Debate: Jeremy Corbyn, antisemitism and the British media

Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – accused of antisemitism – addresses the crowd in Trafalgar Square during protests against the UK visit of US President Donald Trump, July 13, 2018. Niklas HALLEN / AFP

If you’re having trouble keeping up with British political controversies and only vaguely familiar with the story of “Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s antisemitism crisis”, you’d be forgiven for thinking from occasionally glimpsed headlines and social media posts that the current leader of the UK opposition party was a “racist and antisemite”, that he had “waged war on the Jews” and that he “posed an existential threat to Jewish life”.

On August 1, 2018, public pressure obliged Corbyn to apologise for having hosted an event in 2010 in which Israel had been compared to Nazi Germany – by a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Several weeks later, there was a furore about his having attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 to honour, he says, those killed in an internationally condemned 1985 Israeli air strike, or, according to his critics, the terrorists suspected of being behind the attack at the 1972 Olympic Games. The issue resurfaced at the end of August, this time concerning his 2013 criticism of a group of British Zionist hecklers for understanding English irony less than the Palestinian ambassador they were misrepresenting – this was taken as the smoking gun that “proved” Corbyn’s antisemitism.

The narrative

Why dig up all this now? Well, if you’ve gone to the trouble of reading past the headlines, you’ll have probably read that the Labour party has been under attack this summer for “failing” or even “refusing” to adopt “the international definition” of antisemitism – the “working definition” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organisation that aims to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance, and that counts the UK and France among its members.

The Labour party had actually already adopted the definition, but has now also adopted all of the definition’s accompanying examples, including those that mention Israel. But you might have also read that the party was too slow to condemn a rising tide of antisemitism within the party or to punish its antisemitic members, and that in seeking to reach its own definition of antisemitism as something that is distinct from anti-Zionism, it has neglected to consult with anyone from “the Jewish community”.

After all, this is not only the narrative given to us by Conservative party politicians and the right-wing tabloid press in the UK; it’s also the same story we’re told by many politicians within the Labour party itself, and by much of the Guardian and BBC.

Controversy over a definition

However, such an interpretation is misleading at best. It also tends to depend upon the omission of pertinent information and opposing views. While the Labour party has wrestled with this issue, it is worth remembering that only eight countries (the UK, Israel, Austria, Romania, Germany and Lithuania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) have so far gone on to formally adopt it. And the commitment of some of them to combatting antisemitism is far from convincing.

The UK’s ruling Conservative party hasn’t adopted the definition, nor does its code of conduct even mention antisemitism, despite the claims to the contrary of Theresa May. This aspect has received little media curiosity.

Demonstrators protesting alleged anti-Semitism within the Labour party gather outside its London office on April 8, 2018. Tolga Akmen/AFP

Indeed, a leading lawyer and a former high court judge have criticised the impossibility of applying what some regard as a vague definition of antisemitism, while a parliamentary select committee on antisemitism advised that the definition and examples should be adopted, but crucially with the addition of a caveat to ensure that “freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine”.

More critically, experts on Jewish/non-Jewish relations, such as Anthony Lerman and Brian Klug, have written explanations of the controversial history of the definition and the extent to which Labour has adopted, qualified and in some cases extended the examples in its own code of conduct.

Criticism of Israel

Although the IHRA document states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”, over half of the examples concern criticisms of Israel that “may” be antisemitic, including the most contentious example of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”. And it is the Labour party’s hesitation on this point, and Corbyn’s history of pro-Palestinian activism and criticisms of Israel (which have sometimes led to accusations of antisemitism), that have proven so problematic.

Despite the frenzied debate, the fact remains that levels of antisemitism in Britain, although rising, are among the lowest in the world. The subjective framing of this issue also downplays the significance of competing factions within the Labour party. It’s clear the allegations of antisemitism have been used by political opponents of the Labour leadership – both inside and outside the party.

Media failings

Indeed, some academics in the UK have recently argued that media coverage has not only lacked context and perspective, it has also relied upon only a handful of sources from among Corbyn’s critics without acknowledging their political motivations or seeking to balance their views with those of his supporters.

For example, while leading Rabbis have criticised Corbyn and the leadership, some left-wing Jewish groups have voiced support. These are seldom heard in the British media, other than when Corbyn is criticised for meeting them instead of the more “mainstream” groups.

Why not at least acknowledge the diversity of Jewish opinion on the definition of antisemitism, on Israel, and on Corbyn?

The end?

None of this necessarily means that all or some of the accusations are unfounded or the result of a conspiracy; nor does it fail to acknowledge the sincere and genuine concerns of a great number of (Jewish and non-Jewish) people with Corbyn’s and several Labour members’ attitudes toward Israel and their dismissiveness of accusations of antisemitism. But the partial (as in both relating to a part rather than the whole, and as in biased) way in which the accusations have been elevated to the status of a crisis that is unique to Corbyn’s Labour certainly raises some questions.

Such media misrepresentation must be understood in the wider context of anti-Corbyn bias across the media spectrum, as demonstrated by successive studies since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, particularly in the partisan (and mostly right-wing) press. But supporters of the Labour leader also point to studies that also suggest bias in the BBC evening news bulletins, the most watched programmes of the UK’s most trusted news source.

The problems with the ways in which the “antisemitism scandal” has been presented are typical of the media failings previously identified by these studies: namely, the tendency to assign “descriptive labels” to a particular set of political views, the absence of due “qualifications and caveats” when reporting on a narrow range of sources, and a failure to demonstrate “accuracy, balance and impartiality”, even in the case of public-service broadcasters.

The recent adoption of the IHRA definition as well as all of its examples, alongside an unconvincing statement that this won’t somehow undermine free speech on Israel and Palestine, will not stop the media interest in “Labour’s antisemitism crisis”. That won’t happen until either Corbyn is gone or these media failings have been addressed.

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