The problem with Corbyn, AOC and left-wing antisemitism - opinion

How can the Left, which proudly champions the equality of all, be bigoted against Jews?

 BRITAIN’S LABOUR Party former leader Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton last month. (photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
BRITAIN’S LABOUR Party former leader Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton last month.
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)

Many eyebrows were raised when a small group of leftist anti-Israel congressional representatives successfully torpedoed their own president’s initial supplementary Iron Dome funding proposal. As Iron Dome is a defensive system that protects Israel’s civilian population from rockets fired by terrorists, the progressive Democrats who quashed the proposal were widely accused of not only being fierce opponents of the Jewish state, but of harboring hostile attitudes toward Jews – and their words would seem to attest to such prejudice.

How can the Left, which proudly champions the equality of all, be bigoted against Jews? Hating Jews was often presumed to be the prerogative of the radical Right, while progressives were ostensibly committed to the fight against racism in all its forms.

Yet over the generations, antisemitism has existed and even flourished on the Left. Historic Christian teachings about Jewish money changers defiling the Temple and medieval myths about manipulative Shylock-type money lenders provide fertile soil for modern left-wing antisemitism. It was all too natural to portray the Jews as the evil capitalists living off the sweat and suffering of the poor.

The founding ideologues of French socialism, Charles Fourier and Pierre-Joseph Prudhon, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and, most important of all, the German-Jewish communist Karl Marx, were all pioneers of modern socialist thought and were all also guilty of expressing antisemitic prejudice in their writings. In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Marx equates Judaism to “hucksterism” and recommends that instead of emancipating the Jews into society, society must emancipate itself from Judaism.

 US REPRESENTATIVE Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) at a news conference in Washington this week. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ) US REPRESENTATIVE Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) at a news conference in Washington this week. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)

In Britain, the Labour Party enjoyed a proud history of Jewish support and has been led by individuals renowned for their philosemitism such as Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Yet UK Labour never had full immunity from the antisemitism virus. Keir Hardie, one of the party’s founding fathers (the current Labour leader is named after him) claimed that the Boer War [1899-1902], which he opposed, was being fought in the interests of Jewish capitalists.

Britain’s famous post-war Labour government was headed by Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, both of whom were not free of anti-Jewish prejudice. Andrew Adonis, in his new and largely complimentary biography of Bevin, reaches the conclusion that “there was a significant strand of antisemitism in Bevin’s and Atlee’s anti-Zionism” and quotes a Labour colleague who worked under the legendary British foreign secretary as saying “there is no doubt in my mind that Ernest detests Jews.”

By far the most extreme manifestation of antisemitism in the upper echelons of UK Labour was the recent leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who was repeatedly caught up in incidents of anti-Jewish bigotry. Corbyn’s record includes defending Holocaust deniers, consorting with antisemitic conspiracy theorists, justifying racist anti-Jewish murals, laying a wreath at the graves of the perpetrators of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and – according to a report by the statutory Equalities and Human Rights Commission – presiding over a party that “at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

FOR BRITISH Jews, the Corbyn phenomenon was highly unsettling. The outbreak of antisemitism at the top tier of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition was a genuine shock, especially as it was centered on the individual who challenged three consecutive Tory prime ministers for the keys of 10 Downing Street.

American Jews also took notice. Prior to COVID-19, delegations to Israel from American Jewish organizations were always looking for something new to attract participants, and years ago started including a stopover of interest in the itinerary – a tour of Jewish Prague, a visit with Morocco’s Jewish community or even a meeting in Amman with the Jordanian foreign minister. During my tenure as Israel’s ambassador in Britain, more and more they included a stopover in London.

A UK visit was not just a matter of showing solidarity with a Jewish community undergoing a difficult period. The American Jews I met in London were anxious that Corbyn’s takeover of Britain’s Labour could be a sign of things to come in the Democratic Party.

Such fears were exacerbated following the 2019 phone call between Corbyn and US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a conversation that took place after Corbyn’s antisemitism had already received significant media coverage in the US. Corbyn, who at the time had legitimacy issues with social-democrats across Europe, thoroughly enjoyed his 45-minute discussion with the New York representative, tweeting: “Great to speak to @AOC on the phone this evening and hear first-hand how she’s challenging the status quo.” AOC responded with a warm tweet of her own: “It was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with you, @jeremycorbyn!” Consistent with honoring Corbyn, she later pulled out of an event hosted by the dovish American Friends of Peace Now to commemorate assassinated prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yitzhak Rabin.

Does the Iron Dome funding episode indicate that “the chickens have come home to roost?” Unclear. In Britain, the Jewish community played a decisive role in the effective public campaign against antisemitism in the Labour Party. If American Jews and their allies act with a determination akin to that shown in Britain, the Iron Dome funding affair may turn out to be just a troubling aberration. If not, the incident could very well be a milestone in the growing Corbynization of the Democratic Party. The latter development may have highly problematic implications for the American Jewish community and for the US-Israel partnership.

A discredited Corbyn was ultimately forced to resign his leadership after Labour’s unprecedented losses in the 2019 national elections, with the party’s faithful increasingly convinced that Corbynism was a prescription for keeping Labour out of office in perpetuity. Hopefully, Democrats are closely following developments across the pond.

The writer was ambassador to the United Kingdom and is a visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.