W. Stephen Gilbert has written an adulatory account of the emergence of the new British Labor party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the subsequent hope for “a new politics” in the United Kingdom.
Corbyn, the eternal party rebel on the far Left, was unexpectedly elected to lead the Labor Party in September because of a new voting system that permitted many non-Labor party members to vote in the party’s primary. A recent YouGov poll suggested that only 13% of those who joined Labor ahead of the vote actually “strongly approve of the party.” Those disillusioned with Tony Blair’s New Labor eagerly defected from the Greens and the Liberal Democrats and flocked to Corbyn’s standard. Such an internal realignment, however, also persuaded a third of all Labor voters to desert the party.
In Jeremy Corbyn: Accidental Hero, Gilbert rightly reflects the widespread disillusionment with established politics in an age of austerity and the superficiality of the media – especially amongst the young. But is Corbyn the answer to Weimar-like dysfunction where bankers are awarded bigger and better bonuses and public services are slashed to the bone?
In the 1980s Corbyn aligned himself with the loyalist pro-Soviet wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which opposed any whiff of criticism, such as the condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Gilbert says Corbyn started to write for the pro-Soviet Morning Star as early as 1983 and he continues to surround himself with sympathizers from that era. Like Margaret Thatcher, he is a conviction politician – he doesn’t easily change his mind.
Gilbert’s approach throughout this short book is to react to the reactionaries, rather than to the issue. This also characterizes his coverage of Corbyn’s views on Israel, since he solely quotes those on the far Right. Like many before him, Gilbert brackets anti-Semitism with Islamophobia, but he hits a new low in obfuscation in juxtaposing “Zionism and caliphatism.”
Such well-tried tropes around the Deir Yassin killings, the blowing up of the King David Hotel and the telescoping of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are all there – but it also indicates a propensity for blind conformity in the safe haven of the far Left bubble, rather than a thoughtout position on the tortuous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Complexities are reduced to simplicities.
While former prime minister Menachem Begin’s Irgun is condemned, there is “understanding” for the far Left’s embrace of Irish Republican actions before the Good Friday agreement. Yet Gilbert does not realize Sinn Fein and the IRA were in part the exemplars for the Zionist Right in the 1930s and 1940s.
Gilbert seeks solace in the belief that one must talk to the enemy – even during periods of violence. Over a decade ago former president Shimon Peres embraced this idea, even if former prime minister Ariel Sharon did not. While Corbyn has spoken about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he has done virtually nothing in 30 years to bring it about. Instead, he has positioned himself as a human megaphone broadcasting Palestinian “hasbara.” Corbyn has contented himself with exuding sweetness and light for the highly peripheral far Left in Israel while ignoring its mainstream peace camp and sister Labor party.
Gilbert omits any mention of Corbyn’s apology for the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which he described as “a historical mistake.” How can such a claim of implied inauthenticity therefore persuade Israelis that Corbyn is an honest broker who genuinely wants peace? If the implication is that the Balfour Declaration was nothing more than a measure of imperialist expediency to win over Jewish opinion, then why hasn’t Corbyn also mentioned the Sherif Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915, which proclaimed British support for ‘the independence of the Arabs’?
As Gilbert notes, Corbyn has conscientiously opposed any British intervention into foreign fields. Indeed the shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan hang heavily over British politics today. Yet Gilbert omits Corbyn’s criticism of NATO’s invasion of Kosovo in 1999 which prevented the uprooting of the Muslim community.
Corbyn became politically aware when the New Left was displacing the Old Left in the 1960s. During an epoch of decolonization, it was far easier to identify with the Palestinians than the Israelis – and even more so after the first settlements had been established on the West Bank.
Many British Jews conscious of the past, however, also identify with the Old Left, which participated in the fight against home-grown fascism and which bore witness to the Shoah and the rise of Israel. Jews connect these two phenomena. Corbyn and his acolytes separate them.
It is very difficult to dispel messianic fervor. What begins as politics ends as faith. Gilbert’s account – although well-intentioned – simply adds to this ethereal otherworldliness.
Jerusalem Post 11 December 2015