What happened when Jeremy Corbyn’s office reached out to me to talk about antisemitism

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Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, I have been writing for a number of publications about the ongoing controversy over antisemitism in the party. I try and maintain a tone that is fair and nuanced, however difficult this often is. While I do consider that the Labour Party under Corbyn has a significant antisemitism problem, I try and maintain empathy and lines of communication with those who do not.

It’s a hard balance to strike. Sometimes my work is too even-handed and risks blandness and naivity. Sometimes I come across as the opposite, as too partisan. But I keep trying.

On 10 July this year I had a piece published in the Guardian about the latest twist in the Labour antisemitism story; the NEC’s adoption of its own definition of antisemitism that differed from the one from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), favoured by Jewish critics of antisemitism in the party. My argument is that, whatever the difference might be between the definitions, trust has deteriorated to the point that no reconciliation is currently possible.

Maybe the article was one of my better efforts, because later that day I got a reaction that I’d never had before in writing about this issue.

I received this email (with redactions):

Hi Keith,

My name is [name] and I work in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, where I am [job title]. I’ve read your articles on the Guardian website about the Labour Party and antisemitism, and I found them very fair, intelligent and insightful.

It would be good to make contact with you and discuss the ongoing situation and improving it. To be clear, I am not a Press Officer and am not contacting you in your capacity as a journalist/ commentator, but rather as someone with knowledge of the issues we face.

If you think this may be helpful, please get in contact with me.

Many best wishes

While I didn’t have any expectations that the invitation would lead to me to become the one who solved the Labour Party antisemitism crisis, I was of course pleased that someone close to Corbyn had been reading my work. So I replied a few minutes after getting the email to say that I would be very happy to meet or to talk on the phone.

And then I waited…

It’s now 19 days since I sent the reply and I’ve had no response. I have sent a further email and also left a message in the person in question’s office. Still nothing….

It strikes me that this story of an email and the silence that followed it – trivial though it is –  is a microcosm of the dynamic between the Jewish community and the Labour Party. Like Jeremy Corbyn himself, the email was affable, seeking connection and dialogue. Then after reaching out there is… well what exactly? No one denies the fact that the Labour Party under Corbyn has tried to reach out to those with concerns about antisemitism, but what happens after the offer is made is often so ambiguous that it is interpreted in wildly different ways.

Here is how the silence following the email could be interpreted:

  • As impatience on my part: s/he is overloaded with email and other work and will eventually respond in his/her own time. Or maybe s/he is on holiday
  • As well-meaning incompetence: s/he is too busy and should never have made an offer like this if s/he didn’t have the capacity to follow it through.
  • As second thoughts: perhaps the sender saw other things I’d written after sending the email and had second thoughts about reaching out.
  • As his/her being overruled: perhaps someone more senior heard about the email and thought it was a bad idea.
  • As trolling: s/he never intended to follow up and was trying to screw with my head.
  • As antisemitism: maybe s/he got to the point where s/he thought “Sod the Jews, I’m fed up with trying to reach out to them. From now on I’ll only talk to Jews who are Corbynites”.

The interpretation you choose will depend on your view of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Personally, I think the well-meaning incompetence interpretation is most likely, but what do I know? Until I hear from him/her I will never know (and I don’t have any other contacts in the leader’s office).

This kind of uncertainty is endemic when trying to engage with a certain kind of power structure. Mystery is one of the ways in which power is obfuscated, evaded. And that is particularly true for power that sees itself as empowering, as the power that will end power. I can’t help thinking that it would have been much easier to deal with the nakedly power-lusting apparachiks of New Labour, who revelled in their control of the party machine. And even in today’s Labour Party, I find old-style machine politicians such as John McDonnell and Len McClusky much easier to relate to than the opaqueness of Jeremy Corbyn.

One of the reasons why the Labour Party antisemitism dispute has spiralled out of control is that it is so difficult to parse the actions that Jeremy Corbyn takes on the issue. Ironically, this leads others to make unambiguously absolute judgements of him – he is an antisemite, he is an anti-racist, he is a nice guy, he is devious, he is straightforward, he is in charge, he is a pawn for more sinister forces. Certainty helps to quash the insecurity that comes from not knowing who the man who might be the next prime minister actually is.

In recent decades, the majority Zionist-leaning part of the Jewish community in Britain has become used to navigating power structures and leveraging them where required. Learning once again what it is like to be frozen out, to be a bewildered supplicant, is a horrible adjustment to have to make. Although I have more sympathy for at least some elements of the Corbyn project than most British Jews do, my own fleeting interaction with Jeremy Corbyn’s office brought home to me how maddening it must be to be a Jewish communal leader attempting to get a hearing with the leader.

But perhaps my experience suggests that, if there is any resolution to be found, it lies in quite simple things. Clear communication from the leader’s office could at least help to quell some of the insecurity of those who stand as supplicants before it. It could also reduce some of the temptation to intrigue and circumvent the ruling regime.

Or to put it another way – the fight against antisemitism begins with answering your emails.

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