Rebuild the Center

Jewish Light Editorial

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

—W. B. Yeats; “The Second Coming,” 1919 

Jeremy Corbyn, described by conservative media as being “hard-left,” easily won reelection as leader of the British Labour Party, defeating centrist candidate David Owen by more than 61.8 percent of the total 500,000 votes cast. Corbyn has been criticized for what some pro-Israel observers describe as a considerable rise in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments among Labour Party activists. 

Indeed there is basis for concern, as Corbyn has not responded forcefully to reject the anti-Israel rhetoric among some of his Labourite colleagues. This week, Lord Parry Mitchell, a Jewish Labourite, has quit the party because he believes that Corbyn has failed to renounce Labour factions that are notably anti-Israel. And he’s not the only one expressing these perspectives. 

It’s important to understand that historically, British support for the State of Israel and positive relations with the Jewish State have been bipartisan. This goes back all the way back to the historic Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British Government officially supported the establishment of a “Jewish Homeland” in Mandated Palestine—the legal document that was the basis for Israel’s creation and admission to the United Nations 30 years later. 


But that doesn’t mean that each party and each political movement has always been friendly toward Jews and Israel. Support has been mixed through the decades, and hatred or vilification has stemmed from both the right and the left, depending on the politics and leaders du jour. Anti-Israel sentiments and positions have been taken by Conservative as well as Labour officials through the decades. Winston Churchill, who would later become a stalwart supporter of Zionism and Israel, was seen as less than friendly to Jewish interests when he first ran for office. Ernest Bevin, the notorious Labour Party Foreign Secretary at the time of Israel’s establishment, was incredibly harsh in his denunciation of Jewish claims on Palestine and was vehemently opposed to Jewish immigration into what was to become Israel. 

That is not all that different from leadership in our own nation. On one hand, Democratic President Harry S. Truman recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion issued its Proclamation of Independence. Yet former President Jimmy Carter has said atrocious things in wrongfully accusing Israel of South Africa-like apartheid. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose leadership during World War II vanquished Adolf Hitler, was not seen as friendly to Israel during his terms of office. Other Republicans, however, have been fiercely and proudly supportive of Israel. 

There are examples in both parties, and emanating from both sides of the aisle, of worrisome activity. That is as true today as ever. Some of the memes during the presidential campaign here have derived from historically far right and racist sources. Others, shunning Israel’s right to exist or representing the most strident, least (or anti-) Zionist factions of the BDS movement, have issued from the other end of the spectrum. 

Despite this background, and notwithstanding an extremely divisive presidential election season, support for a continuation and strengthening of a positive U.S.-Israel relationship has been expressed by both Democrat Hillary Clinton and her GOP opponent, Donald Trump. Each had reportedly positive meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations last week. A major extension of U.S. military aid to Israel just occurred. And Netanyahu, not at all exhibiting the rhetoric that surrounded his last year’s visit to Congress, has been notably open to working with whoever wins. 

This is all to say that it is the political center’s job to fend off the extremes on either end, as they tail off into the darkest recesses of society. This is indeed why Corbyn presents such an important case — even if he himself hasn’t a shred of anti-Semitism in his body and soul, empowering those hateful voices in the Labour movement unleashes a Pandora’s box from which Jews and Israel might not recover in the British public consciousness. And that would be a terrible thing. 

So let us not rush to judgment that Jeremy Corbyn will be an opponent of positive relations with British Jewry or with the State of Israel. We need to watch with a hopeful, but seriously wary, eye. It is absolutely essential that the “center will hold” with regard to support for Israel and for the health of our sister democracies in Great Britain and around the world. But it is wholly incumbent on Corbyn to speak forcefully and loudly against voices in his own party that would send England hurtling in the wrong direction.