I have been reading comments in social media from many of my Gentile friends, colleagues, and comades aghast at the decision by Britain’s Labour Party to suspend former leader Jeremy Corbyn over comments about his handling of antisemitism in his party. In many cases, their tone boils down to something like “I stand with my Jewish friends and comrades on the left, but this is too much!”
As one of those proverbial “Jewish comrades on the left,” I truly appreciate their allyship. I respect their opinions, and I share their concerns about the cynical mobilization of antisemitism by the political right, the Zionist movement, and the State of Israel to silence criticism and undermine the legitimate struggle of Palestinians for statehood and human rights. Yet, at the same time, I believe that they are somewhat missing the point with regard to l’Affaire Corbyn, and conflating two radically different issues connected only by the word “antisemitism.”
Antisemitism is not simply a vile opinion or a character flaw. That much George Orwell – hardly a paragon himself of respect for diversity – explained brilliantly in his review of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew on its publication in 1948. “The trouble is that so long as antisemitism is regarded simply as a disgraceful aberration, almost a crime, anyone literate enough to have heard the word will naturally claim to be immune from it,” Orwell wrote. These are words worth remembering, given Corbyn’s and many of my comrades’ frequent denials. Antisemitism is not even an ideology impenetrable – as all ideologies are – to reason. It is a narrative which rests at the very base of a western, Euro-American, culture built upon Christianity and Christendom.
The basic premise of Christianity is a supercessionism which elides – indeed, denies – the legitimacy of not only Jewish beliefs, but of our history, and of our very existence. And Christianity is everywhere in western culture; it is embedded in our temporal rhythms, in the Anno Domini that we reference even when we say “common era,” in our art, and in our political structures. Even the idea of secularism is a Christian secularism.
Thus, antisemitism, Christianity’s a priori assumption, pervades everything and, as a Jew, I confront it every single day, albeit mostly in its micro-agressive forms – like a well-meaning Gentile friend presuming to goysplain what is and what is not antisemitism.
What this means is that antisemitism is, as Hannah Arendt might say, banal. It is everywhere and reminds us that we are merely guests here; sometimes we are honored guests like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, sometimes we are merely tolerated. Often we are unwelcome guests, intruders like George Soros, Shylock, and Fagin. Western culture, this house to which we have contributed so much, that we helped build (at least in the last 200 years, or so), is not our house. We have been reminded repeatedly over the centuries at York, Paris, Mainz, Berlin, Kishinev, Vienna, London, Budapest, Auschwitz, Sobibor. Pittsburgh, Poway, and so many other places, that we might be evicted at any time.
So, it is not enough to have the good taste to not behave like an antisemite, or to study antisemitism as an abstract problem of formal philosophy, or express disgust at its overt manifestations. As with all evil, one must either actively resist antisemitism in all its forms, interior and exterior, or tolerate it. As Arendt notes of Anton Schmidt in Eichmann in Jerusalem, the fact that even one person (in fact, many people) was able and willing to resist evil at the cost of his own life is evidence that evil can be resisted. And if it can be resisted, non-resistance is a choice to tolerate it – a choice indistinguishable from positive evil itself.
I cannot recall a moment when Corbyn did or said anything explicitly, or positively, antisemitic. Good for him. However, his attitude toward antisemitism and antisemites was often one of tolerance and, often enough, irritation that he had to deal with those whiny Jews yet again. His praise of Mear One’s clearly, explicitly, and positively antisemitic art – which he grudgingly retracted after an outcry) – his willingness to associate with antisemites, even the way he treated allegations of antisemitism in his party as an annoyance to be disposed of as quickly as possible, all evidenced his passive toleration. There were doubtless legitimate political calculations in much of this, but all that revelas in who he was willing to throw under the omnibus.
So, I’m not sorry to see Corbyn go gentle into that good night, as I am now sure he will. While I admired his passion and agreed with many of his political ideas, I could never respect him. More importantly, I never trusted him.
That I did not should not surprise anuone; the fact is that I do not trust Christians. I know that even the most well-meaning, progressively-minded, secular non-believers are fully capable of standing aside as we are shipped “to the east.” It has happened too many times throughout our history for me to enumerate here.
However, trust can be earned, and many Christians – my spouse, her family, some, though not all, of my Christian friends – have earned it. I know which Christians would face a Nazi guillotine or garrotte on behalf of Jews. They are rare, but they have taken the time to fully examine themselves and made the effort to interrogate their beliefs, indeed the very premises of their culture.
Corbyn, for all his gifts – and they are many – plainly did not. Good riddance.