To ask Corbyn to support Israel is an impossible demand | Keith Kahn-Harris

Jonathan Arkush’s comments about Labour antisemitism and a fearful Jewish community may be over the top. But the gap is becoming a chasm

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour party leader in 2015, accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party from Jewish community leaders have become commonplace. Now, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Jonathan Arkush, the outgoing president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, went further in his criticisms than he or others in his position have gone before.

While Corbyn has often been accused of tolerating antisemitism within Labour, or of creating an environment in which it can thrive, leaders of major UK Jewish communal institutions have stopped just short of accusing him of being personally antisemitic. Now Arkush says that he believes that Corbyn has views that “are antisemitic”, due to his associations with Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Inevitably, this raises the question of the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. I have never met a Jew who argued that any criticism of any kind is always antisemitic. Rather, in much of the Jewish community and in definitions of antisemitism supported by Jewish communal institutions – such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition – it is criticism that is “disproportionate” and that “de-legitimises” the Jewish state that is seen as antisemitic.

Of course, these definitions are interpreted in a wide variety of ways by Jews and others. But there is no escaping the fact that most (but by no means all) Jews find it very difficult to see anti-Zionism as anything other than antisemitic, and find it hard to consider pro-Palestinian activism (which, at the very least, tends to ratchet up the rhetoric as all single-issue campaigns do) as proportionate criticism.

But Arkush goes further than this. In his Telegraph interview, he recalls confronting Corbyn with the question: “Why is there nothing good you can say about Israel? And he couldn’t answer. He was silent.” This seems to demand not just toning down criticism of Israel, but actively supporting the country. This is an impossible demand to make not just of Corbyn, but even of other more moderate critics of Israel.

Arkush further ramps up the stakes by painting a picture of a fearful Jewish community that is starting to ask: “What is our future here?” – and is increasingly drawn to Israel’s “modern, democratic, successful society”. He seems to be backing both the Jewish community and Corbyn into a corner, where, unless Labour returns to a more supportive position on Israel, many of the UK’s Jews will depart – to Israel.

It isn’t difficult to find Jews who would not agree with Arkush – and I’m not just thinking of the small but significant minority of Jewish anti-Zionists. As president of the board, he would have been unlikely to make these comments publicly if he were not on his way out, and most Jewish leaders understand the value of moderating their language in order to maintain lines of communication with the Labour party.

In any case, the Zionist Jewish majority is far from homogeneous. Some – such as many of the young activists who took part in the highly controversial Kaddish for Gaza event last month – are fiercely critical of Israel’s current path. This isn’t just a political matter; all of us set the bar differently in what we require to feel existentially secure. All that said, there remains a gap between even the more Israel-critical forms of left-of-centre Jewish Zionist opinion and Corbynite Labour; and that gap becomes a yawning chasm when we consider those Jews who are more supportive of Israel’s current politics.

It’s now clear what the Labour party under Corbyn can and cannot do to assuage Jewish fears over antisemitism. Corbyn will make clear the party’s opposition to antisemitism and acknowledge Jewish fears and concerns. He will acknowledge that, at the very least, pockets of antisemitism exist in the Labour party. The party will work to improve disciplinary procedures against those accused of antisemitism.

But what Corbyn cannot, and will not, do is to renounce his past. While he has expressed support for a two-state solution and has not made explicitly anti-Zionist statements since becoming leader, he cannot and will not do anything supportive of Israel, at least under its current rightwing leadership.

In these conditions, it is hard to see a way forward. Perhaps a new generation of Jewish leaders and a new generation of Labour leaders who are not so burdened by the past might be able to reboot the relationship. Certainly, as long as most British Jews remain Zionists – albeit with an increasing proportion of those who believe in the principle of Jewish statehood while abhorring its current reality – the relationship with the Labour party will continue to be fraught at best.

• Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and the author of Judaism: All That Matters


Keith Kahn-Harris

The GuardianTramp

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