April 19, 2019

The Looming Deaths of Litmus Tests

Jeremy Corbyn may become Britain’s next prime minister. If so, he could become one of the most challenging political figures Israel has ever encountered. And he could become the most hostile leader ever to head a friendly country.

Corbyn could pose a diplomatic dilemma of great magnitude for Israel: What do you do when an anti-Semite, a supporter of terrorists, a vehement anti-Zionist, an enemy — yes, I think Corbyn is Israel’s enemy — takes over leadership of a country that is both important and friendly.

Israel has a long history of dealing with unfriendly leaders of other countries. Many were heads of enemy countries. They were no surprise and no real challenge — you dealt with the leader the way you dealt with his or her country. Some leaders were not heads of enemy countries but of countries whose importance for Israel was marginal. Again, they posed relatively little challenge. 

Then there were the skeptical or reluctant heads of countries that were both important and generally friendly. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was such a leader of the United States. Francois Mitterrand was such a leader of France. Israel was not always pleased when it needed to interact with these men, but no sane observer of foreign affairs would claim that they were enemies of Israel. 

Israel has dealt with anti-Semitic leaders in the past. Luckily, most of them had one of two qualities: Either they made an effort to hide their tendencies, making it possible for Israel to ignore them, or they were leaders whom Israel could fairly easily ignore, such as Kurt Waldheim of Austria. 

Corbyn is different. He is a vicious enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. He is an enemy who might head an important and generally friendly country. If he were to become Britain’s next prime minister, how could Israel deal with him? How could it not? 

Litmus tests are important. They are signs of where the political winds are blowing.

It is not always easy to draw a clear line separating the ordinary critic of Israel — say, Barack Obama — from the hostile critic. Jimmy Carter? He worked for peace. Pat Buchanan? Ron Paul? As standard America-first politicians, had they been elected to a position of great power, they would worry Israel but not make it cringe in disbelief.

Corbyn, as a politician, is a clear-cut case — the clearest cut one can make in today’s world, when stating plainly that one hates Jews and Israel is still beyond a certain pale. Yet, Britain under Corbyn would be harder to pin down. If British voters choose to elect him, it will not be because of his attitudes toward Israel and Jews or a statement of their resentment toward Israel. It will be a statement of indifference. It will be a statement of “We have priorities other than Corbyn’s views on Israel.” 

A Corbyn victory would not mean Britain is anti-Semitic. It would mean that Britain no longer has a litmus test that determines anti-Semitism to be a disqualifier of politicians (assuming it had such a test in the post-World War II era). 

Litmus tests are important. They are signs of where the political winds are blowing. That’s why I am currently interested not just in British politics but also in the candidacy of Michigan congressional hopeful Rashida Tlaib, who last week lost the endorsement of J Street. Because of her views on Israel, not even the lefty Jewish group was willing to vouch for her. Tlaib won the Democratic primary and is running unopposed in the November general election race, so she is virtually assured of becoming a U.S. congresswoman. 

To be clear, Tlaib is no Corbyn. Not close. She did not carry flowers to the graves of terrorists. She has expressed no anti-Semitic views that I am aware of. But she supports a one-state solution — in other words, the elimination of Israel. To me, this seems like a signal of the possible looming death of the Israel litmus test or the two-state-solution litmus test as we have known it.

She will not be a prime minister of a country. She will only be a congresswoman whose impact on Israel is little or none. Corbyn worries me. Tlaib doesn’t. But the erosion of a litmus test is the erosion of a litmus test in both cases.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.