Why Won’t the Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Scandal Go Away?

A demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London in April.CreditTolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London in April. Credit Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

If you have over the last 30 years arranged a pro-Palestinian event of any significant size in the United Kingdom, the chances are that Jeremy Corbyn was there, either as a speaker or in the audience. Mr. Corbyn, who is now the leader of the Labour Party, is an avid and unwavering supporter of the Palestinian cause.

While not all British criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic, it has a tendency to blur into it at the fringes. As a backbencher, Mr. Corbyn shared platforms with the likes of Raed Salah, a convicted anti-Semite, and he praised Hamas. Those former associations have been dogging Mr. Corbyn since he took over the Labour Party’s leadership in 2015.

This summer, Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is once again dominating the headlines in the British press and dividing the party. And as much as everyone would like it to, it doesn’t look like it will go away any time soon. To understand why, you have to understand Mr. Corbyn and what he cares about.

For the most part, Labour legislators are far more interested in domestic matters — the National Health Service, tax reform, education, basically anything — than the world outside of Britain. There are, however, a few exceptions. Mr. Corbyn is one. Foreign policy is his passion.

And for Mr. Corbyn, as for most Labour members of Parliament, “foreign” doesn’t refer to the other side of the English Channel. He is a longtime Euroskeptic whose heart has never strayed from his opposition to the European Union, but like the bulk of his more pro-European colleagues, he doesn’t regard the European Union as genuinely abroad. No, for Mr. Corbyn, foreign policy means the developing world and, especially, its left-wing movements and liberation struggles.

The charge against Mr. Corbyn is that he has spent so long in the pro-Palestine movement’s fringes as to be unable to distinguish between legitimate criticisms of Israel and hate speech toward British Jews when he hears it. Adding to the problem, some of Mr. Corbyn’s loudest supporters on social media and in local parties frequently repeat anti-Semitic tropes.

Labour members of Parliament — many of whom, seeing Mr. Corbyn as a fringe left-wing figure, opposed his leadership of the party from the beginning — are unwilling to countenance what they feel is his tolerance of anti-Semitism. For the bulk of members, the issue is a moral one: Anti-Semitic themes and anti-Semites must be called out, even if the result is a loud and destabilizing civil war that distracts from the party’s other goals.

The conflict runs in a circle. An association from Mr. Corbyn’s past, or a present-day misstep reopens it, Labour collapses into infighting, the party leadership makes a minor concession and the row is quelled. For a while.

The current iteration of the conflict has been triggered by a present-day blunder.

In order to put an end to a controversy over a remark by a Corbyn ally that Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism, the party leadership pledged to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition includes a number of examples of anti-Semitic behavior, some of which Mr. Corbyn fears will place excessive limits on criticism of Israel. To allay those concerns, the party leadership modified the definition, removing or changing examples relating to Israel. And they did so without consulting any of Britain’s mainstream Jewish organizations or the official body of Jewish members of the Labour Party. The result? Another outbreak of internal warfare.

This is coming at a time when Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is deeply unpopular and rived by its own divisions. Brexit negotiations are in limbo and worrying deadlines loom.

The only person with the power to bring the fight over anti-Semitism to an end is Mr. Corbyn. He could adopt the I.H.R.A. definition in full and without amendments, and publicly condemn not only unnamed members of the Labour Party but some of his former allies for engaging in language that moves from legitimate criticism of Israel to out-and-out anti-Semitism.

But he won’t.

Contrary to the picture many of his detractors paint of him and the image some of his supporters hold, Mr. Corbyn isn’t wholly inflexible. He can compromise when he needs to and he’s done so on a number of issues, from social security cuts to tax breaks to Britain’s relationship with the European Union. But when it comes to Palestine, his passion, don’t expect any wavering.

Foreign affairs is a red line that he cannot cross. But that puts him at loggerheads with those members of his party for whom the row is not about Israel and Palestine but about reassuring Britain’s Jews of the party’s intentions. Forget agreeing to disagree: Labour’s warring tribes can’t even agree on what it is that divides them.

Stephen Bush is a special correspondent for the New Statesman and a columnist for the Independent.

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