Be A Voice: Corbyn is right to explain his ‘Zionist’ comments, but much of the coverage has been misleading

By Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen

The latest accusation of anti-semitism against Jeremy Corbyn comes from a video filmed before he was Labour leader. In 2013, he was recorded making a controversial statement about British ‘Zionists’ at a pro-Palestinian conference in London. Here is a quote from the Daily Mail, the paper which first reported the story on Friday:

'[British Zionists] clearly have two problems. One is they don't want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don't understand English irony either.'

Without denying that this may be a contentious statement, it must be said there is a fundamental problem in the way that the Daily Mail and several other publications have framed this story. The above quote indicates that Corbyn is making a sweeping statement about all Zionists in Britain. However, the Labour leader insists that he was referring to specific people who were present at an event he had hosted in Parliament earlier that year. Corbyn claims that this group of ‘Zionists’ had ‘berated’ the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Manuel Hassassian, after he had made a speech criticising Israel. 

Why does this matter? Generalising about British ‘Zionists’ having no sense of irony would represent a stereotyping of all people who support Israel. All too often attacks on ‘Zionists’ are used as cover for racist criticism of Jewish people. But if Corbyn was genuinely making a reference to specific pro-Israel activists, there is a case to be made that his comments were made in good faith, and not out of a wish to generalise about Jewish people.

There seems no denying that Corbyn was referring to specific people, or at least one specific person. Richard Millett, a pro-Israel blogger who describes himself as ‘supporting Zionism’, has been identified as the target of Corbyn’s comments by several publications - including the Daily Mail. On Saturday, the Mail published comments from Millett admitting that he was at the event. Millett claims that he knew Corbyn personally at the time, having debated him on Iranian state television, and asserts that, because Corbyn knew his Jewish background, his comments were obviously made with anti-Semitic intentions.

Leaving aside these claims for a second, let us consider the editorial trajectory of the Daily Mail. In its first article it implies that Corbyn has made sweeping statements about Zionists without ever having met them. In another article, it claims that those same comments were made against an individual he knew, with the specific intention of abusing him for his Jewish background. At least one of these statements must be false. 

Most  of the coverage of this story has included Labour’s statement giving Corbyn’s side of the story, but a paragraph stuck on the end of a news report does not make up for a misleading headline. Headlines are what people remember. In many cases, they are  the only thing they read. When the Telegraph announces that ‘Corbyn's comments about 'British Zionists' make a Labour split possible in the spring’, there is no doubt that many readers will infer his comments were made about all British Zionists.

None of this is to say that Corbyn was necessarily right to accuse Richard Millett of not understanding ‘English irony’. Millett feels the comment was made to question his Britishness, implying that Jewish people cannot properly integrate in British society. Corbyn claims that he was referring to the English language, as opposed to English culture i.e. Millett, a native English speaker, has failed to grasp the irony in a speech made by a Palestinian man, for whom English is not a first language. However, even if Corbyn’s intentions were as innocuous as he claims, employing such ambiguous and clumsy wording on such a sensitive issue was surely not the best way to make his point. 

Whether you agree with him or not, Richard Millett is clearly a devoted activist, who is not afraid to speak up for his cause. The same can surely be said of Manuel Hassassian. We do not know what was said between Millett and Hassassian in 2013, but Jeremy Corbyn obviously  felt the need to show support for his friend and comrade. Clearly, in doing so he has upset many Jewish people, and for that he must take responsibility. However, when so much of the mainstream media misrepresent Corbyn’s comments - whether through malice or negligence - it deflects attention away from the debate we should be having. A more accurate headline  might have read something like: ‘Corbyn accused of using anti-Semitic language towards British activist’. Not as salacious as ‘Corbyn accuses British Zionists of having no sense of irony’, but a far more suitable platform on which to stage an important discussion about anti-Semitism in our society. 

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