On subjects like this, the rant is an ethically dubious format. Faced with poison pen pundits, you want to counter-rant. Excuse me? Run it by me again? Jeremy Corbyn, you say, dog-whistled the notorious antisemitic trope that Jews are uneducated and lack a sense of irony? But let's look at it.

The accusation comes via the Daily Mail (irony is a big theme in this story), in reference to a speech Corbyn made at a Palestinian Return Centre meeting some years ago. In it, he refers to a speech made in the Houses of Parliament by the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian. This is the quote:

“This was dutifully recorded by the, thankfully silent, Zionists who were in the audience on that occasion, and then came up and berated him afterwards for what he had said.
“They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either.
“Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively. So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.” (Full speech here.)

The argument goes that, by speaking in this way, Corbyn implicitly 'othered' the Zionist activists, implying that they aren't really English. Implying that they're foreign, because they're Jews. 

What is more, Stephen Bush claims, because most British Jews support the right of Israel to exist, they will experience that criticism of Zionist activists as being aimed at them. (I cite Stephen Bush because, as always, he puts the case most carefully. Hardly any of the other pieces are worth engaging with.) Not just a wisecrack at the expense of a few anti-Palestinian zealots, then, but an attack on the whole Jewish population.


I will be brisk with this. Corbyn is referring to a handful of Zionist activists. To claim that attacking a handful of Zionists implicates "most British Jews", on the basis that they support “the right of Israel to exist” won't cut it. Many support Israel's "right to exist"; most don’t self-identify as 'Zionists'. Still less are they activists in its cause. Of those who do, many are not people whom most Jews identify with: antisemitic Christian fundamentalists, Bannonites, and so on. Fatah supports Israel's "right to exist". No one would call it Zionist, and I don't think most Jewish people identify with it. You really can't claim on this basis that Corbyn’s remarks implicated “most British Jews”. Or, if you do, your claim is performative, enacting what it purports to describe.

What, then, of the status of “English irony”? Again, I will be curt. Most pundits have tellingly missed a not-obscure point. The person credited with a mastery of "English irony" was someone who isn't English and hasn't lived here all his life, a man born in Jerusalem. The literal representative of a people historically colonised by the English. A people whose tragedy, whose ruin, was readied by the British empire. The meeting was about Britain's legacy in Palestine. About that, of course, most pundits know very little. Corbyn's speech briefly referred to the Balfour declaration which, with the chilling arrogance of all colonisers, cheerfully declared, yes, we will decide the future of Palestine, that’s in our gift. 

To claim that Manuel Hassassian masters “English irony” ironises the concept, much as Terry Eagleton did for “English literature” by joking that its best exemplars were written by the Irish. And it is not an uncommon historical and situational irony for the oppressed to master the tools of the oppressors. It is missing from every single hot take and gotcha, but the contrast between a Palestinian man and his English haranguers, is quite different from a contrast between Jews and the English. But of course, the pundits don't get irony, and don't want to study history.


Corbyn's critics, having chosen the terrain of minute textual analysis, gawking and sputtering over carefully isolated formulations, now treat criticism as hair-splitting. That's to be expected. Their strength is their lack of rigour, illogicality, and willingness to adopt and drop a line of thinking on the turn of a dime.

But we don't have to conduct the argument on that level. A reasonably fair-minded person might, having no patience with hot take journalism, and taking the above to heart, still dislike that formulation about "English irony". Even wrapped in folds of irony, the accusation that even a handful of Jewish activists lack a purportedly 'English' quality, touches on a concrete history of very English othering, from expulsions to internments. That complicates Corbyn's rhetorical table-turning, calling for careful caveating. Corbyn would probably not use such a formulation today, even with such caveating, and it's worth acknowledging why that is. He was careless. Yet this point requires no demonology to make, nor vague intimations of sinister, beard-twiddling perversity.

But demonology has a purpose beyond simply "getting Corbyn". Whether it's enacted by column or "call out" culture, it enables one to draw a neat line, expediently externalising political sins by pinning them on someone you didn't like anyway. In a country whose political and media class routinely use Muslims, migrants and black people as a punching bag, the dynamics of this are not obscure. It recalls the old religious critique of self-righteousness: there is no one more dangerous than the virtuous. If you think you're good, you'll enjoy a good stoning. If you think you have clean hands, you’re up to your elbows in blood (as Khrushchev once said of himself). And if you think you aren’t racist, you're a British journalist.


Some people want this whole argument to go away. I feel your pain. It isn't going away.

Even if Labour were, as some union leaders urge, to adopt what is incorrectly called "the full IHRA definition", it won't go away. They can't hope to get "back to business". This is business. This is what it's like, and what it's going to be like.

Even if we all agree on a generic, bien-pensant formulation about "walking and chewing gum", it won't go away. The line that you can 'walk and chew gum' is true at a certain level of generality. But it is too neat. And its neatness implies that people of good faith can agree. On what? That antisemitism exists on the Left, is unacceptable, but is not the same thing as being opposed to Zionism. That antisemitism is serious where it exists, but constitutes only a fraction of utterances on the Left.

We both can and cannot agree on such bromides. It is true, for example, that most people would accept a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. What we don't agree on is where the distinction lies or how important it is. If you're a certain kind of committed Zionist, the distinction is largely formal and abstract, not real-world. So, of course, you don't encounter antisemitism as a problem affecting a small minority on the Left. If you're not, your sense of where the boundary lies will vary, depending in part on your political commitments and view of history. If you're anti-Zionist, experience sensitises you to the ways in which such allegations are used to shut you up. And if you're a Jewish anti-Zionist, your patience with that is in the minus figures. (Imagine being Jewish, and a belligerent non-Jewish man calls you an antisemite just because they support Israel and you don't. Talk about goysplaining.)

To have a debate, you have to have something on which you agree, a common point of departure. But even if the entire argument were had between people of good faith, always exercising rigorous self-reflexivity -- which describes precisely none of us, and some far less than others -- there are many shifting and unevenly distributed predicates at work, and there will always be reasonable arguments about the detail, about specific cases. There is no consensus, no apolitical framework, for understanding how any form of racism works. How could there be a consensus over antisemitism when arguments about it have been so lethally tangled up with the fate of the Palestinians?

So you can't, in a sense, avoid tragedy in this discussion. You can't have the argument without losing people. There can and should be nuance, rigour, care and where charity isn't possible, judiciousness. But there is no clever balancing act that will end the controversy. Balancing is what the Labour NEC thought it was doing when it devised the new Code of Conduct. It's not possible.

Don't get me wrong here. I do think there is a clear distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. I do think one can defend Jewish comrades against antisemitism where it appears, while defending free speech on Israel. I do not think it's a "thin line", as Margaret Hodge asserted. It's because there is a clear distinction that we can argue over where the threshold is crossed. But I don't expect, nor am I entitled to expect, universal agreement. Precisely for that reason, however, nor are those who think anti-Zionism is racist, so entitled. Nor should Labour build a disciplinary apparatus around policing that assertion.

The good news is, there being no grounds for electoralist panic, we are free to approach the issue in a principled, thoughtful and where possible generous way. The debate can stay open, with reflexivity, humility, and just a bit of that egalitarianism of universal failure that I was talking about. And the braying, hooting, counter-Corbyn tendency, who show no such humility? Well, there's a reason they aren't getting anywhere.

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