John Bercow entered parliament as a Conservative Party MP in 1997. But having finally stepped down this month, he has delivered a solid takedown of the antisemitism smear that the Tory leadership and its allies have been pushing against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And this matters not only because Bercow is Jewish himself, but because he has known Corbyn “very well” for over two decades.
“Racism is a challenge across society”
Bercow was answering a question about antisemitism allegations against the Labour Party. He first stressed that “racism is a challenge across society”. And he continued:
I myself have never experienced antisemitism from a member of the Labour Party – point one. And point two – though there is a big issue, and it has to be addressed, I do not myself believe Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic. That is my honest view.
He also added that:
I’ve known him for the 22 years that I’ve been in parliament.
Jewish ex-Speaker John Bercow was asked by @campbellclaret about @UKLabour antisemitism. Bercow, criticising him for placing Jews above other minorities, said he had never experienced antisemitism from Labour members and he said he did not believe @jeremycorbyn to be antisemitic pic.twitter.com/mIYtEeV2dA
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— Jews Sans Frontieres (@jewssf) November 7, 2019
Bercow started out on the right wing of the Conservative Party, though he has become more socially liberal over time. In 2018, he introduced Corbyn in parliament as someone “whom I’ve come to know very well, who’s passionate about young people, who says what he means and means what he says”:
Jacob Rees-Mogg recently denounced Oliver Letwin & John Bercow in the most antisemitic terms and yet the @BoardofDeputies said nothing. I don't know what Oliver Letwin has done to upset the Bored but check out this vid to see why they might not like Bercow. H/T @Think_Become pic.twitter.com/KbFkW9Bpyy
— Jews Sans Frontieres (@jewssf) September 14, 2019
Yet the smear campaign continues…
The charge of antisemitism has perhaps been the most hurtful smear campaign against Corbyn and his supporters, with critics trying to convince the UK that there is an ‘institutional antisemitism crisis’ in the Labour Party today. As Jewish professor David Graeber recently insisted, Corbyn’s foes are ‘weaponising’ antisemitism accusations in a way “so cynical and irresponsible that I genuinely believe it to be a form of antisemitism in itself”.
In reality, numerous reports and polls show that antisemitism exists across society; but that it’s most common among far-right groups. Antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party reportedly relate to 0.06% of the party’s 500,000+ members. And if anything, antisemitism among Labour supporters may have actually fallen under Corbyn’s leadership. The party has also taken consistently firm action against such racism in recent years.
The following charts shared by Jewish Voice for Labour reflect this picture:
Cynical political games
None of the above has stopped Corbyn’s opponents from pushing the idea of a ‘crisis’, however, or cynically using the issue as a political football. And mainstream media outlets haven’t helped; because they’ve put out “misleading”, ‘distorted’, and “inaccurate” coverage exaggerating the scale of allegations.
People like Bercow may not believe the smears against Corbyn. And the evidence may not support the idea of a ‘crisis’ (especially when compared with endemic Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, which gets a fraction of the media attention and which the Tories have so far failed to investigate). But as award-winning Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has stressed, Corbyn is facing a “systematic campaign” against him for ‘daring to criticise’ Israel’s racist, criminal government and its brutal occupation of Palestine.
As long as Corbyn’s principled leadership continues, this smear campaign is likely to continue. But with the truth on their side, his supporters have a powerful tool of resistance.
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