SIMON JOHNSON

Corbyn’s summer of lampooning

SUMMER is supposed to be a quiet period. August is supposed to be the “silly season” in the press.

People take holidays and those who do not have the chance to catch up on long-neglected projects.

Not so this summer for me.

The political work, especially with the Labour Party, has continued. There has been a torrent of news stories.

At the beginning of August, there was almost one per day. Sometimes more. It was prompted by the decision of the NEC of the Labour Party not to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which was then followed by debate on that issue and a stream of stories of Jeremy Corbyn’s past actions.

The Jewish Leadership Council had to consider whether to respond each time and, if so, how. We had to respond to requests to appear in the media.

All the while, we had to continue to report to our community and keep giving confidence and reassurance as the stories kept on coming.

Then I noticed a new development in the “other side’s” narrative — one which has implications for debate around Israel in the media and society.

On the day after the Labour Party declined to adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism and, instead, drafted their own code, I appeared on Sky News with a young Labour supporting analyst and commentator called Aaron Bastani.

We ended up debating at complete cross-purposes. I was talking about antisemitism and the IHRA definition. He was talking about the creation of Israel in 1948 and, in his words, the “displacement of over 700,000 Palestinian refugees in an act of ethnic cleansing”.

His approach in this interview reflects a shift in the way that the Left discusses Israel.

They are trying to shift the debate on antisemitism into a debate on the right to free speech on Israel.

They have made a subtle shift in tactics. They seem to have assumed that it is now “taken as read” that there is a blockade of Gaza, that there is Israeli occupation of “Palestine” and that there are illegal settlements.

They speak as though those statements are true and self-evident. They no longer even call for boycotts of Israel.

What they do is now focus on issues that undermine the very establishment of Israel in 1948.

By talking of “ethnic cleansing” and of such a large number of Palestinian refugees, who they are argue were forcibly swept from their homes, they are seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel ab initio.

This is a tactic for us all to be aware of. It is an insidious and subtle attempt to drain away support for Israel as a state.

It goes way beyond mere criticism of the current policies of the Israeli government. This, as we may be reminded, is supposedly what Labour is trying to protect in their argument not to adopt the IHRA definition.

Of course, the Left have to work hard to defend Corbyn or deflect criticism away. Because the other thing that I have noticed over the summer is that the issue of Labour and antisemitism has become a staple of current satire, comedy and political cartooning.

We went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I noticed that Labour, Corbyn and antisemitism was the third most common subject of topical jokes or comedy routines, only marginally behind Brexit and Donald Trump.

It has become an accepted part of the national debate and a source of material for political satirists and comedians. It started with Tracey Ullman in May. Since then, the comic material has mushroomed.

There are political sketches. One, from the Telegraph, has a Janus-like two-faced Jeremy Corbyn. One face is turned towards an adoring crowd of fans, giving a “V for victory” sign, the crowd being drawn in colour.

The other face, in black and white, faces a crowd of demonstrators holding “Enough is Enough” and “No to Antisemitism” placards.

This Corbyn face is giving the opposite V sign to this crowd.

A number of cartoonists have merged the theme of Corbyn as an allotment keeper with this issue, and have him either digging a hole that says “antisemitism” or watering a marrow that says “antisemitism” and ends up squashing him.

A recurring theme was spoofing one of Corbyn’s attempted explanations of his involvement in a wreath-laying ceremony near the grave of the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre.

Scenarios have been created for him to say “I was present but I was not actually involved”, and a number of cartoons have used the wreath image to create a joke. On Twitter, one satire site, Have I Got News for You, said the following:

“Sympathy pours in for Jeremy Corbyn from other people who have accidentally stumbled into a wreath-laying ceremony whilst taking a leisurely stroll through Northern Tunisia.”

Others have made a joke out of the number of apologies that have not been made. Private Eye invited people to buy a “Corbyn Antisemitism Apology Binder” where one can lovingly cut out and preserve all of “Jeremy’s apologies” and his promises of what he is going to do about it.

One comedian in Edinburgh devoted part of his routine to his imagining of the meeting between Corbyn and the Jewish community, and the fact that when the discussion got too difficult “Corbyn just shrugged”.

Wherever this issue goes over the coming weeks and months, the Enough is Enough campaign that we started has become part of modern political discussion, and is a source of satirical material.

All of this helps the wider public to see that antisemitism on the Left is something that has to be tackled.


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