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Corbyn’s Victory in Defeat

Labour’s decision finally to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) document, giving a definition and examples of antisemitism, surprised no one. Given the repeated accusations, and evidence, of antisemitism, and the feelings of British Jews, to have held out in rejecting it would have been like flying a swastika over the party headquarters.

The surprise was that Jeremy Corbyn himself – though deserted and defeated by his supporters – did not give way. He wanted to add a ‘statement’ to the IHRA definition and examples. One such example, ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’, did not fit Corbyn’s ideology, so he proposed a caveat, a statement declaring: Nor should it be regarded as antisemitism to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundations as racist because of their discriminatory impact … In short, this IHRA example was to be totally rejected. Opposition to the very existence of Israel, on grounds of racism, Corbyn believes, is not antisemitism.

Corbyn’s willingness to court unpopularity by refusing to abandon this view is not puzzling. Partly, it is a matter of principle. His own unswerving and strong support of the Palestinian cause makes him sympathetic to the view pronounced antisemitic by his party this week. Support for the Palestinian and similar revolutionary causes is a central strand in Corbyn’s brand of socialism. It may seem paradoxical that, by opposing what he claims to be racism inherent in the foundation and existence of Israel, Corbyn is willing to come close to being antisemitic, and therefore racist. But Corbyn and those on the far left have their own special view of racism.

For the far left, racism is part of a grand historico-geographical narrative of oppression. For them, it begins with the enslavement of Africans in America and their denial of rights, even after being freed,  through to nineteenth and twentieth-century imperialism, in which large parts of Asia, Africa and elsewhere were subjected to white, European rule. This story continues for them today with the plight of refugees and ethnic minorities. Most dramatically it continues with Israel, the one bastion of white European and US imperialism that refuses to crumble.

For Corbyn and his friends, Israel and support for it – even the qualified though deep-rooted support felt by most Jews – is flagrantly racist, whereas an opposition to Jews who show such support is not. Indeed, it is only through gritted teeth that they will describe antisemitism as racism at all. Jews are an ethnic minority, but they are economically and intellectually flourishing, not oppressed; independent and self-sufficient, not supplicants of the state. They fit neither Corbyn’s narrative of racism, nor his politics of it.

For Corbyn’s stance in the antisemitism dispute is not merely the blunder of an unworldly ideologue. It is pragmatic and highly political. Corbyn knows that, although his fervent followers have almost doubled the membership of the Labour Party, only a tiny fraction of the whole electorate share his views. His chance of victory depends on putting together a disparate coalition of supporters: the young, hoping for change of no matter what sort and an end to student fees; trade unionists, wanting to increase their power and privileges; and, not least, black and Asian voters, successfully cultivated by Labour for decades, many of them Muslims, for whom Corbyn’s anti-Israel obstinacy is highly attractive. Corbyn’s defeat this week at the Labour national executive may turn out, then, to be a step on his road to victory in the national elections.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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