Looking glass Labour: The Corbyn years and the weaponising of antisemitism
In 50 years’ time, historians will look back on the period between 2015 and 2020 in British politics with bewilderment and astonishment.
For the whole time Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party, the entire media-political establishment turned its anti-racist spotlight remorselessly, relentlessly, not on Israel - a state condemned by all of the world’s leading human rights organisations for its apartheid system - but on its victims and their supporters.
“By the autumn of 2019,” in the words of one leading Palestinian in Britain, “it was like surveying a battlefield - charred buildings everywhere and the corpses of our friends scattered all around.”
In contrast, supporters and apologists for Israel found themselves lionised as courageous campaigners against racism - even when, in some cases, they had overt links to the most crude and extreme Islamophobes.
It was a looking-glass world.
Corbyn’s bid to become prime minister was fatally undermined. And for the British media, the outpourings of sometimes incoherent rage that the injustice against Corbyn provoked in his supporters merely confirmed the prevailing narrative.
For professional journalists, there was an alternative. We could lay out clearly, dispassionately, the bald facts - not with any hope it would stem the tidal wave of moral outrage directed towards Corbyn, but as a testament for posterity.
This was the approach I took in my own film on Labour’s antisemitism crisis, the second in Al Jazeera’s Labour Files series. And it is the approach taken by Asa Winstanley in his fascinating book, Weaponising Anti-Semitism - How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn.
Winstanley is an associate editor and reporter with the Electronic Intifada, an online news service focusing on Israel/Palestine. He has been writing about the subject since 2005 and belongs firmly on the radical left.
Some may find his framing and assumptions off-putting. Corbyn opponent Hilary Benn, for example, is described bluntly as “Labour’s pro-war foreign affairs spokesperson” - a description that appears to refer to war in general rather than any specific conflict.
He is contemptuous of those who urged the ultimately unsuccessful policy of apology and appeasement on Corbyn. The radical news outlet, Novara, is dismissed as “a new-media empire founded by grad student former anarchists”.
During the darkest days, many around Corbyn tended to keep their distance from Winstanley for fear of guilt by association. He resigned from the Labour Party at the start of 2020 while under investigation for antisemitism (among other things, he’d tweeted: “Israel is a political ideology [of settler-colonialism], not an ‘identity’.”)
But the one virtue of the extremely well-funded campaign of lawfare waged against pro-Palestinian activists is that it forces on its targets the highest standards of journalism - in stark contrast to many of those writing from the other perspective.
Make no mistake - Winstanley is a thorough, meticulous reporter and his text is underpinned by hundreds of footnotes. He writes well, and much of the book is revelatory, even for those of us who have followed this story closely.
Winstanley's narrative effectively begins with the hugely influential 2010 report by the Reut Institute, which urged Israel’s “intelligence establishment” to “drive [a] wedge between soft and hard critics” abroad. The former should be subject to “sophisticated engagement strategies” while the latter should be subject to “sabotage” and “attack”, it said.
Winstanley gives a fascinating account of the lawsuit brought between 2011 and 2013 against the Universities and Colleges Union, which represents academics and other employees working in higher education, a precursor to the campaign against Corbyn.
The union was accused of “institutional antisemitism” for its stance on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The case was backed by the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), but was thrown out by the judge in remarkably contemptuous terms.
He described it as “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means” and rejected evidence presented by Jeremy Newmark - CEO of the JLC and later chair of the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement - as “untrue”.
Once antisemitism campaigners had their sights on Corbyn, though, few judges or public bodies were prepared to pay such robust attention to the facts. The Reut playbook would be deployed again and again to devastating effect.
Winstanley walks us through the various episodes of the crisis, stripping away the distorted reporting.
Once antisemitism campaigners had their sights on Corbyn, few judges or public bodies were prepared to pay such robust attention to the facts
In April 2016, former mayor of London and key Corbyn ally Ken Livingstone said live on radio that Hitler was originally “supporting Zionism, before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”.
His comments were crass and gratuitously provocative. Livingstone found few defenders. But Winstanley doesn’t shy away from exploring the historical facts.
It’s perilous terrain, to say the least, but the relationship between the proto-Zionist state and the Nazis in the 1930s is an undeniably uncomfortable story (see Edwin Black’s The Transfer Agreement). And Winstanley shows himself to be as careful and conscientious a historian as he is a journalist.
He’s bold too in re-telling the story of Jackie Walker, the Black Jewish activist and former vice-chair of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum movement, who was expelled from the party in 2019 after allegedly making antisemitic comments.
Like Winstanley, I know Walker, and her treatment was one of the most deeply shameful episodes in the Labour antisemitism story.
During a Facebook conversation in 2016, in which she discussed her own dual heritage, she wrote: “Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade.”
The sentence was typed hastily and she’s made clear many times she should have written “some of the chief financiers”. Walker is an intelligent, sophisticated woman, a lifelong anti-racist campaigner and an expert on the history of the Caribbean. It is absurd to suggest she actually believes Jews ran the slave trade.
Initially, Labour’s disciplinary unit - at that time still controlled by the right - took the same view, with one official describing her case as “the weakest of the recent suspensions”.
But at party conference that year, she was part of a group of Jewish delegates who pushed back against attempts by the Jewish Labour Movement to promote a definition of antisemitism that they felt equated antisemitism with anti-Zionism.
“I still haven’t heard a definition of antisemitism I can work with,” Walker said, a comment that was wrenched out of context and taken to refer to all definitions, not just those she’d heard in the meeting. She also called for “Holocaust Day [to be] open to all peoples who experienced holocaust”, including victims of the transatlantic slave trade.
She was suspended again, this time permanently.
Violent, racist abuse
The case against Walker was unjust. But more disturbing was her subsequent treatment. Attacks on her by leading Labour figures would trigger torrents of violent, racist abuse. And she found herself abandoned by many she might have hoped would show solidarity.
Here, Winstanley’s criticisms of Novara appear valid. One of its journalists described Walker as “a crank” while another supported her expulsion - part of a distressing trend whereby some Corbynites appeared to try and placate their critics by throwing others to the wolves.
When the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented Labour leadership candidates with “Ten Pledges to End the Antisemitism Crisis” in 2020, it actually named Walker as one of two people (the other was Livingstone) who “must never be readmitted to membership”. All four candidates signed up to it.
As Winstanley says, the “elephant in the room” here is the fact that she is Black. She faced repeated accusations she wasn’t really Jewish.
Somehow she came to represent the dark heart of Labour’s antisemitism crisis, the embodiment of all that was wrong with the party. Which surely begs the question - if she really was the worst, what does that say about the rest?
Winstanley’s central thesis is spelled out in his sub-title. He repeatedly refers to organisations such as the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel as “fronts” or “cut-outs” for the Israeli embassy and “arms of the Israeli state”.
His use of these terms in earlier reporting was part of the reason he was under investigation for antisemitism.
Both organisations are avowedly pro-Israel. Al Jazeera’s The Lobby series, filmed in 2016, revealed both to have had close links with the Israeli embassy. But the descriptions are provocative and, obviously, ones those organisations would firmly reject.
My sense was of a group of organisations working towards a common goal.
Antisemitism was clearly weaponised. Martin Forde KC, appointed by Keir Starmer to investigate racism and bullying in the party, concluded: “Some anti-Corbyn elements of the party seized on antisemitism as a way to attack Jeremy Corbyn.”
But its power lay in the fact that most of those engaged in the campaign sincerely believed it.
For The Labour Files, I read through the entirety of the notorious WhatsApp groups, first exposed by the party’s own report on its handling of antisemitism in the spring of 2020, where the right-wing bureaucracy at party HQ engaged in vitriolic abuse of the leadership.
Israel is, and has always been, a state whose defining feature is that it is structured to ensure the domination of one ethnicity over another
At no point is there any suggestion they are inventing antisemitism. When the issue arises, their anger is genuine.
The crisis reflected a deeper problem, a blind spot that afflicts much of European and North American political culture. For understandable reasons, we struggle to see Israel other than through the lens of the Holocaust.
We are unable to confront the tragedy and complexity that lies at the heart of the Zionist project - that it is both a response to the most unspeakable racism and an act of racism in itself.
Israel is, and has always been, a state whose defining feature is that it is structured to ensure the domination of one ethnicity over another. The disfiguring dehumanisation this inevitably entails is a brutal, daily reality for Palestinians.
Our failure to grasp it results in a lethal synergy. The issue of antisemitism provides Zionists with the perfect weapon to delegitimise and demonise Palestinians. And it provides politicians of the centre and right with the perfect weapon to destroy those on the radical left.
Both gleefully seized the opportunity during the Corbyn years.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.