The Tragedy of Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn’s leadership augured a new era of left ascendancy in the UK. Instead, it has ended with the left badly defeated and bitterly divided.
AT THE END OF OCTOBER, the years-long strife over antisemitism in the British Labour Party reached its dramatic culmination. Labour leader Keir Starmer suspended former party leader Jeremy Corbyn from Labour and even suggested that Corbyn could be expelled altogether. The reason: Corbyn’s reaction to the release of a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the United Kingdom’s anti-discrimination watchdog, on antisemitism within the Labour Party.
Launched in May 2019, when furor over Corbyn’s handling of accusations of antisemitism leveled against himself and other party members had reached a fever pitch, the EHRC report concluded “that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible” and identified “serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints.” In response, Corbyn stated, “One anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” To many, this was yet another instance of Corbyn’s stubborn equivocation and refusal to take responsibility for what had happened under his watch. Starmer told the BBC that he suspended Corbyn because he would tolerate neither antisemitism nor “the argument that denies or minimizes antisemitism in the Labour Party on the basis that it’s exaggerated or a factional row.”
Corbyn eventually retracted his characterization of the problem as “overstated,” and on November 16th, after 19 days of protests from his supporters, Labour’s national executive council (NEC), the party’s governing body, voted to reinstate him. Yet the following day, Starmer announced he would “withhold the whip” and bar Corbyn from sitting in Parliament as a Labour MP. Instead, for at least the next three months, Corbyn will sit as an independent lawmaker, blocked from representing the party he once led.
The spectacle of Corbyn’s suspension captured in miniature the dynamics that have made the issue of Labour antisemitism a persistent—and persistently vexing—feature of British political life since Corbyn assumed leadership of the party in 2015. At the risk of damning the future of his political project, Corbyn has held to the narrative that Labour Party centrists, the Conservatives, and the British press concocted the antisemitism scandal to bring him down. In so doing, he has missed opportunities to quell it. And while Starmer openly denied the imbrication of the antisemitism scandal with factional fights within the Labour Party—as well as the British press’s evident, unrelenting hostility to Corbyn—it was clear that he intended Corbyn’s suspension to send the message that the Corbynite left was no longer in charge.
Like many on the left, and perhaps especially left-wing Jews, I have followed news about Corbyn closely since he became Labour Party leader. Corbyn’s initial victory five years ago appeared to signal that after decades of neoliberalism with no alternative, socialism had once again become electorally viable in the North Atlantic. When accusations of antisemitism began to trickle in, they seemed to take the familiar form of guilt-by-association insinuations, specifically related to Corbyn’s proximity to Palestinian groups—for instance, that he was an antisemite because he had referred to representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends,” or that he had been a member of pro-Palestine Facebook groups where some members made antisemitic posts.
It was not surprising that Corbyn was open to this line of attack, or that his critics would exploit it. He had spent his entire political career on the margins of British politics. A committed anti-imperialist, he was a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a fixture at anti-war marches. Over the course of his many years of dogged opposition to American and British imperialisms, he has sometimes associated with figures involved in, or openly supportive of, militant anti-imperial struggle, from Irish Republicans to Palestinian liberationists.
During his leadership campaign, Corbyn made clear his commitment to advancing the cause of Palestine solidarity. He said he would impose a two-way arms embargo on Israel if elected prime minister, and endorsed boycotting goods made in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In this context, the initial accusations against Corbyn seemed to mirror those faced by countless Palestinians and advocates for their cause. Israel-advocacy groups have long framed anti-Zionist politics or criticism of Israeli policies as forms of anti-Jewish bigotry. They have even developed an entire organizational infrastructure and legal strategy to this end in the United States, as well as in Europe and the UK.
Yet the issue soon expanded beyond Corbyn. British outlets began to surface antisemitic or otherwise offensive comments, mostly made on social media by other Labour party figures: mayors, local councilors, and members of Parliament past and present. At the same time, Jewish Labour party members who raised the alarm over antisemitism began to report that they were receiving antisemitic abuse online, which they often claimed came from Corbyn’s supporters. For critics of Corbyn, this all went back to the Labour leader himself. Their view, as Britain’s chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote in an op-ed weeks before the 2019 general election, was that a “new poison—sanctioned from the top—has taken root in the Labour Party.”
The public debate over the issue quickly turned rancorous. With each new gaffe or mini-scandal, Corbyn struggled to find the right words with which to apologize. Journalists and Labour MPs alike responded by lambasting Corbyn and the party over antisemitism in totalizing terms: “Labour is a racist party now,” Dan Hodges, a columnist for the conservative Mail on Sunday tabloid, charged in April 2017; the prospect of a Corbyn-led government would be “an existential threat” to Britain’s Jews, declared The Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s oldest (and right-leaning) Jewish newspaper, in a joint editorial with two other papers in July 2018. When Corbyn and his supporters responded to these and similar accusations, either by arguing that the scope of the problem was exaggerated or that they were motivated by partisan animus, it only seemed to make matters worse. In a 2018 joint letter, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (the country’s centuries-old official Jewish organization) and the Jewish Leadership Council (a newer Jewish umbrella group that coordinates communal Israel-advocacy efforts) accused Corbyn of being unable to “seriously contemplate antisemitism, because he is so ideologically fixed with in a far-left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities.”
There are roughly 280,000 Jews in all of England and Wales (for comparison, there are more than half a million Jews in Brooklyn, New York, alone). British Jews tend to be more religiously observant and politically conservative than their American counterparts. For three decades, Margaret Thatcher’s home constituency was the heavily Jewish Finchley-Golders Green, and even before Corbyn, most Jews voted for the Conservatives: In an April 2015 poll, 69% of British Jews said they would vote Conservative; just 22% said they would vote Labour, at the time led by Ed Milliband, the first Jew to head the party. While new organizations—such as the anti-occupation movement Na’amod and the media venture Vashti—have sprouted up in recent years, there remains no left-wing Jewish organizational infrastructure in Britain comparable to what has recently emerged in the US. When establishment organizations like the Board of Deputies asserted their authority to speak on behalf of all British Jews in denouncing Corbyn and his party, there were few progressive Jewish voices that could meaningfully challenge them.
For several months and in many long conversations, I’ve spoken with progressive British Jews to get a sense of the political reality beyond the endless left-bashing that has dominated coverage of Corbyn in the American and British press. The picture that emerged from these conversations was one of a political tragedy. The British Jewish establishment would brook no compromise with Corbyn; even now, after his suspension, the Board of Deputies continues to seek his expulsion from public life. At the same time, Corbyn’s resulting sense of embattlement led him to overlook pragmatic steps that might have de-escalated the conflict, at least temporarily, and to deny for too long the extent to which antisemitism had become an issue for the party—sabotaging himself and his project in the process. Corbyn’s leadership initially augured a new era of left ascendancy. Instead, it has ended with the left badly defeated and bitterly divided.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to understand the Labour antisemitism crisis without situating it within the party’s bitter, long-running factional strife. Enmity between Corbyn’s backers and much of the rest of the party conditioned both sides’ responses to allegations of antisemitism, giving rise to Corbyn and his supporters’ tendency to view such accusations firstly as politically motivated “smears,” and to Corbyn’s opponents’ doggedness in portraying him, and the party writ large, as irredeemably antisemitic. As Matt Seaton wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2018, “the fight between Corbyn skeptics and Corbyn fans over Jews and Israel has become a ruinous proxy for what is, in its essence, a struggle between social-democrats and socialists for the soul of the party.”
The opening shot in the renewed factional conflict sounded with Corbyn’s unexpected election as party leader, resoundingly defeating his three opponents with almost 60% of the vote. It was an unequivocal repudiation of the legacy of Tony Blair, who headed the party from 1994 to 2007, and, like his US counterpart Bill Clinton, led the party in an unabashedly free-market and foreign-interventionist direction. Corbyn’s victory was made possible by a change in protocol implemented by Miliband, his predecessor. Under the new rules—ostensibly intended to democratize the party, though viewed by union leaders as an attempt to limit the influence of organized labor—anyone who paid a fee of three pounds (roughly four US dollars) could affiliate with the Labour Party and vote in its leadership elections. Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, Labour’s membership had hovered at or below 250,000 people. By the time of Corbyn’s election, buoyed by left-wing organizing and the anti-austerity and student movements, Labour’s ranks had swelled to roughly half a million registered members. It had become the largest party by membership in Western Europe.
Despite Corbyn’s mandate from the rank-and-file, he faced intense opposition from the party’s lawmakers. As journalists Patrick Maguire and Gabriel Pogrund write in their book Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, “while hundreds of thousands of members appeared to agree with Corbyn’s agenda, no more than two dozen Labour MPs [out of 232] did.” Many remained Blairites, while others opposed Corbyn for a range of reasons—most commonly that they believed he was too radical to win a general election.
Corbyn’s support from the massive influx of new members was his greatest strength—proof that there was a real constituency inside the party, as well as beyond it, for his message. But it was also his greatest weakness. Many of these supporters were either lapsed party members returning to the fold or veterans of the activist left who had never been part of Labour. In some cases, they brought with them political traditions and forms of political expression that, while long present on the edges of British politics, had never been part of the mainstream. This included conspiratorial anti-imperialism and talk of the Rothschilds—a kind of vulgar antisemitism found on the fringes of the left—which began to appear on social media and surface during constituency party meetings.
The progressive British Jews with whom I spoke, though they did not all agree on the severity of the problem or Labour leadership’s handling of it, were nearly unanimous in describing an increase in antisemitic rhetoric, especially on Facebook and Twitter, over the last five years. One of the three instances of unlawful harassment for which the EHRC found Labour responsible, for instance, were Facebook posts made in 2018 and 2019 by Pam Bromley, an obscure former local councilor, which included statements like this one: “We must remember that the Rothschilds are a powerful financial family (like the Medicis) and represent capitalism and big business – even if the Nazis DID use the activities of the Rothschilds in their anti semitic [sic] propaganda.” Peter Mandler, a professor of British history at the University of Cambridge, told me, “If you wanted to make a big deal about antisemitism, you had a load of material.”
The British media and Corbyn’s political opponents also seized on social media posts made by other left-wing Labour members as evidence that antisemitism was widespread in the party. There was Labour lawmaker Naz Shah’s post, from 2014, about solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict by relocating Israel into the US. (Shah apologized and has since forged a working relationship with the organized Jewish community.) In his attempt to defend Shah, former London mayor Ken Livingstone claimed that “Hitler was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” Khadim Hussain, a Labour councilor and former mayor, shared a Facebook post about how “your school education system only tells you about Anne Frank and the 6 million Zionists that were killed by Hitler.” (Both Livingstone and Hussain later left the party.)
On the left, there was, and remains, a certain resistance to recognizing the extent of the problem. Jon Lansman, a founder of Momentum, the left-wing pressure group within the Labour Party that supports Corbyn, described this pervasive denialism in an interview with Jewish Quarterly in 2018. “We’ve now got quite an aggressive group on the left, including within Momentum, of people—many of them by the way are Jewish, or Jewish anti-Zionists—who deny the problem, describe it as just a smear, as purely opportunistic.” He continued, “If people are exposing a valid problem, you have to deal with it. The motivation of the person exposing the problem is irrelevant.” But many of Corbyn’s most vocal supporters often dismissed this approach, which they believed would merely give credence to the right-wing narrative.
Even as the focus of the scandal expanded to include other Labour politicians, Corbyn remained at its center. In March 2018, the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger raised the issue of a mural by the graffiti artist Mear One, the removal of which Corbyn had criticized in a 2012 Facebook post. The mural depicted a group of bearded bankers, some with hooked noses and glasses, playing monopoly on the bowed backs of naked workers. To save face, Corbyn’s office claimed that he’d argued against the mural’s removal on free speech grounds, but that he now recognized it was offensive and believed “it is right that it was removed.” But the damage was done. “Stories about Corbyn and antisemitism had always depended on a degree of guilt by association, and tended to revolve around the activists with whom he shared a platform and the groups of which he had been a member,” Maguire and Pogrund write of this incident in Left Out. “Now, for the first time, MPs and journalists had evidence of what Corbyn himself thought.”
The fallout from what became known as “Muralgate” was immense. In an uncommonly public intervention in parliamentary politics, the Board of Deputies of British Jews organized a protest against Corbyn and the Labour Party in Parliament Square in April 2018 under the banner “#EnoughisEnough.” In July, Britain’s three most prominent Jewish newspapers ran a joint, front-page editorial warning “of the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.”
Much of this rhetoric was not only bluster, but also clearly partisan. When pushed by New Yorker writer Sam Knight to clarify what he meant by “existential threat,” Stephen Pollard, the pugilistic conservative editor of The Jewish Chronicle and one of the most outspoken Corbyn critics in the British press, replied, “They wouldn’t set up camps or anything like that. But the tenor of public life would be unbearable because the very people who are the enemy of the Jews, as it were, the anti-Semites, will be empowered by having their allies in government.” In other words, even Corbyn’s harshest critics believed he represented something considerably less than an existential threat. Yet the most conservative segments of the British Jewish community had set the tone of the discourse: No one could criticize the hysteria without being accused of abetting antisemitism.
FOR ISRAEL-ADVOCACY groups in Britain like the Board of Deputies and the JLC, Corbyn was as much an opportunity as a threat. His staunch pro-Palestinian stance, combined with his history of ill-advised remarks and intransigence when it came to acknowledging antisemitism in the party, made it easy for his critics to construe anti-Zionist politics as inherently antisemitic. British Jewish communal organizations seized this opportunity when, in the midst of the ongoing media circus, they pressured the Labour Party’s NEC to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) “working definition of antisemitism” in full.
In Europe, the UK, and the US, Israel-advocacy groups, in partnership with Israeli government agencies, have lobbied governments to adopt the IHRA definition as part of a concerted effort to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and quash Palestine solidarity activism. Labour had already adopted the IHRA definition in 2016, but without the appended examples of antisemitic conduct, which define anti-Zionism and certain criticisms of Israel as forms of anti-Jewish bigotry. Kenneth Stern, the IHRA definition’s lead author, has cautioned that its adoption by the US Education Department could suppress political speech on US campuses. The ACLU has issued a similar warning.
In the summer of 2018, the British Jewish establishment, in tandem with Corbyn’s opponents in his party, made adopting the definition and all 11 examples a litmus test for Corbyn and the party. Corbyn had already weathered two years of intermittent accusations, as well as the disaster of Brexit, which many in Labour believed Corbyn had mishandled by failing to oppose it strenuously enough. He had none of the requisite political capital to challenge the NEC’s adoption of the full IHRA definition, but he did so anyway.
At first, Corbyn’s office tried to hedge. They proposed adopting seven of the 11 examples into the party’s code of conduct, while excluding or rewording the others to avoid suppressing speech critical of Israel. Yet this attempt to compromise provoked outrage from the organized British Jewish community. On July 16th, 2018, more than 60 British rabbis across the religious spectrum issued a joint letter condemning the Labour Party leadership for acting “in the most insulting and arrogant way.” “It is not the Labour party’s place,” they argued, to rewrite a definition that many other groups and governmental bodies had approved, and which had, most importantly, been “accepted by the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally.”
After two years of near-ceaseless media scrutiny, the consensus among many in the Labour Party—including some of Corbyn’s highest-ranking aides—was that however imperfect the full IHRA definition might be, there was no longer any choice but to approve it. It was the only hope that the antisemitism scandal might end. Yet for Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner for Palestinian rights, it was a matter of principle. And he was right: To accept the full IHRA definition would be to deal a blow to the Palestinian cause—a cause to which he had been devoted his entire life. At a September 2018 meeting of Labour’s NEC, Corbyn proposed a clarification that he hoped the party would adopt in tandem with the examples. To impress its importance upon his colleagues, he read it aloud: “It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law. Nor should it be regarded as antisemitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Corbyn’s statement was not accepted. The NEC adopted the IHRA definition and all 11 examples.
The fight over the IHRA definition was emblematic of how the Labour antisemitism crisis had devolved from a series of ugly and impertinent remarks by politicians who should have known better into a full-blown political tragedy. Corbyn and the left’s initial failure to adequately address accusations of antisemitism meant that when he took a stand against the IHRA definition, he had no political room to maneuver. For his protest to have had even the slimmest chance of success, he also would have needed partners within the British Jewish community: people with public respect and Jewish bona fides who were willing to challenge the notion that opposition to the IHRA definition was beyond the pale. The problem was that there was no significant Jewish opposition to the IHRA definition with ties to the representative institutions of British Jewry. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, and even the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM)—the century-old Labour Zionist organization affiliated with the party—had all demanded that the IHRA definition be adopted in full. And they insisted in one voice that the Labour Party, and especially Jeremy Corbyn, simply had no right to argue with Jewish organizations over the definition of antisemitism, that any attempt to amend or qualify the IHRA definition was an unequivocal slight against Britain’s Jews.
This is not to say that no British Jews stood by Corbyn. Plenty did. And they continue to support him, often quite adamantly. But they were mostly the kinds of Jews that the institutions of British Jewry dismissed as illegitimate or fringe, Jews who’d left the organized community for political or religious reasons and found a new home on the left, or who were raised outside the community altogether. Many belonged to Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), a pro-Corbyn group founded mainly by Jewish anti-Zionists in 2017. Silenced and marginalized for decades by the British Jewish establishment, they welcomed Corbyn’s decision to stand up to the Board of Deputies, which they saw, rightfully, as a conservative body. Yet their support may have ultimately worked against Corbyn, as throughout the years of the antisemitism scandal, he took it as evidence that he need not capitulate. Meanwhile, JVL found their Jewishness impugned or denied. “We sometimes get called kapos, we get called fake Jews,” JVL member Michael Cushman told me.
The left-wing Jews who opposed the organized community’s handling of antisemitism were left in the impossible position of being both silenced and represented by organizations they fundamentally disagreed with. “It was completely infuriating to be spoken for, as though the Jewish community is this homogenous, singular block of people who are all of a mind,” Eleanor Penny, a writer and editor at Novara Media, told me in May. “There seems to be so little room in that conversation for any kind of dissent.” Those who did dissent faced ostracization from the Jewish community—and now risk being formally censured by the Labour Party. On November 10th, after Jo Bird, a Jewish Labour councilor, called for Corbyn to be reinstated, a Labour Party spokesperson said Bird would be investigated for misconduct and could face disciplinary action.
BY THE EVE of the disastrous December 2019 elections, when Boris Johnson led the Conservatives to an overwhelming majority, what was obvious about the Labour antisemitism scandal had now also become unsayable. There was no doubt that there were members of the Labour Party who engaged in conspiratorial antisemitism, vulgar anti-imperialism, and straightforwardly malicious rhetoric toward Jews. Yet it was also clear that accusations of antisemitism had been used by Corbyn’s opponents within his party, by the Conservatives, and by the British Jewish establishment to unfairly traduce Corbyn as a hardened antisemite, and designate the party as “institutionally antisemitic”—as the Jewish Labour Movement declared in a Spring 2018 resolution.
By the fall of 2019, the stalwarts on the Corbynite left had also recognized that there was no way to avoid addressing in good faith accusations of antisemitism against a host of party members. But it was already too late. After long dismissing the accusations of antisemitism against members of the party as a “witch-hunt”—as a group of anti-Zionist Corbyn supporters still maintain—many have changed tack. “Is there antisemitism inside the Labour Party? Yes. Is it the main problem the Labour Party faces? No. Is the Labour Party the main locus for antisemitism? No,” Cushman told me. “So why the concentration on Labour antisemitism rather than the much bigger problems we have with anti-Black racism and anti-Muslim racism?” There is truth to this: Neither Boris Johnson’s long public record of racist and insensitive remarks, nor Islamophobia in Labour or the Conservative party have received anything close to the media attention that antisemitism in the Labour Party has.
Yet Corbyn himself never seemed to recognize that he needed to shift his approach, even as many of his supporters did. Given opportunities for what could have been easy forms of damage control, Corbyn appeared stubbornly determined to insert his foot directly into his mouth. In a 2019 pre-election interview, the BBC’s Andrew Neil asked him if he would like to apologize to the British Jewish community. It was a straightforward question, the kind for which any politician in Corbyn’s position would have come prepared with a concise, direct answer. With only a few words—“yes, I’m sorry”—Corbyn might have been able to avoid bad press in a crucial stretch leading up to the election. Instead, he launched into one of his characteristically long-winded disquisitions about his commitment to fighting antisemitism and “any other form of racism.” Corbyn’s staunchest opponents had often claimed that he was unable to apologize and that this inability reflected his antisemitic beliefs. On primetime TV, Corbyn missed a chance to prove them wrong.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Corbyn’s maladroit media appearances led, at least in part, to his defeat—and not only his personal defeat, but also the defeat of the causes to which he had dedicated his life. One of the outcomes of the last five years is that the Palestinian cause in Britain has suffered serious lasting damage, if not irreparable harm. Criticism of Israeli policies and expressions of Palestine solidarity, while always to some degree controversial, had long been part of acceptable political discourse on the British left-of-center. That is no longer the case. Talk of the occupation, settlements, and even Palestinian rights have become all but taboo. When Labour lawmaker Stephen Kinnock—hardly a member of the hard left—called on the UK to ban products made in Israeli settlements in a September parliamentary debate, Starmer and the post-Corbyn leaders of the party rushed to the press to reassure the British Jewish establishment that Kinnock had been given “a dressing down” for his comments. Last Monday, The Jewish Chronicle reported that the Labour party had begun an investigation into left-wing NEC member Gemma Bolton for a social media post in which she wrote, “If I run the risk of getting suspended for calling Israel an apartheid state then so be it. Suspend me.” (Support for banning settlement products are common among liberal Zionists in Israel and elsewhere; the eminent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard and the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din argue that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank constitutes “the crime against humanity of apartheid.”)
As I continued reporting this story, I often thought of how things might have gone differently. What if Corbyn’s leadership team had anticipated that they would need political capital to pursue an adamantly pro-Palestine politics and tried to address the fears of Jewish leaders in advance? What if, instead of retreating into defensiveness, they had moved to reconcile sooner with the British Jewish communal institutions where reconciliation was possible? What if those communal institutions had faced internal opposition to launching an all-out campaign against Corbyn? What if there had been better organized Jewish anti-occupation groups capable of disrupting the dominant narrative about Corbyn and Labour without replicating the escalatory dynamics that only worsened the problem? What if opponents of Corbyn in Labour had put their party’s success ahead of their opposition to Corbyn’s political project, or if the British media had not been hostile to Corbyn from the beginning?
And yet all of these counterfactuals seem equally implausible. Corbyn and his team appeared to have no real strategy for pursuing a boldly anti-imperialist, pro-Palestine politics or skillfully parrying the inevitable attacks from his opponents. Remarkably, Corbyn had managed to win control of the largest social-democratic party in Europe with this ham-fisted approach, and in so doing brought unabashed support for the Palestinian cause into the heart of British politics. But given the conservative leanings of many British Jews—and the marginality of the grassroots Jewish left—there was no way of stopping the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Jewish Labour Movement from leveling a nuclear attack on Corbyn in the name of the entire Jewish community. For Corbyn’s opponents in his own party, the Conservatives, and the press, Corbyn posed a real ideological threat that they could never have abided.
For many on the US left, there is a desire to find some lessons in Corbyn’s downfall that we might be able to incorporate into our own political analysis. Indeed, versions of this story, in which left-wing figures and movements founder on accusations of antisemitism, appear frequently in American politics. But there is a crucial difference. When right-wing pundits like Bari Weiss tried to use accusations of antisemitism to discredit leaders of the Women’s March, there were left-wing Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and Bend the Arc that could provide the political education necessary to mediate between the Women’s March co-chairs and the broader Jewish community. When Israel-advocacy groups attacked Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar for their outspoken support for Palestinian rights, there were Jewish groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace that stressed the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism and whose members showed up as Jews to support the congresswomen. In the broadly liberal (if still broadly Zionist) American Jewish community, these progressive Jewish groups are less easily dismissed.
And yet, these dangerous dynamics persist in the US, too. In the runoff Senate election campaign in Georgia, Reverend Raphael Warnock has faced false accusations of antisemitism for likening Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank to apartheid South Africa. He quickly recanted his statement, and in an op-ed published by Jewish Insider, affirmed his opposition “to the BDS movement and its anti-Semitic underpinnings.” After Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted that she hoped Antony Blinken, the Biden administration’s nominee for secretary of state, would not “try to silence me and suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies”—a reference to anti-BDS measures Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced the week before—public figures such as CNN’s Jake Tapper rushed to accuse the Palestinian American congresswoman of having made an antisemitic remark.
Conservative Jewish writers in the US often warn of the “Corbynization” of the Democratic Party, by which they mean its takeover by the left. But there is, I think, a better use for the term. Corbynization describes a different process: what happens when Israel-advocacy and Jewish establishment groups demand that left-wing figures repudiate their support for Palestinian rights or face unceasing, uncompromising attack. The attacks on Warnock and Tlaib suggest that right-wing attempts to instigate a process of Corbynization are already in motion. With a Biden administration in power—unlikely to reverse Pompeo’s designation of BDS as antisemitic or to back away from the IHRA definition of antisemitism—it is frighteningly hard to imagine how one might stop it.
Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.