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Analysis: How do you solve a problem like Jeremy Corbyn?

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference in London, Thursday, March 3, 2016.
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Many things might come to mind when the name ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ is mentioned. Is he an antisemite? Israel-hater? Socialist? Russian spy? Three years ago, if someone had mentioned his name, the answer would be ‘who?’ or maybe even ‘what?’ Now, it is impossible to open a newspaper, turn on the TV or peruse a Twitter feed without seeing the white-haired, tie-less Brit staring back at you; often accompanied by a scathing headline.

‘Jezza’ - the nickname given to him by his thousands of adoring fans - was once nothing more than a backbench rebel Member of Parliament (MP), opposing policy from the sidelines and rarely making it into the spotlight apart from nurturing his much-loved vegetable allotment, or for his quintuple winning of the parliamentary beard award.

Corbyn was unexpectedly catapulted into the public eye in September 2015 amid an internal Labour leadership election by fellow Labour colleagues who nominated him onto the ballot in an innocent bid to “widen the debate.” Much to their, and his own surprise, he won the party’s leadership race by a landslide. Intoxicating the millennial Glastonbury-goers and Bestival baes, a 500,000 strong Labour membership caught Corbyn fever.

Today, Corbyn finds himself in increasingly hot water, as mounting allegations of anti-Semitism -- both against him personally and seemingly institutionalized within his party -- have slowly gnawed away at the “anti-racist” image he prided himself on for decades.

In recent months, it has been more and more uncommon for a day to pass without an exposé of some sort billing Corbyn as enemy number one.

And justifiably so. The press have revelled in digging up misdemeanor after misdemeanor, from stories revealing times he shared platforms with Hamas officials, to allegations about his former membership of pro-Palestinian social media groups brimming with anti-Jewish rhetoric, to records of his past support for parliamentary motions bordering on Holocaust denial.

But as the public, academics and researchers alike wade into this murky debate, one has to wonder whether Corbyn really does warrant being blacklisted as an antisemite, thus placing his name on the list alongside Roald Dahl, Walt Disney, and former ‘Respect’ party MP George Galloway -- all of whom have faced similar accusations of Jew-hating.

The latest revelation against Corbyn unveiled last week has been deemed -- even by those Jews who remained somewhat sympathetic to the Labour leader up until now -- as the most concerning yet. In a 2013 speech at the Palestinian Return Center, he said that “Zionists” in Britain don’t appreciate history or understand English irony.

Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

“In doing so, he was placing them outside of his imagined idea of national culture: this, however unintentional, was antisemitic,” Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism told i24NEWS. “Corbyn was disparaging the great majority of British Jews” of which, according to a 2015 survey, 93% said Israel formed a part of their identity,” Feldman explained.

In response, Corbyn claimed he was referring to Zionists “in the accurate political sense,” which Feldman dubbed as “unapologetic” - a charge of inertia that has been hurled at the leader time and time again.

“I really struggle to call myself a Zionist and am hugely critical of Israel,” former committee member of Oxford University Labour Union, Ella Taylor told i24NEWS, “but there is no denying that Corbyn is unsympathetic and apathetic to the Jewish community.”

And for the minority of British Jews constituting the approximate 7 percent for whom Israel is not central to their identity, a Labour-affiliated fringe group has emerged representing a voice in defense of their beloved Jezza. The pro-Palestinian and pro-Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) have argued, against a tidal wave of critics, that Corbyn has “apologised too much and too often” and cite the Chakrabarti Inquiry into allegations of institutionalized anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the Labour party, as an example of him “taking very seriously” such claims.

When i24NEWS contacted ‘Jewdas’, another far-left anti-Zionist Jewish Labour group for a comment on the antisemitism crisis within the party, it mockingly responded: “How about one from Theodor Herzl’s zombie corpse?” Corbyn came under criticism after attending the organization’s “alternative” Passover Seder earlier in April this year.

Whilst those Corbyn calls “friends” do not necessarily represent ‘mainstream’ Judaism per se, it is seemingly difficult to discount his interactions with like-minded Jews who appear to share his outlook when it comes to Israel.

i24NEWS found that between 2007-2014 Corbyn sponsored nine non-legislative parliamentary motions, known as EDM’s, advocating for Jewish issues.

Scott Heppell/PA via AP

This included support for a ‘Jewish News Investigation into Facebook Antisemitism’ in 2009; ‘Antisemitism on the Internet’ in 2009; the ‘Resettlement of Yemeni Jews’ said to be facing ongoing religious persecution in 2010; and support for ‘Jewish Population in East London’ experiencing high levels of social exclusion in 2007.

Alongside this, in 2012 he backed an EDM opposing the BBC’s decision to remove a radio show dedicated to the community ‘Jewish Citizen Manchester’ as well as four motions supporting the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

And whilst it will take more than a few measly signatures on a House of Commons embossed paper to regain the trust of his foes his support for select Jewish causes over the years seems to have slipped under the radar, overshadowed by his unwavering support for Palestinian rights often accompanied by rhetoric edging on antisemitism.

Equally interesting is how his team of advisers have failed to pick up on such nuggets that could have been used to his defense. One strategist in particular, Seamus Milne, is well-known for his longstanding hostility and hard-line stance towards Israel - but ignoring elements that would absolve Corbyn of his antisemitic accusations seems strange.

“One of the difficulties Corbyn faces is that in order to tackle the problem [antisemitism] he will have to act against some people who are his supporters and give ground to people who are among his opponents,” Feldman said, encapsulating the very essence of the debate. “This creates political and ethical problems for him which he has so far failed to overcome.”

But, whether a matter of politics or a matter of whether Corbyn at his core is truly “for the many and not for the Jew” — a play on words inspired by the Labour Party slogan — still remains a matter for debate.

Jesseca Manville is a journalist and news editor on the English web desk. She was a former adviser to a Labour Party Member of the UK Parliament.


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