Belabored relations: Jeremy Corbyn and Israel

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s driving passions is ‘solidarity with Palestine;’ His election as Labor Party leader has left Britain’s pro-Israel Jews dismayed.

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jeremy Corbyn – elected September 12 as leader of Britain’s Labor Party – is without doubt a fervent campaigner for the Palestinian people.
Whether he is also an irredeemable foe of the Jewish state remains an open question. Some see his cozying up to Hamas and Hezbollah as an expression of the conviction that only dialogue can promote peace. Others suspect he shares their antipathy toward the Zionist enterprise.
Among Britain’s 271,000 Jews, attitudes toward Corbyn vary. The new Labor leader has the backing of a coterie of left-leaning, anti-Zionist Jews. They argue that the venerable Board of Deputies of British Jews and other establishment groups do not reflect the sentiments of Jewish people in Britain. “Jeremy Corbyn has nothing to apologize for in his meetings with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah,” dozens of signatories, among them Ilan Pappe, Haim Bresheeth, and Avi Shlaim, wrote in an open letter published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Separately, in advance of the Labor leadership race, socialists, anarchists, secularists, and opponents of “the occupation” organized “Jews for Jeremy,” which garnered some 500 likes on their Facebook page.
Corbyn’s rise comes as the British Jewish community is in demographic decline – bar the non-Zionist strictly Orthodox (Haredi) element, which is experiencing “extraordinary” growth, according to a recent report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
Overall, just 39 percent of British Jews say that supporting Israel is very important to their identity. Out-marriage is reaching 50 percent. Among Britain’s cosmopolitan millennials, many of whom have modest Jewish literacy and no memories of Israel before 1990, let alone 1967, any contention that the Palestinians do not, in fact, accept a Jewish state within any boundaries has little resonance. Like their European and American cohorts, many abjure nationalism and religious ritual as passé.
When the Zionist Federation, with the endorsement of the Board of Deputies, rallied on October 13 outside the PLO mission in London to denounce the current wave of “Palestinian incitement and violence” some 155 young Jews, many of whom would describe themselves as supportive of Israel, issued a stinging public rebuke.
“To ‘protest the incitement and commemorate the victims’ solely in the framework of the importance of Israeli lives itself incites hatred towards Palestinians, and shows no empathy towards their losses.”
A pro-Israel Labor party insider tells The Jerusalem Report that by advocating what might be perceived as a more evenhanded stance, such young people have greater legitimacy in making Israel’s larger case within progressive circles.
Corbyn, 66, has no record on Israel per se other than his long association with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which helps coordinate anti-Zionist activities in Britain. The PSC symbol shows “Palestine” extending from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. The group favors the “right of return” of refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and their descendants, to Israel.
Corbyn told the anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada that the descendants of Palestinian refugees now living in Lebanon deserve to return “home.” This right is “key” whether they choose to exercise it or not, he said.
While Corbyn told a meeting of Jewish leaders before his election that he opposed the academic boycott of Israel, he reportedly does back boycotting Israeli universities involved in arms research – whatever that means. Like many Euro-leftists, Corbyn favors the boycott of Israeli goods produced over the Green Line. The Stop the War Coalition, which Corbyn chairs, has been pressing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be arrested for war crimes when next he visits London.
AFTER A 2005 trip to “Palestine,” the future Labor leader characterized Israeli policies as “inhuman, immoral, and illegal” and he denounced the “occupation,” security barrier, and “settlements.” He also called for suspension of the EU-Israel Trade Agreement, an arms embargo on Israel, and remarked that he’d had the “pleasure” to meet anti-Israel nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu.
Corbyn’s stance on Israel can be seen as meshing with his hard-left worldview.
He’s characterized US President Barack Obama as having “rapidly morphed into a Pentagon president.” He favors Britain’s unilateral nuclear disarmament and recently became vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Appearing on Iranian television, Corbyn said he opposes the death penalty in all cases. For that reason he would have preferred to see Osama bin Laden brought to trial.
In response to the Iranian TV moderator’s non sequitur that Adolf Eichmann had been the victim of an extrajudicial killing by the “Zionist state,” Corbyn sat pokerfaced before returning to the death penalty issue. He said the “assassination attempt” on bin Laden was “yet another tragedy upon a tragedy upon a tragedy,” drawing a parallel between the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan.
According to London’s The Daily Telegraph, Corbyn has close ties with anti-Israel extremists some of whom have contributed financially to his campaigns.
Among these is Ibrahim Hamami of the Hamas-leaning Palestinian Affairs Center and philosopher Ted Honderich, a ferocious opponent of Israel’s existence, who donated £5,000 to Corbyn’s election campaign. The Palestinian Return Center which, as it name implies, works to promote the Palestinian “right of return” has also thrown money Corbyn’s way.
In 2012, Corbyn gave a tea in the House of Commons for Raed Saleh, leader of the extremist “northern branch” Islamist movement. Likewise, he has casually met with Hamas leaders including Ismail Haniyeh, shared a dais with Palestinian airline hijacker Leila Khaled, and hosted a gathering for Islamic Jihad partisan Mousa Abu Maria. The future Labor leader also championed efforts to free Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami, who were convicted for conspiring to bomb the Israeli Embassy Corbyn’s “unwillingness to bring together progressive pro-Israel and pro-Palestine people to talk about solutions” makes his election problematic for Labor-leaning, pro-Israel Jews, according to Colin Shindler, emeritus professor at the University of London and author of “The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron”.
He tells The Report that the new party leader comes off as a pro-Palestinian propagandist and his comment that the Balfour Declaration was “a historic mistake” implied delegitimization of Israel.
Following Corbyn’s election, Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews sought to organize a meeting with the new Labor leader. Arkush relates to The Report that he is disregarding demands from some deputies to boycott Corbyn. He says that Jewish leaders have a responsibility to maintain good relationships with leaders of all the main parties.
Otherwise, they can’t effectively advance the communal agenda on anti-Semitism, brit mila and government support for faith schools.
Arkush believes that it is imperative the organized community constructively engage Corbyn. Even on Israel, he says, there is always the possibility that as party leader he will take a more nuanced approach than he did as a backbench dissenter. Arkush says that by seeking to create a dialogue, the Jewish leadership will also be testing whether Corbyn’s views are, in fact, being tempered. If not, Arkush promises that he won’t hesitate to be a vocal critic of the Labor Party leader.
Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), points out that he and his Council colleagues routinely meet with the leader of the opposition during the first quarter of the new year and Corbyn’s election need not precipitate a change in this practice. Johnson favors a non-adversarial approach that is focused on what Labor under Corbyn does in the future. The community can live with Labor’s existing policies on the Arab-Israel conflict, he says. Moreover, party policy is not entirely in the leader’s hands.
What needs to be clarified, according to Johnson, is whether Corbyn plans to provoke a change, mainly regarding the twostate solution and boycotts. The JLC is also interested in ascertaining that Corbyn would continue existing policies that help protect the community from terrorism.
That said, regardless of who is in government, the community has its red lines says Johnson. Any moves that serve to delegitimize Israel or tolerate boycotts of any kind would be vocally opposed.
Britain’s three main parties are on record as supporting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel.
Indeed, Labor Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn has reiterated his party’s commitment to “a two-state solution.”
However, whether Corbyn personally supports the right of a Jewish state to exist is unclear. In an eight-minute talk to 500 people at a Labor Friends of Israel (LFI) gathering on the sidelines of the Labor Party conference in September, he pointedly avoided using the word “Israel,” urged that the “siege of Gaza” be lifted, backed the P+5 Iran nuclear deal, and denounced anti-Semitism in the same breath as “Islamophobia.”
Adding to the concerns of the pro-Israel community is the influence of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, who mirrors Corbyn’s views on most issues and has called for revoking the British citizenship of anyone who serves in the IDF.
CORBYN’S RECENT far-left appointments have only added to Jewish concerns.
Seumas Milne, an upper crust neo-Marxist millionaire, will oversee the party’s communications. As comments editor of London’s Guardian, Milne solidified the newspaper’s reputation as a bastion of anti- Israelism. Andrew Fisher becomes the leader’s top political adviser. In 2010, he described leftist rioting in London as “aggravated shopping” and ownership of land by individuals as “ridiculous.”
Ed Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor, was not known for sugarcoating his disapproval of Israeli policies though he described himself as a “critical friend.” Under Miliband, Labor received its lowest percentage of the Jewish vote in memory. Indeed, analysts explain Corbyn’s victory as partly the result of reforms instituted by Miliband, which made joining the party simple and inexpensive, thereby allowing Corbyn supporters to gain easy access to Labor’s membership roster.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, practically wiped out in the last general elections retaining just eight seats, may be shedding some of their own knee-jerk anti-Israelism. Lib-Dems Friends of Israel is exploiting Corbyn’s rise to tout their party’s support for a two-state solution “at a time when Labor are electing a leader who is anti-Israel and associates with anti-Semites.” While the previous party chief Nick Clegg was unrelenting in his criticism of Israel and advocated an arms embargo, the new leader Tim Farron has been considerably less hostile.
And yet Israel still has supporters in Labor, among them MP Joan Ryan, chairwoman of Labor Friends of Israel.
Writing in the Jewish News, Ryan said she was disappointed that Corbyn “failed to seize” his appearance before LFI “to allay the understandable concerns which many have about his commitment to the State of Israel.” She added, “I do not expect Jeremy to become an ardent Zionist but, respectfully, I do expect him to acknowledge this fundamental truth.”
Norman Warner, Anthony Grabiner, and Andrew Adonis, Labor peers in the House of Lords, have quit the party in the wake of Corbyn’s election. And there are voices who have called on pro-Israel Labor members to walk away too.
But Jeremy Newmark, vice chair of Borehamwood & Elstree Labor Party and a former chief executive of the JLC, argues for a more pragmatic approach, saying that if people like him don’t stay, Israel will lose by default, since its case won’t be made inside the party at all. In any case, Labor activists argue, it should be noted that the Conservative government of David Cameron has not been especially friendly to Israel in the diplomatic sphere.
They cite a recent statement by Tobias Ellwood, minister for the Mideast, who parsed condemnation of Arab terrorist attacks with criticism of how Israel’s security forces have responded “to protests and security incidents.”
In contrast, Labor’s Benn was measured in calling on both sides to deescalate tensions and did not hold Israel up for opprobrium. Another argument for sticking with Labor is the presence of Israel-friendly MPs in the shadow cabinet such as Benn, deputy party leader Tom Watson, shadow minister for mental health Luciana Berger, and shadow culture minister Michael Dugher.
To those who fear Corbyn’s anti- Israelism masks something even more sinister, he allows that, like Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, Fidel Castro and the now departed al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn, there is a “Jewish element” in his family tree. It is a claim that has been debunked by genealogists, according to The Jewish Chronicle.
A better indicator of whether Corbyn will shape up to be a leader with whom the community can have some kind of relationship is if he “will find an early opportunity to demonstrate that he understands contemporary anti-Semitism the way that most British Jews understand contemporary anti-Semitism,” Newmark tells The Report.
Corbyn recently criticized Labor MP Gerald Kaufman for asserting that “Jewish money” had influenced the Conservative Party to be friendly toward Israel, saying such statements did nothing to “benefit the Palestinian cause.”
And a way to gauge Corbyn’s approach toward Israel, a Labor activist tells The Report, is to see whether he chooses to emphasize his relationship with the rejectionist Palestine Solidarity Campaign or with the Labor Friends of Palestine parliamentary caucus, which supports a two-state solution.
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness’ (The Toby Press). You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE