missed it. But in the last several weeks antisemitism has been almost as much in the headlines as Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has lit the blue touch paper and what has long been called the world’s oldest hatred has flared.
For many of us brought up with the Labour Party in the latter part of the 20th century what is going on now seems almost incomprehensible. The Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were peopled with pro-Zionist voices such as Richard Crossman and George Brown. In this regard Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were their true heirs. On their watch there was little anti-Zionism and it was never going to bleed into antisemitism. That was only ever going to be seen on the irrelevant political fringes of the far right.
So what has happened? Seemingly dormant and away from the mainstream media for much of the time, there has been an insidious spread of the anti-Zionist message. It was extant in the Socialist Worker and other far-left rags, and among some left-wing academics on university campuses and student unions skilfully infiltrated by pro-Palestinian organisers well financed by oil-money filtered through campaign groups. The public manifestation has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) which has targeted everything from Noa concerts to Israeli produce in supermarkets.
It is unfashionable to say so but some of the very same media outlets that now bemoan the Corbynistas, anti-Zionism and the penetration of the carapace into antisemitism bear some responsibility. Their use of one-sided imagery from Gaza and heated rhetoric of the evils of Israel occupation, in an age when the savagery and killings from other parts of the Middle-East are so much more shocking, feeds the narrative of prejudice against Jews. In the fevered environment, in which Lord Levy questions his life-long support for the Labour Party, we look to the saner media voices to prevail.
Fortunately they have been there in abundance. Nick Cohen in the Observer, who despite his name is not by birth Jewish, has long struggled with the issue. As he noted in last week’s edition, he has felt like a “black man trying to pass as white or a German arguing with the Gestapo”. Not for Cohen the bleak intellectual weakness of left-wing Jews and Israelis behaving like a grotesque group from a Howard Jacobson satire. He had to become a Jew so as to expose a left-wing view of the world that sees the Israel lobby as the root cause of all terrors of the Middle East from the Iraq War to the rise of ISIS. In his view. this is just the polite version of the fantasies of the Tsarists and Nazis.
Under Corbyn’s leadership it has become possible, as Rod Liddle observed in the Sunday Times, for Vicki Kirby (a former parliamentary candidate in Woking) to ask why Isis had not attacked “evil” Israel and to describe Hitler as a “Zionist G-d”. For those of us who’s families perished or suffered through the Shoah the theft of the language of evil to attack another generation of Jews is particularly offensive.
In the Guardian (where I toiled for 25-years) the Corbynistas find many friends. Indeed, the paper’s former opinion page editor Seamas Milne, a long standing anti-Zionist, currently is on secondment as Corbyn’s communications guru. As always pushing against the tide is chief commentator Jonathan Freedland. The last line of a finely argued article of last weekend, after reviewing the facts, concludes that “Labour has become a cold house for Jews”.
As a journalist and a campaigner against boycotts and antisemitism, during my years as an elected officer of the Board of Deputies, I have always done my best to maintain it is possible to be less than enthusiastic about Israel’s policies without being antisemitic. The conclusion which the distinguished writers above reluctantly have reached is that in the darker reaches of the Labour Party anti-Zionism and antisemitism become one and the same, and that the past associations of the party’s leader and its economic spokesman John McDonnell have made it almost respectable to allow this to happen.
When it came to the IRA Mrs Thatcher was determined never to give them the oxygen of publicity. The sharp turn of the commentariat of the press against the Labour Party’s apparent tolerance of such views might be seen on the fringes of the party as a reason to celebrate the Corbyn era. They are getting the attention they crave. I don’t think so. The ignorance, racism and sheer wickedness of some of the views heard, among seemingly intelligent people, have to be noisily rejected and stamped out.
It may not rid the party of the maladroit fringe but it will ensure that when and if the party recovers from this lunatic aberration it will want to sweep the decks of intolerance and restore itself as a historic and loyal friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail