Will a Leader Soon ‘Corbyn’ the Democrats?
Corbyn — verb: To turn a traditionally pro-Israel party into an anti-Semitic one while insisting you don’t hate Jews, you only hate Israel.
If years from now a candidate “Corbyns” the Democratic Party, some of us will say “I told you so” by remembering 2018’s blame-Israel-first Democratic candidates. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 hostility, Barack Obama’s Israel-related churlishness and Donald Trump’s unbearable pro-Israel bear hug will factor, too. But this autumn’s chill in the air toward Israel feels portentous.
Many progressive British Jews are panicking. Many still won’t vote Conservative. But the Labour Party, once Great Britain’s leading pro-Israel party, is turning anti-Zionist. It’s also turning anti-Semitism-positive if not positively anti-Semitic, reflecting the Jew-hating face of its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn doesn’t snarl or bark, he oozes. He tries hiding his Jew-hatred behind hip, progressive rhetoric. Corbyn shows how European anti-Semitism has morphed since Hitler. It’s not Nuremburg-style demagoguery. It’s not Durbanite thuggery. It’s Buckingham-Palace-to-Bel-Air snootiness, perfumed by neo-Marxist rhetoric, wearing Banana Republic fatigues and delivered by Clark Kent not Ayatollah Khomeini. (Right-wing anti-Semitism cloaks its snootiness behind Armani suits, super-sized national flags and little “I like Israel” blue-and-white lapel pins.)
Despite this masquerade, mounting evidence confirms the fears of those often labeled “paranoid Jews.” Decades ago, the novelist Cynthia Ozick said that while paranoids think people are out to get them, when they’re not; Jews are narapoid: We think people are out to get us — and they are. Corbyn confirmed it: Those who salute terrorists, who have schoolboy crushes on the sociopaths of Hamas and Hezbollah, who try Nazifying and South Africanizing the Jewish State through sweeping, sloppy, sleazy accusations are Jew-haters at heart.
It took some digging, but eventually, we discovered that beyond Corbyn’s pro-Palestine Valentines festers an old-fashioned, look-down-your-nose-at-those-bloody-Jews Jew-hater. “Zionists,” Corbyn sniffed in 2013, “clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history” — a stunningly ignorant line that overlooks Zionists’ obsessions with returning home, “and secondly,” Corbyn continued, “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
Nevertheless, in this age of all-or-nothing politics, too many British lefties slavishly knuckle-walk behind their Neanderthal leader, justifying his lapses, rationalizing his hatred, mainstreaming his evil. Corbyn’s Labourites are as subservient to their hater-in-chief as Donald Trump Republicans are to their thug-in-chief. Alas, political prostitution is flourishing left and right, on both sides of the Atlantic.
By now, liberal readers must be popping blood-pressure pills as conservative readers risk spilling their coffee while high-fiving one another. In this age of polarized, paint-by-number partisan politics, this column seems poised to predict the Corbyning of the Democratic Party. And here would be the recipe: Take a swipe at Barack Obama as pro-Iran and anti-Israel; bash Democrats for letting their hatred of Trump trump their love of Jerusalem when the American embassy moved to the Jewish people’s capital; highlight the Bernie Sanderistas already in Congress and running this November; then, boom, we’ve got a model anti-Israel political storm.
And, oh, what click-bait that would be. Right-wingers would whip themselves into a frenzy, whacking the left viciously, forwarding the column passionately.
As a historian, however, my crystal ball is cloudier; while as a center fielder my temperament is more constrained. I won’t predict or bash or fulminate. I simply plead with Democrats: “Prove me wrong!”
First, the good news: The American Revolution worked. The United States left the United Kingdom. Great Britain lacks America’s baseline sympathy for Israel that is embedded in the U.S.-Israel relationship’s DNA. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s rhetoric of shared interest and shared values has long united Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Jews, with new bonds formed from shared challenges. A Gallup Poll found that 73 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians proves that Israel enjoys grassroots support; it’s not political Astroturf some big bad lobby imposes.
Israel competes with Great Britain for the honor of being America’s best ally. And American-Israeli history is less complicated. Great Britain’s humiliating retreat from Palestine still stings. Indeed, although Prince William visited that vexing former British colony, Queen Elizabeth never fit the Holy Land into any of her many itineraries since the 1950s — still smarting from those unholy headaches in the 1940s.
Great Britain is also more European, more Muslim-influenced, more Arab-centered in its foreign policy and more steeped in an 800-year-old anti-Semitic past. America lacks such an anti-Semitic pedigree, making its relationship with Israel more solid, more mutual.
Still, bad omens are proliferating. Barack Obama was not anti-Israel, but he often handled the Jewish State coldly, imperiously, bristling around its often equally snippy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama took the tough-love approach toward Israel and the soft touch toward the Palestinians — stubbornly following that strategy even as it failed.
Obama’s Iran outreach was doubly damaging. His diplomatic naiveté left many Israelis feeling betrayed. Meanwhile, he drove real political wedges between American Jews and Israel by demanding Jewish obeisance when he muscled through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal.
Donald Trump’s destructive, polarizing presidency is solidifying these wedges: With bipartisanship scorned as wimpy, you must reject whatever your enemy likes. As Democrats recoil from all things Trump, Trump’s warmth toward Israel makes Trump haters foolishly frosty toward Israel and naively nice regarding the Palestinians and Iran.
Many progressives also perceive Israelis as their enemies in two defining struggles. The politics of privilege falsely casts Netanyahu’s right-wing-led Israel as a nation of white winners oppressing powerless people of color — the Palestinians. This demonizes Israel in the second battle, too — the bout over boundaries. To postmodernist universalists, Israel comes across as too nationalist and too religious. For social justice warriors, Israel is a popular target, blocking Jews at the intersection, rejecting anti-Semitism as part of “intersectionality” — the shared experience of oppression — despite every Jew’s advanced degrees in understanding oppression.
The politics of Trump compounded by these particular ideological crusades has produced a looming disaster: Many of the pop stars of the Resistance, 2018’s Democratic congressional candidates representing the freshest anti-Trump political faces, are also anti-Israel.
“Many of the pop stars of the resistance, 2018’s Democratic congressional candidates representing the freshest anti-Trump political faces, are also anti-Israel. “
If today’s Armageddon-oriented, sky-is-falling politics boosts fanatics, left and right, the most zealous left-wing congressional candidates may eventually “Corbyn” the Democratic Party. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib is a prickly one-stater who vows to oppose aid for Israel — and alienated JStreet, which has long been soft on Dems promising to push Israel around. Pennsylvania’s Scott Wallace has bankrolled supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar denounces the “apartheid Israel regime” and hopes Allah will stir the masses against “the evil doings of Israel.” New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sloppily equates Ferguson, Mo., and Gaza. And Virginia’s Leslie Cockburn co-authored a crackpot book that, The New York Times wrote, has as its central assumption “that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”
Once upon a time, a midterm election with even one serious anti-Israel Democrat would have been anomalous and scandalous. Today, when Pew Research Center studies estimate that only 19 percent of progressive Democrats are pro-Israel, these anti-Israel fanatics risk pioneering a new normal. This is especially worrying because, as with so many Corbyn allies, and as we saw during the Women’s March led by Linda (Zionism-is-creepy) Sarsour, hatred of Trump trumps loyalty to Israel for most Democrats today.
In this age of Jonestown politics, supporters become contortionists, treating political parties like cults demanding 100 percent loyalty. Today’s psychology demands total fealty, not even holding your nose when something your candidate says stinks. Rather than abandoning Labour or at least admitting that “Corbyn’s anti-Semitism offends me but I’ll vote for him anyway because Conservatives offend me more,” too many supporters end up justifying his Israel hatred and excusing his anti-Semitism. With zero tolerance for ambiguity or your enemies, the supposedly tolerant end up tolerating intolerance.
Clearly, many voters ignore the legendary New York Mayor Ed Koch’s famous challenge: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Moreover, having been caricatured as “privileged” and “white,” many Jews fear confronting women of color, like Sarsour, Omar and Tlaib, who bash Israel. All this Sarsouring — enslaving yourself to a unified theory of politics wherein all principles take a back seat to Trump-bashing — risks Corbyning the Democratic Party. Already the party of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, of Lyndon Johnson and Bella Abzug, of Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Hubert Humphrey, of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John L. Lewis — all ardent Zionists — has become the mainstream American political home for anti-Zionists.
True, most Democratic leaders remain pro-Israel, reflecting that resilient American political consensus. And truth is on Israel’s side. For all the current tensions, supporting Israel remains a far more progressive, Democratic, liberal-friendly cause than supporting the terrorist-addicted Palestinians, the theocracy in Iran or any Arab dictatorship. As progressive talk-show host Bill Maher puts it, “Where would you rather live in the Middle East? In Gaza under Sharia law or Tel Aviv?” Political delusions don’t last forever (see communism, facism, Ku Klux Klanism). It’s hard to believe that every generation will condemn Israel as ultranationalist and ultrareligious while giving Palestinians and Islamists a pass. Corbyn’s rise is cautionary not predictive.
Pro-Israel Democrats must save their party from its new pop stars. They should copy something from the Republican playbook. In December 1991, the grand old man of conservatism, William F. Buckley, made it clear there was no room in the conservative tent — and the Republican Party — for anti-Semites, even if they hid behind a façade of anti-Israelism.
Buckley outed his ideological ally Pat Buchanan and another old friend, Joe Sobran, exposing the Jew-hatred in their snarling contempt for Israel. Making the case, Buckley wrote a 40,000-word article in The National Review, which became the book “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” after the initial essay generated the most letters to the editor in the magazine’s history.
While opposing America’s entering the Gulf War, Buchanan — who by December 1991 was running for president — accused four pro-war individuals of being in the Israel Defense Ministry’s “Amen Corner.” “They have in common many things,” Buckley noted. “The most conspicuous of these is that they are Jewish.”
Still mourning Auschwitz, Buckley said, “I am ready to concede that in our world, in our time, Jews have inherited distinctive immunities.” Even without that indulgence, noting that Israel is the Jewish state, he insisted, “Anyone who gives voice, especially if this is done repeatedly, to opinions distinctively, even uniquely, offensive to the security of settled Jewish sentiment involving religious or ethnic or tribal pride, engages in anti-Semitic activity.”
Assessing Buchanan’s systematic hostility toward Israel, Buckley concluded: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it; most probably an iconoclastic temperament.”
“I’m in favor of 95 percent of what he’s doing and saying,” Buckley told reporters. “I hope he changes his mind.” But, Buckley — whose father was a bigot — had long been drawing clear red lines. “Charges of anti-Semitism have been a burden historically for the American right,” The Washington Post reported, “and Buckley has worked hard through The National Review to separate mainstream conservatism from that stigma.”
Although Buckley cautioned against the opposite problem — an occasionally obsessive “anti-anti-Semitism” — he targeted those who deserved it. All too presciently, Buckley declared that for the American right — “short of the real fever swamps” — anti-Semitism is “pretty much a nonproblem. On the left, it’s a creeping problem.”
In the 1990s, Buckley did the right thing and burnished his historical reputation. Here, then, is one prediction I will make: History will judge the silence of too many British Labour leaders harshly for wilting in the face of Corbyn’s demagoguery. And we all must ask, especially on the Jewish left: Where is a Democratic Buckley today, a leading non-Jewish intellectual and activist ready to make the case against progressive anti-Semitism — and for progressive Zionism?
Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Toronto and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”
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