Jeremy Corbyn’s rivals in the press and the Tory party painted him an anti-semite to great effect. Despite his career’s work focusing on justice for all, a few out of context smears were hammered away in the press and painted Corbyn a bigot, which ultimately played a pivotal role in sinking his campaign. Now American commentators are seizing on similar narratives and weaponizing them against Bernie Sanders and his campaign. American leftists should fight back swiftly before these narratives gain mainstream traction, just as they did in the U.K.
Corbyn Never Adequately Dealt With Charges of Antisemitism
Much was made in the press about U.K. Jewish voters turning away from Labour, with Corbyn framed as the driving force for the turn against Labour. Incidents such as Corbyn supposed support for an artist who drew a mural depicting “hooked nose bankers” or Corbyn’s pronunciation of Jeffery Epstein’s name as “Ep-schtein” were held up as clear indications of his antisemitism. Combined with Labour’s failure to adopt “internationally recognized description of antisemitism” and Corbyn’s anti-Israeli apartheid position, the smears almost wrote themselves. Story after story depicted Labour leadership as slow to respond to antisemitism. And any attempt to paint the smears as just that, smears, was met with skepticism and simply added to the pile.
In the end the narrative seemed to have a significant impact on perceptions of Labour and Corbyn. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Mirvis wrote in The Times, “Just a few weeks before we go to the polls, the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety. The question I am frequently asked is: What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?” And these sorts of messages in the media had an impact on voters in general and Jewish voters in particular.
A Survation poll found that 39% of Britons overall believed Jeremy Corbyn was antisemitic. Another Survation poll found that 78% of British Jews supported a hard Brexit to a Corbyn government, despite supporting remain 2 to 1. The calls of anti-semitism were an incredibly effective anti-Corbyn talking point.
A talking point which Corbyn simply refused to give credence. Corbyn and supporters viewed the attacks as an overblown response to criticism of Israeli appartheid, and an attempt to dull criticism of Israel and support of Palestine. Moves like failure to adopt international standards of antisemitism were simply attempts to hold their ground and not lift up spurious allegations. Other misstatements held up as proof of antisemitism were easily matched with genuine statements of antisemitism from the likes of Boris Johnson and other conservatives, which were strangely not heralded as tangible examples of conservative antisemitism. Corbyn simply championed a pro-Palestinian message, suffered from a few unfortunate missteps, and was constantly attacked for it. Attacks which were largely ignored, and in retrospect ignoring them as ludicrous attacks fed the narrative more than it served to quash it.
And that failure, the failure to adequately deal with the charges of anti-semitism, is something American leftists need to learn from. Simply ignoring the attacks out of hand simply isn’t enough, and now that similar narratives are being weaponized against Bernie Sanders, the left needs to attack them with vigor and show they are simply ridiculous smears against the United States potential first Jewish president.
The Right’s Attempt to Paint the Sanders Campaign as Anti-Semitic Must Be Stopped
It didn’t take long for Sanders opponents to seize of the effectiveness of the anti-semitism smear and apply it to the American political debate. The first whiffs of the argument appearing in the conservative publication The Federalist.
The article seized on Sanders connection to Women’s March founder Linda Sarsour, who was embroiled in controversy surrounding her supposed failure to adequately denounce Louis Farrakhan and a series of anti-Israel comments she made on various occasions. Sarsour serves as a surrogate for the Sanders campaign and has since apologized for what she viewed as statements which were taken out of context. Sarsour is an incredibly outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights and it’s far from the first time pro-Palestinian sentiment has been equated with antisemitism. In fact other Sanders surrogates are being similarly slammed by conservative outlets.
The Washington Examiner attacked Sanders for his support of The Young Turk’s Cenk Uygur, because according to them Uygur lifted up antisemitism when he interviewed (an interview which was more of a debate really) David Duke. Uygur had Duke on his show in an explicit attempt to set the record straight and attack Duke’s racism and antisemitism. The Uygur attack shows how spurious allegations of antisemitism against Sanders surrogates really are. And the article ends with a similar reach to that of The Federalist against Linda Sarsour. Making it clear these outlets have a difficult time separating the real antisemitism of people like David Duke, who really does believe in a sinister Jewish cabal, from the critiques of anti-Israel activists who simply fight for fair treatment of Palestinians.
Commentary Magazine’s Noah Rothman took aim at Rep. Ilhan Omar, foreign policy adviser Matt Duss, and campaign manager Faiz Shakir, all of whom he claimed trafficked in antisemitic tropes.
First the now well known saga of Ilhan Omar and her statements speaking out against the power of pro-Israel lobby groups is something we’ve discussed at length in the past. Claiming support of AIPAC is “all about the money” is not trafficking in antisemitism. It’s making a substantive critique of the financial power of Israel’s pro-military, pro-Palestinian apartheid lobbying efforts. Something foreign policy advisor Matt Duss defended, as he proclaimed the effort to condemn Omar was simply an effort to police legitimate criticism of Israel. Which Rothman links to Duss’s time as the Center for American Progress Middle East Director and campaign manager Faiz Shakir’s time as editor or Think Progress, the organizations blog, where they were accused of drafting statements “indicative of anti-Jewish bias.”
The statements in question simply likened Israel to apartheid South Africa, a criticism which is fairly common among pro-Palestinian commentators. And another instance where legitimate criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is swept under the rug as antisemitism.
Rothman then goes after Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who he charges blurs the lines between opposition to Israel and antisemitism. The charges here are similarly weak. On one occasion Tlaib shared a cartoon from a cartoonist who participated in Iran’s Holocaust Cartoon Contest in 2006. Given the decade plus time frame between the participation in that contest and Tlaib sharing the cartoon, it should go without saying that the connection may be easily lost there. The cartoon in question wasn’t close to antisemitic, it was once again commenting on the backlash inspired by anti-Israel comments. Ilhan Omar was implicated in this attack as well.
Another Charge against Tlaib equated support of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement with antisemitism. Just because the Anti-Defamation League claims BDS is antisemitic does not make it so. This is the clearest example of any legitimate critiques of Israel, and an effort to enshrine those critiques in policy, being painted as antisemitic. Bernie Sanders has a real shot at becoming the first Jewish President, and to paint him as antisemitic or willing to indulge in antisemitism at the behest of his surrogates, is a bad joke. However it comes from a clear disconnect in differing definitions of antisemitism. Something Bernie Sanders sees as problematic himself, in his own fight against antisemitism.
Don’t Let the Right Frame the Debate, Attacking Israel isn’t Antisemitism
In the Magazine Jewish Currents Bernie Sanders penned a piece speaking out against the rise of far-right antisemitism, brought on by some of the dangerous narratives propagated by Fox News and President Trump himself. Bernie Sanders points out that antisemites and antisemitism is a hateful ideology that runs much deeper than critiques of Israel. To adequately fight it, one must stand with all oppressed people, including those in Palestine.
Real antisemitism runs deeper than simply attacking Israel, and it leads to events like the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Speaking on the attack Bernie Sanders wrote, “The murderer acted on a twisted belief that Jews were part of a nefarious plot to undermine white America – a plot to assist in the “invasion” of the United States by a caravan of migrants from Latin America. This vicious lie about an “invasion” had been repeated endlessly in right-wing media, on Fox News, across the internet, and most disgracefully, by the president of the United States.”
Real antisemitism speculates that George Soros and other prominent figures are behind a “migrant invasion.” But that sort of antisemitism doesn’t get the same play in publications like The Federalist, Washington Examiner, or Commentary Magazine, because it doesn’t serve to take down their political opponents. Despite the real body count of rightwing antisemitism, it’s largely ignored. Just like Boris Johnson and conservative antisemitism was ignored to instead go after Corbyn and perceived Labour antisemitism. The through line is equating attacks on Israel with genuine antisemitism. Something that happens again and again, and something Bernie Sanders speaks out against later in his piece.
First he lays out the stakes, “antisemitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family,” Bernie wrote. He continued, “antisemitism is rising in this country. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Jews rose by more than a third in 2017 and accounted for 58% of all religion-based hate crimes in America. A total of 938 hate crimes were committed against Jews in 2017, up from 684 in 2016. The New York Police Department reported in September that antisemitic hate crimes in New York City have risen by more than 63% in 2019 and make up more than half of all reported hate crimes. Just last week, on November 4th, we learned that federal authorities had arrested a man in Colorado they believe was involved in a plot to bomb one of the state’s oldest synagogues.”
This is real antisemitism. The force that inspires people to commit religious hate crimes. That motivates people to shoot up synagogues, or threaten them with bombs. Far different than criticizing AIPAC, or Israeli occupation of Palestine. Something Bernie Sanders goes on to speak against himself.
Bernie wrote, “Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism. So it’s very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives. One of the most dangerous things Trump has done is to divide Americans by using false allegations of antisemitism, mostly regarding the US–Israel relationship. We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”
That end bit is the most important, “we should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.” Bernie goes on to describe the pain inflicted by Palestinian displacement, and the role the Israeli government plays in that process. Speaking out against those crimes is not antisemitism. Whether it comes from Jeremy Corbyn, or Ilhan Omar, criticizing Israel should be part of any left movement bent on justice.
And it’s important to not allow the right to seize on those criticisms and paint them as antisemitic. Because doing so can genuinely damage left movements as they did in the U.K. And now that those narratives are being weaponized in the United States against Bernie Sanders we must all speak out against them, just as Bernie would. There is room to criticize Israel, there isn’t room to traffic in conspiracy theories like those pushed by Fox News. Those conspiracy theories are genuine antisemitism and must be stopped, but criticizing Israel is not. Don’t let far right commentators equate the two, as it could do real damage to the only movement genuinely fighting antisemitism, and that could be a disaster.