My mother-in-law is over from Israel to see her grandchild. She comes every few months, and soon after she arrives we always do the same thing: sit in the garden, drink coffee and talk politics. She asks me if it is true that Jeremy Corbyn is a is Holocaust denier. I say he is not. And that he is not a racist. But she doesn’t look at all convinced.
I have been avoiding this subject for too long, not wanting to address it. I am a socialist and something of a Corbyn fan. Personally, I rather like him. But I am also a Zionist. My father is Jewish and my wife is Israeli. And the cognitive dissonance has been screaming in my head.
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My wife and I have recently been discussing whether our young son should apply for his Israeli citizenship to which he is entitled. I don’t like the idea of him joining the Israeli army when he is older. And nor does my wife.
Partly, that’s because I was once shot at by the IDF when I was in Gaza. A group of children were showing me the remains of their demolished homes in Rafah on the Gaza/Egypt border. Without warning, a machine gun sprayed the area we were standing with bullets. No one was hurt, but the bullets kicked up dust a few feet from where we were standing. Someone could easily have been killed. And an experience like that stays with you.
Yet this, and similar experiences notwithstanding, I have finally come round to the belief that my son should indeed apply for his Israeli passport. And the Corbyn situation has played some part in that difficult decision.
It is clear to me that the Left does indeed have a blind spot about antisemitism. And the best way I can describe it is that the Left mistakenly thinks that antisemitism is always a form of racism and that it has racism covered. Jeremy Corbyn has indeed been a life-long anti-racist. His credentials on this are strong. But he still doesn’t get it. So what is it he doesn’t get?
The Corbynite Left does not have a problem with Jews per se. At least, I don’t believe it has an issue with Jews any more than any other political party. Probably far less. But it does have a problem with Israel. And what the Left doesn’t appreciate is that, given the reasons for which Israel was established, having a problem with Israel’s very existence is a practical form of antisemitism – even, if I can put it this way, when there is no racism involved.
Which is why I would describe the blind spot as being, as it were, a non-racist version of antisemitism. Perhaps this is not a sustainable distinction in the long run, I accept that. But I offer it as a temporary strategy to persuade the Left that it does indeed have a problem.
Parts of the hard Left believe that it is Israel, not them, that is racist. They would point, for instance, at the Nationality Bill that passed into law last month – a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination within the State of Israel. “One hundred and twenty two years after Herzl published his vision, we’ve enshrined into the law the basic principle of our existence,” said prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are enshrining this important bill into law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens,” explained Avi Dichter, one of the Bill’s sponsors.
Within Israel, criticism of the Bill has been fierce. The Jerusalem Post cartoonist Avi Katz drew a picture of Netanyahu and his parliamentary colleagues celebrating the passage of the Nationality Bill; he depicted them all as pigs from Orwell’s 1984, under the banner “Some are more equal than others”. Later the Post fired him for contravening the newspaper’s ethical standards.
My mother-in-law shows me some of the social media memes that have been doing the rounds in Israel, most of them extremely unflattering about Netanyahu. For half a nanosecond I considered tweeting one of them out, but then I thought better of it. My wife’s family has lived in the land of Israel since before the State of Israel even existed. Her grandfather, who passed away last year aged 100, was a lifelong Communist and Zionist. And they can say things about their country that I cannot.
But calling Israel racist because it exists primarily for Jews is like calling a home for battered women sexist because it was set up for women. Israel is not an act of European colonialism, it is a refuge. And those who want to pull down its walls are threatening what is a safe space for Jews, established after centuries of persecution. Those who do not believe Israel has a right to exist, no matter how many anti-racism marches they have been on, are what one might call practical antisemites – in so far they pose an existential threat to the Jewish people. No diversity training is going to help if you don’t get this basic point.
The Corbynite Left believes it has been unfairly treated by the press over Israel. Whatever the lame apologies it publically offers for having given offence, deep down it absolutely does not believe it has done anything wrong. If anything, I suspect the anti-Israel position is deepening, being driven into the silent parts of the soul where political positions can turn into something darker. And this is the place where the worst sort of racist Jew hatred is made. The place where “Zio” spits out as an insult.
The crucial distinction the Left refuses to bear in mind is the one between having a go at the particular policies of a particular government, and having a go at the very idea of Israel itself. When my mother-in-law attacks her government she does so with fire and passion – but, coming originally from Poland, she believes absolutely in the safe space that Israel has provided for Jews.
This is what the Left needs to say, and say loud and clearly. Israel is a lifeboat. Israel is safety. And only after 1) declaring this, and 2) absolutely meaning it, and 3) being believed by others, will the Left be given a hearing when it criticises the Israeli government for its actions.
And criticise it, the Left must. For the occupation of the Palestinian territories continues to be a moral disgrace. And the downgrading of the Arabic language with the Nationality Bill is indicative of Arabs having second-class status within Israel. All have equal human rights, but some are more equal than others. All of which eats away at the moral fabric of Israel from within. And the Israelis I talk too all know it. Even so, the Nationality Bill is a restatement of the basic principle of Israel’s existence – a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. And one day my son, or his children, may be in need of it.
Until the Left makes its peace with this basic principle of Zionism, it will continue to get it badly wrong about Israel. And, therefore, also about Jews.
Antisemitism is not just some gut dislike of Jews. It is not just some grubby racial prejudice – though that certainly exists. And the Left is typically good at attacking such things. But antisemitism is also about denying Jews the conditions under which they might survive and flourish. And that means Israel.
You might not have a racist bone in your body, but if you don’t believe Israel has a right to exist, then, I am sorry to say, you do get to be counted alongside the antisemites. And unfortunately, that includes Jeremy Corbyn.
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