Jeremy Corbyn has shared platforms with some arguably dubious people, but we shouldn’t condemn his attempts at dialogue as ‘guilt by association’.
In the past year a number of allegations have been made concerning Corbyn’s connections with terrorist organisations, anti-semitic individuals and banned media agencies, including that:
1. He has IRA links.
2. He supports Hamas.
3. He is a cheerleader for anti-semites.
4. He has funded Holocaust deniers.
5. He has tolerated anti-semitism in the Labour party.
6. He has been on the payroll of state-funded Iranian media.
There’s good reason to question media coverage of these issues.
An LSE survey found that 74% of newspaper articles ‘offered either no or a highly distorted account of Corbyn’s views and ideas’ and that only 9% were ‘positive’ in tone. Research carried out at Birkbeck similarly found a strong bias in ‘mainstream media coverage’. So how trustworthy are the above claims?
Corbyn’s position on Ireland is that whilst he unequivocally condemns ‘all bombing’ carried out by the IRA, he insists on acknowledging the role of atrocities like Bloody Sunday and the “treatment of IRA prisoners” in precipitating radicalisation. As he has explained repeatedly, he felt in the 80s and early 90s that discussion was a better route towards a peace process.
Those wishing to challenge this by depicting Corbyn as an IRA sympathiser have pointed to evidence that he stood for a minute’s silence to commemorate IRA terrorists who had been shot dead in an SAS ambush in 1987. They also point out that he invited individuals associated with the IRA into parliament only a matter of weeks after the Brighton bombings.
Controversial sounding. But let’s be clear: the 1987 Loughgall ambush incurred civilian casualties and a civilian fatality, commemorated in the silence. The meetings in parliament were to discuss ‘prison conditions and the rehabilitation of prisoners’. In other words, these actions were entirely consistent with Corbyn’s repeatedly expressed opposition to violence as a means of counteracting terrorism. Taking Corbyn’s actions out of these contexts, ignoring his repeated condemnation of the IRA’s violent tactics and insisting that he met with these individuals (in parliament) as an expression of support for their cause requires a series of staggering imaginative leaps.
Another widely circulated claim is that as a member of the editorial board of London Labour Briefing (along with Tony Benn), Corbyn was responsible for an editorial that stated: ‘the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it’. And yet (as Nathan Akehurst has argued elsewhere) this sentence can only possibly be read as an endorsement of bombing when taken completely out of context. The article argues that given that the IRA were “determined never to lay down arms” until listened to, republican voices “must be heard”. Consequently, its authors clearly endorse Sinn Fein’s ballot box strategy. The bombing reference read in light of these remarks isn’t a defence of violence, but is a condemnation of the causes of it. As such, it is again consistent with Corbyn’s insistence on dialogue – a conviction that anticipated Mo Mowlam’s much lauded policy of ‘talking to terrorists’.
This controversy arises from Corbyn’s decision to host a parliamentary meeting attended by members of Hezbollah, to which Israeli representatives were also invited. It was David Cameron who first drew widespread attention to this issue, and to Corbyn calling Hezbollah ‘friends’. During a select committee meeting following the incident, Corbyn explained: “The language I used […] was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process.” He added that “anyone who commits racist acts or is anti-semitic is not a friend of mine.” This was not an excuse invented after the fact. Prior to the incident in question Corbyn outlined his reasons for talking directly to Hamas and Hezbollah – arguing that it was “absolutely the right function of using parliamentary facilities to invite people from other parts of the world so that we can promote that peace.”
Of course Corbyn remains an outspoken critic of Israel’s illegal settlements in Palestinian territory. But the idea that trying to facilitate peace talks with a group who represent the extreme end of the same side of the debate that you are on means that you should be judged as somehow being in agreement with them – even though you are trying to win them over to a pacifist agenda – is deeply questionable.
Many have suggested that the intolerance lurking beneath Corbyn’s apparent commitment to dialogue is made evident by his defence of anti-semitic ‘Muslim hate preachers’. The most commonly repeated claim has its origins in an open letter alleging Corbyn’s support for the supposed hate preacher Raed Salah. The letter by Alan Johnson (of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) points to numerous occasions when Corbyn defended Salah – who is head of the Islamic Movement in Israel – on the grounds that “his is a voice that must be heard”.
As Ollie Hill has pointed out, the anti-semitic remarks that Johnson attributes to Salah were at the centre of an immigration tribunal following Theresa May’s attempts to deport him in 2011. What Johnson conveniently omits to mention is that following an appeal by Salah the court “found that key pieces of evidence had been mistranslated and/or selectively presented”. The report is available to read online. It finds every single one of the five areas of evidence alleging Salah’s anti-semitism to be unfounded. For instance, an anti-semitic poem attributed to Salah was deemed not to be a translation “of any poem written by the appellant”, whilst an allegedly violence-inciting speech was revealed to be a plea to allow worshippers in an Israeli mosque to worship in peace.
Johnson’s article completely ignores the tribunal’s comprehensive overturning of the initial ruling. As Hill puts it, it is as such ‘deliberately misleading’. This hasn’t stopped journalists in The Guardian and The Daily Mail from repeating Johnson’s claims in order to slander Corbyn and Salah.
This controversy arises from an article in the Jewish Chronicle concerning Corbyn’s alleged links to the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. The claim that Corbyn made donations to Deir Yassin Remembered (a charity set up by Eisen to commemorate the massacre of a Palestinian village in 1948) were initially made by Eisen himself in a blogpost that has since been made private. Corbyn doesn’t deny attending the event. He also says he may have put money into a collection bucket. But as he puts it: “fifteen years ago, [Paul Eisen] was certainly not a Holocaust denier. Had he been a Holocaust denier or stated he was I would have had absolutely nothing to do with him”.
In an open letter written by prominent members of the Jewish community to the Jewish Chronicle, this version of events is lent credence: ‘You report Paul Eisen as saying that Jeremy Corbyn donated to Deir Yassin Remembered. So did many people before discovering the existence of anti-semites and Holocaust-deniers in the organisation.’ Its authors go on to challenge in strong terms the Jewish Chronicle’s logic of ‘guilt by association’.
The Labour party
The charge that Corbyn turned a blind eye to anti-semitism within his own party gathered momentum after MP Naz Shah’s anti-semitic tweet in late April. It was lent credence in a Guardian article by Nick Cohen. Undoubtedly there is evidence that anti-semitism is alive and well on the left. But is it fair to associate this development with Corbyn? And can it reasonably be said that he was slow to react? This question is answered comprehensively in Jamie Stern Weiner’s article for openDemocracy, in which he finds that the allegedly anti-semitic tweets came from low-level party members ‘almost all of whom joined Labour before Corbyn’s leadership campaign, almost none of whom were close to the Corbyn leadership’.
He also finds that all nine offenders were either suspended or expelled by Corbyn within 48 hours. It’s worth adding that Corbyn commissioned Shami Chakrabarti to write an independent report on anti-semitism in the Labour Party on 29 April – two days after Shah’s tweet became a news story, and one day before Cohen accused him of “continuing a tradition of communist accommodation with anti-semitism”.
As for the report’s findings – it did identify evidence of anti-semitism within the party, but did not attribute this is any way to the leadership. In fact, Chakrabarti chose instead to address the “occasionally toxic atmosphere” within the party created by those who “build cases of criticism against people on the basis of those with whom they have ‘shared a platform’”. She writes: “I think it dangerous to argue guilt by association and in so doing to undermine the kind of dialogue and debate that is the basis of peace, progress, and greater understanding in the world”. Far from condemning Corbyn for tolerating or associating with anti-semites, the Chakrabarti report appears to endorse his approach of engaging in dialogue, whilst strongly criticising those who have attacked him on this basis. Some will argue that the content of the report is sullied by the fact that Corbyn appointed Chakribarti a peer shortly after its publication. I suggest that they point specifically to which parts of the report they feel are dubious
The controversy here concerns an occasion when Corbyn appeared on the Iranian channel Press TV — accepting a fee to host a current affairs call-in. Press TV has been accused of airing false confessions, providing a platform for holocaust deniers and defending homophobic hate crimes. The channel’s alleged bias during its coverage of the 2009 Iranian elections led to several British journalists leaving the channel – including LBC’s Nick Ferrari and the Sunday Express’s Yvonne Ridley. So why did Corbyn continue to associate himself with Press TV? The key factor that journalists tend to miss when addressing this issue is the nature of the debate that followed the walk-outs of the aforementioned right wing pundits. For instance, Mehdi Hasan responded in the New Statesman by arguing that ‘engaging with Iran […] is a prerequisite for peace and progress in the region.’ After Press TV was banned by Ofcom in 2012 (on the grounds of a failure to comply with licensing laws) the self-identifying Zionist Geoffrey Alderman argued in the Guardian that it had helped to expose a large body of viewers in the Middle East “to opinions and arguments — especially in relation to Israel — that they might otherwise never hear”. He suggested that the loss of the channel would “only serve to increase anti-western sentiment in Iran”.
It’s of interest that one of Corbyn’s earliest appearances on Press TV was alongside Mehdi. Seen in the context of the debate, Corbyn’s decision to continue to appear on Press TV seems deliberate, principled and in keeping with the general pattern of Corbyn attempting to open up dialogue in places where ordinarily it is prohibited. How many prominent MPs and journalists have appeared on Al Jazeera, which has been accused of providing a platform for Osama Bin Laden? Or Russia Today, seen by many as a Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece? More importantly, what would be the long-term consequences if this kind of activity were to stop?
What are we to make of this?
In analysing the claims identified above we’ve seen that Corbyn has repeatedly been connected with the worst abuses of groups and individuals with whom he’s had no more than a passing connection. These criticisms appear to hold firm even when these connections were made in the interest of generating peace discussions or attempting to facilitate cross-cultural conversation. It all reeks of what Chakrabarti derided as a “toxic” culture of guilt by association – indicating that this is not just confined to the Labour party. So is this just lazy journalism or is Corbyn the victim of an ideologically motivated campaign? Another way of framing this question is to ask: what do we learn when we subject the authors of these articles to scrutiny? The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan is responsible for circulating rumours alleging Corbyn’s links to the IRA, Hamas and Eisen. Gilligan also contributed to Business Insider’s coverage of Corbyn’s Press TV appearances, explaining how he personally had decided to leave long before Corbyn after the “terrible coverage of the 2009 Iranian elections”. Despite this apparent outrage, he clearly wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave. In fact you can watch him here, interviewing none other than Jeremy Corbyn in mid-2010. The fact that one of the chief ringleaders of this media offensive is capable of casually lying in order to discredit Corbyn says all that you need to know.