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British Labour Party Accused Of Harboring Anti-Semites


Britain's Labour Party, led by left winger Jeremy Corbyn, stands accused of harboring anti-Semites in its ranks. Corbyn has responded by naming a special commission to investigate anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the party. According to one report, some 50 Labour Party members have been suspended for comments and posts that might be deemed anti-Semitic. The controversy, which comes on the eve of local elections in Britain, raises some familiar questions - when does criticism of Israel cross the line into anti-Semitism? Are Israel's policies at issue or its very existence? Well, Jonathan Freedland writes a column for The Guardian, and he joins us via Skype from London. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, big picture - is there anything about the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn that you would consider especially anti-Jewish?

FREEDLAND: Certainly not the whole party, and it's not even a majority of the party. Rather there is a fringe, a wing of the party, that is long-held in its hostility to Israel and even to the - not just Israel's conduct or policy but to its very existence. That fringe has come closer to the center because Jeremy Corbyn himself is pretty hostile to Israel. And some of the people within that fringe have been exposed recently for things they've said on social media and on online that cross a line from being mere criticisms of Israel to being or using the language or imagery of traditional anti-Semitism, of anti-Jewish racism.

SIEGEL: In addition to writing columns for The Guardian, you also write a column for The Jewish Chronicle, the national Jewish paper in Britain. You wrote very critically, for example, of Israel's last war in Gaza. That sort of thing can get a Jewish journalist branded as self-hating Jew in some quarters. Is there something more than that at work in the current charges against Labour left-wingers?

FREEDLAND: Yes. So I've been really clear that criticism of Israel is completely fine. And as you say, I've dished it out myself and do. So that's not what's being discussed here. Rather, what's being discussed are two things. First is criticism of Israel that comes dressed in the garb of traditional anti-Jewish language or imagery that would be familiar to any anti-Semite long before there even was an Israel, so notions of Jewish conspiracy or Jewish control of the media or Jewish responsibility for all the world's problems and misfortunes. So that's one form.

And then the other is a criticism of Israel's right to exist, which again I think there is a way of arguing that that is completely legitimate. And there was always a tradition of anti-Zionism among Jews too. But nevertheless is framed in such a way that is applying to Israel a standard (ph) that would not and is not applied to any other country. And there too by making this exception of Jews saying they are the only people in the world who are not allowed the right of self-determination, then too there can be a question of whether a line has been crossed. So I think those are the two areas. And in this recent controversy about figures within the Labour Party, it has been both of those that have come up.

SIEGEL: Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party last year. He represents a move away from the kind of centrism that was epitomized by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some of his supporters say all of this is just a move to try to get him ousted from the leadership. Any truth to that?

FREEDLAND: Well, what's invidious about that is the idea of saying all of this because what it does is it conflates two different things. So on the one hand the people complaining about this are the very small British Jewish community whose hurt and offense is real. They're hurt by the idea of a senior Labour figure saying that the founders of Israel, the early Zionists of the 1930s and '40s, are somehow on a moral par with Adolf Hitler. On the other hand, there are a group of people outside Labour and some people who are Corbyn's critics within Labour who, because this is politics, will seize and have seized on anything which might discomfort and damage the leader. And so if somebody tries to say all of this is politics then they are to ignore and belittle the real pain of Britain's Jewish community, and that is a mistake. But no, it would be naive to say that of course there are not some enemies of Corbyn rubbing their hands and enjoying this.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, thanks for talking with us about it.

FREEDLAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.