The past two years have brought a seemingly unending stream of revelations about disparaging comments made by the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, about Jews, Zionists, and Israel. But in recent days has come the lowest blow, with the emergence of a video from 2013. Corbyn, in speaking of people who approached the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the United Kingdom to challenge points he had made in a talk, declared that such Zionists “clearly have two problems. One is that 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.”
Corbyn may have said “Zionists” and not “Jews,” but listening to the speech, the two seemed interchangeable. It wasn’t their ideology he attacked, but what he deemed their lack of Englishness—that “Zionists” might live in Britain for a very long time, even all their lives, and still remain alien, unable to grasp either history or irony. For this Jew, this was a cut to the quick. For what is it but a sense of history and irony that has sustained Jews through the vicissitudes of their collective experience?
Corbyn gets it so very wrong. The most observed Jewish ritual of the entire year—the Passover Seder—is a reenactment of history. Every Jewish festival is linked to a moment in the collective history of the Jewish people. The central prayer of every Jewish service describes God as the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and in updated versions, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) and not simply as the all-powerful creator of heaven and earth. Jews are obsessed with history.
And no sense of irony? This one really felt like a sucker punch. Jews have relied on irony to help them traverse the most difficult moments in their history. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Soviet Union was persecuting Jews who wanted to leave the country. Their children were bullied at school. World-renowned scientists were denied access to their labs and forced to take jobs as nighttime guards in deserted office buildings. Some were sent to Siberian labor camps. They were followed by KGB agents every time they left their homes. One of the ways they faced the pain and tension of these experiences was with irony-laced humor. When I visited them in 1972, prior to being detained by the KGB and thrown out of the country, they regaled me with jokes. One has stayed with me:
One day, a rumor circulated that a Moscow store would receive a shipment of shoes. A long queue formed immediately outside the store. After an hour or so, the manager emerged and announced, “We will not receive enough shoes for everyone. Jews, go home.” A few hours later he emerged again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes. All non-veterans, go home.” A few hours later he emerged yet again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. All those who are not members of the Communist Party, go home.” As dusk fell, he emerged for a final time and said, “No shoes today. Everyone go home.” As two exhausted and shivering loyal Communist Party members, both World War II veterans, walked away, one turned to the other and bitterly proclaimed, “Those Jews, they have all the luck!”
I recognized this genre of joke. German Jews in the 1930s eased their concerns in a decidedly similar style:
Two Jews were sitting on one of the few park benches permitted to Jews. One was reading the Berliner Gemeindeblatt, a Jewish communal newspaper; the other, the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi publication Der Stürmer. “Why on earth are you reading that thing?” the Gemeindeblatt reader asked his friend. “When I read a Jewish publication,” his friend replied, “I hear of our woes and terrible fate. When I read Der Stürmer, I read how we control the banks, world media, international governments, and how powerful we are. I much prefer the latter.”
The Labour Party is currently debating how to define anti-Semitism. Whatever definition it ultimately chooses, it probably won’t be the one favored by many Jews: An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. In Jewish hands, this quip means, “Of course we can be annoying, but let’s not get carried away.”
It was this latest recording from Corbyn that left many Jews utterly convinced that this was a man in whom contempt for Jews ran deep—far deeper than necessary. It’s not a new problem in British politics. Maybe Corbyn should be reminded of the retort offered by Benjamin Disraeli, the U.K.’s only prime minister of Jewish origin, when attacked in the House of Commons for being a Jew. “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
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This was real chutzpah on Corbyn’s part. I wonder if he knows the classic Jewish definition of chutzpah: The person who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.