As someone who has been opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership since day one, you might expect me to be at the very least sympathetic to the idea of a Labour split, even if I didn’t ultimately think those contemplating it would be taking the right course of action. And I am sympathetic. I worry daily about Corbyn’s ability to govern, the people in his office and the shadow cabinet, the behaviour and attitude of many of his supporters and in particular what foreign and defence policy would look like under a Labour government.
I have found the experience of watching the latest stages of the anti-semitism scandal unfolding a surreal and uncomfortable experience. Because the issue which looks like going down in history as the final straw or trigger for a split is one on which I find myself disagreeing with most of Corbyn’s critics. Scanning Twitter over the last week or so, it seems, sadly, that this places me at odds with most of the people I respect on that platform.
I have already written about my belief that the origin of this scandal lies in the fact that many leftwing activists have inherited a culture of support for the Palestinians in their struggle against the Israeli state. This was originally a just cause, but it seems to have become so ingrained in sections of the left that justice for the Palestinians (with the Israelis forever cast as the bad guys) became an article of faith. Seventy years later, even some who have accepted that time has changed the moral dimension of the conflict are still prone to this tendency. Jeremy Corbyn is one of them. He accepts the two-state solution but still doesn’t really bother to engage with Israeli figures, or ever provide any robust criticism of Hamas. This is one of his many failings as a leader, but it is an important context to understand in relation to the controversies he’s been wrapped up in in recent weeks.
I have no idea whether Corbyn really did lay a wreath in Tunis purely for victims of the 1985 attacks or whether he also allowed himself to be involved in some kind of tribute to the Black September group that carried out the Munich Olympic massacre. What I do know is that his actions were strikingly consistent with his previous presence at an IRA funeral. That too was a shameful episode which exposed Corbyn’s inability to view the complexities of a conflict, and his tendency to take sides with whichever group does not appear to have the support of the British establishment.
But nobody has accused Corbyn of racism towards Ulstermen and women, or of religious prejudice towards Protestants. He probably viewed both the IRA and Black September as freedom fighters rather than terrorists, tenuously justifying their violence on the basis of legitimate grievances that were now fading into history. If he did associate himself with them in any way, he shouldn’t have done, but it does not make him a racist.
Nor, I’m afraid, do his comments at an event in 2013 about Zionists and ‘English irony’. I certainly get why so many people have interpreted them that way. It is quite understandable for the Jewish community to feel extremely sensitive towards comments like these. But to interpret his comments as racist requires far too much in the way of mental gymnastics to be taken seriously. He might have made a similar contrast between the Palestinian ambassador and any other English person that had been arguing with him. He was not using ‘Zionist’ as a racial epithet for ‘Jew’, and to claim that he was requires second-guessing his motives and a personal history of similar usages.
But again, Corbyn’s behaviour fits the explanation I have given above. That he has failed to move on fully from 1948. This does not make him a Jew-hater. He should of course have accompanied his acknowledgement that the word ‘Zionist’ is ripe to be misinterpreted with an apology for using it. But if we call any such person a racist for falling into language traps like this then we are undermining freedom of speech and contributing to the mob trial-by-social media culture which is all too prevalent today. If racists abuse the meaning of a word, it does not mean we should consider everyone else using that word to be cut from the same cloth.
Regrettably, the same mental gymnastics have been involved in the creation of the hotly disputed IHRA definition of anti-semitism. The strange thing about this controversy is that Labour’s current code of conduct on other forms of racism and religious prejudice contains no copious list of examples. I understand that anti-semitism has historically been trickier to spot than these, but we have all come across other cases of borderline racism where a simple denunciation of racism in general provides insufficient guidance on how to recognize individual instances of it.
Arguably, it was the decision of the IHRA to append a list of examples to their definition which has unintentionally caused so much controversy in a political party seeking to adopt it. The wording required to provide sufficiently detailed examples of all the contexts in which certain statements are to be interpreted as racist would be exhaustive. That is why the examples provided have failed to meet with agreement, and I suspect any attempt to provide detailed examples of other forms of racism would run into similar objections.
Some might contend that this is irrelevant – that Labour’s previous acceptance of the MacPherson principle sets a precedent of allowing ethnic and religious minorities alone to define what constitutes prejudice and discrimination towards them. Personally, while I think listening to these minorities is the most important thing to do when drawing up such definitions, I don’t accept the principle that their word is final.
Two people of a particular ethnicity or religion can (and often do) disagree on examples of such definitions. When this happens, which of them are we to listen to? Official bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain are not elected by members of the relevant religion or ethnicity. Are we to accept that they speak for a majority of members of their religious or ethnic group? Even if we overcome these problems, there may be times when, despite listening sensitively to the experiences of minorities and thoughtfully reflecting on them, we may still disagree with certain definitions or examples of prejudice or discrimination. When this happens, the response of a rational individual is not to suspend their critical faculties, but to calmly explain they see things differently.
Which brings us back to Jeremy Corbyn. I expect basic arguments like privilege-checking from his wing of the Labour Party. I don’t expect them from most of his internal critics. I have come to expect hysterical twitter lynchmobs from Corbynites against things said and done by their internal opponents . I don’t expect it from the opponents themselves. I have been and will continue to be critical of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. If a split occurs, I will sympathize with those leaving and understand many of their reasons for quitting, even while lamenting the likely electoral consequences. But I cannot go along with attempts to define anti-semitism in a manner which undermines legitimate freedom of speech, and I will not join in the chorus of ‘racist’ being directed towards my party leader. He deserves to be called many names. Racist isn’t one of them.