Recently, Britain’s Daily Mail revealed that Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, had expressed some bizarre and disconcerting views about British “Zionists” at a meeting of Palestinian supporters in 2013. Corbyn accused certain “Zionists,” who had attended a talk given by Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority’s Representative to the U.K., of not understanding English irony, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives.”
Unsurprisingly, Corbyn’s remarks have been interpreted as evidence of an anti-Semitic mindset. The notion that “Zionists,” i.e. Jews, are incapable of assimilating, even though they may have spent all or most of their lives in Britain, is scarcely new. It’s the kind of mild but ingrained anti-Semitism that has long been associated with the British upper and upper middle classes, as reflected in the novels of such writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.
Corbyn has tried to defend his remarks by insisting that he used the term “Zionist” in “the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people.” However, the Labour leader’s efforts at self-exculpation have been unconvincing. British “Zionists,” after all, are composed overwhelmingly of Jews, while the notion that people who subscribe to a specific ideology, i.e. “Zionism,” may have difficulty in appreciating various aspects of British culture is patently nonsense.
Although Corbyn may be unwilling or incapable of recognizing the fact, his impromptu remarks about “Zionists in the audience” who don’t understand English irony hints at an all too British strain of anti-Semitism.
Of Zionism and Israel
Corbyn’s controversial comments about “Zionists” call into question the Labour Leader’s suitability for high political office. To describe a small number of pro-Israeli British Jews in Manuel Hassassian’s audience as “Zionists,” rather than as supporters of Israel, suggests a refusal to engage with political reality. That is hardly a virtue in a potential future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Zionism, as a modern political movement, emerged in the latter years of the 19th-century. In large part, it was a response to the notorious Dreyfus Affair in France and to other manifestations of anti-Semitism in Europe and Russia. Zionism represented the adoption by a minority of Jews of ideas of national self-determination that already informed the political thinking of almost every European ‘‘nation’’ or people.
The central object of political Zionism, the quest for a Jewish homeland or state, was realized in 1948 with the establishment of Israel. As Sir Stephen Sedley, who is Jewish, a persistent critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and, not least, a former judge of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, has observed: ‘‘[t]he Israeli state, whatever one’s view of the rightness of its foundation, is today not only a fact on the ground (to use a phrase its politicians favor) but a sovereign political and legal entity.”
By contrast, Corbyn’s insistence on referring to British Jews who challenged Manuel Hassassian’s historical exposition as “Zionists” suggests an unwillingness to recognize Israel as a political and juridical fact or to acknowledge that Israel enjoys even a modicum of legitimacy. For Corbyn, it seems, “Zionism” equates with other irredeemably pernicious ideologies such as “fascism” and “imperialism.” ‘‘Progressive’’ elements are therefore duty-bound to challenge and defeat it.
On Studying History
In the video released by the Daily Mail, Corbyn complains that the “Zionists” he encountered, at the meeting addressed by Manuel Hassassian, “don’t want to study history”. However, Corbyn’s own grasp of history, like that of Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London and, until recently, a close political ally, is highly suspect.
Livingstone’s historically illiterate remark, in 2016, that Hitler had been “supporting Zionism…before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,” has become notorious. However, Corbyn’s understanding of history – as evidenced by the long list of spectacularly dubious individuals and political movements he has championed, as well as various statements he has made – may be only slightly less questionable.
In the video clip released by the Daily Mail, the Labour leader describes Hassassian’s talk, on the history of Palestine, as “incredibly powerful and passionate and effective.” By contrast, Corbyn accused the “Zionists” in the audience, as we’ve seen, of not wanting “to study history.”
Unfortunately, the transcript of the 2013 speech is not available. However, in May 2016, the Palestinian Authority’s Representative had another opportunity to present his views on the history of Palestine at a seminar convened at the Houses of Parliament. There is no reason to think that Hassassian’s views and historical judgments had altered in any significant respect during the intervening period. So it’s noteworthy that, on the latter occasion, Hassassian asserted that the root cause of the Palestinian refugee problem is beyond dispute: “800,000 Palestinians were forcefully displaced through systematic actions of massacres against them.”
As an exercise in political advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians, Hassassian’s statement is unexceptionable. However, as a ‘‘summary’’ of the origins of the Palestine refugee crisis, Hassassian’s comments are polemical both in tone and content. As Benny Morris, the leading scholar of the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem has emphasized, the exodus of Palestinians from their homes, in 1947-1949, cannot be reduced to “a single-cause explanation” of the type suggested by Hassassian. The use of terror was not confined to either side in the conflict while “massacres”, whether committed by Jews against Arabs (e.g. at Deir Yassin) or by Arabs against Jews (e.g. the Hadassah Medical Convoy Massacre), were thankfully exceptional.
Corbyn’s enthusiastic and unqualified endorsement of Hassassian’s speech, in 2013, suggests that the Labour Leader’s understanding of history is both deeply emotional and profoundly ideological. Corbyn’s empathy for the victims of political upheavals is commendable. At the same time, Corbyn’s wholehearted identification with certain causes prevents him from recognizing the complexity and moral ambiguity that lies at the heart of almost every significant political conflict, including Israel/Palestine.
In Corbyn’s simplistic, binary world there are “victims” and “oppressors.” There is no room for anything in between. For British Jews, or at least the overwhelming majority who continue to support or identify with Israel, the prospect of a British government headed by Jeremy Corbyn has become a source of growing unease.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.