One of the most horrifying stories in the news last week concerned the case of Karen White. The BBC reports the story fairly briefly, sparing us a lot of the details. Under the headline “Transgender inmate admits Wakefield jail sex offences,” it reports
“A transgender prisoner has admitted sexually assaulting inmates at a women’s jail. Karen White, 51, who was born male but now identifies as a woman, has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual touching at New Hall Prison, Wakefield. The offences took place between September and November last year. She has since been moved to a male prison. Details emerged when White appeared at Leeds Crown Court to admit to a rape committed outside prison. White previously admitted two further rapes, which also happened outside jail.”
The key words are “She has since been moved to a male prison.”
Taken out of context, most people would think that it was very odd to transfer a jailed woman to a male prison. But the fact that White was born male, “but now identifies as a woman” explains it all. Twenty years ago, I think it is safe to say, there is no way that White would initially been sent to a female prison. Even ten years ago, I doubt that it would have happened. And 50 years ago, if you told someone in the UK that a convicted rapist would be sent to a female prison, because that rapist “identified” as a woman, that person would most likely have been (at the very least) puzzled.
But things have moved on. What constitutes being male or female seems to have changed. Or, to put it another way, the definitions of male-ness and female-ness have changed.
Which brings me to on long running story about Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Most of it seems to be about definitions – and in particular, the definition of anti-Semitism, which has become a hot political issue. Who would have thought that the definition of a word could lead to a major political party tearing itself apart?
If I want to know what a word means, my general practice is to turn to Chambers. Over 30 years ago, I discovered Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, and was so impressed that I went out and bought one, thus forsaking the Oxford equivalent.
So I pulled it off the shelf, and discovered that an anti-Semite is
“a hater of Semites, esp. Jews, or of their influence.”
(A Semite, by the way, is“a member of any of the peoples said (Gen. x) to be descended from Shem, or speaking a Semitic language.”)
Since this is the 21st century, I decided to see how Chambers defined the word today, and found the definition had been modified slightly:
“someone who is hostile to or prejudiced against Jews.”
Personally, I think that is a pretty good definition – better than the older Chambers one. And, to be honest, I don’t think it needs to be added to.
Politicians and definitions
However, politicians, in their wisdom, seem to disagree. And hence in 2016, “the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body, adopted a ‘non-legally-binding working definition of anti-Semitism’:
‘Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
As definitions go, this strikes me as being utterly useless. And I am not the only one. In a detailed critique Stephen Sedley a judge who served on the Court of Appeal of England and Wales from 1999 to 2011 and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Oxford (and who is from a Jewish family, but would consider himself to be a humanist or rationalist) wrote, in the London Review of Books,
“This account, which is largely derived from one formulated by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite.”
But this useless definition was accompanied by a list of 11 examples of behaviour that might (but might not) constitute examples of anti-Semitism This in itself was pretty bizarre – but remember, this was a document drawn up by an intergovernmental agency, so that is not surprising. And furthermore, of the 11 examples, seven referred to Israel (i.e. the modern state of Israel) rather than to Jews.
Stephen Sedley tells us that
“In December 2016, a press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the prime minister’s office announced that the UK had ‘formally’ adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, setting out the forty-word definition without any of the associated examples. It is not known what ‘formal’ adoption means in constitutional terms: either a text has to take legislative form, with all that this entails, or it remains simply a policy. On the same day Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party was adopting the definition.”
“In neither of these announcements were the tendentious illustrations included.” And not only does he think that the examples are tendentious, but he also says “that they look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism.”
The Labour Party
However, the fact that the examples were not included was to cause major disagreements in the Labour Party, which have culminated in accusations that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, and that there is a considerable amount of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
Is there any truth in these allegations? Well, I suppose it all depends on how one defines anti-Semitism However, if one uses the Chambers definition, which seems to me to be the standard one, I am not aware of any. I have read the BBC’s Guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims and I can’t see any evidence at all that suggests that Corbyn is anti-Semitic To say “that a group of British Zionists had “no sense of English irony” ” does not, to me suggest that he is anti-Semitic Jews and Zionists are not the same thing. And having “no sense of English irony” is hardly a terrible thing to say about something. The fact that Jonathan Sacks branded the comments as “the most offensive statement” by a politician since Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech is utterly bizarre. And the other examples that are supposed to show that Corbyn is anti-Semitic are equally silly – so silly that I wonder why anyone gives any credence to this story at all.
What is interesting is that none of the people I generally look to for wisdom about what is going on the world seem to be any more convinced that I am about this. At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a piece entitled “A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?”
In it, I wrote “They are by four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.” The four were Philip Giraldi, Glenn Greenwald, Craig Murray, and Robert Fisk.
What I have noticed is that the first three clearly think that the accusations against Corbyn are nonsense. Robert Fisk has not commented on the matter, but, very interestingly, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism (though, as with Corbyn, without any credible evidence to support the claims.)
Of course Corbyn might be anti-Semitic, because anti-Semitism is about hatred and attitude and how a person feels and what they think – and we cannot know for certain what the prejudices or opinions of any politician really are. But nobody has come up with a single thing that Corbyn has said in 35 years in Parliament that gives any indication of prejudice against Jews – let alone proposing any legislation limiting the rights of Jewish people in any way.
In fact, Wikipedia records that over the years, Corbyn has a track record of opposing anti-Semitism
“He has signed several parliamentary motions opposing anti-Semitism In 2002, he was the primary sponsor of a parliamentary motion condemning an attack on the Finsbury Park synagogue in his constituency in north London. He signed the ‘Combating Anti-Semitism’ motion in 2003 following terrorist attacks on two Istanbul synagogues. In 2010, he was one of 31 MPs to sign a motion in support of Jews facing persecution in the Yemen. In the same year, he was one of 42 MPs to sign a motion supporting the Jewish News investigation into the use of Facebook to promote anti-Semitism In 2012, he signed a motion to try and save BBC radio’s Jewish Citizen Manchester show, and in 2013, he was one of 33 MPs to sign a motion condemning anti-Semitism in sport.”
In other words, on the face of it, there is nothing to suggest that he has had any tendency to anti-Semitism And many people, including Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish American academic, whose parents were holocaust survivors, have said that the notion that Corbyn is anti-Semitic is simply ridiculous.
And, looking at the evidence, I would have to agree. The evidence that I have seen that might suggest that Corbyn is anti-Semitic is pretty thin and tendentious – and the evidence that points the other way is pretty overwhelming.
And it is the same with the matter of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. For all I know, there are people in the Labour Party who are anti-Semitic, just as there may well be people in the labour party who are homophobic, or islamophobic, misogynistic, or who are prejudiced against some other group . There may even be people in the Labour Party who are prejudiced against rich capitalists, for all I know. But (with the possible exception of prejudice against rich capitalists) it is difficult to find statements from leaders in the party that give any serious credence to these claims, and there is no indication that any legislation the party supports would discriminate against these groups.
So what is going on here? Why are people throwing these accusations against Corbyn? Well, I suppose they have different reasons. But there is one over-arching reason that the opposition to Corbyn is on the grounds of anti-Semitism It is basically that in the age in which we live, that is a very serious charge. If you want to attack someone, say they are anti-Semitic A lot of the time it will stick. Hence Barack Obama was accused of anti-Semitism, as was Church of England minister Stephen Sizer, and Max Blumenthal, an American Jewish author and political journalist. These accusations (which were based on the fact that these people had criticised Israeli government policy) were all totally ridiculous.
A hundred years ago, even 50 years ago, silly accusations of anti-Semitism were not nearly as common as they are now. And the reason for that is the rise of (what is known as) political correctness.
In an article entitled “The Real Reason for the ‘Anti-Semite’ Campaign Against Jeremy Corbyn” published by Consortium News (in my opinion, one of the best news and current affairs web sites there is), Alex Mercouris writes:
“Any discussion of the current “anti-Semitism crisis” in the British Labour Party needs to start with an understanding that there is no “anti-Semitism crisis” in the British Labour Party, or in Britain.
Anti-Semitism did once have a place in British society. By way of example, readers of Agatha Christie stories written before World War II will come across stock anti-Semitic representations of Jewish characters. As recently as the 1970s, I can remember what would today be considered Semitic stereotypes being commonly used to represent Jewish people in many of the unfunny comedy shows broadcast by British television in that period, including some the BBC broadcast.
Racist stereotyping of this sort was commonplace in Britain right up to the 1970s, and was certainly not exclusive to Jews, as Irish people, black people and people from the Indian subcontinent well recall. Some still persists today, but by and large racial stereotyping is socially unacceptable . . .”
And that is part of the rise of political correctness in the west. And it is not just racial stereotyping that is socially unacceptable. Anything that might conceivably smack of racial stereotyping is jumped upon, and becomes headline news. For example, there is the matter of the cartoon of Tennis player Serena Williams published earlier this week, which became world famous because people objected that it used racial stereotyping.
And then there was the even more ridiculous story about the “white power gesture” during the hearings over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S Supreme court.
And then there was the suspension of conservative MP Anne Marie Morris, who when talking about the impact of Brexit on the financial services industry, said “”Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal.” She wasn’t even talking about black people, but simply used an archaic expression which is now considered politically incorrect. Politicians of all parties joined to condemn her, and Theresa May suspended her.
Which brings us back to the case of Karen White. Why was Karen White in a female prison? Political correctness. That would not have happened 50 years ago. But in Theresa May’s Britain, it was seen as appropriate to send White to a female prison, because in our modern world, what is referred to as “transphobia” is seen as a terrible sin. If there was a chorus of politicians saying how wrong or stupid it was to send White to a female prison, I didn’t hear it. The silence was deafening.
People simply accepted that a female prison was the place for White. Why? Because of what they hear, and have been hearing (pretty much non-stop) in the media about “trans people” over the past few years.
And for the same reason, if opinion polls are to be believed, there are many people who simply accept that Corbyn is anti-Semitic, despite the complete lack of evidence, or accept that the Labour Party has an anti-Semitism problem (despite the complete lack of evidence), or accept that there is a growing problem of anti-Semitism in Britain today, again despite the fact that, according to British-Israeli academic Jamie Stern-Weiner, opinion polling indicates that this is not actually the case.
What is the significance of this?
First, it is an indication of how people in general, tend to believe what we hear, especially if it is repeated endlessly – e.g. by politicians, or the media – without any evidence. The fact that many people believe the accusations that have been made against Corbyn, despite his long record of having opposed racism in any form (including anti-Semitism) is fascinating – and a warning that we should be careful about believing what “everybody says” without examining it.
Second, what is going on with Corbyn is a smear campaign. It is slander. It is defamation. Making and repeating accusations when there is no substantive evidence is smearing someone – trying to harm their reputation.
It is part of what the Bible calls “bearing false witness.” In answer to the question “What is forbidden in the ninth commandment?”, the Shorter Catechism says
“The ninth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name,”
or, in modern English
“The ninth commandment forbids whatever misrepresents truth, or is injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name.”
Whether or not harming Corbyn’s reputation is intentional, it seems to me that what those who are making these accusations are doing is both misrepresenting the truth and harming Corbyn’s reputation. It is unacceptable behaviour; it is wrong.
Third, it seems to me that we need to remember the words of the apostle Paul:
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
I say this for two reasons.
First, because it seems to me that a lot of the people who have been subjected to false accusations of anti-Semitism are also people who have promoted political correctness. While I cannot cite any evidence that Corbyn himself has done so, he has certainly not spoken against the culture of political correctness, and many of his supporters are enthusiastic supporters of it. I cannot recall anyone in the Labour Party speaking out against what happened to Anne Marie Morris – or about the sending of Karen White to a female prison.
And second, many Jews are concerned that conflating anti-Semitism with opposition to the policies or actions of Israeli governments, or with opposition to Zionism, will not end well. It could have the affect of turning people against Israel (since many of these accusations of anti-Semitism seem to come from supporters of the state of Israel and are aimed at criticisms of Israeli policy and actions). More seriously, it could also end up cheapening the concept of anti-Semitism, and thus making it more socially acceptable.