January 17, 2020

Corbyn’s Defeat Is Only Half the Story

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks onstage during an election campaign event at the O2 Apollo Manchester on November 7, 2019 in Manchester, England. Earlier in the day, the Labour leader unveiled the parties' new campaign bus, emblazoned with the slogan 'It's Time for Real Change'. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When erstwhile Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991, his opponent was former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had previously been indicted for bribery and obstruction of justice. Despite Edwards’ checkered political biography, his supporters knew that the prospect of electing an unapologetic racist to statewide office would be unacceptable to most Louisiana voters, even those who were uncomfortable with the allegations against Edwards. As a result, they concocted a campaign slogan that will go down in the annals of political history.

“Vote for the crook,” the bumper stickers read. “It’s important.”

Separated by a few decades and the Atlantic Ocean, the just-completed election British election offered a similar dynamic for many of that nation’s historic Labour Party constituencies — including the Jewish community — of Great Britain. Incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson had frequently and fervently offended the ideological and personal sensibilities of many left-leaning voters, but like Edwards, he was blessed by the quality of his opposition. Given the choice between a conservative pro-Brexit Tory and the avowed anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn, British Jews voted in large numbers for Johnson.

“Vote for the obnoxious nationalist buffoon,” the slogans from Labour’s evacuees might have said. “It’s important.”

Johnson’s victory spared Britain of the horror of a prime minister whose hatred of Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel have infected Labour Party politics for years. But for those of us who worry about the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism from both the extreme left and extreme right, Corbyn’s defeat provides only a small amount of solace. As many observers in this country often say about various aspects of President Donald Trump’s political persona, Corbyn was less the cause of growing anti-Semitism in Great Britain than he is a symptom of it.

Corbyn’s loss will give Labour a new opportunity to confront the growing anti-Semitism in its ranks and hopefully to quarantine it to prevent its further spread. More troublesome is that it appears Corbyn’s defeat had little to do with his belligerence toward the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. Conservatives made their largest gains in the northern part of the country, in rural areas and working-class communities that had fueled the passage of Brexit three years ago. The landslide was caused largely by Labour’s inability to talk to these voters and the party’s muddled message on European separation.

The anti-Semite might have lost, in other words, but he didn’t lose because he was anti-Semitic. Jewish voters and other supporters of a strong and secure Israel will benefit from Corbyn’s defeat, but we shouldn’t pretend that we caused it.

“Corbyn was less a cause of British anti-Semitism than a sympton of it.”

Johnson triumphed by assembling a Trumpish coalition that would not have felt at home with Margaret Thatcher’s (or even David Cameron’s) Tories. But this working-class cohort and its nationalist and isolationist tendencies are beginning to look like the future of conservative-leaning politics in both Britain and the U.S. for the foreseeable future. This type of nationalism is often accompanied by anti-Semitism from the far right, a bookend for the hatred that Corbyn and his colleagues bring from the left.

Jewish communities in the U.S. and worldwide will make limited progress in confronting this two-headed menace until we decide that we must fight back against this hatred from the ideological fringes on both sides. The selective outrage that motivates progressives and conservatives alike to minimize anti-Semitism when it appears in their own ranks while raging only against those in other party will undermine any forceful counter from the Jewish community and our allies. And our defenses against this resurgent anti-Semitism will continue to be compromised.

Corbyn is gone. So is former Trump right-wing strategist Steve Bannon. But the twin movements they inspired will continue to fester until we decide to take on both of their challenges, not just the more comfortable of the two.


Dan Schnur is a professor at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University.