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Democrats aren’t the only party tying themselves in knots over charges of anti-Semitism

Jeremy Corbyn
REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Jeremy Corbyn comes from Labor’s left wing, which is frequently more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and often critical of Israel.

The spectacle of Democrats in the U.S. tying themselves in knots over accusations of anti-Semitism would be familiar in Britain. The Labor Party has been going through a similar drama for a couple of years now.

In one of those odd parallels that sometimes occur between U.S. and British politics, the issue has come to a head in both countries at roughly the same time, forcing the parties to confront unflattering existential questions at a point when urgent political matters await.

In the U.S., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cobbled together a resolution that broadly condemned all manner of intolerance. It did not single out Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose  comments launched the debate, and mentioned Islamophobia and other forms of racism, as well. It also didn’t appear to satisfy very many House members. But it passed overwhelmingly last Thursday, giving Democrats a chance to get back to focusing on their opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies and investigations of his behavior.

In Britain, Labor is confronting charges that it carries within it a deep vein of anti-Semitism. As if coming to grips with that isn’t wrenching enough, it also is making it harder to address Britain’s most important political question in several generations: how, when – and whether – to leave the European Union. With little more than two weeks left before Britain crashes out of the EU, a series of votes starting Tuesday will determine what happens. There has been no majority for any approach, and Britain’s political class desperately needs some cohesion. It would help if Labor were able to focus on only Brexit, but the charges of anti-Semitism won’t go away.  

At the center of the storm in Britain is Jeremy Corbyn. Like Omar, he has staunch supporters who insist that he is opposed to all kinds of intolerance. Unlike Omar, he is not a newcomer on the national stage. He has been in Parliament for 35 years – nearly as long as Omar has been alive — and since 2015, he has been the head of the Labor Party.

Corbyn comes from Labor’s left wing, which is frequently more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and often critical of Israel. It is completely possible, of course, to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, and Corbyn denounces anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the controversies started as soon as Corbyn became party leader, and in 2106 he announced an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the party. But that hasn’t put the issue to rest. This BBC primer on the controversy details reports that emerged last year of actions by Corbyn before he became Labor leader that put him on the defensive.  

Last month, the party announced that between April 2018 and January, it had received 673 complaints alleging anti-Semitic acts by Labor members. It said that 96 party members had been suspended and 12 were expelled. Now, party officials are fighting about how to handle such complaints. Also last month, Luciana Berger, a Jewish member of parliament, quit Labor, declaring it to be “institutionally” anti-Semitic.

A government watchdog organization has also launched an inquiry into the party’s handling of complaints of anti-Semitism, saying Labor may have discriminated against people because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. The leader of the Labor contingent in the House of Lords told Corbyn in a letter that became public on Friday that the party’s handling of the complaints were “an embarrassing mess.”

So Labor is still wallowing in that mess, even as Brexit reaches a climax. Corbyn’s wing of the party is more skeptical of the EU than the Labor mainstream, and he has struggled to provide clear leadership on that issue, too. He tried, and failed, to force a general election, and has come grudgingly around to the idea of a second referendum.

Frustration has boiled over. Along with Berger, eight other members of Labor’s delegation have left the party, mostly because of Brexit (although concerns about anti-Semitism surfaced, there, too). More defections are likely. The defectors have joined with a handful who quit the governing Conservative Party, and seem likely to launch their own political party.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has been widely pilloried for mishandling Brexit. In December, she lost her first bid to get her plan through Parliament by a huge 230-vote margin. She’ll try again on Tuesday. It will be closer this time, but most observers believe she will fail again. If that happens, Parliament will then vote on whether to leave on March 29 without a deal. If they reject that, which they probably will do, they’ll vote on a delay. But that’s just a delay – not a solution.

Defeat would be a further humiliation for May, and Labor should be in perfect position to capitalize. Instead, it appears to be coming apart at the seams. In the view of the Economist, which is a fan of neither Corbyn, May nor Brexit, Labor is in even worse shape than the Conservatives. For all her problems, May still tops Corbyn in opinion polls.

There is no obvious end to Labor’s disputes over anti-Semitism. Something will happen – eventually – regarding Brexit. Through it all, British politics has been exposed as deeply flawed, and in need of fundamental change. The future, the Economist suggests, belongs to the party that’s first to ditch its unpopular leader.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/11/2019 - 10:15 am.

    Maybe Pelosi and the Democratic leadership overreacted to Omar. But I think they are trying to head off what happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/11/2019 - 11:55 am.

    I can see what Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslim hate each other, but why in the world would Christians, taught to practice universal love and tolerance be picking sides. Blessed are the peacemakers, not the haters who take sides and advocate violence.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2019 - 12:22 pm.

      Evangelical Christians are taking sides because they believe that the migration of all Jewish people will bring about the Rapture. Once all Jewish people are in Israel, they will build the Third Temple in Jerusalem, and in the ensuing tsurris, all “saved” Christians will be taken up to Heaven.

      Think of it: These people are lobbying to bring about the end of the world.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/11/2019 - 01:26 pm.

        And if they think they can force the end of the world, they aren’t reading the Bible correctly.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2019 - 02:55 pm.

          The Temple would be built on the Dome of the Rock, one of the three holiest places in Islam. Tearing it down would not be pretty.

      • Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/11/2019 - 03:08 pm.

        I’m a Missouri Synod Lutheran, a member of one of the denominations classified as Evangelical. I have never heard of “Tsurris” before. Mr. Holbrook must be thinking of a teeny, tiny Protestant sect, and not mainstream Evangelicals. In our church, we believe the end of the world will come as a thief in the night. No one will be able to predict or make it come earlier than what God has planned.
        I support Israel because it has American style democracy and promotes human rights values like the U.S. has. My support has nothing to do with religion.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/11/2019 - 03:50 pm.

          Its not that teeny tiny

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2019 - 05:07 pm.

          Israeli democracy is fine, if you’re not an Arab.

          “Promoting human rights” rarely includes shooting unarmed protesters.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/12/2019 - 01:08 pm.

            Well, for the Arabs who are Israeli citizens, it is fine. And despite its severe flaws, Israeli is a shining beacon of democracy and human rights compared to all its neighbors. Seems weird that Ihe only Jewish-majority country gets singled out. Oh wait, nonit doesn’t.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/12/2019 - 04:02 pm.

              According to that defender of democracy Benjamin Netanyahu, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.” A law passed last year declares that Israel is the state of the Jewish people alone. This is what is happening under Likkud. It is not something inherent in the state of Israel.

              And yes, in an article about Israel, Israel will be singled out for criticism. Don’t even bother with the anti-Semitic line.

              • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/12/2019 - 06:22 pm.

                But the article is always about Israel. Again, even though Israel is far and away the most democratic country in the Middle East, the country with the best human rights record and minority protections, Israel gets singled out. Arabs are treated poorly in Israel? How are Jews treated in Israel’s neighbors? Oh, that’s right. How is Israel on gay rights compared to its neighbors? On women’s rights?

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2019 - 09:20 am.

                  I thought criticism of Israel was a legitimate form of discourse, as long as it did not cross the line to anti-Semitism.

                  • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/13/2019 - 11:06 am.

                    It is, but the problem is that it frequently crosses over into anti-semitism.

                    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2019 - 08:44 am.

                      No, the problem is anyone who actually criticizes Israel is eventually accused of ant-Semitism. It’s always OK to criticize Israeli policy… until someone actually starts criticizing Israeli policy.

              • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/12/2019 - 06:26 pm.

                Netanyahu is terrible, but you know what? There is an election coming up that he may lose. And he may go to prison. As opposed to Israel’s neighbors, where a guy rules for decades and when he dies his son takes over. But yes, lets focus on the lack of democracy in Israel.

                • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2019 - 08:38 am.

                  Yeah Pat, NOBODY ANYWHERE EVER criticizes anyone BUT Israel. Everyone enthusiastically endorses totalitarian regimes all over the world because they’re not Israel.

                  By the way, the Palestinian conflict didn’t begin, nor will it end with Nentanyahu.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/11/2019 - 01:45 pm.

    I doubt that there’s much a similarity, the British system is a completely different animal. The Brexit vote simply could not have taken place in the US.

    We’ll see if anti-Semitism becomes a durable wedge issue in the US, it doesn’t have to. I think it depends on whether or not it’s a legitimate issue or just one that some are trying to use to discredit liberalism.

    The only similarity, and it’s not just with England but the EU as well, has been the dominance of neoliberal mentalities and the austerity they’ve been imposing much to the dismay of their own people.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/11/2019 - 03:51 pm.

      His handling of Brexit is part of the reason Corbyn is so terrible, but its a separate issue from his anti-semitism.

  4. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/11/2019 - 03:51 pm.

    Chris Hedges’ Truthdig article, “Israel’s Stranglehold on American Politics” gives an account one will not see in the corporate media.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/12/2019 - 07:53 am.

    Britain has pretty severe problems with racism and antisemitism, and it afflicts both Labour and the Tories. Racist attitudes have long been acceptable in British society in ways that have only recently become tolerated in the United States.

  6. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/12/2019 - 10:10 am.

    Why are parties on the right not “tying themselves into knots” over anti-Semitism? President Trump can proclaim that there were “fine people” involved in a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, used anti-Semitic imagery in campaign materials, and has had close associations with unsavory characters who, if not explicitly anti-Semitic themselves, are tolerant of it.

    That seems to be okay, though, because Republicans are full-throated in their support of the Netanyahu government. That makes everything else just an aberration, or something to be ignored.

    THought experiment: imagine a left-wing version of Steve Bannon. How far away could you hear the Republican howls of outrage? Maybe a Sebastian Gorka? THe right gets its knickers in a twist over the clueless hipster wearing a Che Guevara t-shit. What would they say about someone who moves in high Democratic circles wearing the insignia of the Cheka, to “honor his father’s heritage?”

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/14/2019 - 01:03 pm.

    Apparently to question the top recipient of US foreign aid is “anti-Semitic”
    Guess it is also “anti-Semitic” when the leader of said country comes into our country and tries to persuade our congress and senate to counter act actions of our duly elected president.
    It appears to some folks that any discussion about Israel and its relationship with the US is anti-Semitic. Guess any discussion about our relationship with Saudi Arabia would be anti-Muslim,

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/15/2019 - 08:50 am.

    Actually, I can’t tell ya what’s going on in Britain, but I don’t see anyone getting tied up in knots over anti-Semitism here in the US. I see a failed attempt to silence a lawmaker, but that’s not an unusual occurrence, and it’s certainly not a death knell to any political Party.

    In fact I’d say an increased diversity of opinion in the Party, and the more broadly worded condemnation of bigotry and intolerance the House ended up passing, actually strengthens the Party rather than tying it up in knots.

    I also have to say the notion that criticism or debate regarding the ongoing Israeli – Palestinian conflict is fueling anti-Semitism more so than the conflict itself, is an ever more dubious claim. In the end I suspect that ending the conflict will do more damage to anti-Semites than silencing criticisms of Israeli policy. Towards THAT end, it’s entirely possible that voices like Omar’s may end up promoting a long overdue resolution to the conflict.

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