(September 27, 2019 / JNS) Jeremy Corbyn’s prospects of becoming Britain’s next leader received an important boost last Friday, when the head of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, intimated that her party would back him as prime minister if that was the only way to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 without a divorce agreement in place.
It goes without saying that this is a deeply worrying moment. Jewish communities, inside the United Kingdom and increasingly outside of it, rightly hold Labour leader Corbyn responsible for enabling, encouraging, protecting, excusing and ignoring the coarse anti-Semites that have disfigured a once great social democratic party.
But there is more to it than that. The Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro has no better friend in Western Europe than Jeremy Corbyn. The Iranian mullahs can be assured of a warm welcome in London under a Corbyn government; after all, they once employed him as a presenter on their Press TV propaganda network. Ditto for the Russians, valiantly defended by Corbyn when Moscow was accused of the attempted murder, on British soil, of two of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opponents with a deadly chemical nerve agent. Simply put, the enemies of liberal democracy have every reason to rub their hands in glee should Corbyn walk through the door of 10 Downing Street. And yet, in a most unpleasant irony for the millions of politically moderate people who believe that Britain should remain in the E.U.—and I count myself among them—Jeremy Corbyn is fast becoming the only means of doing so.
Deeper questions need to be asked about how we arrived at this situation, especially if we are to navigate ourselves out of it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party would have us all believe that an anti-Semite with Stalinist leanings is on the cusp of becoming Britain’s premier because of a conspiracy by members of parliament to overrule the British people’s vote to leave the E.U. To cite one of Johnson’s favorite pejoratives, that line is “humbug” that insults the intelligence.
Let’s remember that for three whole years after the Brexit vote in 2016, when British politics became viciously polarized, Corbyn singularly failed to oust Johnson’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Theresa May. Given that May was governing with a brittle majority—and that she was vulnerable to the disloyal antics of many of her own colleagues and parliamentarians—Corbyn ended up looking like the politician’s version of the kicker who fluffs a one-point conversion. All he could do was snipe from the sidelines, dogged by his cowardice in refusing to take a clear position on Brexit, despite the common knowledge that he supports leaving the E.U. (a position that is more common among British socialists than many people think.)
May is entitled to much of the credit for having kept Corbyn out of government, despite the golden opportunities that came his way. It also should be said that May clearly understood and took seriously the chronic risks of Corbyn coming to power, not least his acolytes entering vital departments like the security services, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Office and the Treasury.
By contrast, Johnson has behaved with cavalier disregard for the national security threat that Corbyn represents. Perhaps Johnson’s singular goal—that he will be the British premier who takes Britain out of the E.U. a month from now—may yet be achieved, but there are myriad other outcomes on the horizon as well. The statesmanship that May demonstrated in shielding the government of Britain from Corbyn, even when that involved all sorts of contortions and compromises she would have rather avoided, has been arrogantly tossed aside by her successor.
Should Corbyn come to power, it is Johnson who will bear the lion’s share of the blame. Indeed, millions of Brits are currently marveling over the fact that Johnson hasn’t actually resigned, after the U.K. Supreme Court unanimously found last week that he had misled Queen Elizabeth II over the “proroguing,” or recessing, of the British parliament. Instead, he has stood defiant, dismissing the opinion of 11 judges as a minor irritation, and constantly belting out comic-book phrases (“I’d rather be found dead in a ditch”) to underline his “Brexit-above-all-else” strategy.
By the end of October, we will be in a position to judge whether Johnson’s actions were simple buffoonery or whether he was just smarter than the rest of us. He has, to be sure, a momentous task on his hands—pulling off a no-deal Brexit against the express wishes of a parliament that has already voted against exactly this scenario. That coming fight is, in essence, why Corbyn’s chances look more promising than before.
Should Corbyn do to Johnson what he failed to do to May, a cloud of fear and uncertainty will descend upon British Jews. Many in the community will calculate that if Corbyn takes charge of the Brexit process—at a time when the British public is still bitterly divided, with recent polls showing a small margin in favor of remaining in the E.U.—he won’t have time to indulge his anti-Zionist obsessions. They might also calculate that his dependence on support from minority parties will rein in the worst instincts of his government.
That’s not unreasonable. But we can’t discount the possibility that within a few months of Corbyn forming a government, he will impose an embargo on arms sales to Israel—a longstanding aim of the powerful pro-Palestinian lobby in the Labour Party. That, in turn, will unleash a chain reaction composed of condemnation from British Jews, a potential rupturing of diplomatic relations with Israel, multiplying accusations that British Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own country and another agonized debate over whether Jews have a future in a land where their roots stretch back for more than a millennium. Boris Johnson is making that nightmare more likely with each passing day.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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