Western progressives who support the likes of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the United Kingdom's Labour Party, couch their hostility toward Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric as legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. Earlier this year, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) rushed to the defense of Omar, who not only accused American politicians of supporting Israel because of the influence of Jewish money, but also insinuated that American Jews are guilty of "allegiance to a foreign country," meaning Israel. "We must not equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel," Sanders said after Omar received a wave of bipartisan backlash. "Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace." Sanders also described accusations that Omar's remarks were anti-Semitic as efforts to "stifle debate," echoing another progressive talking point: that pro-Israel voices accuse others of anti-Semitism to protect Israel from criticism, fearing honest, public debate about their views.
Supporters of Corbyn have employed the same tactics to dismiss accusations that he is anti-Semitic, and that, under his leadership, the Labour Party has institutionalized anti-Semitism. Or they just describe such accusations as part of a "Zionist conspiracy" to smear Corbyn because of his hostility toward Israel. But, again, that hostility is, according to Corbyn and his supporters, all legitimate criticism, which stems from support for the Palestinians, who are suffering under Israeli oppression.
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So how do Corbyn's progressive supporters explain the latest revelation about the Labour leader? This week, Iggy Ostanin, an investigative journalist, reported that, in 2005, Corbyn defended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's famous speech in which he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." That year, Ahmadinejad, then the Iranian president, not only called for Israel's destruction, but also pledged that "anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury." Ahmadinejad, who was speaking at a program called "The World Without Zionism," also said that attacks by Palestinians would destroy the Jewish state. "The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world," he said. "The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of the war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land."
World leaders and the media condemned the speech for its visceral anti-Semitism and bloodthirsty warmongering. As Ostanin noted, Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and won the Nobel Peace Prize, said, "Our immediate response cannot be anything but anger and outrage." American diplomat Richard Holbrooke compared the speech to Hitler's rhetoric. The list of prominent figures, both liberals and conservatives, who denounced the speech was quite long.
And yet, Corbyn seemed angrier with Ahmadinejad's critics than with Ahmadinejad himself, writing in the Morning Star that "all the righteous indignation [toward the Iranian president] never mentioned a few [of his] salient points."
"The context overlooked by the sensationalist headlines was that his speech also pointed out what Israel is doing to Palestine," wrote Corbyn, then a little-known, far-left Labour backbencher. Corbyn then cited Israel's "illegal and undeclared nuclear weapons," "the apartheid wall," and "the systematic depopulation of Palestinians from Jerusalem." He did not address Ahmadinejad's call for a "new wave [of attacks] in Palestine," which, the Iranian leader promised, "will soon wipe off this disgraceful blot [Israel] from the face of the Islamic world."
Corbyn's harshest criticism of the speech was simply to note that Ahmadinejad seemed not to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Taken literally," Corbyn wrote, "[Ahmadinejad’s speech] clearly departs from the two-state solution that the Palestinian leadership has been pursuing for the past 20 years and, in any event, would be illegal under the [United Nations] charter."
What?! That is all the "outrage" a supposed champion of social justice could muster? No condemnation of Ahmadinejad calling for a second Holocaust? No mention of Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state? Imagine if an Israeli leader had not even called for Iran's destruction, but rather suggested that Israel may eventually need to go to war with Iran to ensure its national survival. Corbyn would be writing furiously to condemn the Zionist war machine and support the Islamic Republic. But when the Jews are targeted, there is no issue.
Years later, it does not seem that Corbyn has learned much. This week, a spokesperson for the Labour Party defended Corbyn's article in comments to the Jewish Chronicle.
A Labour spokesperson said Mr. Corbyn had been clear in the article that "Ahmadinejad was wrong."
He said it would be illegal under international law, it departs from the two-state policy pursued by the Palestinian leadership, and that Kofi Annan [who was secretary-general of the U.N. in 2005] had pointed out the speech was wrong and condemned it, they said.
"Coming just two years after the disastrous Iraq War, Jeremy Corbyn warned against another rush to war in the Middle East, which many saw as being by driven by George Bush and Tony Blair, and opposed the Israeli government's continuing occupation of Palestinian territory and human rights abuses."
"Those were the right calls and arguments to make."
So, just to clarify, a head of state threatening to annihilate Israel is not a problem, even when that state already funds terrorist groups that attack it, but building apartment buildings in the West Bank is just too much.
Corbyn's fear of another war erupting in the Middle East is fair enough, but is an Iranian war against Israel somehow less "disastrous" than a Western war against Iran? Because at no point, even years later through a spokesperson, does Corbyn seem to push back against Ahmadinejad's speech. Instead, he criticized Israel and the Iraq War. At least criticize both! The demonization of Israel and lack of, well, any kind of condemnation of Ahmadinejad—who has denied the Holocaust, by the way—is striking.
So how do Corbyn's Western, progressive supporters couch his defense of Ahmadinejad—and yes, the article was a defense—as something not rooted in anti-Semitism? "He is concerned about Palestinian rights," they might say. Fine, but does supporting the Palestinians necessitate destroying Israel? That would make being pro-Palestinian synonymous with being genocidal. "He is just trying to avoid another war in the Middle East." OK, fine, but what about wars against Israel? Are those uniquely acceptable forms of belligerence? "He did criticize Ahmadinejad's remarks, saying they were illegal under international law." Seriously, that is the best you can do? You actually legitimize his speech by trying seriously to intellectualize and explain it.
There is no way to defend Corbyn's shameful article. For some reason he is eager to condemn threats and belligerence and warmongering, except when Israel is the target. At a certain point one has a right to ask: why the double standard? Is it just a coincidence that Israel is the world's only Jewish state? But, hey, maybe I am being too harsh. After all, Ahmadinejad's speech was just legitimate criticism of the Israeli government.