There is a telling moment in a video clip featuring a London conference in 2013 on the Palestinian “right of return.” Panelist Jeremy Corbyn, former chairman of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, is asked a question by an audience member about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. He never actually answers it; instead, he rambles on about Israel’s hypocritical attitude towards an African asylum-seeker and a Knesset member’s apoplectic reaction to the Palestinian “right of return.” Another member of the panel claims that Arab states never expelled their Jews. A third proclaims the issue a “myth.”
Now Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of Britain’s main opposition party and quite possibly, its next prime minister. His views are getting mainstream exposure, much to the despair and exasperation of the British Jewish community. Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has bluntly called Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite.
Hardly a day goes by without another shocking revelation of Corbyn’s past associations with racists and terrorist enablers. But little has been said about the intellectual underpinnings of the ideological worldview that Corbyn has clung to for 40 years. It is time that they were debunked from a Sephardi or Mizrahi perspective.
I doubt whether Corbyn has a view on Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. He might deny that 850,000 were genuine refugees fleeing Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism in a single generation, blame the Zionists, or say that the Jews left of their own free will.
He is not likely to lose any sleep over the forced exodus or nakba (“catastrophe”) of ancient communities once numbering many thousands of Jews—from Morocco in the West to Yemen in the East.
The Jews fled in larger numbers than the Palestinians from Israel. Their property was stolen and their rich heritage erased. Barely 4,500 remain. Although hundreds of miles from the conflict over Palestine, the majority of Jews were escaping harassment, intimidation, violence and persecution—ranging from arrests and imprisonment to execution on trumped-up charges. Theirs was the largest mass movement of non-Muslims until the post-2003 flight of Christians from Iraq.
Clearly, Corbyn’s revulsion for the state of Israel lies at the heart of his belief system. It’s an ideology increasingly shared by members of the left-wing of the U.S. Democratic party.
To accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism would inhibit Corbyn calling the Jewish state “racist” and making offensive comparisons between Zionists and Nazis. He insists on sorting out the “good” anti-Zionist Jews from the “bad” Jews, the great majority of whom identify with Israel.
Yet the bitter experiences of Middle Eastern and North African Jews teach us that the distinction between Jews and Zionists cannot be maintained for long.
Arab states criminalized Zionism but soon conflated Zionists with Jews, in spite of community leaders’ ever more desperate efforts to disassociate themselves from Zionism. In Iraq, Jews wearing watches were arrested for “sending secret signals to the Zionists.” The Jewish quarters of North African cities were attacked by vengeful mobs. Anti-Zionist Jews in Egypt were imprisoned. Sooner or later, Jews were persecuted for being Jews.
Central to Corbyn’s far-left worldview is that Israel is a European, white, settler, colonial, imperialist state. Drawing on a Marxist tradition despising Jews as capitalists and string-pullers, Jews are seen to be rich and powerful, and the Palestinians the underdog. Israel is accused of being built on the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population. The injustice to the Palestinians can only be rectified if they achieve national liberation through their “right of return,” leading to the destruction of the Jewish state by demographic means.
This myth turns the truth on its head. Originating in Judea, Jews had been settled in the Middle East and North Africa from biblical times—1,000 years before the Islamic conquest. Comprising some 3 million people today—more than half the Jewish population of Israel—these indigenous “Jews of color” never left the region, most refugees finding a haven in the only state that would accept them unconditionally.
Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism did not begin with the creation of Israel. For 14 centuries of Muslim rule, Jews lived as a subjugated dhimmi (second-class non-Muslim) minority with few rights. Israel’s Mizrahi citizens have long memories; they will fight to prevent a return to “colonized” dhimmi status in a Corbyn-approved majority-Arab state. The Arab and Muslim quarrel with Israeli “imperialism” becomes absurd when viewed against the claim by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries that Jews lost more than the Palestinians, including privately owned land in Arab states equivalent to five times the size of Israel.
The far left believes that Israel has genocidal designs on the Palestinians reminiscent of the Nazis. The myth of the Arabs as innocent bystanders, who had no responsibility for the Holocaust—and indeed, paid the price for a European crime when Israel was established—is a tenet of Corbynism.
Truth be told, Arabs overwhelmingly supported Nazism and imported the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories rife in the Muslim world today. Anti-Semitism is a core belief of the Muslim Brotherhood and their ideological cousins, Islamic State.
The wartime Palestinian Mufti’s collaboration with the Nazis was not simply a pragmatic anti-colonial alliance. Had Nazism triumphed, the Mufti would have overseen the extermination of the Jews of the Arab world as well as in Palestine. The Mufti’s anti-Jewish genocidal project is enshrined in the Hamas charter and sustained by the Ayatollahs of Iran.
Finally, Corbyn sees the Arabs, like other Third World peoples, solely as victims of Western colonialism, incapable of oppressing others. The West overlooks their misdeeds. For example, the Taubira law memorializing slavery (adopted in France in 2001) mentioned the 11 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade, while ignoring the 17 million slaves trafficked by Arabs and Muslims.
Corbyn and his acolytes are cheerleaders for the real forces of (Arab and Muslim) imperialism in the Middle East. The Palestinians are the foot-soldiers in a pan-Arab and now Islamist struggle—couched in terms of “Palestinian rights”—to abolish the Jewish state and re-establish Arab-Muslim majority control. The Arabs already have 22 states, but Corbyn has never advocated for the suppressed rights of indigenous Kurds, Baloch, Berbers and Assyrians.
The Jewish nakba vindicates a sovereign Jewish state in the region. As an indigenous Middle Eastern people, Jews have an inalienable right enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, to self-determination.
Corbyn’s wrong-headed world-view may be too entrenched to change. The pity is that young people in the West are growing up with a similarly distorted view of the Middle East, fueled by campus and media bias, in which Israel is uniquely evil and the Palestinians the sole victims of injustice. More alarmingly, if Corbyn’s hostility to Jews is mainstreamed, most ordinary folk will give a shrug of indifference.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).